High quality religious education should be a fundamental part of every school’s offer. It’s too important for young people to miss, writes NAHT’s Sarah Hannafin, a former RE teacher

I chose to teach religious education. After graduating, I started work as a teaching assistant in my local secondary school to see what I thought about becoming a teacher. With a law degree I knew I would have to enhance my subject knowledge whichever subject I chose to teach, so I looked around to find the best fit for me.

I spent two years working with whole classes, groups and individuals across the whole curriculum, including maths, English, history, languages and technology. Eventually, I chose RE.

I studied, qualified, taught the subject for 15 years and remain an advocate for what a great subject it is to teach and how important it is for pupils to study it.

RE is so much more than just a valuable subject for academic study. It allows young people the opportunity to develop understanding, tolerance and respect for religious and non-religious beliefs, practices and viewpoints. In the best lessons I taught, I remember plenty of challenging questions and fierce debate about the meaning and purpose of life, beliefs and issues of right and wrong.

RE is never about trying to make students agree. In my experience RE classes are diverse, with those who are religious, non-religious and unsure mixed with a sprinkling of those who’ve yet to form a view. The RE classroom is a place where all views are respected – students learn how to express themselves clearly, explain the reasons for their opinions, question why others think differently and to understand and accept those differences. They start to formulate views and opinions on issues they had never really thought about before.

Through engaging with different beliefs and a diversity of views, pupils can develop an understanding of, and respect for others. This is vital for their life in modern Britain.

For all the benefits RE lessons bring, it is one of the only subjects where parents have a legal right to withdraw their children.

NAHT believes that this right to withdraw should be removed. As far back as 2016, delegates at our Annual Conference passed a motion to this effect, and since then we have pressed for a review of this right.

RE is never about trying to make students agree

In September 2018 the Commission on Religious Education reluctantly recommended retaining the right to withdrawal at the current time. Instead they proposed that guidance should be produced to support school leaders to manage the parental right to withdraw their children from RE lessons. NAHT worked with NATRE to produce the guidance and the DfE will be promoting this rather than duplicating it, which is very welcome.

In my teaching career, there were two broad categories of parents or students not wanting to take part in RE lessons.

The first group were parents who felt the content could conflict with their own beliefs. Some held misconceptions that RE was about trying to make all students Christian. Meeting with those parents and their children, talking through the content and activities, discussing their concerns was enough to reassure the majority of them. Those conversations enabled us to work out what the key issues really were. For one family it was the use of newspapers, TV and video in the classroom which was the real problem, rectified with some additional planning and alternative resources.

The second group was harder to deal with. I recall starting at a new school where the previous RE teaching had long been patchy both in delivery and quality. Here, I faced quite a challenge. Many in the school community could not see the point of RE at all. Some parents felt their child would be better off spending the time doing more English and Maths to improve their grades.

I remember a lot of conversations at parents’ evenings and with the school’s senior leadership team. I had to show the students through our lessons why RE was in fact a great subject which they could enjoy and get a lot out of. I got there in the end.

At NAHT, we see that more and more school leaders are dealing with requests from parents to withdraw their children from learning about a particular religion or visiting a specific place of worship. Those conversations, which need to tackle stereotypes and misperceptions, are much more challenging to resolve. But the fact that the right to withdraw seems to be increasingly used in this way, surely means the RE is more important than ever.