Is it still possible to teach about the Christian faith in schools in 2017?

Wayne Harris, National Director of Christian charity crossteach, explains how the work he and his team do is much needed and welcomed in schools...

Is it still possible to teach about the Christian faith in schools in 2017?

This is the question that we have found ourselves asking at crossteach over the last few weeks. Parents complained at a Church of England primary school in Tunbridge Wells about the visible symbols of Christianity (a cross in the school and Bible verses on the school website, for example) and the Christian teaching that their children receive in collective worship and RE lessons, led by the local church vicar and youth worker and crossteach schools workers, among others.

The complaint snowballed to the point that the Headteacher said that, although ‘I do not believe crossteach have done anything wrong’, and although he had no issue with the teaching, nevertheless, to satisfy the parents, crossteach was no longer welcome to the school to lead Collective Worship or RE lessons.

For a small charity more used to quietly getting on with our work (which is to teach about the Christian faith in schools) it was quite a rude awakening to find ourselves being talked about on the radio and described in the national press as a ‘banned’ organisation.

It was quite disturbing to hear that some parents felt our teaching confused pupils and even upset some of them. This is clearly not our intention. Added to this was the way some were describing our Christian beliefs using quite alarming language. We had to take stock and ask ourselves some fundamental questions.

Should schools be teaching about Christianity?

It is very much the case that schools have a legal duty to both teach about the Christian faith:

The law requires that local authority RE agreed syllabuses and RE syllabuses used in academies that are not designated with a religious character ‘must reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian, while taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain’.[1]

and to have daily acts of worship that are wholly or mainly of Christian character:

In the light of the Christian traditions of Great Britain, section 7(1) of the Education Reform Act (and the corresponding section of the Education Act 1993) says that collective worship organised by a county or equivalent grant-maintained school is to be ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’. The Act then further defines collective worship of a ‘broadly Christian character’ as being worship which reflects the broad traditions of Christian belief. Any such worship should not, however, be distinctive of any particular Christian denomination.[2]

Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural (SMSC) development should also be an integral part of the life of a school. This is another area where teaching about the Christian faith can make a positive contribution.

In this context, it is clear that Christianity still has a significant place in our schools, and even more so in ‘church’ schools. This in itself does not justify what we do; schools could get on with this aspect of school life without us.

What do visiting speakers contribute to the life of a school?

One reason crossteach was established was the frequent reports stating that Christianity was being taught badly in many schools and leaving pupils with a poor understanding of what Christians really believe.

A group of Christians decided to do something about this and see if they could find a way to provide schools with a free service to enhance the teaching of Christianity and enrich the educational experience for all pupils.

There were a number of specific weaknesses in the teaching about Christianity. Many primary and secondary schools visited did not pay sufficient attention to the progressive and systematic investigation of the core beliefs of Christianity.[3]

Many pupils leave school with scant subject knowledge and understanding. Moreover, RE teaching often fails to challenge and extend pupils’ ability to explore fundamental questions about human life, religion and belief.[4]

It appears this is still the case:

There is inconsistency in the quality and provision of RE, with increasing numbers of schools not even meeting the basic legal requirement. Pupils are experiencing a lottery in their access to high quality RE.[5]

RE is often taught by non-specialists:

3.4 The answer to (i), provided by the DfE workforce survey, is that 55% of those teaching RE have no post-A Level subject qualification compared to only 28% of history and 33% of geography teachers. This figure includes many teachers who teach RE for only a few lessons a week.[6]

These factors mean that organisations like crossteach and local churches, in providing a free service with qualified and experienced workers, can assist with teaching Christianity in schools. We can work with them to give their pupils a better understanding of Christianity. As committed Christians we are able to both explain what we believe, share how that impacts our lives and respond to questions and challenges from pupils. As well as our teaching skills and first-hand experience of being Christians, we are also able to bring enthusiasm and passion to our lessons. This in itself is often a key factor in engaging the pupils.

