Humanities and religious education
Since the 1960s there has been an increasing desire among educationalists to decrease the separation between different traditional subject disciplines to give pupils a more holistic view of the world they live in and the knowledge, understanding and skills they will need to succeed in their world. Key to this has been the realisation that different curriculum subjects were, of themselves, artificial constructs.
This view comes to the fore in both the Rose Review - now the primary curriculum review - and the Secondary Curriculum Review which led to the new Secondary National Curriculum. In terms of the former there has been the development of six areas of enquiry or learning and in terms of the latter much work has been done on looking at ways that different subject areas can work together to give pupils a more coherent experience of the curriculum. In some schools this has focussed very much on a skills based curriculum where knowledge is seen as fairly arbitrary and what pupils learn will have changed quite soon anyway so is of little importance.
A second development in secondary education has further compounded this move and that is the desire for a more coherent management structure in schools. This enables not only better coordination of subjects but also better monitoring and evaluating of the curriculum. With the development of the National Curriculum in 1988 and later the development of the strategies there has also developed another layer within schools, that of core and foundation subjects.
So, where does RE go?
In terms of management most RE departments and teachers find themselves in humanities faculties. RE appears to have a family resemblance with History, Geography and Citizenship and is often put among the Foundation subjects in government publications. Some departments have been large enough in their own right to exist independently of humanities and others have just proved too difficult to integrate where there has been a long history of independence. Some schools have developed new departments from RE, PSHEe and Citizenship as well and this is becoming more common.
Religious education forms part of a school’s basic curriculum and as such it lies outside of the National Curriculum. In most schools RE is delivered according to a locally Agreed Syllabus (this would include Community, Controlled, Trust and Foundation schools - the latter if they have no denominational foundation). Because most Agreed Syllabuses are not modelled on the National Curriculum (despite the development of the National Framework for RE in 2004) it has been difficult for RE to be integrated into a more cohesive curriculum pattern, this and the fact that parents can withdraw their child from RE but not from the National Curriculum. Hence it has been difficult in some schools for RE to work collaboratively with other subject areas.
There has been a school of thought which places RE more with the arts, whether that be Art, Drama, Literature or Music. This is uncommon but teachers have often seen more in common between these areas and RE than the Humanities.
There is an important question as to whether any of this really matters. Surely what matters is that RE is delivered as part of a high quality learning experience than where it fits. This may be true at one level but there is a very real issue of where subjects are placed symbolically.
RE, History and Geography
The overall message given by placing RE in this family of subjects tends to be to focus on the phenomenon of religion as a human endeavour/activity. The methodologies of the Humanities tends to look at human responses to experience. So the question: how do people understand their experience? becomes key. The focus here tends to be phenomenological and may recognise the place of religion within history and relative to geography. There may also be a focus on literacy skills in relation to being able to understand major religious themes and ideas. It may also focus more clearly on Christianity as this religion has tended to be more influential in British history but this isn’t a given.
RE, PSHEe and Citizenship
If RE is situated in this relationship the focus becomes quite different. RE effectively becomes a modern social science that can help me to understand my society, my place within it and learn how to build a better society. Here is RE in a social melioration role. Hence the reason for looking at religion at all is to understand the nature of my world and how to be tolerant of it. By being informed in this way then I can be a better citizen.
Religion, Philosophy and Ethics
Another development in some secondary schools is to re-brand RE as Religion, Philosophy and Ethics. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, the desire to challenge pupils preconceived ideas about RE. By changing the name there is a change in value - in the minds of teachers. Secondly, increasingly graduates entering the world of RE often come from a background in philosophy and that is what specifically interests them. Philosophy here, though, is more often to do with a supposed methodology as opposed to teaching Philosophy per se, other than at A Level. It is unlikely that Year 9 pupils will be found studying Derrida or Habermas.
RE as a subject in its own right
One aspect of RE that is missing, probably with the exception of RE in Catholic and some CofE schools, is the specific concept that RE is a form of Divinity as opposed to Humanity. Hence it is unusual for RE to develop theological thinking or ask serious theological questions (as opposed to the philosophy of religion). The idea that God has spoken to people and as a result of that conversation demands response is rarely taken seriously in RE. This tradition may re-surface at some time but is unlikely to unless teachers themselves are theologically educated and committed.
Most schools look for a best fit model in relation to where to put religious education. The idea, though, that it is arbitrary needs questioning. Where RE finds itself will tell teachers and pupils not only about its value but also its purpose in the overall educational experience of teachers.