Religious education

The antidote to extremism is effective Religious Education

Rising social tensions leaking into our schools should be the province of a well-trained workforce of RE teachers, says Sanjeev Baga

Rising social tensions leaking into our schools should be the province of a well-trained workforce of RE teachers, says Sanjeev Baga

25 Mar 2024, 5:00

Extremism is on the rise in UK schools. Shifting definitions or not, Home Office figures tell a chilling story of the highest number of referrals to its counter-terror scheme coming through from the education sector since it was set up.

But is it any surprise? Children are increasingly exposed to mature topics and situations through social media – and at a younger and younger age. This leaves them vulnerable to themes of religious discrimination, racism and misogyny among others.

More worryingly, education itself is too often leaving them without the knowledge or the tools to critically engage with this harmful content. Religious education (RE) is the part of the curriculum designed to do this, but Ofsted’s 2023 annual report described the state of religious education nationally as of “poor quality” and “not fit for purpose”.

Proliferation of extremist viewpoints is often achieved by packaging up ideas and presenting them in ways that appeal to the impressionable and vulnerable. For young people struggling with a sense of identity, belonging, community or purpose, extremist viewpoints can be particularly appealing. To withstand them requires resilient critical thinking skills, community and family support, and safe spaces for communication and understanding.

RE, delivered consistently with the time and space given for in-depth exploration of different faiths, ethics, cultures and creeds, has the potential to be the biggest tool to prevent the spread of extremism in schools. I know from personal experience that knowledge is the remedy for fear. Teaching students to understand the core fundamentals of each major religion is effective in addressing misconceptions that lead to fear and ‘othering’ different beliefs and culture.

Given the tense political climate, developing a counter-narrative to the prevailing negative sentiments about certain religious groups is challenging. This will be all the more difficult given years of parlous recruitment for the subject.

We need to rethink our attitude to RE as a passé subject

But well-trained and well-supported RE teachers have the tools to be resilient in their approach to challenging discussions. They don’t allow lessons to become opportunities for the repetition of negative stereotypes heard elsewhere. They know how to help students understand how these comments make others feel. And they can mediate uncomfortable interactions between peers of different faiths to get past fear and stereotypes by developing knowledge and understanding.

The most effective RE programmes delve deep into complicated topics rather than avoiding or skimming the surface of religious identities. Knowledge is a powerful antidote to extremism, discrimination and prejudice.

Moreover, great RE teaching is responsive to the needs of children and the school community. Every school is shaped by unique cultural and socio-economic conditions. RE teachers can tailor their lessons to address current affairs in a manner that is culturally respectful to the demographic of the school and equip their students (and their colleagues) with the language and techniques needed to address extremism as and when it occurs.

The consequence of treating RE as an afterthought over many years is that it now often falls on non-specialists to deliver this vital curriculum. Lack of time and stretched budgets also mean they are at risk of relying on external resources for schemes of work without the appropriate time or tools to contextualise or critically evaluate them.

Of course, robust resources are out there that can support staff to transition into teaching RE. Given the fast-changing nature of events, it’s essential in selecting these to ensure they are up-to-date, contemporary in their approach and relevant to the school’s needs. But in reality there can be no shortcut for high-quality training for teachers who are motivated to take on what is a challenging but a vibrant subject.

If we are truly to tackle extremism at source, we need to rethink our attitude to RE as a passé subject and we must as a priority develop staff who can not only use resources effectively but deal with difficult issues with confidence. Our young people deserve no less.

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