Are teachers really ‘stormtroopers’?

Teachers often try to avoid the difficult questions in RE. But it is those questions that provide the most “teachable moments”

Recent headlines have suggested that teachers are becoming “frontline stormtroopers” in a war against religious extremism. Delegates at the National Union of Teachers’ conference at Easter heard of young people telling their teachers that they don’t want to discuss controversial issues, such as the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

My research, carried out in secondary schools across the UK in 2008-10, explored the language and practices of religious education classrooms as part of the Does RE Work? project at the University of Glasgow. In this work, it was more often teachers who sought to avoid difficult questions, so sticking to official curriculum content when students attempt to interject their spontaneous questions, meanings and misunderstandings. Yet it was those difficult questions that provided the teachable moments; the opportunities to bridge world-views, to help young people to understand that there are people who see the world otherwise.

The scaling back in 2010 of initiatives on PSHE, citizenship and RE was one of the early savings made by the Department for Education. Initiatives such as REsilience, which sought to engage schools with local religious communities to challenge extremism, and the non-statutory national framework for RE, were taken out of the department and handed over to the RE Council for England and Wales.

Where trust was missing, RE was transformed into a kind of civic religion

Local authorities’ annual reports on RE were sent into a void after the abolition of the Qualification and Curriculum Development Authority in 2011, an oversight only corrected in this year.

Not only nature, but also bureaucracy abhors a vacuum, and into these gaps have come the security services. The “prevent”ing of education, where Home Office and police counter-terror officers co-opt the inspection and governance of schools, inevitably has a chilling effect on conversations in the classroom.

For teachable moments to occur in a subject as fraught with highly charged personal attachments as religion, students and teachers must build together an environment of trust. The counter-cultural nature of this environment, even in religious schools, was a key finding in our research. Where trust was missing, either because teachers had attempted to drain religion of its emotional charge, or to impose a flat curriculum, avoiding the difficult questions, religious education was transformed into a kind of “civic religion”, teaching a bland set of dispositions and “tolerance” alien from young people’s lived experience of religion and religious diversity in the world outside.

This was evident in one school, which had renamed the subject as “respect study”, replacing the object of people’s religious commitments, in all their varieties, from the sublime to the shocking, with the simple party line that “you should respect everyone”. In that situation, students could find themselves complicit in misrepresenting their own beliefs.

Getting the environment right for those difficult conversations, not internalising the policeman of the state, cannot be about ignoring these wider currents. The hardening of the security agenda facing our schools has to be acknowledged, and only then can a teacher build the trust to point beyond the limits of what young people think they can comfortably say.

Does Religious Education Work? by James Conroy and David Lundie (Bloomsbury Academic, £24.99)