Sunday, 6 October 2013

In defence of Religious Studies

A recent report by Ofsted says that over half of schools are failing pupils in their provision of Religious Education.  It is a subject which schools have a duty to include in the curriculum and yet six in ten are guilty of low standards in teaching and examinations.

The purpose of Religious Education can be misunderstood with some thinking it exists as Religious Instruction of the young rather than the diverse, dynamic and academically rigorously subject it can be when taught properly.  A good curriculum (often called Religious Studies rather than Religious Education) enables pupils to learn about global culture through a study of different religions - increasingly crucial not just in our multicultural society but also in global politics.  Learning about religions also introduces pupils to some of the greatest literature humankind has ever produced.  The great ethical debates surrounding issues such as euthanasia, abortion, warfare, cloning and genetic engineering are examined - not just the legal structures but also in the context of what it means to be fully human.  Issues of belief and lack of belief in God are addressed - not in a way designed to promote one side or the other but to allow rational insight into matters of faith.  To deny the spiritual dimension of life robs young people of the chance to explore a key element of human existence and even a militant atheist such as Richard Dawkins acknowledges awe and wonder as a central aspect of being alive.  The great philosophical debates concerning the challenge of evil and suffering to the existence of God, the puzzle of whether the mind is separate from the body and debates between science and religion are all covered in the structure of rigorous academic debate.  Pupils are taught how to structure argument with supporting evidence and how to produce rebuttals and counter-arguments before giving a balanced judgement.  As well as introducing them to the giants of philosophical history such as Plato, Aristotle, Hume and Descartes it is some of the best brain-training they will ever experience and crucial for further study and success in life.

Religious Studies lies at the heart of good education.  At King's Rochester all pupils study it to at least GCSE with a third of the Sixth Form voluntarily including it as one of their A Level choices.  The failings identified by Ofsted paint a sorry picture of what can happen in the state sector with the proliferation of Free Schools and Academies - given independence from local authority control but without the ability to produce a high-quality curriculum for their pupils.  Michael Gove, in a rare moment of humility, acknowledged last summer that the failure to include Religious Education in the narrow range of subjects in his 'English Baccalaureate' had damaged the subject.  It is a sad reflection on Mr Gove that his desire to control education has led to huge numbers of pupils being denied access to a subject which should sit at the heart of education of the highest quality.  It makes me glad to be working in an independent school where we have the freedom, experience and vision to give this cultural and academic birthright to our pupils.