Stephen Lloyd MP writes…Break point for Religious Education

Watching Andy Murray storm to victory over Novak Djokovic on centre court, I couldn’t help drawing some unlikely parallels with one of my own passions – the plight of religious education.

Like Andy Murray, RE has suffered from outdated perceptions. In Murray’s case an off-the-cuff comment to a tabloid journalist in 2006 unfairly implanted the perception of a grumpy, vehemently anti-English Scotsman in the eyes of millions.

RE has suffered from a similar misrepresentation. Some people would like you to believe that the subject is about indoctrination and teaching young people to be religious. Often these views are simply outdated, stemming from distant memories of doctrinaire scripture lessons in dusty classrooms decades ago.

But the truth about RE, like Andy Murray’s rather irreverent and fun-loving (and not at all anti-English) personality, is very different. Taught well by trained RE teachers, RE explores a variety of faiths and beliefs – Christianity and other world faiths as well as those with no religious belief. It asks some of the most important questions in life – about right and wrong, about life and death and about the meaning of life. And it equips young people with a sound knowledge and understanding of the world and the people around them.

I believe that RE has a vital role to play in today’s global, multicultural world, where we witness acts of extremism, often supposedly carried out in the name of religion and often followed by ill-advised acts of revenge. But armed with a decent understanding of different faiths and beliefs, young people have the ability to question the basis of both the terrorism and the vengeance, and make their own educated view on the situation. Surely that’s an essential skill in this increasingly complex society of ours?

I am glad to say that perceptions of RE are changing. Research conducted by the Religious Education Council of England and Wales has found that RE is valued as an academically rigorous and popular subject, with nearly two-thirds of 16-24 year olds considering the subject beneficial.

But RE still has some challenges to overcome. In the Government’s eagerness to reform learning in schools, RE has become the unintended victim, excluded from the Ebacc and from the National Curriculum Review. We have seen more non-specialists taking charge, a shortage of trained RE teachers, lessons being cut, and falling exam entries. All this fills me with foreboding; the thought of the future generations gleaning their knowledge and thus their opinions on the world’s religions      from the Daily Mail, Sun, Express or the blogosphere does not strike me as ushering in a sunny, liberal era!

However, as in all great tennis matches, there is usually a turning point. That moment for RE came on July 3rd when Michael Gove admitted that RE had ‘suffered’; that he had thought its statutory nature was enough protection, and that he had not done enough.

The Secretary of State also agreed to reinvigorate discussions on the issues between the Department for Education and interested parties, an offer warmly welcomed by all concerned.

Unlike Murray’s impressive victory, it may not be ‘Game, Set, and Match’ for RE, but I think we can call it ‘Break Point’.

* Stephen Lloyd was MP for Eastbourne and Willingdon until 2015. He was chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education. In March 2013 the Group published a report called ‘RE: the truth unmasked’ on the supply of and support for RE teachers. In June 2013 Stephen tabled an Early Day Motion on RE’s role in tackling extremism.

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  • Richard Shaw 18th Jul '13 - 12:36pm

    I do hope that there really is an improvement when it comes to teaching RE and that it’ll be much better when my own kids will eventually come to study it. When I was doing my GCSEs circa 2002 it was a ‘half-GCSE’ with 1 lesson every two weeks and was little more than a waste of time with inadequate coverage of anything beyond Christianity and Islam. On results day, everyone in my year got a Grade D or lower in RE, neatly contrasting with their As or Bs in Humanities. In my experience, RE teachers are very enthusiastic (at first, anyway) but not very knowledgeable or capable of handling a class of teens; Sadly it seemed back then that those who can, teach. while those who can’t, teach RE.

  • Geoffrey Payne 18th Jul '13 - 12:56pm

    When I was at school we loathed RE. We resented that it was compulsory and we did not like the Mary Whitehouse teacher types.
    Today I think it is essential, but I would not call it RE. I think it should be an important part of teaching philosophy, and that philosophy should be a much more important topic than it is today. I think that having a “spiritual experience” is something you can save for when you go to church or if you find a way to discover it yourself. But understanding religions is very important, and moral teachings such as the sermon on the Mount are well worth learning about.
    Too much education is about learning in a robotic way rather than encouraging people to think for themselves. Philosophy is a subject that does precisely that, so it should be the most important topic of all in my opinion. Michael Gove is making things worse in this respect and I do not see any evidence that our MPs see things any differently, which I find very disappointing. There is much more to education than passing exams.

