By Samuel Mellish
A damning report entitled The State of the Nation has been released by the Religious Education Council of England and Wales. Its most prominent findings include figures suggesting that 800,000 secondary students, making up just over a quarter of secondary state school attendants, were not provided with RE (Religious Education) classes, with academies singled out as particularly bad offenders, in part, related to the lack of qualified staff. In addition, the report suggests that the comparative importance of RE has dropped, as RE GCSE courses rarely meet the recommended standard for contact time, and in some cases full course RE timetables are being substituted by their short course equivalents. Also, when assessing non-examined RE provisions the report argues that such classes are not sufficient in providing the desired education. Fiona Moss NATRE’s (National Association of Teachers of Religious Education), echoes this concern arguing that many pupils cannot be considered “religiously literate.” In sum, the report finds that a large proportion of education institutions in the UK are not fulfilling their statutory requirements, as outlined in chapter 6 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998.
Now indeed teachers’ unions hit back with the General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton, noting that:
“They might be teaching through conferences, they might be using citizenship lessons, they might be using assemblies”
However, this is simply not adequate, rather providing only tokenesque commitment to religious education. It is not enough to discuss the odd religious political issue, or hold the annual Christmas assembly, where references to Jesus, roast Turkey, and Son of God fit nicely into one sentence. Without serious commitment from all educational institutions individuals’ understandings of others’ religions, or religions as a whole, will be seriously undermined, if not lost.
But, as with all education, it is not the issue of gaining, or as in this case, the lack of, knowledge, despite its importance. RE brings with it tolerance and provisions of creativity. Tolerance in that it undermines false narratives of hatred and fear surrounding others’ religious practices, providing a calm understanding and even interest of the individuals that make up our world. Already small, our world is moving closer together with the advent of social media, and improvements in international travel. As such, tolerance is vital. Secondly, creativity, in that RE asks you to imagine a realm of miracles, thought, impossibility, and perfection, both alike and dislike the empirical earth in which we inhabit. Students are asked to read stories of epic heroes, seeking world’s of love and peace, in the face of an unknown, and yet, incredible evil. Such stories have conquered worlds and hearts, and have the power to spur unimaginable human beauty. The tradition of Christian art is but one instance of this. If they paint with a brush, or write with pen, artist mould culture, laws, and entire societies through their creativity.
I cannot say that such virtues are not attainable through other learning. But I am saying that RE provides an unparalleled venue to visit these virtues together, encouraging students to be tolerant in a world they are able to create. It is the opinion of this writer, that schools should not simply be fulfilling the statutory requirement, but ensuring that provisions are available for students to undertake in-depth study of religion throughout their schooling years. I hope you agree.