Science and religious education teachers’ perspectives on the purpose of RE on the secondary school curriculum in England
It is important that secondary school teachers know about the other subjects that are taught in their schools in order to provide a coherent curriculum experience for students. Over the past decade the school curriculum in England has been a place of intense focus for teachers, senior leaders, inspectors and politicians. Statements of curriculum intent have been produced across the country (Fearn, 2019); countless curriculum conversations have taken place between subject leaders and curriculum leaders (Myatt & Tomsett, 2022) and many curriculum subjects have undergone a shift in focus, with more emphasis being placed on knowledge, particularly since examination reforms in 2015/16. But while vertical conversations about curriculum are encouraged, how much time is given to teachers of one subject to help understand recent changes in other curriculum subjects?
As part of a larger project on beginning teachers’ experiences of science/religion encounters in the classroom, we held focus groups for 50 pre-service teachers of science and RE and used the responses to design a survey completed by more than 160 beginning teachers and more than 100 experienced teachers. We explored their perspectives on the purpose of each subject and the Curriculum Journal recently published our findings (see Woolley et al., 2022).
Beginning teachers of RE were divided when asked to prioritise the purpose(s) of the subject, with the majority split equally between three different options: ‘to provide values education which combats discrimination’ (21 per cent; n=86) ‘to develop skills of questioning, critical education and tools for debate’ (21 per cent) and ‘to acquire knowledge about religions and worldviews’ (21 per cent). This raises questions for RE teachers, who have experienced significant reforms in recent years, about shared purpose across departments and how the subject might be promoted in schools.
Beginning science teachers were much more likely to see the main purpose of RE as ‘to provide values education which combats discrimination’ (41 per cent; n=76). When scores for the first three priorities were ranked (5 for first, 3 for second, 1 for third), ‘values education which combats discrimination’ was still significantly ahead for beginning science teachers (2.70; n=76) in comparison to beginning RE teachers (1.76; n=86). In this analysis, developing ‘skills of questioning, critical education and tools for debate’ took priority for beginning RE teachers (2.07; n=86) in comparison to beginning teachers of science (1.34; n=76).
As this research was carried out with beginning teachers, it could be easy to assume that differences in perspective concerning the purpose of RE would diminish with more school experience. However, although limited in sample size, data suggests a wider gap between science and RE teachers on the purpose of RE if the teachers had more than two years’ experience (experienced science teachers score 2.78 (n=18) for ‘values education’ compared to 1.39 (n=96) for experienced RE teachers).
It could be asked why this matters? Surely it is to be expected that science teachers have a different perspective on the teaching of religious education to RE teachers. There are, however, several consequences to be considered. RE is clearly a complex and multifaceted subject, but we suggest there needs to be more unity and clarity of message about the purpose of the subject from the RE education community, in order to ensure RE’s future place on the school curriculum. If science teachers, or others, lack understanding of RE, opportunities for rigorous interdisciplinary work may be less likely to arise, whether exploring complementary approaches to argumentation (Chan & Erduran, 2022), or different disciplinary perspectives on sustainability.
‘We suggest there needs to be more unity and clarity of message about the purpose of the subject of religious education from the RE education community, in order to ensure RE’s future place on the school curriculum.’
This research on teachers of science and RE also raises broader questions, such as: when are teachers encouraged to cross subject boundaries and talk openly about connections between subjects? In the absence of such dialogue, teachers can find themselves in the unfortunate situation where pupils have a more up-to-date understanding of the curriculum than their teachers. In order to begin to remedy this situation we have built some resources based on our research which aims to support pre-service and early career teachers in dialogue about RE and science on the curriculum.
This blog post is based on the article ‘Science and RE teachers’ perspectives on the purpose of RE on the secondary school curriculum in England’ by Mary Woolley, Robert A. Bowie, Sabina Hulbert, Caroline Thomas, John-Paul Riordan and Lynn Revell, published in the Curriculum Journal. The blog post was written with the support of the other authors of the article.
Chan, J., & Erduran, S. (2022). The impact of collaboration between science and religious education teachers on their understanding and views of argumentation. Research in Science Education, 53, 127–137.
Fearn, H. (2019). Busting the ‘intent’ myth. Ofsted blog. https://educationinspection.blog.gov.uk/2019/07/01/busting-the-intent-myth/
Myatt, M., & Tomsett, J. (2021). Huh: Curriculum conversations between subject and senior leaders. John Catt.
Woolley, M., Bowie, R. A., Hulbert, S., Thomas, C., Riordan, J.-P., & Revell, L. (2022). Science and RE teachers’ perspectives on the purpose of RE on the secondary school curriculum in England. The Curriculum Journal. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.191