A ‘postcode lottery’ of religious education means some students are receiving a tokenistic education that is ill-equipped in helping them take their place in modern Britain. This was the warning sent to Gillian Keegan this week by a cross-party group of over 30 MPs and peers.
As Chair of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, the body representing a unique coalition of over 60 national organisations, I was delighted that there is such support for our subject. We recently celebrated our 50th anniversary, an event that saw everyone from the Bahais to the Zoroastrians gather in London to mark our achievements over the past half-century and share our visions for the future.
With this anniversary also came the need to reflect on how the nature of faith and belief has changed since 1973. We are often told that religion is declining in Britain, with the latest census results revealing that the number of people reporting ‘no religion’ had risen by seven million since 2011.
But this statistic is only half the story. Aside from Britain continuing to be a society made up of many different religious and non-religious worldviews, it’s clear from a number of surveys that the British public continues to value an understanding of religion and belief in schools, even in this supposedly non-religious age.
A recent survey by Savanta found that two-thirds of British adults saw the subject as an important part of the curriculum. Among the parents they recently surveyed, just 15 per cent said they saw no value of teaching it in schools.
To anyone familiar with a high-quality RE curriculum, this comes as no surprise. Our subject is often misunderstood, particularly with regard to the philosophical and analytical depth that comes with the study of the world’s major religions, beliefs, and philosophical convictions. We explore what answers different religious and non-religious worldviews might give to the important questions such as “What happens when I die?”, “Should animals have rights?”, and “How should we respond to the climate crisis?”.
This is a subject that deals with the big questions in life. It is very much immersed in the modern world and its concerns, but also rooted in a knowledge-rich understanding of the major worldviews that influence not just Britain, but the world beyond.
In this respect it is that rare thing in schools: a chance for young people to explore their own beliefs in relation to these fundamental questions about what it is to be human, but also get to grips with the beliefs of others. As the children’s commissioner for England put it at our anniversary event, RE is “the one place in the curriculum” where young people can discuss “important and exciting philosophical, religious and moral conundrums in safe spaces”.
Far from a decline in interest in religion and beliefs, we’ve seen that good RE engages young people. The ‘religion and worldviews’ proposed by the Commission on RE in 2018 offers a way forward for the subject that recognises the increasing diversity of the society in which we live.
Many schools have already adopted this approach, with Ofsted recognising its value in the classroom. At its best, it wrote in its research review, “it is intellectually challenging and personally enriching. It affords pupils both the opportunity to see the religion and non-religion in the world, and the opportunity to make sense of their own place in that world”.
Fifty years on, it is good to see many in Westminster and schools up and down the country view the subject as more relevant than ever. For those of us working with young people, we must inspire them to see that a high-quality education in religion and worldviews is vital not just for their own personal development, but for participating in life in both Britain and the world beyond.