While all subjects evolve over time as new research influences the curriculum, and developments in methods of teaching and learning occur, there can be few subjects that have undergone such a significant pedagogical shift over the years as RE. What was once religious instruction is now a vibrant subject in which children learn about and from a range of major world religions and worldviews. It is multi-faith, creative, packed with subject knowledge and oozing with opportunities for children to develop myriad skills. Or at least, it should be.
There are ongoing debates about what great RE looks like, and for a wider picture of where we are currently at with RE the work of the independent Commission on RE is a must read, but I think it’s fair to say that we are moving towards a greater sense of consensus about what RE could be and how best to go about achieving that in the classroom. There is much still to consider, but the subject has come far and it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the future could look bright for the subject providing children get the RE education they are entitled to.
Yet despite the work of the Commission and the pedagogical shifts that have occurred in the subject, there are still some saying that RE should not be taught and that children should not be inducted into a particular religion. I’m bewildered by such complaints. RE should be far from RI now but still some myths persist. RE is not about recruiting children to religions. Do we still need to be saying this?
Interestingly, major new research published by the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE) reveals that nearly half of trainee primary teachers have had “between zero and three hours of RE training”. NATRE launched the results of its national Primary Survey this weekend at its annual conference Strictly RE. Worryingly, this isn’t the only problematic feature of RE in schools revealed by the research. Over 500 primary teachers from across the country were surveyed and the results also included:
- 30% of primary RE teachers have had no subject specific training in the last year, not even in a staff meeting
- 1/3 of teachers who started teaching in the last 5 years have no qualification at all in RE, not even a GCSE
- Over 50% of schools have a higher level teaching assistant taking some of their RE lessons
- Many primary schools do not give adequate time for RE
For Ben Wood, NATRE Chair, this is deeply concerning. He commented, “It is undoubtedly disheartening to hear such news, but not surprising. We know there are wonderful examples of high quality RE going on in primary schools, with excellent teachers who use the subject to help their students grow up with a broad understanding of and open-minded attitude to the world and the people who inhabit it. But we also know that there are too many students who don’t get the quality of RE they deserve and are entitled to receive. This not only risks students’ own futures but also the future cohesion of our wonderfully diverse country.”
At a time when cohesion more generally seems tentative at best, are these risks we really want to be taking? The solutions seem relatively straightforward – RE needs more time in initial teacher education, and teachers need high quality, subject-specific CPD once in post. But there are inevitable clashes with other subjects, particularly when it comes to initial teacher education. If RE gets more time, what other area of the curriculum or professional studies misses out? But there is no getting away from the fact that we need to at least take on board the recommendations of the Commission on Religions Education report ‘Religion and worldviews: The way Forward – A national plan for RE’ .
Fiona Moss, NATRE executive officer and RE Today senior advisor has added her voice to the debate about the training of RE teachers. She told me, “Great ITE for Primary RE teachers improves students’ confidence in how and what to teach in RE. It clarifies the purpose of RE within the curriculum, builds subject knowledge across a number of religions and worldviews and supports teachers to plan RE. The recently released commission on RE was very clear that primary ITE students require at least 12 hours of training on RE.”
Boosting knowledge and skills
For many existing teachers, these debates about training and developing skills as RE teachers may seem meaningless, when there are so many other pressures on the time available for development. But there are opportunities out there for boosting subject knowledge and skills. These ideas may help for starters:
- BBC Religions of the World – animated films exploring the origins and stories of major world religions can be accessed here
- Membership of NATRE provides excellent curriculum resources to use in the primary school. NATRE and RE Today also provide practical courses and conferences such as the national conference Strictly RE (see #StrictlyRE) which had over 300 delegates attending this weekend. There are also over 260 NATRE affiliated local groups across the country.
- Culham St Gabriel’s offers extensive support for RE teachers through resources, research and courses.
Fitting subject knowledge development into an already over-loaded schedule is never going to be easy, but support for teachers who teach RE is arguably better now than ever before. Undoubtedly the bigger picture of time devoted to initial and ongoing training and development needs to be addressed urgently, but in the meantime these findings from NATRE make a sobering read.
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.