The School Doctor: Putting Faith in Teaching

The School Doctor discusses faith and religious studies in his latest post…


When I was at school – which wasn’t a tremendously long time ago – Religious Education or Religious Studies, or whichever name it was given at that point, was very much a curriculum afterthought. It was usually crowbarred into the timetable and given to a teacher who couldn’t be trusted with something more ‘important’. Or the powers that be found the nearest teacher with something resembling faith and considered that tantamount to a qualification.

The curriculum itself was dry and plodding, consisting of a series of ‘this is what they think’, ‘this is what we think you should think’, ‘this is why we go here’, ‘this is why they go there’, that kind of thing. Occasionally different members of the class from different faiths would be subjected to public questioning about their beliefs, routines, rituals, and so on. Needless to say, none of this was particularly enlightening (ironically), and RE/RS became a subject to be endured until we could go and do something that was better taught and consequently more interesting.

In a recent YouGov poll, then, Religious Studies came fifteenth out of eighteen subjects considered ‘the most important’ by the general public. Twelve per cent thought it was ‘very important’; twenty-nine per cent ‘quite important’; fifty-five per cent thought it was ‘not very important’ or ‘not at all important’. Only Drama, Classics and Latin came below (and Classics and Latin are often tantamount to the same thing).

Around the same time that the YouGov poll was released, the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC) warned of a shortage of RE/RS teachers, and thus a consequent reduction in the quality (and presumably eventually quantity) of RE/RS lessons available. According to the BBC website, in England, 405 places for teacher training in RE/RS were filled in 2017-18, when the target was 643. Just one caveat here: many excellent RE/RS teachers actually train in another subject and then apply their talents to RE/RS once they are ensconced in a school, especially if they specialize in a subject whose curriculum allocation in itself would not provide enough teaching hours for a full-time job.

But back to the downward spiral feared by the REC. The next phase would be the creation of generations of pupils who do not learn about different faiths, leading to stereotyping, bigotry and discrimination. We do not need to read the daily papers for very long to see that such a trend could be perceived already, even without the predicted death knell of RE/RS in schools. Again, let’s add a caveat: RE/RS lessons are not the only occasions, in school, during which pupils can learn about diversity. Lessons in History, English, Government and Politics, can (and should) be celebrating the developments and achievements of different peoples. Assemblies and day-to-day interactions should be fostering a sense of mutual acceptance, understanding and tolerance.

So let’s not panic too soon and throw the tolerance baby out with the RE/RS bath water. Nonetheless, RE/RS teaching – when done well – does deserve to be celebrated and promoted. Gone are the days, in many schools, of the scenario outlined above. Those schools with imaginative teachers (and enlightened SLTs) have gone beyond the mentality of ‘If it’s week 4 it must be x-ism’, and instead they rightly approach the subject through real-life scenarios and real-time news items. Following developments in the Middle East, for example, while explaining the roots of the religious tensions there, is a much more important and engaging way of approaching the subject than learning religions in a sequence of dry and dislocated –isms.

Finally, it is not often enough appreciated that RE/RS actually has some of the best tunes. It is in those lessons that ‘big questions’ about society, the people around us, the world, the universe, get to be aired and discussed. Before their minds are closed to the realities of tax returns and putting out the bins on the right day, young people should be inspired to think broadly and laterally, to question (rationally and respectfully) the preconceptions of those similar to, and different from, them. It is from those seeds that enlightened, open-minded and interesting adults grow. Awe and inspiration can, of course, come from many – perhaps all – subjects, when taught in the right way. But I wish I’d been taught RE/RS in an awe-inspired and inspiring way, instead of being told ten things about each religion by someone who was actually meant to be teaching French.  


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