A report published today by Ofsted identifying what it believes are the key factors for a successful religious education (RE) curriculum has drawn upon research by Canterbury Christ Church University’s National Institute for Christian Education (NICER).

The research review by Ofsted looks at how RE is taught in schools (under the Ofsted inspection remit). It uses evidence provided by research as to how the subject is taught, and should be taught, identifying key factors that contribute to a high-quality RE curriculum, teaching and assessment.

Work by Professor Bob Bowie, Professor Trevor Cooling and Professor Lynn Revell is cited heavily within the report. 

In the report Ofsted thinks the best RE is “intellectually challenging and personally enriching. It affords pupils both the opportunity to see the religion and non-religion in the world, and the opportunity to make sense of their own place in that world.”

However, one area of concern of how RE is taught is in the question structures used in exams that can filter through the whole RE system. Work by Professor Bowie has spotlighted how the debate style question preferred in GCSE exams is a characterised by binary oppositions, pitching polarising views against each other, producing winner and loser debates.

Professor Bowie explained: “The conversation about religion this creates is one where there is an argument going on. The exams do not, for instance, have question types designed to reveal overlapping areas of agreement between religion, emphasising possible co-operation areas.”

“This turns sacred texts into quotes to be memorised and used in arguments and yet for many people sacred texts are gateways into narratives that offer meaningful insights on life, not just proof texts for debates. There are scholarly ways of engaging those texts in classrooms, and our research, in collaboration with Professor Panjwani from UCL, has shown how teachers in many different kinds of schools are able to draw on those scholarly disciplines, but fewer and fewer schools engage in sacred texts in this way. High quality RE is an RE that offers insights into ‘how to know‘ not just ‘what to know‘.”

Work by Professor Bowie and Emeritus Professor Cooling that seeks to make sense of the personal dimension of knowing was also noted by the Ofsted Report as important in understanding RE. Recognising that RE is not just about the institutional organisation of religion, the traditions of different religions as commonly understood, but also the personal aspect of ‘worldview’ and how an individual comes to see meaning in life. Their work explains this as an important way for every pupil to make sense of the world around them, irrespective of religious or non-religious worldview.

Professor Cooling and Professor Revell also contributed to insights around the need not to place religion into monotone blocks but rather to understand and contextualise religious lives and make sure that traditions include diversities of practice.

Today’s report will inform and influence how Ofsted evaluates how RE is taught in schools in the future. The use of research by NICER within the report is recognition of how our work is relevant and significant to the advancement of teaching RE in schools and making a positive difference in England's RE classrooms.

Professor Bowie, Director of NICER
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