It seems to us to be a question of whether or not we leave the teaching of Christianity in schools to teachers ill-equipped to do it well, or whether we step in and support schools as much as we can to make sure pupils have a better understanding of what Christians believe. We believe that appropriately trained and resourced Christians should take up this challenge and do as much as they can to work with schools in this area.

We get lots of positive feedback about how we enrich the education of the pupils we work with and add value to what the school is already doing. It is also encouraging to see this is recognised on a larger scale by the RE community:

…in both written and oral evidence, mention has been made of the ways in which visits and visitors enhance the pupil experience in re at all levels. When both visitors and teachers are well-briefed, and the learning goals are clear, visits and visitors can be extremely powerful. They provide opportunities to explore how worldviews are lived out in practice and how individuals negotiate their relationship with religious or non-religious institutions.[7]

Representatives of the main faith communities, who can speak about the faith traditions from the inside, appear to be an important resource for RE in both primary and secondary schools and are therefore valued highly by them (pp.178–9, 189–90).

…pupils find direct encounter with other religions through outside visits and visitors to the school (and also on video clips) particularly helpful in their understanding (p.213).[8]

Obviously these benefits do not just come from Christians; schools benefit greatly from a whole range of visiting speakers within RE, Acts of Worship and the wider life of the school. It is a great encouragement to us to be reminded of the value of what we do and to have many of the RE teachers we work with, and school leaders, speak so highly of our work and the impact we have on the learning of the pupils:

Crossteach have aided the provision of our curriculum by embedding key Christian views throughout KS3. We believe this is highly important with regards to the fact that 50% of our reformed GCSE is now based on Christian beliefs and practices. We wish to embed these key beliefs earlier within the KS in order that students have a clear grasp of these ready for GCSE.[9]

For some time I have invited the crossteach team to work with pupils from year 8 up to 6th formers. Every lesson, every talk, has been professionally prepared and presented. As a result of this our pupils have been able to more fully and clearly answer questions relating to the GCSE and A-level courses they are taking. They are more confident and all have appreciated crossteach’s visits.[10]

How does our work benefit all pupils?

It is easy to think that teaching about any specific religion is helpful for pupils who follow that religion or come from that religious community. Maybe it is not so useful for the others. We are not just in schools to teach ‘Christians’ about Christianity. We are not even in schools solely to teach all pupils about Christianity. We believe wholeheartedly in the wide benefits of good RE for all pupils, and seek to contribute positively to this. Our expertise is in the teaching of Christianity, but we strive to work in a way that is accessible to all pupils and encourages them to consider and develop their own beliefs, while increasing their understanding of what others believe. We aim to lead activities that provoke critical enquiry and thoughtful reflection, as well as being engaging, stimulating and inspiring.

If we look around the world and look back through history, it is easy to see that much conflict, intolerance and prejudice flows out of ignorance. An ignorance of the ‘other’ can create fear and lead to an ‘us and them’ mentality. One of the key reasons we contribute to the teaching of RE in schools is to help pupils have a better understanding of Christianity. We believe this will help them better understand Christians and, therefore, reduce ignorance and confusion and hopefully contribute to greater harmony among the different groups in our communities. It seems many feel there is a rise in discrimination against religious groups:

Prejudice and discrimination against some worldviews and the communities that belong to them appears to be increasing in the UK, in particular islamophobia and anti-Semitism. At the same time, more individuals and public commentators are making a concerted effort to combat these prejudices in public discourse and to understand the diversity within religious communities. This is a striking illustration of the division and hatred that can result from a lack of understanding about religions and how they work.[11]

It is challenging to see how much ignorance there is in our own culture about Christianity and what Christians really believe. And this is in a culture that many still consider ‘Christian’, or at least having Christian roots. We still meet many people who think Christians believe ‘good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell’ for example. This is even the answer some examination boards require in exams! No wonder non-Christians misunderstand us when we talk about heaven and hell. It can sound to them as if we are saying, ‘We are good people and will go to heaven. You are bad people and will go to hell.’ There is no understanding of grace, forgiveness and the place of Jesus in this. We meet many pupils who can be confrontational with us because of what they think we believe and stand for. Our work to correct these misunderstandings is of great value, as is the work of all RE that reduces ignorance and misconceptions.