  • It is good to see this subject being given the attention it deserves. My memories of RE at a Boys Catholic Grammar School are indeed of doctrinaire scripture lessons in dingy classrooms back in the sixties . There was no Islam taught then- Istanbul was still the Latin city of Constantinople to us. Other world religions – Buddism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Shinto and others got only a passing mention, if at all. It became apparent in later travels that payiing more attention during foreign language classess as well as garnering a better basic understanding of cultures and religions beyond theses shores is no bad thing.

    My youngest son took RE at GCSE and combined the subject with History, English Literature and Physical Eduction for his four A Levels. Modern RE includes the study of the development of Philosopy and ethics from the time of the ancient Greek pholosophers, as well as the theological basis of the major world religions. It served as a basic grounding for his current degree studies in Anthropolgy at Durham.

    My own experience confirms Stephen Lloyds assessment that – “Taught well by trained RE teachers, RE explores a variety of faiths and beliefs – Christianity and other world faiths as well as those with no religious belief. It asks some of the most important questions in life – about right and wrong, about life and death and about the meaning of life. And it equips young people with a sound knowledge and understanding of the world and the people around them.”

  • “Some people would like you to believe that the subject is about indoctrination and teaching young people to be religious”

    That’s because RE is about indoctrination and teaching young people to be religious. RE is a form of child abuse and completely unnacceptable anywhere in our education system.

  • Lorna Dupre 18th Jul '13 - 2:33pm

    I had an excellent RE teacher at school, and I think it was thanks to her that I became a liberal. Well-taught, RE is a brilliant subject for enabling young people to understand that people perceive and experience the world in different ways, and how important (and difficult) it is to hold some very fundamental issues in balance. I never felt indoctrinated (in fact, I’m an atheist) just very well informed. Not teaching children about these issues is a recipe for ignorance and intolerance, and creates a breeding ground for the EDL.

  • jenny barnes 18th Jul '13 - 3:44pm

    I hated RE at school. And I made sure the RE teacher hated teaching it too. It’s perhaps not surprising how difficult you can make teaching evidence free rubbish, but it was such fun.

  • Stephen Lloyd deserves many congratulations for his leadership on behalf of Religious Studies (as it is called at GCSE and A-Level). The key to quality teaching is to be found in theologically literate teachers and adequate timetabling. I despair when I read comments such as “RE is a form of child abuse” (Chris) and “teaching evidence free rubbish” (Jenny Barnes). As Stephen says, RS has changed fundamentally from the days of Religious Instruction. Learning about religion which, whether we like it or not, is the driving motive for the actions of millions throughout the world is important not just for understanding today’s world but also for understanding our past. For example, can we really understand the history and culture of Europe without reference to Christianity? I declare an interest as a teacher of RS and this includes critiques of religion (part of GCSE and A-Level courses) and I object to the notion that I am engaged in a form of intellectual child abuse or am teaching evidence free rubbish.

  • Peter Watson 18th Jul '13 - 8:34pm

    My son, who attends a Roman Catholic high school, recently carried out a project studying Islam. He spent many hours making a model of a mosque and replicas of traditional Arabic games, and produced pages summarising key points about Muslim faith. By encouraging children to think about their own faith (or lack of it) and that of others, as well as looking at the historical, cultural and philosophical aspects of religion (and including a bit of DT), I have found RE to be a very valuable subject for my children to study despite my original misgivings.

  • Chris concludes :
    “That’s because RE is about indoctrination and teaching young people to be religious. RE is a form of child abuse and completely unnacceptable anywhere in our education system.”
    On the nail.
    Religious leaders are well aware of the vulnerability of the child brain, and the importance of getting the indoctrination in early. The Jesuit boast, ‘Give me the child for his first seven years, and I’ll give you the man,’ is no less accurate (or sinister) for being hackneyed.
    Religions (all f them!), know that you need to get the abuse in early with a malleable mind, to ensure that they are ‘imprinted’ with ideas prior to their development of critical thinking abilities. And the net result is that their minds are caught inside an unquestioned belief system such that they in turn grow into unquestioning adults, and pass on the abuse to their own children.

  • Jonathan Brown 18th Jul '13 - 9:13pm

    A very interesting article! I didn’t much like RE when I was at school, even though I have to admit that despite it being a church school the RE classes themselves really were about the study of religions and not ‘learn this religion’. But I guess I’ve mellowed a bit, and am in broad agreement with Stephen who makes many good points.

    As long as we can all be clear – and confident – that when this subject is debated we ARE talking about ‘the study of religions’ and NOT religious instruction, then I’d support the continued teaching of it in schools. (Religious instruction is fine too, in certain contexts, but should not be conflated with RS/RE taught in schools as a prerequisite to taking an exam.)

