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Education Update

REvamp: new guidance for RE in English schools


By Rachel Noyce

January 2010 was a bleak month in which two stories dominated the news. Headlines about snow in the first half gave way to something so much more devastating in the second: the earthquake in Haiti that has left hundreds of thousands of people dead and millions homeless.

In the wake of the worst tragedy the UN had ever seen, the world mobilised – including its children and young people. Without prompting, students started to raise money selling cakes and organising non-uniform days. The most inspirational story must surely come from 7-year-old Charlie Simpson who managed to raise a staggering £145,000 single-handedly in a sponsored bike ride. The public were touched by the words on his JustGiving page: "I want to do a sponsored bike ride for Haiti because there was a big earthquake and loads of people have lost their lives. I want to make some money to buy food, water and tents for everyone in Haiti."

And January 2010 saw primary education in England get its first ever programme of learning for RE. And, as Charlie’s story proves, it’s about time. The new primary curriculum, built on Sir Jim Rose’s recommendations and statutory from 2011, bears the hallmarks of its KS3 counterpart: to produce successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens. Previously, RE’s aims at KS2 went as far as getting children acquainted with key stories from different religious traditions and inspire a little emotion in them: an approach with wildly inconsistent results. But now it is taking itself, and the capacity of children, much more seriously. As Schools minister Diana Johnson announced, “RE goes much further than just helping children understand why different people believe different things: it also gives them the chance to ask questions about their own beliefs and spirituality, and provokes challenging ethical questions.”

This is a welcome move, making RE at primary level (at least in theory) so much more than telling sweet, sanitized "fairy stories" which may or may not bear any relevance to life in 21st century Britain. It treats children like the people they are: with the capacity to question, to feel, to discover, to decide and to act. Even from infant age, children will be supported in asking big questions, considering their place in the world and what that means to who they are and what they do. The result? Hopefully more children with the confidence and conviction of young Charlie Simpson, ready, willing and able to change the world.

In fact, these moves are part of a wider review of the importance of RE in English schools, published in January 2010. The new non-statutory guidance for RE offers a fantastic apology for the place of RE in schools, where at all stages the subject ‘provokes challenging questions about the ultimate meaning and purpose of life, beliefs about God, the self and the nature of reality, issues of right and wrong and what it means to be human.’ And, integral to it all, RE should offer ‘opportunities for personal reflection and spiritual development’.

In reviewing the guidance there are a couple of things of note. The first is the breadth of representation. Christianity still holds its pride of place, covered at every key stage, with different world religions taught across the spectrum. But non-religious perspectives have made a prominent entrance, with a noticeable effort made to respect the right of representation from humanist perspectives (where appropriate). In teaching about religion, teachers are obliged to indicate that other viewpoints are available, as it were, all the while looking to draw out similarities and common values between different faith perspectives.

Second is the flexibility it allows – at all key stages. RE is to be taken seriously and given appropriate space in the curriculum – but it is up to the school to decide what this will look like for them. Six weeks on Christian belief? Fine. Six weeks on what happens when we (or our pets) die, according to different faiths? Fine. Or maybe a week-long RE project, once every school year. That’s fine too, as is incorporating RE into overlapping curriculum subjects such as citizenship, PSHE, history or geography.

But the third is the overwhelming endorsement of faith communities in supporting delivery of RE. The non-statutory programme of study for RE (2004) makes a throwaway comment about the entitlement of students to meet people of strong religious conviction. But the 2010 guidance highly recommends inviting people of faith into RE lessons to answer questions – ideally people used to speaking to children and young people – and visiting churches and other places of worship to understand more fully the role that faith plays in real lives and real communities.

What are the implications for churches and schools workers? I’d suggest the following:

There are clearly new challenges for primary – and new opportunities. If you’re already offering something and offering it well, pass it on! If you’re not, maybe this is something to consider getting involved with. Schools need support if they’re to offer RE well – and with such evidence in favour of the capacity of children to respond to big questions and difficult issues, who can resist?

I think it also challenges us to raise our game. In a busy school curriculum, pressured all the time by literacy and numeracy targets, is there space for good RE? Theoretically yes – good RE is needed more than ever. Practically, well, yes… if it really is good enough and worth doing. With great flexibility comes great opportunity. Why not develop a package that ticks all the faith boxes – experiential, searching, awe and wonder-inspiring – and offer this either to primary schools or secondary? There are many exciting stories of churches creating labyrinths, Christmas and Easter experiences: an ideal tool for engaging children and/or young people at all ages.

On this note, it is worth applying for a ‘Learning Outside the Classroom Quality badge’: http://www.lotcqualitybadge.org.uk/home. This will help direct schools to you as a service provider.

But more than anything, take away the encouragement and call to keep on keeping on. In a society where the ‘faith schools: good or bad?’ debate rears its ugly head every couple of months, and where the place of faith in schools is continually attacked by certain circles, it is encouraging to have the role of RE affirmed and even up-graded in English schools. Let’s make the most of this unique opportunity, serving as best we can for as long as we can.