February 5, 2014

Religious Education in State-Funded Schools: An Academic Subject Like Any Other… and Some!

In many ways I am in agreement with Professor Jensen, and see myself as a partner in the campaign to establish a ‘Religious Studies based’ Religious Education in state funded schools throughout Europe and indeed the world. Since experiencing a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion from Theology to Religious Studies on my teacher training year and Lancaster University MA in the mid-1970s (see Cush 2009), I have spent nearly forty years passionate about the ‘Religious Studies Approach’ and applying it in a variety of educational settings. I have also concerned myself throughout that time with the relationship between Religious Studies as understood at university level, and religious education in schools, both in academic publications (see for example Cush, 1999) and on various professional and policy committees on religious education. I currently represent the university Theology and Religious Studies sector (TRS-UK) on the Religious Education Council of England and Wales and its subcommittees, and was on the Steering Group for the new National Curriculum Framework for Religious Education, part of the recent Review of Religious Education in England (REC, 2013) – full report available at http://resubjectreview.recouncil.org.uk/re-review-report. So I am perhaps an example of the ‘publically engaged academic’ Tim seeks, at least in relation to education policy.

Like Professor Jensen, I began my teaching career in a sixth-form college (in Denmark, Gymnasium or ‘upper secondary’), and then moved into university level where I have been involved in both training teachers and undergraduate and postgraduate Religious Studies. Thus we both have much practical experience as well as theoretical perspectives.

I am in total agreement with Professor Jensen – Tim – that religious education should be a compulsory subject in all state-funded schools (see Jensen 2011). A brief note about terminology – I use the term ‘state-funded schools’ rather than ‘public schools’ (which is the term used in US and international English for ‘ordinary’ community schools), to avoid confusion with the English usage of the term ‘public schools’ to refer to certain prestigious, independent, fee-paying, schools. I also use ‘religious education’ as that is the most familiar term in the UK, although I like Tim’s ‘religion education’, which I believe was coined in South Africa in the late 90s, as avoiding the implication that studying religions is somehow ‘religious’. I would prefer another name altogether, possibly avoiding the highly contested term ‘religion’, which can carry negative connotations.

I also agree that religious education should be an academic subject, treated like other school subjects. If only it was treated like other subjects in England, we would not have the situation where it is a subject which is given less time on the timetable (many RE teachers have to enable students to pass their GCSE (16+ qualification) in half the time given for history or geography), where 50% of teachers teaching RE are completely unqualified in the subject, where primary trainee teachers may only have a couple of hours training, where it was not listed in the government’s list of important subjects for 16+ qualifications (the so-called ‘English Baccalaureate), where it is not included in the list of ‘facilitating subjects’ for gaining a place in the more prestigious universities, where trainee teachers are given no bursaries to study in spite of the shortage of specialist teachers, and where the recent Review of the subject had to be funded by charities and worked on by unpaid volunteers because the government provided no funding. For documented evidence on the neglect of religious education, see for example http://religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/media/file/APPG_RE_-_The_Truth_Unmasked.pdf and to illustrate that this neglect is not new, Gates (1993).

I also agree with Tim and the colleague he mentioned, Wanda Alberts, that religious education should be what she calls ‘integrative’ (Alberts, 2007). In other words, the subject should be for all pupils of whatever religious background or none, should be non-confessional (not attempting to evangelise, proselytise, catechise or promote any particular religion or ‘religion’ in general), should be multi-faith (content should include major religions like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism but also smaller ‘indigenous’ traditions such as the Maori, and smaller newer developments such as contemporary Paganism). I also consider that given the fact that c.25% of people in England and Wales consider themselves to be ‘non-religious’ (whatever they mean by that) it is important to include the study of non-religious worldviews such as Humanism. It might come as a surprise to some that non-confessional, multi-faith religious education is still a minority option for states internationally (notably Sweden, Norway, Denmark, South Africa and the UK – and Ireland is thinking about it), most preferring to opt for either confessional religious education in the tradition deemed that of the country (or several separate strands if diversity is noticed) or to leave religious education out of state-funded education altogether, as in France or the USA.