  • Making religion a compulsory subject in the 1945 Education Act probably helped create the atheist Britain of today.
    Maybe religious studies in schools should be subsumed under Moral and Social education.

  • Helen Tedcastle 19th Jul '13 - 10:36am

    As a trained RE specialist, I find Stephen Lloyd’s post very heartening. Sadly, some of the above comments simply view RE through the lenses of school experiences of decades gone by.

    @ Geoffrey Payne. Sadly, it is a misrepresentation of the religious dimension to reduce it to simply a moral code and to split philosophy from religion. Crucially, this is not how religions see themselves and a good RE teacher would be misleading their pupils grossly, if they sought to reduce religion to morality.Critical thinking shapes religious thought – some of the greatest and most influential philosophy is religious philosophy the pagan Aristotle, to Aquinas through to the Enlightenment – Kant, Hegel and beyond.
    When I taught A level Religious Studies, I taught my students Philosophy of Religion as well as Ethics. The subject really has moved on from you r experience and until 2010 and the arrival of Gove, it was among the most popular humanities at A Level and GCSE.

    I too was subject to poor RE teaching but I also met people outside the classroom who inspired me to look at religious traditions as a whole – plus – just read the newspapers or view the news – it’s obvious that the world is shaped by the religious dimension – it is a massive factor in the world today.

    How can Gove continue to omit this quintessential humanity from the EBacc, despite his confession the other day that he’s damages the subject? It is every bit as challenging and rigorous as Geography/History. The reality is that Geography has suffered from under-funding and a huge number of non-specialists teaching it. I’m sure there are many tales that could account for poor teaching in that subject.

    However , thanks to Gove’s back to the 1950s curriculum, Geography is taken seriously because it has been propelled from the doldrums into the EBacc and Headteachers are boosting its status and resources. The casualty under this priority system? RE. In the 1950s, RE was RI – instruction in the Bible. It has come a long way as a subject since then.

    We are doing our children a massive disservice if RE is allowed to wither on the vine or simply amount to a half GCSE taught fortnightly by non-specialists.

    Where RE is taught by specialists who are up to date in the subject and crucially, backed by the Senior Leadership Team with time and resources, they can provide wonderful learning environments.

    Keep up the good work Stephen Lloyd!

  • Ben Jephcott 19th Jul '13 - 11:53am

    Disappointed to see the old cliches about RI (as it was in the 1970s and 1980s) being trotted out in some replies here as if they are an accurate reflection of RE now.

    In most schools, certainly those with specialists, RE is well taught and is all about education, not indoctrination, there is a huge difference. In some schools non-specialists may struggle, and thanks to Gove, there may be a lot more of those in future years as because of his changes, the supply of specialists will disappear and the subject will be downgraded.

    I actually agree with most of what Geoff says, except that I think that what he is talking about is (or should be) encompassed in the way RE is taught now, using that subject title . Perhaps even further concentrating on phenomenological learning and for older pupils, moral philosophy, both from religious and other traditions.

    I was taught in a Catholic private school in the 1980s. RE was split into two parts: ie one section was Bible study and the Catechism, sometimes taught by a Brother who looked like a Taliban and whose views were pretty close, and another group of lessons which ranged widely from philosophy to PSE to anything the other (generally excellent) RE teachers (which included Brothers and one priest) decided to cover. The split was pretty obvious and even in the first part, the underlying assumption was ‘this is what the Catholic Church believes – learn it’, not ‘thou shalt think this.’

    I am now agnostic, though I think every child should be taught phenomenological RE and also encouraged to think about morality and ideas in that context. I don’t like the Dawkins-inspired secularism which is deeply illiberal and seems to want to indoctrinate children with anti-religious antipathy and drive religious cultural practice underground.

    An excellent piece from Stephen Lloyd.

  • Helen
    What you are teaching seems more akin to the Sociology of Religion.
    Back in the 1950s and 1960s kids did learn about Christianity, at Sunday School.

  • Helen Tedcastle 20th Jul '13 - 11:12am

    @Manfarang: I’m not sure how you gleaned your conclusions from my comment. It is anything but Sociology of Religion.

    If you mean, in RE, teachers do not indoctrinate but rather educate, you would be right.

  • “it’s obvious that the world is shaped by the religious dimension – it is a massive factor in the world today”
    That is what the sociology of religion is about and all the academic rigour that is required in such analysis.
    Nothing to do with dogmatics as such.

  • Helen Tedcastle 20th Jul '13 - 4:57pm

    @ Manfarang: My comment about the religious dimension was a description of it’s importance for those of no fixed belief or doctrine.

