By Lianne Kolirin
Children should be taught religious education by teachers who are impartial but not necessarily neutral, say experts who are considering how best to improve the provision of the subject in schools.
A recently published Ofsted review of religious education reported statistics showing that although RE remains a compulsory subject in schools, up to 44 per cent of academies are breaking the law by not timetabling the subject for children aged between 14 and 16.
RE must be taught in all schools, but it is not part of the national curriculum, so responsibility rests with local authorities.
While the review concluded that “RE is vital in preparing pupils to engage in a diverse and complex multi-religious and multi-secular society”, it also identified several “significant challenges” that limit high quality provision of the subject. Besides insufficient time dedicated to the subject, it also identified shortfalls with the approach of teachers and their professional development.
Denise Cush, professor of religion and education at Bath Spa University, believes that while teachers should be impartial, they must not be expected to be neutral.
Participating in a virtual panel discussion organised by the Religion Media Centre, she said: “Teachers should be impartial, but it doesn’t mean that we have to acknowledge that nobody stands nowhere, that nobody stands in this sort of place where you can judge things as if you’re omniscient and outside it all.”
Professor Cush was part of the commission on religious education that in 2018 produced a report calling on the government to rebrand the subject “religion and worldviews”. While the recommendation has not been acted upon, Professor Cush is adamant the issue is as relevant today as it was three years ago.
She told the online discussion: “We’ve all got our worldviews influencing the way we look at worldviews. And I think good RE bears that in mind and asks children when they read something from somewhere on a tradition, ‘Well, who’s saying this? And where are they coming from? And what’s their agenda? And are they a reliable source?’”
The distinction between impartiality and neutrality is an important one, according to Richard Kueh, Ofsted’s subject lead for religious education, who also addressed the virtual event.
He said: “The term impartiality is perhaps preferable as part of professional discourse, because for many researchers, neutrality involves the idea of concealing teachers’ personal commitments, whereas impartiality may be a more productive and useful word because it suggests that teachers can discuss their personal views, so long as they do so with academic integrity and without persuading pupils to adopt those views.”
Improving how RE is taught is a “big task” according to Dr Kathryn Wright, chief executive of Culham St Gabriel Trust, a charitable foundation that aims to provide “broad-based, critical and reflective education in religion and worldviews contributing to a well-informed, respectful and open society”.
She told the zoom briefing that the last year had seen an increase in the recruitment of RE teachers and that more and more was being done to support professional development. Nevertheless, that positive development must be seen against a backdrop of the crisis facing the subject overall.
New research issued following a freedom of information request by the National Association of Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (Nasacre) revealed that only eight per cent of local authorities provide the recommended funding for Sacres — the organisations that oversee religious education and collective worship for schools in an area.
Nasacre advises that local education authorities should be spending 2 per cent of the budget on RE. But only 12 authorities provided this, according to the research. More than half said they used no funds to support RE in schools.
Paul Smalley, who sits on Nasacre’s executive, told the panel: “More than half of local authorities said in the freedom of information request that they don’t spend any money on supporting RE in schools. And that was quite shocking. I was surprised that so many authorities would so blatantly say that there’s money that is allocated, but they don’t actually spend on supporting the schools.”
Ofsted’s report concluded that RE was vital in enabling pupils to take their place in a diverse multi-religious and multi-secular society, being intellectually challenging and personally enriching.
However, it found that part of the issue with how the subject is taught is down to “lack of clarity about the forms of knowledge that pupils learn in RE”, according to Mr Kueh.
He said: “This lack of clarity can account for some of the clear weaknesses in our teaching in the past, as well as poorly preparing pupils to engage in a complex and diverse multi-religious and multi-secular society. So, some of the themes that we picked up in the review are things like teachers making claims about religious and non-religious traditions that were unwarranted by high standards of academic scholarship.”
Part of the problem, he said, was down to “generalisations”, “stereotypes” and “oversimplifications”. Pupils are often left, he added, without “scholarly tools to be able to discern for themselves, whose voice is being heard in representations that they encounter, whether that’s in a textbook, news article, or on social media”.