Fifty years of Religious Education in England and Wales
by Terence Copley (University of Exeter Press, 1997), ISBN 0-85989-510-8, 232 pp
For those teachers who wish to understand the place of religious education (RE) in the social, political and educational history of England and Wales, this book will provide a fascinating read.
Terence Copley, Professor of Religious Education at Exeter University (and the 1998 Redbridge SACRE Lecturer), charts political, social and education developments decade by decade from the 1940s. His review of many aspects of each decade is often brief, but his comments on the changing face of religion over the fifty years covered in this book is particularly interesting.
What becomes increasingly clear as the story unfolds is the naiveté of supposing that decisions about RE have been based on either consultation with professionals or with clarity of thinking. As Geoff Robson HMI, one-time Staff Inspector for RE and Ethnic Diversity, said in 1995 and quoted at the start of the book, "Parliamentary debates about RE have rarely considered it in educational terms; almost invariably it has been caught up in the unfinished debate on British national identity" (p1).
Copley himself believes that the major reason why the place of RE within school life has always been so fragile is that those in power have never grasped the nettle - that the health of RE is less dependent on its content than on its application: "The level of the failure of politicians of all parties in both Houses in their involvement in RE was that on the whole they were preoccupied during the half-century with its content rather than its provision" (p185).
Yet, despite the ambiguous position of RE with the curriculum – which was perpetuated rather than clarified by the provisions of the 1988 Education Reform Act and even more so by the heavily politicised DFE Circular 1/94 – Copley ends his book on a buoyant note. Indeed, the final chapter, entitled In Search of Serendipity, should perhaps be compulsory reading for all teachers or aspiring teachers of RE. Here, the author marvels at advances in RE despite all the obstacles placed in its path, some for which RE professionals themselves are culpable. His final paragraph is worth quoting in full:
"With the proverbial cards stacked against RE in terms of resources, specialist staffing, curriculum position and status, even personal antagonism on the part of some non-RE teachers, RE has not only survived but in many cases thrived. That is both a reflection of the intrinsic interest of its subject matter and also of the work of those generations of teachers who have sought to engage children in the fascinating questions it poses, and those outside the teaching profession in faith communities or political life who have sought to support it. RE still contains elements of both the Suffering Servant and Cinderella but it has also been true to a changing self-awareness in asserting that it is offering students a subject the study of which itself could claim to be life-enhancing, in terms of attitudes, skills and experiences it offers, whatever conclusions (if any) the student may reach about its content. That is no small achievement to carry forward as the credit count into the next century" (p194).
Review by Bill Gent, Advisory and Inspection Service, June 2000