Religious education needs to be brought into the 21st century, study concludes

The role of religion and beliefs in current affairs – such as the terror attacks in Paris this month – should be tackled in school RE lessons, according to a new report.

Researchers from Goldsmiths, University of London, found that religious education in schools was outdated and needed to be overhauled to better reflect modern Britain.

The research says that an “urgent conversation” is underway about the future of learning about religion and belief in schools after “growing criticisms of the policy muddle” surrounding it.

The report has been published in the week that the High Court ruled that education secretary Nicky Morgan made “an error of law” when she left “non-religious world views” out of the new religious studies GCSE.

The ruling was a victory for three families, supported by the British Humanist Association (BHA), who claimed Nicky Morgan had taken a “skewed” approach and was failing to reflect in schools the pluralistic nature of the country.

The new Goldsmiths report, RE for Real, recommends a range of changes to bring religious education into the 21st century. The researchers suggest that:

  • Content should reflect the real religious landscape with “a focus on contemporary issues and the role of religion and belief in current affairs and controversies”. For example, students would be taught about the recent tragic events in Paris, as well as exploring informal and non-religious forms such as spirituality, humanism and secularism.
  • Learning about religion and belief should be a compulsory part of the curriculum to age 16, with consideration given to whether this should remain for post-GCSE pupils.
  • A statutory National Framework for Religion and Belief Learning should be established and applied to all schools. The process would include a review and decision on the name or names of religion and belief learning in schools, and a national panel that would make recommendations on the framework.
  • GCSE religious studies should remain as an optional subject for schools.
  • There should be continued investment in initial teacher training for subject-specialist RE teachers and there should be increased investment in continuing professional development for non-specialist teachers of religion and belief.

Co-authors Professor Adam Dinham and researcher Martha Shaw, both from the Faiths and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, said: “Changes in the real religious landscape have far outpaced changes in education about it. The real picture is made up of more believing without belonging and more non-believing at all. It is a context that is Christian, plural and secular all at the same time. We have a mid-20th century settlement for an early 21st century reality.”

More than 300 pupils, teachers, parents and employers, and 19 schools were questioned about their views on the future of teaching and learning about religion and belief in schools for the project, which was funded by the Culham St Gabriel’s Trust.

The majority of teachers questioned supported the inclusion of teaching and learning about non-religion in RE, and many said they thought the subject has an important task in rebalancing media stereotypes.

Of nearly 100 teachers interviewed for the study, 86 per cent said they felt that RE should be a national curriculum subject and 72 per cent said it should be compulsory to at least 16.

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