Published in September 2018, the final report of the Commission on Religious Education - entitled Religion and Worldviews: the way forward - aimed to lay out a range of new ideas about how Religious Education can be approached in UK schools, following consultation with teachers, religious practitioners, and the public.
Religious Education in the UK is not the same as religious studies as taught in colleges and universities; the subject has a broader remit, contributing to pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, as well as personal well-being and community cohesion (DCSF, 2010).
However, despite the significance of religion in the world, the diversity of religious practice and belief in contemporary society, and the personal benefit of a thorough understanding of the category of religion, there is no agreed national curriculum for Religious Education in the UK.
Pupils in different parts of the country receive different lessons on different topics and with different emphasises, based on locally agreed syllabuses - furthermore, Faith Schools and Academies are free from the locally agreed syllabuses, and can choose to teach whatever topics they deem appropriate.
Although the subject is required by law to be taught, this lack of clarity has led to patchy delivery - some schools simply do not teach the subject at all.
Complicating comprehensive delivery of the subject, parents may legally opt to remove their children from Religious Education classes, since they have a right to choose the type of spiritual and moral education that their children receive. Because RE is not just academic / sociological religious studies, but also sometimes confessional religious instruction, and moral and spiritual development, it’s difficult to argue that parents should not maintain this right. The subject is not clearly defined, and has multiple interpretations and approaches, making universal rules and guidance difficult.
This situation is far from ideal, and organisations have been looking to resolve the issues and ambiguities built into this approach. In October 2013, the Religious Education Council published their review of the subject, after it was left out of a government national curriculum review. Notably, then-Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, commented in the report’s foreword that:
All children need to acquire core knowledge and understanding of the beliefs and practices of the religions and worldviews which not only shape their history and culture but which guide their own development.
This theme of understanding religions and non-religious worldviews was expanded by the Commission on Religious Education, and forms a key part of their proposals: to rename (and to some extent rebrand) Religious Education as Religion and Worldviews.
The inclusion of non-religious worldviews is necessary and relevant - the United Kingdom is a religiously diverse society, with a large number of the population not identifying with any established religious tradition, but nonetheless having a personal perspective on the world that informs their ethical decisions, their lifestyle choices, their relationships, work, and even their death and how their bodies are treated after death. None of this can easily be covered by teaching the fundamentals of Christianity, with lip service to a few other traditions.
Non-religious worldviews have also become increasingly salient in Britain and Western Europe. According to the most recent British Social Attitudes survey, over 50% of adults identify as not belonging to a religion, with 41% identifying as Christian. The proportion of adults identifying as not belonging to a religion has increased from 31% in 1983 and has remained fairly stable around 50% since 20092 . While some of these individuals may identify with non-religious worldviews such as Humanism, many have looser patterns of identification or do not identify with any institutional worldviews.
Religion and Worldviews: the way forward, 2018, p. 6
Some consider the effort to include ‘worldviews’ in the subject name as an attempt to place religious traditions such as Roman Catholicism on the same level as non-religious worldviews like Humanism - a so-called ‘dictatorship of relativism’ in which religious institutions are forced to teach their students in one breath that their religion is the only truth, and in the same breath that all religions are equal and balanced. This attitude betrays a lack of understanding about the nature of religious studies, the conclusions it draws, and how it arrives at those conclusions. Plenty of religious studies scholars are religious themselves - there is no contradiction, and no burden is placed on religiously-affiliated institutions to engage in double-speak (any more than is placed on them to teach the theory of evolution and the story of Genesis).
How insulting..the authentically religious are not interested in power just the universal human right to their religious freedoms. What we learn from your name change agenda is your "dictatorship of relativism"— Edmund Adamus (@EdmundPAdamus) February 20, 2019
The choice of ‘religion’ as a category and ‘worldviews’ as a plural group makes a genuine attempt to demonstrate the diverse range of expression of spiritual, ethical, emotional, and social life for people in contemporary society. The singular form ‘religion’ leaves room to expand into critical studies of religion as a category, while also respecting the common understanding of the term. This flexibility to dive deeper into the subject is touched upon by Richard Kueh in a blog post for RE:Online:
If it is the job of the RE teacher to enable pupils to grasp over time (and this is key – i.e. over the course of a curriculum) the nature, complexity and significance of worldviews, it may well be that one might begin by using binary language of ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’ and build up to the more complex scene of worldview over time.
Another aspect of the CoRE proposal is a middle-ground between the locally agreed syllabuses used today, and the national curriculum used for other subjects. Recognising that - to a certain extent - pupils in different social areas might have different educational requirements (for example, if the majority religion in the area is Hindu, then Hinduism ought to feature in the curriculum), CoRE recommended a so-called national entitlement, which aims to provide clarity about the aims and purpose of RE, but permits local networks to agree some aspects of the curriculum.
Furthermore, the CoRE proposals still allowed parents the right to remove their children from Religion and Worldview lessons - however this appears to be a concession not in line with the push towards an academic version of the subject. As long as the remit of RE (or RWV) remains tied to the spiritual development of the student, there will still be grounds for removing students - and this seems utterly counter-productive. The same argument would not be made for sociology, psychology, or biology - all subjects which investigate critical and crucial human behaviours and phenomena - the issue comes from any suggestion that religious studies can be equated with religious instruction. In an ideal world, this distinction would be more clear, and the validity of the subject better established.
Despite these concessions, and a Herculian attempt to please educators, parents, pupils, and religious groups, there has been resistance - from Government.
After the comprehensive attempt to solicit evidence, ideas, and feedback - to draft modern and innovate approaches - to bring religious education into better alignment with the needs and realities of contemporary British society - the response from Secretary of State Damian Hinds was ‘thanks, but no thanks’.
This is disappointing, but not the end of the story. It’s clear that in the UK there is a strong and passionate effort to improve the delivery and standards of religious literacy, whether that is achieved through Religious Education, Religion and Worldviews, or Religious Studies. At the OCRS we applaud this effort, and support the direction that the CoRE and other organisations are attempting to steer RE towards.
You can read a range of new blog posts over at RE:Online about the CoRE’s proposals.
Luke Burns | Director, OCRS
Luke is the founder and director of the OCRS, and has a First Class Honours Degree in Humanities from the Open University. He lives in Somerset with his wife, Rosie.
You can find him on Twitter here: @lbburns13