    “That is what the sociology of religion is about and all the academic rigour that is required in such analysis.” There are some assumptions in your point. First, that RE is mere description of something going on – it is not. It involves primary texts and sources – it involves interpretation and reflection. What cannot be assumed is that every child in front of the teacher is a practising Christian. Therefore, one has to adjust teaching to this brute fact.

    Secondly, you are incorrect to assume that there is less academic rigour because of the incorrect assumption made about what RE is. There is a body of knowledge, a content which has to be taught and learned. It is not about observation of the flux or descriptive observation.

    Finally, dogmatics has its place – in a school of faith – after all, it is proclamation. Is it really a Christian act to impose one’s own view and mission on a mixed faith class in a community school? Isn’t this simply intolerance?

  • “It involves primary texts and sources ”
    In Arabic ,Hebrew,Greek, Latin,Pali and Sanskrit?

  • Helen Tedcastle 21st Jul '13 - 5:20pm

    @ Manfarang: I see. Reading and interpreting the Bible and other primary texts is not enough, as it was during the O Level era – it should be taught in a Scripture lesson in the original tongue. The Qur’an should be taught in Arabic and so on.

    I understand that local Mosques have Madrassahs where children learn the Qur’an by heart in the original Arabic, Jewish children can learn the Torah in Hebrew at Synagogue. Christian children could learn the Bible in Latin I suppose or the original Greek at their local Churches – Greek Orthodox do already.

    Your confessional approach is extremely narrow and strange considering the non-affiliation to any religious tradition of community schools – why would a Headteacher in a state comprehensive comprising children with mixed religious and non-religious affiliation, require their RE teachers to teach the Vedas in Sanskrit or Vulgate in Latin for five years?

    It’s a non-starter.

  • @Helen Tedcastle
    I think ‘RE’ is a subject that has under gone significant change since many of us were at school, unfortunately I suspect that much of that change has not received the attention it should of, particularly as the subject has kept a title that is perhaps inappropriate to today’s curriculum. Perhaps what is needed is a parents guide to RE in a similar vein to “Maths for Mums and Dads” – although if such a book/e-book already exists I’m sure I won’t be the only parent who would appreciate the pointer.

  • Equating RE with child abuse is despicable. Child abuse is child abuse. Parents, schools and leaders of all sorts try to influence the development of children’s thought; for example, atheists may promote atheism. It would be worse for children to be protected from all contact with people with beliefs and opinions, than for some bias to occur.

    In the past much religious teaching in schools was indoctrination – just as in Soviet schools, say, children were indoctrinated against religion. That isn’t how the subject is taught now in state schools, or indeed in some faith schools. There is a disputable assumption at the base of RE, but it’s this: that it’s worth understanding something about religion and why and how people are religious.

    Pace Geoff Payne, I do remember RE in my secondary school in the 1960s, and I found it quite interesting. The teacher had his own views and would probably be more cautious about them now, but he was happy for us to dispute them. I thought it was quite good fun. The problem for most of us was that in our school it didn’t lead to a GCE pass.

  • Helen
    In the 1960s I knew a man whoes Liberal father went to prison because he refused to pay his rates because the money was going to schools which made Free Church kids learn Anglicanism.
    How things change!
    I remember the Catholic and Jewish kids who were able to opt out of RI as it was called in 1960s.
    Religion is confessional by its nature.
    There is a state religion in England, its called Anglicanism.
    Your approach would be more valid if the Church of England was disestablised.

  • Helen Tedcastle 22nd Jul '13 - 12:06pm

    @ Manfarang: Anglicans and indeed the CHurch of England are and have been heavily involved in developing the model of RE we have today . The Locally Agreed Syllabus – a document drawn up in each local authority – is ‘agreed’ by the denominations and members of other traditions present in each area. RE is not something ‘done’ to children in a vacuum, in other words. It is without doubt the most locally tailored or devolved subject on the curriculum. Other subjects are deeply centralised, for good or ill.

    In that sense, notwithstanding other reasons, Liberals ought to be defending RE as actually reflective of the local areas in which children live.

  • Helen Tedcastle 23rd Jul '13 - 10:56am

    @DurgaMata: An excellent comment and I agree with every word. RE is the most misunderstood subject on the curriculum. Until 2010, a generation of well-educated specialists had managed to turn the attitudes around among youngsters. Unfortunately, we hadn’t banked on the arrival of 1950s zealots into the DfE.

    When Gove eventually goes (and I can’t wait for that day), maybe we’ll see some light at the end of a dark tunnel of ignorance.

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