Skip to content
 

Blog post

The future of religious education in England

Jessica Chan, University of Oxford

The Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposes a statutory change of the name for the subject religious education (RE), into ‘Religion and Worldviews’ in all publicly funded schools (CoRE, 2018). This change is to accurately reflect the increasingly diverse and non-religious worldviews in the UK demography. One of the key expectations coupled with this change is that ‘pupils are entitled to be taught by teachers who … are capable of addressing misconceptions and misunderstandings and handling controversial issues’ (CoRE, 2018, p. 13). Such an expectation of teachers is reasonable and ambitious, but it is more a question of identifying what constitutes effective learning in RE than it is of changing the subject’s name.

This is also an issue about ways to identify learning in RE. In England, RE has a significant focus on generic intellectual strategies (see for example Baumfield, 1996; Simpson & Ramsay, 2012) or philosophy (see for example Thwaites, 2005). The value of thinking or reasoning skills through learning in RE is very much agreed upon by pre-service and beginning teachers, and a dialogic approach in the classroom is preferable and prevalent (Baumfield, 2007). Indeed, pedagogic strategies such as dialogues and debates are greatly promoted in the locally agreed syllabuses (LASs) for RE. Among these are Leicestershire County Council (2016) and Northumberland County Council (2016). However, the use of pedagogical approaches in RE needs to be underpinned by a clear conceptual or assessment framework to capture and signal ‘effective learning in RE’.

‘The use of pedagogical approaches in RE needs to be underpinned by a clear conceptual or assessment framework to capture and signal “effective learning in RE”.’

Constructing arguments, explaining and exchanging views or debates are recommended learning activities in many LASs, but there are minimal references or guidelines for evaluating the quality of discussions and debates (Chan, Fancourt, & Guilfoyle, 2020). The National Framework has also been inadequate in addressing this issue (Fancourt, 2012). This lack of evaluation criteria or guidelines makes identification of student progress difficult and hinders dialogistic assessment, a pedagogic strategy recommended in the CoRE proposal. Apparently teachers are constantly advised to implement different lesson activities, but seldom do we discuss how teachers can objectively identify learning improvement or progression through engaging students in those activities.

The lack of clarity on defining learning outcomes is perhaps not a problem exclusive to RE in England. Students’ skills and competencies such as ‘explaining’, ‘drawing inferences/conclusions’, ‘comparing’ and ‘making predictions’ are indicators of higher-order skills in international policy documents (Vincent-Lancrin, Car, & Jacotin, 2019). However, the categorical meaning or definition of these skills are often left undiscussed or overlooked. That leaves open a similar question to the one being posed within RE: how do teachers identify or assess learning and higher-order thinking?

The ongoing Oxford Argumentation in Religion and Science (OARS) project aims at enhancing students’ argumentation and reasoning skills through teacher professional development (Erduran, 2020). The project is contextualised in an interface between religion and science (Erduran, Guilfoyle, Park, Chan, & Fancourt, 2019), which at the same time fosters interdisciplinary teacher collaboration in secondary schools in England.

One of the key elements in its professional development programme is introducing teachers to Toulmin’s Argumentation Pattern (Toulmin, 1958), which can serve as a pedagogical heuristic to conceptualise and operate in a space for teaching and learning higher-order skills. This conceptual tool facilitates the quality of classroom dialogues through providing a framework for evaluating arguments, claims and warrants. In the case of RE, of which the curriculum objective is to foster democratic values and tolerance of plurality, thinking skills and learning outcomes can be examined hierarchically and explicitly for assessment purposes (Fancourt, 2012).

‘If the intention behind the subject’s name change is to more accurately reflect the value of RE to the national curriculum at large, it is also timely to look further into the subject regime and the challenges in the classroom.’

If the intention behind the subject’s name change is to more accurately reflect the value of RE to the national curriculum at large, it is also timely to look further into the subject regime and the challenges in the classroom. This blog does not seek to support or disagree with the proposal by CoRE, but rather to call for more attention to issues closely related to the future of the subject – what effective learning in RE means and how it can be evidenced by engagement in the subject.


The OARS project is funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation (grant number TWCF0238).


References

Baumfield, V. (1996). Thinking through religious education. Cambridge: Chris Kington.

Baumfield, V. (2007). Becoming a teacher of RE in a world of religious diversity. Journal of Beliefs & Values, 28(1), 77–81. https://doi.org/10.1080/13617670701251611

Chan, J., Fancourt, N., & Guilfoyle, L. (2020). Argumentation in religious education in England: An analysis of locally agreed syllabuses. British Journal of Religious Education. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/01416200.2020.1734916

Commission on Religious Education [CoRE] (2018). Religion and worldviews: The way forward. Retrieved from https://www.commissiononre.org.uk/final-report-religion-and-worldviews-the-way-forward-a-national-plan-for-re/

Erduran, S. (2020). Argumentation in science and religion: Match and/or mismatch when applied in teaching and learning? Journal for Education for Teaching, 46(1), 129–131. https://doi.org/10.1080/02607476.2019.1708624

Erduran, S., Guilfoyle, L., Park, W., Chan, J., & Fancourt, N. (2019). Argumentation and Interdisciplinarity: Reflections from the Oxford Argumentation in Religion and Science project. Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Science Education Research, 1(8). https://doi.org/10.1186/s43031-019-0006-9.

Fancourt, N. (2012). Differentiation. In P. Barnes (ed.), Debates in religious education (pp. 213–222). London: Routledge.

Leicestershire County Council. (2016). Leicestershire religious literacy for all: The agreed syllabus for religious education 2016-2021. Leicester.

Northumberland County Council (2016). Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education 2016. Morpeth.

Simpson, J., & Ramsay, M. (2012). Bridging the gap between religious education and gifted education: Theory and praxis in three secondary school programmes in Cambridgeshire. British Journal of Religious Education, 34(2), 247–261. https://doi.org/10.1080/01416200.2011.649342.

Thwaites, H. (2005). Can ‘philosophy for children’ improve teaching and learning within attainment target 2 of religious education? Education 3-13, <i.33(3), 4–8. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004270585200261.

Toulmin, S. (1958). Uses of argument. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vincent-Lancrin, S., Kar, J., & Jacotin, G. (2019). Measuring innovation in education 2019: What has changed in the classroom? Educational Research and Innovation. Paris: OECD Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/measuring-innovation-in-education-2019_9789264311671-en