Thu 15th Dec 2016

RE: making a gift to the education of children

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It’s that time of year again. I’ve just been given a Christmas present of a bottle of wine by one of my PhD students.  I really appreciate that. I like the occasional glass and I know the gift was given as a genuine act of thanks and because she knew it would bring me pleasure. She knows I will enjoy it during the Christmas celebrations with my family. She also knows that I won’t pour it away because it’s not the right vintage or vineyard.  Giving and receiving works because we respect and understand each other as giver and receiver and use that knowledge to bring pleasure and benefit to each other.  My wife is extremely allergic to lilies; they induce anaphylactic shock. If I were ever to buy her a bunch, she would rightly interpret my giving as a malicious act – maybe an attempt to get my hands on the insurance money? If I was a recovering alcoholic and my student gave me wine at Christmas, I might begin to wonder what she was up to. In giving and receiving, motives and intentions matter a lot.

Back in the 1990s there was an innovative RE curriculum development project based at Birmingham University called The Gift to the Child. I love that name; it captures a great insight about the potential positive relationship between the religions and the child in the RE classroom. Too often I hear comments that suggest that there is an inherent struggle between religious adherents and RE professionals. Occasionally I have been told by fellow Christians that the problem with RE teachers is that they are too frightened to proclaim the Truth (note the capital T). I have also read books and articles from RE professionals that argue that the priority is to wrest the subject from the control of the religions. It can easily seem that the relationship revolves around a struggle for power over curriculum content. It doesn’t exactly feel like the spirit of Christmas giving.

I have a theory that the problem goes back to the 1944 Education Act when it established our current structure of Standing Advisory Councils of RE (SACREs) and Agreed Syllabus Conferences (ASCs). When I speak to overseas audiences about RE in England and Wales, I extol the virtue of these bodies. I don’t know of any similar arrangement elsewhere in the world. The idea that people from different religious and non-religious communities work together to support religious education in state funded schools is mind-blowing; most people assume that the religious and the non-religious are like business people – out for increased market share. So even though the future of these bodies is uncertain given the starving of funds, my personal hope is that we find some way of preserving their spirit. However, despite their brilliance, I think there was a major flaw in their initial conception; they were designed to be a way of formalizing and regulating the jockeying for position that was going on at the time between the Christian denominations over the RE curriculum. They were underpinned by the principle of representation, whereby members too easily construed their primary task as being to ensure that children got to hear about the religion or belief that they represented. In the end, SACREs were designed to be a political rather than an educational device.

This has had negative consequences on the mind-set of the RE world ever since. For example, in 1994, the government published model syllabuses for RE in England. One of the less appealing aspects of the process were the arguments that broke out about the amount of time that was to be given to each religion and which religions should be represented. Syllabuses were required to reflect the fact that religious traditions in the country were in the main Christian. Some suggested that this meant that Christianity should be taught for at least 51% of the (meagre) time available for the subject, conjuring up images of SACREs providing time-keepers for classrooms, blowing their whistles when Christianity had had its share. At the end of this process, what Alan Brine has called the six big beasts emerged as the religions that have dominated RE curriculum planning since.  More recently, a similar battle broke out over GCSE specifications, with arguments about whether or not the non-religious should join the big beasts and have representation.

But what if the religious and non-religious communities were to give up the notion of representation as the underpinning principle for involvement in RE and were instead to embrace the notion of making a gift to children through their presence in the curriculum? That gift would, I suggest, be to enhance children’s education, to contribute to their flourishing and to promote learning to live well together in our diverse society. Such a mind-set change would, hopefully, reflect the positive spirit to relationships which, in my experience, is at the heart of the religious and the non-religious life, rather than the tribal loyalty which too easily emerges when folk are put into representational mode. Of course there is no simple dichotomy here, but we might be able to achieve more in RE if we sought to cultivate the mind-set of the privilege of giving, rather than the mind-set of the right to representation.

But the spirit of giving should be two way. If I were to use my student’s gift of the bottle of wine to clean my front step at home, that would have been to abuse the giver because it would not have honoured her as giver. Givers who have ulterior motives are not truly giving. But recipients who abuse a gift are not truly receiving.   I am therefore concerned when I hear talk of minimising the influence of the religious and non-religious communities from curriculum construction on the grounds that this is the territory of the RE professionals; they are the ones who should have control. The argument is that religion is taught for educational reasons, not religious reasons.  This is to adopt the mind-set of representation, with the role of the professional being to wrest the right of representation from the believers. If these communities really are making a gift to the child, the spirit of giving surely requires a generous, hospitable and respectful approach to the religious motivation of the giver. This is a basic principle of donor management.

At this particular season, my hope is that we in the REC manage to reflect the mind-set of making gifts to the education of children rather than succumb to the mind-set of competitive representation. 

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