As a faith leader with a visible presence on social media, one thing is clear to me: everyone in life is on a spiritual path whether they embrace Islam or a non-religious worldview like humanism. I experience first-hand the hunger young people have for life’s big questions.
What’s also clear to me is that turning to the unregulated marketplace of ideas that is the internet for answers presents dangers as well as opportunities. Young people should be empowered to explore their spirituality, but schools must always be there to guide them on that path.
Having spoken to teachers about this issue, I know there is an interest in opening up more conversations in schools about these big questions and helping students build an understanding of their different religious and non-religious beliefs.
However, schools are in a tricky position. Teacher recruitment for religious education is down by one-third following the axing of a teacher training bursary. This leaves many humanities teachers – or even form tutors with little to no academic grasp of the subject – to tackle what many agree is a fundamental part of young people’s education.
Some suggest the census provides evidence that the subject matters less than it used to. Young people are turning away from organised religions, they say, and strongly held beliefs about morality, God and life after death have little place in their lives in an increasingly secular society.
In fact, young people have no less interest in these big ideas than those of previous generations. But the disdain and ridicule they encounter act as a barrier to asking questions from adults in their daily lives.
As a result, they are turning to the internet. The lucky ones come across religious leaders with integrity, but there’s no telling what else they are being exposed to.
So we need to make schools a place where young people can discuss these questions openly and freely without being judged, and we need to do this irrespective of recruitment challenges. That means teachers and school leaders alike picking up the questions I see young people ask online at every opportunity and as part of their wider school cultures.
Thankfully, there are a number of excellent, free and paid professional development courses designed to help guide these conversations, for example from the Culham St Gabriel’s Trust and the National Association of Teachers of RE. These courses are centred around a worldviews approach to religious education, built on the idea that every young person has their own unique way of understanding and experiencing the world, which can be made up of both religious and non-religious ideas.
Helping young people get to grips with their worldview ought to be the job of a trained specialist, but there’s no reason a broader group of mentors can’t positively influence this journey – not least by helping young people to undertake their independent exploration safely.
School leaders and department heads can play a role in making space for discussion of religion and belief across the curriculum, including in in English, history and the arts. Young people’s capacity to think about the big questions in life can also be built into a wider school culture that encourages asking these questions as part of developing a sense of purpose, direction, and community – whether the answer they arrive at is religious or not.
Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner and a former RE teacher herself, recently spoke of RE as “the one place in the curriculum” where young people could discuss “important and exciting philosophical, religious, and moral conundrums in safe spaces”.
Judging by my social media accounts, young people’s curiosity for these big questions is as dynamic as ever. And if it’s a conversation that’s increasingly happening online, then that’s all the more reason for schools to provide those safe spaces and the context for taking their questions further.