Why everyone in schools should care about RE

nunswater1Aside from time spent as a Senior leader, I have been an RE teacher for over twenty years. To be honest it was the only subject I ever really enjoyed at school and was pretty certain from Year Nine that I would be studying Theology at university. By university I had also developed a strong interest in philosophy which ended up being my specialism. So why did I like the subject so much? Not surprisingly one answer is that I had great teachers. Their lessons were imaginative, dynamic, fun, intelligent and challenging. The topics were so varied that we could be studying the rituals of Jewish marriage, ethical theory, nineteenth century theological heroes, atheist arguments on applied ethical dilemmas, learning Koine (Greek) and trying to understand the existence of evil. By the time I left school I had grappled with all of those things, via active learning, developing my own research projects, debating, creating mind maps, playing games, trips to discover new and fascinating cultures, and leading seminars; it was a great experience. I loved that my thinking was challenged and that there was often no right answer. Not once was I preached at, asked whether I had considered ‘trying’ a particular religion, prayed with or for. From Year 7 onwards it was always an academic subject with exactly the same standing as any other subject on the curriculum. Even when I was sitting in a particularly gruelling interview for my Durham University place and was asked, ‘do you feel disadvantaged coming here from a comprehensive school?’, I took a deep breath and told him about how good my lessons were. I think that before I had even considered being a teacher I already had a biased view in favour of good RE.

When I started teacher training, I realised that RE was not the same in every school. For example, on observation weeks, I watched a low ability Year Nine group spend a whole lesson colouring in a picture of Jesus and the fishermen. My passion remained undiminished. For me it was still the most varied and interesting subject. So I find it really sad that headlines say that RE today is marginalised, confused and even irrelevant to a modern curriculum. I still think that everyone in schools should care about what is going on in RE and in fact think that Senior Leaders should be proactive in their support of the subject. Why does RE matter? Here are some of my reasons why I still believe in RE:

RE is far from irrelevant. It’s a myth to say that religion is irrelevant in the modern world. Throughout my teaching career I have frequently had to answer that one. My first response hasn’t changed – the majority of the world’s population has some affiliation with a world religion. A very rough estimate is that out of six billion, maybe 1.1 billion would describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or secular. In a very bad analogy it would be like saying that studying animals are irrelevant because I am a human. Religion is still such a massive part of our world. Think about that as you approach the Christmas holidays later this term! Understanding religion is seeing that it is an influential part of our world, you only have to watch the latest episode of Homeland to know that. The relevance of what was covered was frequently made evident from the questions that came from students, or the discussions with parents, when ethical matters overlapped with family experiences. Perhaps the most shockingly relevant lesson was when a Head of Department managed to let me, a trainee teacher, know after a class debate on abortion, that one of my students had just returned to school having just had a termination. None of her classmates were aware. The girl in question said that she would have stayed, even if she had had advanced warning, because it had given her a chance to explain her view, despite no one knowing her experience.

RE is not only about religion. It is another myth that RE does not cover Humanism, secularism and atheism. I can honestly vouch for the past thirty years and know that they have always played their part. I’ve attended meetings of the RE Council with wonderful representatives of the British Humanism Association to know that collaboration has been a part of RE for some time. I know that I was expected to know Dawkins’ views when I sat my A Level RE and that was a million years ago. RE covers so much, not just knowing your way around a church, but it’s about understanding people and their motivations, why do people believe the things they do. This leads me to my next point.

RE is as much about development of skills as it is about developing knowledge. Before AfL was even on the scene, higher order questioning was the way that good RE was taught. Good RE has been about developing good arguments, to speak confidently on a number of difficult and controversial issues. It has been about learning the difference between fact and fiction, to empathise with views different to your own and promoting tolerance. Never has there been a greater need for this. I’ve taught Thinking Skills, Critical Thinking, Theory of Knowledge and these are all good subjects, but RE has been developing these skills for some time now. If you also study Philosophy then you learn the structure of logic that underpins good argument as well.

RE fits beautifully on the curriculum. I have been lucky to work alongside many enlightened heads of departments who have been happy to talk to their students about the compatibility of RE with their subject. These have included Maths, Science, English, Languages, Art, Music, and other Humanities. The skills developed in RE can enhance performance in other subjects and vice versa. It is such a contemporary subject that text books can barely keep up with the changes in ethical topics. At certain points I was telling students to read the paper the morning of the GCSE because the law could have changed.

RE needs support. Anyone who has ever been a one person department knows how hard and lonely it can be. You have meetings by talking to yourself, making notes to yourself, deciding on resources by yourself. It can be very isolating. For a while I was chair of the ISRSA (Independent Schools’ RS Association) and organised some national conferences at Chelsea Football Stadium. Every year I would talk with colleagues who were so grateful for the opportunity to talk with other departments as they often felt so alone. I know this is true of other gatherings such as St. Gabriel’s as well. What can make it worse is the lack of support from SLTs, which can make a massive difference. With the greatest respect staff can be dumped in RE if they are timetable is light. Not surprising when often students are encouraged to do RE when everything else is too hard. Despite all this RE is a multi-disciplined subject. I think I have taught about six entirely different GCSE subjects as part of RE and at least the same again for different A level subjects; biblical studies, ancient history, church history, philosophy, ethics and rabbinical history. Entirely different disciplines with different thinking and learning skills needed. I’ve worked with colleagues who have respected my subject and those who have not. It can be tough having to defend yourself to parents and colleagues in a way that other subjects don’t have to.

RE has substance. Good RE has always been overflowing with important things to learn. It is not about singing ‘Kum ba yah‘ and sitting in a circle talking about the beauty of flowers. It is the place where I learnt about Plato, Kierkegaard, Gandhi, Schweitzer, Rambam, Kant, Hume, Wittgenstein, Bultmann and Dawkins. It’s a tough subject where ideas are challenged, rather than pandered to. Not knowing what is going on in your RE department is not a good enough excuse. Shame on the department for not sharing it enough and shame on other subjects for not finding out.

Senior Leadership Teams are missing a trick by not supporting their RE departments. So much of what should be found in your average RE department handbook should support a school’s mission statement and aims. Looking for evidence of spirituality? Look at the RE department. Wanting to show evidence of pupils understanding morality? Look at a GCSE lesson debating euthanasia. Need to have evidence of global awareness? Look at the RE department’s work on pretty much anything.

So let’s say a loud Hallelujah that RE is in the spotlight and let’s light the candles, get some incense going, because it’s time to celebrate and remember the value of GOOD RE.