What are we trying to achieve?

Spending time reflecting on #reconsult so far in preparation for meeting with the Department for Education on Thursday afternoon…

It occurred to me that the confusion over the purpose of RS, highlighted in recent posts, is the real problem here.

Which of the following claims about Religious Studies is true – and which of the true claims most important and least?

  1. Religious Studies is where we teach young people about their own religion, which includes reference to other religions and non-religious world views.
  2. Religious Studies supports young people in their quest for personal meaning.
  3. Religious Studies supports the school ethos, provides a “hub” for SMSC learning and a good opportunity to tackle many current issues of personal or social concern – from cyber-bullying to charity campaigning.
  4. Religious Studies is just another academic humanities subject, like History or Geography
  5. Religious Studies is what we call History of Ideas and/or Theory of Knowledge in the English education system, which otherwise lacks a philosophical core
  6. Religious Studies provides the best opportunity to teach higher level skills such as critical analysis, evaluation and argument, which all students need for university and which other subjects often fail to deliver
  7. Religious Studies courses prepare young people to take degrees in Theology and Religious Studies
  8. Religious Studies is just what we call certificated courses in statutory Religious Education; these courses measure how much young people know and understand about the 6 major world religions and aim to promote religious tolerance and community cohesion.
  9. Religious Studies is a sociological exploration of the phenomenon of Religion, comparing different traditions and showing them to be essentially similar responses to the human condition.
  10. Religious Studies is the main opportunity for young people to address ultimate questions and moral issues which affect people of all faiths and none.

It is clear that different people have different perceptions of the purpose of Religious Studies – and this impacts on what content and approaches to assessment they see as appropriate. Obviously, no one subject can hope to deliver ALL of the above; by necessity, reformed specifications will have to be geared towards 1-3, not 10, different aims in order to avoid the degree of diversity that has characterized GCSE and A Level Religious Studies specifications in the past and which has made the subject difficult to standardize, allegedly subject to grade inflation and open to criticism from universities who have no idea what students have studied, even if they have taken the subject at school.

The past five weeks have forced people to confront the need to make difficult choices in a short time-frame.  There will be winners and there will be losers… but surely it is important to have a rational, open discussion about what is going on and why, rather than leaving it to who shouts the loudest, who has more friends and followers, or who was offered a seat at the table in the planning process?

A few points to throw into this discussion…

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Slide from DfE event, 12th December 2014

1) The process by which we have arrived at the draft content has been skewed towards the interests of those who see Religious Studies in terms of 1, 8,9 and 7, but has largely excluded from discussions those with other perceptions of the subject.  The basic assumptions behind and structure of the DfE proposals are, therefore, inherently controversial and seeking comments on the detail rather misses the point.

2) Further, the voices of those who see Religious Studies in terms of 7 (the Higher Education institutions here) were largely ignored in coming to the final draft – AULRE, TRS-UK and the Universities WERE given early drafts to comment on, but had to turn round their replies so fast that they could not consult or reflect meaningfully.  Further, several of those involved in the process cannot see any evidence of their replies in the draft as it now stands. In addition, AULRE and TRS-UK represent a narrow band of university courses in relation to those students with Religious Studies actually end up on. No consultation with a wider body of HE stakeholders has been attempted; the list of universities consulted is remarkable for being a list of departments currently advertising discrete courses in the study of religions in addition to, or instead of, more traditional courses in Theology or Biblical Studies or more popular courses in Philosophy and Theology or Philosophy and Ethics.  To use an analogy, would it be reasonable to see Biology GCSE and A Level only in terms of feeding Biology degrees – what about Medicine, Biomedical Sciences, Botany, Genetics, Forensic Science, Pathology, Physiology, Biochemistry…

3) It will be problematic to base Religious Studies on a fair combination of 1, 8, 9 (and 7), because seeing Religious Studies in terms of BOTH teaching young people about their own religion AND a sociological exploration of the phenomenon of Religion, in terms of BOTH certificated courses in statutory Religious Education aiming to promote tolerance and community cohesion AND preparing young people to take degrees in Theology and Religious Studies is fraught with tension.  Is studying religion “from the inside” confessionally compatible with studying it “from the outside” non-confessionally?  Is promoting a political agenda compatible with academic rigour, credibility and scholarly independence?

4)  The heavy bias towards consulting religious groups is odd, come to think of it.  Consider an analogy; would the DfE consult the representatives of groups represented in History or Geography specifications in such a process?

  • Imagine the reform of History GCSE devoting such time consulting with the German, French and Japanese governments, the UN and EU, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the descendants of British WWI and WWII veterans in deciding how to specify the study of 20th Century History!
  • Imagine the reform of GCSE Geography devoting such time to consulting with the representatives of the Brazilian trade and industry board, the Mount St Helens tourist authority or Greenpeace in deciding how to specify A Level Geography!

Unless the primary purpose of Religious Studies is 1, teaching young people about their own religion, then religious and non-religious groups are the subject matter of Religious Studies, not the determiners of content or pedagogy.  Unless, that is, that the primary purpose of Religious Studies is actually 8, to provide certificated courses in statutory Religious Education – in which case, why go through the motions of consulting universities?  Point 3) above is really important. It is not just a matter of deciding which visions of Religious Studies to go with, but also of ensuring that those chosen cohere and do not leave the subject as confused, or more confused than it ever was!

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