Commission on Religious Education

By Clare Jarmy, Head of Philosophy, Religion & Ethics

The Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) recently reported its findings after a long period of consultation with stakeholders. CoRE was set up by the RE Council, but was run independently of it. As independent schools, we are unlikely to feel the full force of CoRE’s effect, but times are changing for Religious Education, and independent schools will surely find themselves influenced by the findings.

These key recommendations are likely to have the biggest effect on independent schools:

1. Religion & Worldviews

CoRE recommends that ‘Religious Education’ should be renamed ‘Religion & Worldviews’. Do not be fooled: this change of nomenclature is no mere windowdressing. The Commission recognises the huge change that has taken place in religious affiliation in the last fifty years, and argues that the subject must evolve to recognise this. Around 50% of adults in the UK have no religion. 41% identify as Christian. Focussing on ‘The Six World Religions’ does not reflect the religious (or increasingly nonreligious) nature of the UK. By introducing ‘worldviews’ to the subject, and requiring students to handle concepts such as secularism as well as religion, it is hoped that the subject will be useful in reflecting the conversations students will need to have in their lives as well as at work. Even though most schools in the Independent Sector tend to call this subject ‘Religious Studies’ and not ‘Religious Education’, this name change, and everything it implies, is causing controversy. The term ‘worldview’ is defined by the report, but not closely enough. Couldn’t a worldview mean any set of beliefs that are in some way foundational to the way someone sees the world? As Philip Robinson, the RE Advisor to the Catholic Education Service puts it, “communism, libertarianism, capitalism, nationalism and socialism are just a few nonreligious worldviews; should they be taught in RE too? It…seems hugely ironic that the answer to declining religious literacy should be to teach less religion.”

2. National Entitlement

Provision for RE has been found to be patchy in recent years, and increasing academisation of maintained sector schools has diminished the amount of RE being taught. 34.1% of academies with no religious character were not teaching any RE in KS3 in 2015; 43.7% at KS4. CoRE recommends that a National Entitlement is created to ensure that all students can access the subject. This might cause some independent schools to examine the provision they have in place themselves. Whilst there is no suggestion that independent schools will have to conform, the National Entitlement confirms the importance of the subject, and some independent schools might see fit to follow suit.

3. An ‘Academically Rich & Rigorous’ subject

A key aim that has come out of CoRE is a call for an “academically rich and rigorous” approach to the subject. Religious Education has historically served many goals: community cohesion; spiritual development; formation of world view; tolerance and understanding of others. Academic rigour has not always featured at the top of priorities in RE for successive governments. In the independent sector, there has been a longer history of an academic approach as the term ‘Religious Studies’ implies. The sector has a wealth of expertise amongst its teachers: expect to meet lots of textbook authors at the ISRSA Conference! Having argued that this is a challenging and academic subject, CoRE recommends that Religion and Worldviews is finally given the status that, as such, it deserves. For its whole history, RE has been a bit different, in its legal status, in its provision, in its locally agreed syllabuses, and, many would argue, this was for some good reasons. Yet, its unique place on the curriculum has also made it a bit of an outlier, difficult to categorise, and difficult, for some, to take seriously as an academic pursuit. Recent government decisions, namely the exclusion both of RE from the EBacc and of short-course RE from schools’ performance figures, have hugely undervalued the subject and led to a dramatic downturn in uptake nationally at GCSE. The Russell Group’s list of ‘facilitating’ subjects, where Religious Studies A Level is conspicuous by its absence, also hugely underestimates the usefulness of the subject for all sorts of areas of further study. CoRE requests that the Russell Group re-examines its list. Here, CoRE could have direct implications for the independent sector: some Heads of RS feel under an unfair amount of pressure to justify their subject, purely because of its seemingly arbitrary exclusion from that list. If CoRE’s recommendations are taken up, we can hope for better resourcing for teacher training, and hence higher quality applicants for jobs in both sectors. We can hope that students expect RS to be taught, and to be taught well, as it so often is by colleagues in the independent sector. More thanthis, we can hope, finally, to be understood for what we are. We are teachers of a valuable, viable, challenging and rigorous academic subject: so much more, but nothing less.

This article was originally published in Independent Schools Magazine

Advertisements

Conference season

By Magnus Bashaarat, Head of Bedales

This year’s annual HMC Conference was held at the Midland Hotel in Manchester. The hotel was built on the site of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, a bloody milestone along the treacherous road towards universal suffrage. It’s a stone’s throw away from what was the legendary club The Hacienda, now a block of luxury flats (sic transit gloria). But it’s most compelling claim to shaping history as opposed to having history happen on its doorstep was that Mr Rolls and Mr Royce had their first ever meeting in the hotel and decided that they would go into partnership: the engineer and the money man realising that each had something the other didn’t.

The theme of this year’s conference has been ‘Together to Learn’ – a title which is meant to work in all sorts of clever ways, of course, as we have all come together to learn from each other, from the long list of eminent speakers that have given presentations, and of course it’s a statement about how all teachers and all schools, whether independent or maintained sector, can learn from each other.

The 2018 HMC buzzword bingo was not particularly challenging. ‘Bursary provision’, ‘public benefit’ and ‘partnerships’ were the ‘go to’ mentions and proliferated the discourse whenever the lights were dimmed. Because of the political discourse in another conference going on in Birmingham, a conference even more important than a bunch of Heads of schools coming together to talk school stuff, much of the energy and talk in Manchester was about anticipating political change that might adversely affect the independent sector. The Labour Party conference that took place last week in Liverpool was a more important conference to watch from our school perspective because we can pretty safely assume that a Labour government taking office after the next general election would introduce legislation that would present real existential challenges to many schools in the independent sector.

So whilst we wait for the current Conservative administration to lead the country out of Europe into a post-Brexit world of complete uncertainty, we also have to plan for what Mr Corbyn might do when he gets the keys to No. 10. At Bedales we can speak loudly and proudly about what we do in terms of public benefit, bursary provision and partnership forming. The timing of Patrick Derham’s visit to Bedales last week when he spoke at Jaw about his own journey as a recipient of a bursary could not have been better timed as an example of what Bedales does through its John Badley Foundation to make a Bedales education available to aspiring students whose families just don’t have the means to meet the fees. We also have a range of exemplar partnerships with our local schools, and in particular a successful partnership with Bohunt School in Liphook. And last week the Outdoor Work department welcomed a group of young people from a pupil referral unit in Gosport who came to share our facilities. And there is so much more.

Patrick’s mantra about the ‘transformative power of education’ still resonates in my mind, and I have heard that phrase again this week in Manchester. Once we are through the conference season; Conservative, Labour and HMC, then teaching and learning comes centre stage again, and the classroom rather than the podium, rightly, is where the action is.