Before we get started, let’s dispel a myth: Religious Education is not about making children religious or Christian. Whilst religions and worldviews are studied, there is a distinct (and legal) difference between the study of religions and worldviews in RE lessons and the acts of collective worship.
Religious Education is a subject that has changed a lot in its 70+ year history: how and what religions – and later worldviews – children study has understandably also changed an awful lot. Religious Education also holds a unique position in its curriculum in being set at the local level, rather than by the government. With this being the case, I am writing from my perspective in a Norfolk school where a new and exciting Locally Agreed Syllabus was launched this academic year for my county. Your own county may well have recently released its own new Agreed Syllabus and you may be able to find a copy online or by contacting your child’s school.
Now is an exciting time of change within Religious Education. One of the biggest that may yet come is the change of the subject’s name to Religions & Worldviews to reflect the fundamental changes taking place in how children can study religions and worldviews.
What is Religious Education Like Today?
In 2018, the Commission on Religious Education delivered its final report that recommended a new vision for the subject. Firstly, the report provided a completely new way of framing the subject as “Religion and Worldviews” rather than Religious Education. This is based upon a new way of thinking about the subject. The rationale for this change is very interesting – I recommend reading the Commission’s final report for full details.
A second recommendation is the use of different disciplines when studying. In the same way that Science is made up of chemistry, physics and biology; or Geography can be studied as Human or Physical geography; study in Religious Education should be approached using differing mindsets (or ways of thinking). In my Locally Agreed Syllabus in Norfolk, these disciplines are referred to as lenses, of which there are three. There is lots of debate and research around which disciplines could be used and the disciplines used can differ between counties.
In Norfolk the first lens is theology, focusing on believing and asking questions that believers of a faith may ask, with children exploring questions from inside religions and worldviews. We also explore questions using philosophy, or the study of ideas, examining questions and answers raised through considering “the nature of knowledge, existence and morality more broadly” and which could include ethical questions. The third and final lens is the human & social sciences which explores the “lived experience” of members of a religion, such as their places of worship or festivals.
For instance, in a unit we teach at my school on How did the world come to be? children study the story in Genesis for a theological view; broader philosophical questions about why we may exist; and how ideas of creation are reflected in worship or the lives of religious believers (such as Christian joining Extinction Rebellion).
To give you an idea of how much my school’s curriculum changed in light of Norfolk’s new Syllabus, some of our new human & social sciences content (or less than 30%) accounted for the majority of our previous curriculum. In my school, the new Agreed Syllabus gave the opportunity to, quite literally, start with a blank sheet of paper and give the subject a complete review and rebuild. It was an engrossing project that took input from teachers, support staff and members of our community to build a curriculum that was tailored to our school and the experiences and backgrounds of our pupils.
Learning is more academic and more rigorous in nature – deliciously difficult is one term used to describe the change. Or as one of my students more glibly put it: “RE used to be a bit of colouring-in, but now we have to think and ask questions and not always find the right answer because no one person has the right answer.”
At the heart of our new curriculum is children having informed and respectful conversations about religions and worldviews. To build connections with the world around them by finding consensus between their own views and those that may at first appear very different through learning and understanding.
Whilst this all may sound very daunting, as parents the best way to support your child’s learning is to ask questions. To challenge your child’s ideas and ask them to justify what they think about the world and its people from evidence and observation rather than pure opinion.
”At the heart of our new curriculum is children having informed and respectful conversations about religions and worldviews.Matthew LaneReligious Education Lead
To The Future – Religions and Worldviews
At a time when the world can feel evermore disconnected and discordant, Religious Education (or Religions & Worldviews) is reshaping itself to provide knowledge and time for children to reflect upon the fundamental questions of life and the similarities that bind our societies and cultures together.
If you would like to learn more about what is going on in RE/R&W, I recommend starting with your child’s teacher or their school’s RE leader. There are many passionate RE leads around the country who love being able to share their enthusiasm for our subject with others. You can also find further information on the website of NATRE, the Culham St Gabriel’s Trust’s excellent resource and RE:Online to see other people’s great ideas from around the country.