September 2018 saw what is potentially the biggest game changer in Religious Education in a generation, with the publication of the Final Report by the Commission for Religious Education (CoRE). As well as making sweeping and significant recommendations for change, it also opens the door to the inclusion of Pagan religions in the school curriculum.
I know that many Pagans are uncomfortable with the RE, with many even believing that it has no place in a modern education as religion or spirituality should be a private and individual matter. Now, speaking as a former RE teacher, it will come as no surprise that this is not a point of view that I share, I think that RE is a vital part of the curriculum, and indeed, even more relevant in the strange and uncertain times in which we find ourselves. However, I do completely understand why many Pagans do not share my enthusiasm. If, like me, you went to school before 1988, you will have been subjected to something called ‘Religious Instruction’, which dealt exclusively with Christianity and had the sole purpose of making you into a good Christian (unless you were extremely lucky with your teacher, in which case it might have been a little better, but probably not much.) The 1988 Education Reform Act officially changed the name of the subject to ‘Religious Education’ and made it mandatory that during their school life pupils should have the opportunity to study all six ‘World Religions’. This was a concept developed by Religious Studies Scholar Ninian Smart, and the six he was referring to (some might say a little randomly) were Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism. This was a huge step forward, although RE was still required to be mainly Christian, acknowledging Christianity as the majority religion of the UK. However, as anyone reading this is well aware, this model does not adequately reflect the breadth and diversity of religious diversity in the 21st Century. There are more than six religions in my home town, let alone the world!
In places, as the Commission acknowledges, there was excellent teaching. I spent many happy parents’ evenings with parents who were initially very sceptical about the relevance or importance of RE, who, after having had the curriculum explained to them, declared not only that they wished it had been like that in their day, but also that they would quite like to come to lessons!
However, quality was patchy, and the biggest issue was that too many lessons were taught be non-specialists or primary teachers with too little training, and that it was under resourced by financially stretched management teams who also didn’t understand what RE was all about. Also, the RE curriculum was, unlike other subjects decided locally by a SACRE (Standing Advisory Committee for Religious Education) meaning that standards and content varied widely. Despite this, the ‘RE World’ struggled to make RE relevant, interesting and appealing to young people and the steady increase in pupils taking at least a Short Course GCSE bore testament to our success. I have lost track of the number of times I came across a former student who told me that while they complained about RE to me while they were in school (what cool kid would admit to liking RE?) they had actually loved the subject, and the safe environment it gave them to discuss issues that mattered to them. However, the Government’s decision to exclude RE from the EBAC and not to include results from short course GCSEs in school performance tables, timed perfectly with OfSted’s decision not to carry out inspections into RE lessons in 2013 meant that many schools saw no incentive to fulfil their legal obligation to teaching the subject. This is the context that led to the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC), of which the Pagan Federation is a member organisation, to finance the Commission’s report.
The report makes 11 recommendations of which the most far reaching are to change the name of the subject to ‘Religion and Worldviews’ and to introduce a statutory ‘National Entitlement’ for all pupils to a study of religious and non-religious world views that is ‘academically rigorous’ and facilitated by ‘high quality, well informed specialist teaching’. You can access the Executive summary of the report with all 11 recommendations here, and the full report here. While the move to including all six religions in the curriculum was a huge step forward, The report acknowledges that the ‘Six Religion’ model is no longer fit for purpose. It accepts that the personal worldview of a young person is likely to be ‘complex, diverse and plural’ and to draw, consciously or otherwise on different religious and non-religious worldviews. Furthermore, religions themselves are not monolithic and bounded but change over time and comprise differences within them. As a scholar of religion, this is music to my ears! It is also, very much the way in which universities are beginning to engage with religion and so it is absolutely essential for the future of the subject that this feeds down into schools. Most crucially, Appendix 2 of the report acknowledges that pupils should be taught not only about non-religious world views such as humanism and secularism, but also ‘smaller, local indigenous and newer religions’ (7d p74); that they must be made to feel included even if they belong to smaller religious communities (7e p74) and that the teaching of Religion and Worldviews might include ‘historical and contemporary Paganism in the UK…as this is both growing and influential beyond those who identify as Pagans.’ (10 p75) There you have it! An official recommendation to the government from a professional body that Paganism is a suitable topic for study in the curriculum. This should be a huge relief to anyone who has ever struggled with their children’s school to have their path acknowledged. The battle is not won, however, while noises from government (and the Church of England, in case you were wondering) about the report have been largely positive, the government has had a few other things on its plate recently and has not, as yet, engaged with the report in a meaningful way (although minor inroads have been made, significantly in teacher training.) Also, as the report itself acknowledges, to implement its proposals fully will take a lot of time and resources, and much work needs to be done on how it will translate into a classroom! However, this is a huge positive step and should bring hope to all those who wish to have Paganism acknowledged and taught as a valid part of the religious and spiritual landscape of the UK.
Written by Jennifer Uzzell, Pagan Federation Education and Youth Manager