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What is Religious Education for?
 At the time of writing my dissertation, Britain and Europe
had suffered recent atrocities that had shaken the very foundations
of our societies. The London and Manchester attacks both committed by, using a term favoured by the press, ‘home-grown’ terrorists.
Why is this relevant to Religious Education? Unfortunately
extremist ideology is based in
part on a fundamental issue that
is still prevalent in far too many communities in Britain - intolerance. Unfortunately, intolerance is an aspect of society in which we live. Extremist religious ideology seems to be the justification for many
of the terrorist attacks that we
have recently witnessed. Extremist ideology can also sometimes feature in the counter-response such as the white supremacist groups taking
to the streets in Charlottesville. Through my research I found that RE has an important social aim, which goes beyond the teaching
of the Divine. It gives schools the opportunity to empower young people, with not only knowledge and understanding, but also the important skills necessary to combat intolerance, bigotry, extremist ideology and in the most severe cases radicalization. It can give pupils the tools they need to prevent discrimination in their communities of minority groups.
My research dissertation aimed to establish whether there needs to
be a clarification in what the aims
of RE are in independent prep schools, and therefore potentially promote a change in curriculum design and even the widely used examination syllabus at 13+. I reviewed the literature on the aims of Religious Education and began with an exploration of the history
of the subject in England from
the scripture based model whose main aim is to produce religious commitment to a denomination of the Christian faith or, in other words, to strengthen a student’s belief in a particular religious tradition. I also investigated the significant impact of the 1870 Elementary Education Act on Religious Education. I went on to analyse the more modern
current challenges...
approaches of RE, including modern, post-modern and liberal approaches of the 60s, 70s and 80s which incorporates the concept of teaching objectively about different world religions. I continued to examine the subject’s aims and the nature of RE including that which we commonly see in contemporary state education in England. I used paradigms as a framework for understanding the nature of RE and to investigate the case of there being a ‘paradigm- shift’ in RE. This is based on the brilliant work of the academic and Religious Education writer Dr. Liam Gearon. His book On Holy Ground was enlightening for me in the way
I understood the nature of Religious Education. This ‘paradigm-shift’
has happened in many parts of the British Religious education system which has resulted in the subject transforming in nature into one whose aims are just as social as they are personal. I answered my research question of what is Religious Education for, whilst focusing on the implications on curriculum design in Prep Schools by using a qualitative research methodology
to build a strong case to describe the current system in place at the majority of Prep schools. My results showed that many prep school departments are still pedagogically grounded in the knowledge based study of Biblical scripture. Whilst they have a great strength from the scriptural focus in allowing to build the pupils foundation of knowledge of the Christian text, I found that RE in these types of curricula was often not fulfilling any other aims. My question stands that if we have a subject that has a potential to be so transformative in people’s lives, why are we restricting it and limiting its potential in not only individual pupil development but also the wider society.
Along the way I examined government reports on the Prevent agenda and schools’ role in combating radicalization and how this can be intrinsically linked to the fundamental social aims
of Religious Education. Another answer to the question of why the context of society is relevant for RE
is that it’s because the government has demanded it of the education system. Under Section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security
Act 2015 all “schools are subject
to a duty, in the exercise of their functions, to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. The Channel process of the Prevent Agenda should, in my opinion, be seen as a last resort and on a more day-to-day basis schools are expected to not only give an academic education but provide a nurturing and supportive environment for each individual that attends. What is important is the opportunity to allow them to enter into discussions about the nature of extremist thinking and why certain ideologies are pervasive in today’s society and sometimes persuasive.
It is in this area that I believe Religious Education can be useful in providing pupils with knowledge and understanding, the necessary skills, but also be a platform in which pupils grow in confidence to challenge intolerance.
Interestingly, The Times reported an article headlined “The Lack of good RE teachers adds to the risk of bigotry” (K. Burgess, February 19 2018, The Times) She highlights a concern of The Religious Education Council: “Without good quality religious education delivered by a qualified RE teacher who provides accurate and balanced information about the array of different world views that make up modern Britain, young people are placed at risk...” they are at risk of ignorance that might lead to misunderstanding or even bigotry.
The findings of my own research demonstrated that in order for RE to achieve its aims, it must go through the shift from being too heavily rooted in schemes of work based
on gaining knowledge of Biblical scripture, to become a subject that allows pupils to gain a rich and deeper understanding of religious and secular identity. This shift needs to move prep schools away from the old confessional model, to which many Prep School RE curriculums’ pedagogical pillars still hold firm,
to one that is more philosophical,
ethical, social and cultural in outlook. This is to help RE to encourage pupils to become positive and tolerant members of our liberal and multi-faith society.
So what does this mean for RE
at prep schools? It means that a drastic change is needed in the way it has so often been organised. A good starting point is to review the school’s curriculum design. This is the first essential step. Changes can then be made to shape curricula
in the manner of long schemes of work that allow pupils to explore the rich history of religions in
the context of the civilisations, countries and societies in which
they were developed. Then look at the development of that religion from its roots, throughout history, until we see how it is represented
in contemporary Britain in terms of religious identity. It is only with this level of depth that we can ensure we give pupils a deeper understanding of religious and secular identity, rather than a simple comparative overview of different belief
systems or even just a knowledge
of the Bible without a deeper understanding of it. When teaching RE, this systematic design leaves far less room for the misinterpretations and misrepresentations that are commonly found in the thematic way Religious Education is often taught, even within the teaching
of Christianity. The greater understanding the pupils have about people, beliefs, identity and wider culture that comes through curricula that are designed in this manner, will in turn, lead to the development of empathy which is the very foundation of tolerance and mutual respect.
I hope that all heads of religious education departments take
this opportunity to review the epistemological and pedagogical foundation of the subject at their own schools. I hope schools consider just what our pupils need as they grow towards being the future of
a contemporary Britain in which tolerance and mutual respect of others should be at the very heart of society.
Head of Upper School and Head of RS & Philosophy at
Handcross Park School, Sussex, Christopher Cripps, completed
an MSc at the University of Oxford’s department of education
in Learning and Teaching. Throughout the course he had an
opportunity to grapple with some of Religious Education’s most
   26 Independent Schools Magazine
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