Primary Religious Education has been left untouched in the new national curriculum, is this a good or bad thing? In this article Aidan Gillespie asks whether the politicians are simply providing the freedom for local advisors and faith schools to construct meaningful RE curricula and teaching, or leaving teachers to decide what takes priority in a packed curriculum?
Primary RE has been left off the national programmes of study yet again while being acknowledged as being central to a child’s educational experience. The logic of this is not entirely straight forward. Politicians have left it up to Local Education Authorities and their Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education (SACRE) to design and provide RE curricula that reflect the local character while also supporting children in building up a picture of the faith story of our country. Faith schools have always followed their own curriculum that is representative of their faith tradition but in line with the aims of the National Curriculum.
On the surface of it, this seems a fine approach. Faith schools and in particular the Roman Catholic and Church of England schools have benefitted from the freedom that this provides but also have the distinct advantage of having teachers who are largely part of or sympathetic to the faith of the school, as outlined in their recruitment procedures. Teachers within these schools are very often well versed in the religious language and stories they are sharing with their pupils.
But what of non-faith (Maintained) schools? How do they use this freedom to support both teaching and learning? How do non-specialist teachers of RE approach teaching a subject as complex and challenging as Religious Education and present it in an engaging, enjoyable and challenging way? OFSTED asked the same questions in their ‘Transforming Religious Education’ document in 2010 and noted that the quality of teaching was generally unsatisfactory with no significant improvement from its earlier inspection of 2007 (Making Sense of Religion, Ofsted, 2010, p4). The possible cause of this according to Ofsted was two-fold:
1) The locally agreed syllabi did not provide enough guidance on planning to support non specialist teachers.
2) Teachers lacked the specialism and knowledge to plan and deliver effective lessons.
Who, then, should support teachers in planning and delivering enjoyable and challenging RE lessons? This is a very difficult question, not least in the sense of which type of school are we thinking about when we pose it. For those whose working context is in a faith school, their lot seems to be slightly more straightforward; for those in the maintained sector the answers are few and far between when examining the new programmes of study. The new curriculum has provided teachers and schools, through locally agreed syllabi, a degree of freedom in what and how they plan and teach RE.
Taking in to consideration the target driven environment within some schools and a narrow focus on core subjects that push up results, all Humanities subjects including Religious Education could be left out in the cold with pupils receiving little or no Religious Education and cultural awareness of any kind whilst at school. Academies in particular are under pressure to provide instant results in the core subjects in order to justify their freedom from the National Curriculum and ensure their future in the educational landscape. Could this mean that large numbers of schools exclude Religious Education and other humanities subjects in the future in order to move up the all-important league tables at the expense of a diverse educational experience deserved by all pupils?
Perhaps Local Authorities should provide existing and trainee teachers access to specialists in the subject to improve their knowledge as this may ensure that, given the opportunity, teachers could be confident in providing their pupils with RE skills and knowledge to equip them for life in a multicultural society (All Party Parliamentary Group on RE, 2013, pp 4-5). Or perhaps, the National Curriculum should provide a statement outlining the importance of RE on contributing to community cohesion and guidance on the minimum requirements in regards to teaching and provision.
Either way, teachers of Primary Religious Education need more support than they are currently receiving. Whether the answer to this comes from the school, LEA or from the powers that be, I’m sure my colleagues would gratefully receive pedagogic manna from heaven rather than have their subject be left at the threshold.