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A new report warns children in RE lessons are studying a jumble of unrelated topics and disconnected facts

“Outdated and incoherent” curriculum turning children off Religious Education

The “incoherent, confusing and outdated” Religious Education curriculum is leading children to reject the subject and needs radical reform if it is to stay relevant, experts have said.

A new report warns children in RE lessons are studying a jumble of unrelated topics and disconnected facts. This makes the subject confusing and stops children being able to fully understand what they have learned, or how to apply it to other subjects or life beyond school.

The expert group has recommended the amount of content in the curriculum be reduced, so as to allow children to learn the subject matter in greater depth and detail. Lessons should be redesigned to prepare children to behave respectfully and sensitively towards those of different religions, as well as those with no religious beliefs, and to make informed contributions to discussions about religious affairs and relevant political and cultural issues.

The experts have said decisions about RE curriculum content should be made with greater care. Currently religious beliefs, traditions and practices are sometimes taught to children that are too young to appreciate their complexity. Instead age-appropriate content should be taught in context.

In the report, which is published by the University of Exeter, a group of specialist academics, inspectors and teachers have identified six “Big Ideas” about religions and non-religious worldviews that children should understand by the time they leave school.

Professor Rob Freathy, from the University of Exeter’s Graduate School of Education, and member of the expert group, said: “The RE curriculum needs to allow children to see a “bigger picture”. At the moment too much of what they learn can seem unconnected. We also need to make sure pupils see RE as relevant to life in the 21st century. An RE curriculum underpinned by a series of “Big Ideas” will help teachers select and prioritise content and make it relevant to what is happening outside of the classroom. Big Ideas will help pupils join up the dots and see how different beliefs and practices relate to each other.”

Dr Barbara Wintersgill, the editor of the report, and Honorary University Fellow at Exeter, said: “We have been tinkering with the National Curriculum and RE since 1989. It's time for a radical new approach. The Big Ideas project takes account of recent changes in the government’s policy on curriculum and assessment, and draws on principles that have been tried and tested in other parts of the world for some years. By understanding these Big Ideas in greater depth as they move through compulsory education, pupils will be equipped to engage knowledgably and intelligently with future encounters with religions, worldviews and other ways of life.”

The six Big Ideas can be tailored for different age groups: 5 to 7, 7 to 11, 11 to 14 and 14 to 16. In the simplest terms, young people should understand that:

(i)     there is an amazing variety of religions, non-religious worldviews and ways of life in the world, each being characterised by continuity and change, and internal consistency and diversity;

(ii)     people use both verbal and non-verbal forms of communication, literal and figurative, to express beliefs, values, experiences and identities;

(iii)    there are many ways in which religious and non-religious worldviews provide guidance on how to be a good person and live a good life;

(iv)    religions and worldviews are about experience as much as belief, and they can help individuals interpret their experiences;

(v)     religious and non-religious worldviews interact with wider communities and cultures, affecting and being affected by politics, artistic and cultural life, social values and traditions, and sometimes having considerable power and influence beyond their own adherents; and

(vi)    religious and non-religious worldviews provide coherent overall accounts, 'grand narratives', of the nature of reality - life, the universe and everything.

Professor Freathy said: “Of course this is not the only solution to the long-term problems facing the subject, but it will allow teachers to address some weaknesses. In some cases, neglecting to focus on the study of religions and worldviews, RE has become indistinguishable from personal, social and health education, and failed to reflect the complexities of life in the world today. Pupils need to understand, for example, how people from the same religion can have different beliefs, or how people with different religious and non-religious worldviews can life together peacefully. Even teachers are confused about the purpose of RE.

“We believe the RE curriculum should prepare pupils to become responsible, well-informed citizens, capable of acting intelligently and respectfully in a world characterised by religious and secular diversity.”

Date: 17 November 2017

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