"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Teaching Religious Studies in English schools

You may have been aware of a flurry of activity in the worlds of education and the media recently as a long awaited curriculum review of Religious Studies has reached its consultation stage. It is careful and detailed and makes a number of recommendations: some teachers like it, others are less sure, but it comes from a genuine attempt to raise the standards of RS in our schools.

There is only one problem: the curriculum review fails to address the institutional problems faced by RS in the school curriculum. I have been teaching Religious Studies for over 30 years and throughout that time it has been a marginalised subject: one not taken sufficiently seriously by successive Head Teachers, governing bodies, politicians, OFSTED and, therefore, generations of pupils. "Sir, why should we take this seriously when the school doesn't?"

At the heart of the problem is the peculiar and unique status of RS on the curriculum. It is not actually part of the National Curriculum and exists in all subject lists as an add-on. This means that it is treated as an add-on in many schools. The previous Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, made an active decision to exclude R.S. from the Humanities section of the English Baccalaureate, significantly marginalising it: not only has his successor, Nicky Morgan, shown no enthusiasm for putting this error of judgement right, she is on record as having advised young people that they should avoid Humanities subjects because they do not lead to the best career choices. Presumably this wisdom comes from her previous job as a Careers Advisor. Excuse me? Oh, she wasn't a Careers Advisor? My mistake.

I am assuming that the Curriculum Working Party believes that R.S. students are being given an appropriate time allocation for studying the subject. If so, they have been labouring under a serious misapprehension. Most of us who teach R.S. have to contend with one lesson a week, while being expected to achieve good GCSE grades. Other Humanities subjects, however, have two or three times more teaching time allocated. It seems that this is the accepted order of things in curriculum timetabling regardless of the fact that all the exam boards expect all three humanities subjects to be taught at between 120 and 140 hours for a Full-Course GCSE. On the one lesson a week model Religious Studies is allocated well below that minimum figure. Until R.S. is granted a level playing-field in the allocation of curriculum time, curriculum development is just so much hot air.

R.S. is further disadvantaged because it is increasingly being taught by non-specialist teachers: when I and one of my Specialist R.S. colleagues recently moved on from a large high school the subject was left to be taught by the one remaining specialist R.S. teacher and 12 non-specialists, often teaching to GCSE level and often sharing groups between them. This is not uncommon. How can it be acceptable practice? Again, if we are serious about R.S. being taught effectively, schools need properly trained and qualified practitioners.

It is the fear of many of us that we are watching a deliberate, managed decline and further marginalisation of Religious Studies. Many schools now pay it only lip-service on the curriculum, burying it in some Integrated Humanities scheme of work or worse, allocating a couple of dedicated days in the school year to R.S. projects, while excluding it from the taught timetable completely.

Those of us who are concerned go round in circles, batted from pillar to post between Head Teachers, timetablers, politicians and exam boards. They damn us with faint praise, all assuring us that they value Religious Studies and that it is a very important subject but no one is willing to be the one who takes actual responsibility to say, “Enough is enough.” And make moves to do something about it. If the Secretary of State for Education is seen, not only not to be supportive but to be actively antagonistic, what hope for the future?

The irony is that R.S. is one of the most popular subjects for GCSE uptake.

 So, at risk of labouring the point:

1) R.S. has been institutionally marginalised throughout the length of my 30 year teaching career.

2) There aren't enough specialist R.S. teachers.

3) Students are not given enough time to adequately study the subject and gain a depth and breadth of understanding.


Until these inequalities have been addressed, curriculum reform is merely window dressing and I have no confidence that things will improve in any way for our students and teachers as a result of these proposed curriculum reforms: the primary problems of R.S. are not being addressed.

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