I agree with Tim that multi-faith religious education, if appropriately done, is suitable for pupils of all ages from nursery schools onwards. Attitudes are formed early. I also wish that we in England had the sort of religious education for all students in the 16-19 age group that is found in Denmark, rather than A level Religious studies for the minority that take it and either nothing or a token gesture for the minority. I also agree that it is inappropriate for teachers of religious education to be expected to be somehow more of a moral role model, or more personally religious than any other teacher. Those of us in the subject at any level of education are bored with the predictable responses when introduced as a religious studies teacher/lecturer.

Another point of agreement with Tim is that we should not just be providing information about religious and non-religious traditions, but enabling our students to think critically about religions and to be able to discuss religious and ethical matters in an informed and articulate way (sometimes referred to as ‘religious literacy’). This, as Tim says, should be requisite in any open, democratic society.

I agree that we should have people teaching in schools that are well qualified, have studied the subject at university level, and that the university curriculum should take account of this and other likely careers for Religious Studies graduates, and help to provide skills they will need. Perhaps more controversially, I do agree to some extent with Tim’s aim of inculcating ‘some kind of relativism’, but would prefer to talk of ‘epistemological humility’ (a term apparently arrived at separately and simultaneously by David Chidester and myself) as ‘relativism’ is too misunderstood and explosive a term. What Tim and I mean is people who have their own well-thought out views and perspectives, but are open to accepting that they might just have something to learn from those who disagree with them.

And now for the ‘howevers’…

Although I bounced into the classroom in the 1970s full of enthusiasm to share my ‘Lancaster University Religious Studies’ knowledge of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and so on with my students, over the decades, especially working with younger pupils, I have come to appreciate that there are other, and perhaps even more important aims for religious education. As Tim says, it is unlikely that any ‘scientific’ study of religion will not have side effects such as students reflecting on their own beliefs, values and identity, and becoming better citizens of a diverse society. However, in Religious Education as practised in England and Wales, academic knowledge of religions/non-religious worldviews is only one of the aims of religious education. Tim’s ‘side-effects’ become explicit aims. So, religious education should enable students to develop their own ideas on the important questions dealt with in religious traditions. In the words of the National Curriculum Framework (REC 2013) ‘Religious Education contributes dynamically to children and young people’s education in schools by provoking challenging questions about meaning and purpose in life, beliefs about God, ultimate reality, issues of right and wrong and what it means to be human’. Though agreeing with Tim (2011:143) that religions are more than sets of answers to existential questions, and that not everyone is interested in these issues any more than in religions, there needs to be space for pupils to work out their own beliefs and values, in relation to the community or communities they belong to and the wider society. I do however note Tim’s concern that this can go too far, and am myself concerned that a focus on philosophical and ethical issues in England is in danger of pushing out learning about religions in some examination syllabuses and therefore also in earlier school years.

Religions and non-religious worldviews also have much to offer in contribution to discussing some of the pressing issues of our day, such as social justice, equality, wealth and poverty, war and conflict, the environment. The REC document calls these contributions ‘sources of wisdom’, though in an impartial approach we must also enable pupils to think critically about examples where ‘religions’ and ‘worldviews’ have made things worse. Tim also states that in the hands of ‘engaged and dedicated teachers’ (2011:143) such issues arise naturally out of the ‘neutral and factual information about the religions taught’ – but unless planned for, or in the hands of less gifted teachers, they might not.

In order to engage positively with others in a society of diverse religious and non-religious worldviews, pupils need more than just factual information. They also need to empathise with others, and the skills of discussing controversial issues without disrespecting those with whom they disagree. These skills can be honed in the religious education classroom. Although the phenomenological approach to the study of religions has been rightly criticised in some respects, such as essentialism, the practice of epoche and empathy before jumping straight into critical analysis and evaluation have much to be said for them when dealing with matters at the heart of people’s identity.

Tim talked about being bored with observing religion in practice – visiting mosques and gurdwaras.  As a veteran of organising many a field trip, I can sympathise, but without us organising such visits many of our students will never have a chance of meeting some religious communities. Nothing beats actually meeting people to break down stereotypes (OK, sometimes they get reinforced, but that can be discussed), and realising that what we label ‘religion’ is not just about ideas and rules, but community, atmosphere, music, art, who we are, what we eat and how we wash. School religious education did not have to wait for university religious studies to suggest an ethnographic approach to studying religions, this was already happening in the late 60s and 70s (see Cush & Robinson, 2014:7), and more systematically from the 1990s (see Jackson, 1997 and 2004). The part of our undergraduate degree course that I value most is our compulsory seven day residential stay with a community other than the student’s own (see www.livingreligion.co.uk).

