Religious Education in Schools (Summary of a talk by Simon Wright)

PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIANITY North Staffs. (RE in schools) At the first meeting of the new season on 1st March, we had a discussion about the teaching of RE in Schools. We were led very ably by Simon Wright, a teacher of 25 yrs experience, still teaching at secondary school. Simon had the major input, but he presented the subject in an interactive way. He asked us what should happen if the teacher is asked by a student about his/her own faith and most of us suggested the teacher should answer the question in a manner that implies no wish to persuade the student to the same view. We then discussed whether any teacher or school can really be neutral, implying they cannot, since each person or institution conveys values and faith of some sort. Teachers over the years have increasingly found themselves under so much pressure to teach to the syllabus, performance criteria and examinations that they have little time to respond to the personal enquiries of students. This has been backed up recently by a major piece of research by Birmingham University, showing that young people's personal and moral development is being neglected because of the pressure of exams and targets. How should RE respond to our pluralistic society ? Over recent decades in most places, RE has taught about the integrity of each religious tradition and about their universal claims to truth. Some say that since society is now deeply secular, RE should be removed from the curriculum. Others advocate faith schools, where each faith group can take religious education into the semi-private space of a school with one particular religious character. The recent government is forcing community schools to return to nurturing a British cultural and national identity based on Christian morality. It is not clear where academies will go, since they have more freedom of curriculum, but Simon feels this latest move will not work out at all well in practice. Should RE be knowledge about, or learning from, religion ? The first is teaching in the abstract of the beliefs and doctrines; the second is how religion works in practice in people's lives and how it responds to social, moral and political issues. Most RE in recent decades has emphasised the second of these. The government in its new guidelines is emphasising the first. Simon is convinced this is detrimental, if only because it is a turn-off for students, most of whom really are interested in how faith works in issues and day to day living. For a period a few decades ago, there was a balance of the two. How should RE respond to the current rise in extremism that a small number of young people find attractive? We only touched on this, but agreed that it should be tackled in schools and that seems to be the intention of government. (Maybe this could be a subject of a future meeting?) Does RE include the nature and interpretation of scripture ? Simon thought there was not much time for this, given the constraints of the curriculum. He expressed his own view that he feels anger when he comes across people who interpret scripture too narrowly, for example taking a creationist view of the origins of the world, because this does a great disservice to the Bible. It was said that some Muslims are now developing a much broader interpretation of the Koran. Simon concluded by expressing his own questioning faith in Christ and God. He felt that too many religious people stick with the culture of the past; for example there is no way that Christians can claim the Bible addresses the gender issue, since it is steeped in male dominance. Yet for him, faith in practice has to move with the times in which we live.

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