Even despite various criticisms of RE is school, these benefits are still recognised:

A major success of RE is the way that it supports the promotion of community cohesion. In many schools RE plays a major role in helping pupils understand diversity and develop respect for the beliefs and cultures of others.[12] 

Preparing pupils for life in 21st century Britain must include an education that introduces them to the multitude of communities that exist within wider society and the individuals they will learn, play and, in the future, work alongside:

Encountering worldviews other than that of one’s own background may open up a wider range of options for pupils. Reflecting on one’s own worldview in the light of these encounters may also open up new options and ways of thinking. This may, in turn, raise their aspirations and improve their understanding and relationships with peers and future colleagues.[13]

It seems that our political and educational leaders still see the value of good RE in schools. The current review of RE by the Commission on Religious Education will hopefully lead to improvements in its teaching in schools and greater investment in staff, training and resources. There is still time for you to contribute to this review, and I would encourage you to do so. You have until 9.00am on 4 December to submit your submission.[14]

Is it still possible to teach about the Christian faith in schools in 2017?

Given the recent circumstances, it has surprised some to find out that the answer to my original question is ‘Yes, it is still possible to teach about the Christian faith in schools in 2017’. I would encourage every church to consider how they might contribute effectively to the teaching of RE within schools, and to the wider life of schools in your communities.

crossteach is an educational charity with educational aims which are clearly linked to the curriculum. As we have nervously contacted schools to see if any have been swayed by the negative things they have read in the press we have all been encouraged to find out that, yes, we are still welcome. The professionalism of our staff and the support that they give to hard-pressed RE teachers and headteachers is appreciated; our staff are still welcome to teach engaging RE lessons that provoke critical enquiry and thoughtful reflection; our staff are still welcome to lead inspiring, stimulating collective worship; our staff are still welcome to enrich the curriculum with co-curricular discussion groups that allow pupils to explore fundamental questions. As an organisation we are still able to do things that will help pupils to understand and respond to the Christian message in an informed, rational and insightful way.

Is it possible? Yes. Is it easy? We were never promised that.

Wayne Harris is the National Director of crossteach.

(This article was originally published in the Affinity Social Issues Bulletin for November 2017. The whole edition can be found here)

 

[1] A Review of Religious Education in England, The Religious Education Council of England and Wales, October 2013.

[2] Religious Education and Collective Worship, Department for Education circular number 1/94.

[3] Transforming religious education, Ofsted, 2009.

[4] Religious Education: realising the potential, Ofsted, 2013.

[5] Interim Report, Religious Education for all, Commission on Religious Education, September 2017.

[6] RE: The truth unmasked, The supply of and support for Religious Education teachers, An Inquiry by The All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education, 2013.

[7] Interim Report, Religious Education for all, Commission on Religious Education, September 2017.

[8] Materials used to Teach about World Religions in Schools in England, Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of Warwick, 2010.

[9] Warwickshire Head of RE.

[10] London Lead Teacher of RE, Committee Member: Barnet SACRE, Elect-Member: NATRE (National Association for Teachers of RE), Admin: Save RE Facebook Forum.

[11] Interim Report, Religious Education for all, Commission on Religious Education, September 2017.

[12] Transforming religious education, Ofsted, 2009.

[13] Interim Report, Religious Education for all, Commission on Religious Education, September 2017.

[14] The interim report in full here: http://www.commissiononre.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Commission-on-Religious-Education-Interim-Report-2017.pdf

You can submit your contribution here: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/CoREConsult1

If you wish to read and consider the questions first, you can download a copy of the questions here: http://www.commissiononre.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Interim-report-consultation-survey-final.pdf


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