I disagree with Tim that school religious education ‘ought to be a miniature of religious studies’ (2007:142), as for philosophical, pedagogical and feminist reasons I am very wary of ‘top-down’ approaches to knowledge. For universities to set the agenda for schools can be patronising (see Cush 1999), and sometimes the flow of information and experience can be the other way round, such as the influence on university curricula in the UK of the stress on philosophy and ethics in schools, or simply when a child from a particular tradition actually knows more than the lecturer in a particular context. I would rather see universities and schools as partners. I also contend that ‘Religious Education in schools is not University Religious Studies watered down to make it suitable for children’ but ‘about the interaction between the religious material and the concerns and interests of the child’ (Cush, 1999:138). Spiritual, or more generally personal, development may be a side-effect of university Religious Studies, but it is an explicit aim of religious education in schools in England, and indeed an aim for the whole curriculum.

Recent development in Religious Studies such as the application of feminist theory, queer theory, and post-colonial theory have undermined the ‘Enlightenment’ concept of ‘objective’ knowledge and stress that ‘the scholar does not so much survey the scene from above but works within the web of his/her own experience and relationships’ (Cush & Robinson 2014: 9). Have our ‘religious studies facts’ been constructed under patriarchy, heteronormativity and colonialism? And how does this change the religious education classroom?

In conclusion, as Peter Schreiner often says (see for example, 2011:30) we all tend to prefer our own system of religious education, partly from a conservative attachment to what we know and are comfortable with, but also because the contexts of different countries, regions and individual schools differ. Although I have some disagreements with Tim Jensen’s approach to religious education as detailed above, I imagine that in practice, in the hands of skilled teachers who have a good relationship with their pupils, Tim’s ‘side-effects’ accomplish much the same as my ‘explicit aims’, and our commitment to a non-confessional, multi-faith religious education outweighs the differences. There is only a small band of Religious Studies scholars who take the time to care about Religious Education in schools (Ninian Smart was one, with his colleagues in the Shap Working Party – see www.shapworkingparty.org.uk/ ) and this partnership must be encouraged.


Alberts, W. (2007) Integrative Religious Education in Europe: A Study of Religions Approach Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

APPG (2013) The Truth Unmasked: the Supply of and Support for Religious Education Teachers available from http://religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/media/file/APPG_RE_-_The_Truth_Unmasked.pdf

 Cush, D. (1999) ‘Big Brother, Little Sister, and the Clerical Uncle: the relationship between Religious Studies, Religious Education and Theology?’ in British Journal of Religious Education 21.3 pp 137-146

Cush, D, (2009) ‘Religious Studies versus Theology: why I’m still glad that I converted from Theology to Religious Studies’ in Bird, D. and Smith, S. Theology and Religious Studies in Higher Education: Global Perspectives Continuum, pp.15-30

Cush, D. (2011) ‘Without Fear or Favour: Forty Years of Non-confessional and Multi-faith Religious Education in Scandinavia and the UK’ In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann, pp.69-84.

Cush, D. and Robinson, C. (2014) ‘Developments in Religious Studies: Towards a Dialogue with Religious Education’ British Journal of Religious Education 36.1, pp.4-17.

Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) (2011) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann.

Gates, B. (1993) Time for Religious Education and Teachers to Match: a Digest of Under-provision St. Martin’s College, Lancaster: REC.

Jackson, R. (1997) Religious Education, an interpretive approach London, Hodder

Jackson, R. (2004) Rethinking Religious Education and Plurality: Issues in Diversity and Pedagogy London: RoutledgeFalmer

Jensen, T. (2011) ‘Why Religion Education, as a Matter of course, ought to be Part of the Public School Curriculum’ In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann. Pp.131-149.

Religious Education Council of England and Wales (2013) A Review of Religious Education in England London: REC, also available on-line at http://resubjectreview.recouncil.org.uk/re-review-report

Schreiner, P. (2011) ‘Situation and Current Developments of Religious Education in Europe’ In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann, pp.17-34.

A useful place to find summaries of how religious education is organised in European countries is the website of the European Forum for Teachers of Religious Education


A useful source for example of practical materials and cutting edge debate on religious education is http://www.reonline.org.uk/

For Shap Working Party on World Religions in Education see http://www.shapworkingparty.org.uk/






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