Family & Education

Let’s talk schools: woeful state of RE is an opportunity to promote Judaism

Schools are crying out for decent resources – and we can help to supply them


Schoolchildren in Blackburn enjoy an introduction to Judaism at the Board of Deputies' Jewish Living Experience Exhibition

It might seem an anomaly that religious education remains a compulsory subject for schools, given an increasingly secular population - in the last Census, over a third of people in England and Wales professed no religion, while the figure rose to just over a half in Scotland. The justification for RE is that religion remains an important influence in the world today and children need to have some understanding of it.

From reception to sixthform, pupils in non-denominational schools are required to study Christianity as the country’s main tradition, while knowing something about other religions represented here.

But there appears to be a glaring gap between the authorities’ expectations and classroom realities. A recent Ofsted review into the state of the subject was highly critical of shortcomings. In too many schools, the curriculum was “poorly constructed, poorly implemented and poorly learned,” the inspectorate stated. Teachers often lacked the knowledge to offer more than superficial coverage.

“What schools taught was rarely enough for pupils to make sense of religious and non-religious traditions as they appear around the world,” Ofsted said.

A “notable proportion” of schools failed to meet requirements to teach RE in all stages of schooling.

The “great majority” of secondary school RE curricula failed to equip children to grapple with “controversial or sensitive” content, Ofsted found. Meanwhile, inspectors encountered  such misconceptions as “Jews think Jesus is the Messiah”.

In schools that offered a GCSE course, the two religions most commonly taught were Christianity and Islam, while in one third of schools visited, all pupils did a full or short (one-year) GCSE course.

But in schools which offered no religious qualification for 14 to 16-year-olds, “very few” timetabled specific RE lessons and where they did, curricula were “weak”. In a third of schools surveyed, a third had no RE teaching at all in the sixth form.

A decade ago Ofsted published a number of recommendations for improvement. But in its latest assessment, it said, RE “continues to wilt”.

The dismal picture could provoke renewed calls for the subject to be dropped as a statutory part of the curriculum, at least after year 9. But rather than lament the failings, we should instead spot a chance to do something. If we want to counter stereotypes and misunderstandings about Jews and Judaism, education is obviously a critical arena.

It is clear that many schools lack sufficient teaching resources for RE and with budgets under severe pressure, it is unrealistic to think they can simply conjure them up on their own. So why not provide them off-the-shelf units on Judaism?

In autumn, the Board of Deputies will be launching its Jewish Living Online, a digital resource available to all schools. It has been financially backed by the Anti-Defamation League in the USA in the wake of concern at the rise of antisemitism across the world.

But this should only be a first step. There must be other possibilities to develop teaching material on Judaism for RE, backed up by training which could be delivered online. It should not be too difficult to produce units on what Judaism has to say about social responsibility or the environment, for instance - and there must be several Jewish organisations with the intellectual capital capable of preparing them. The Rabbi Sacks Legacy, for example, continues the educational work of the late Chief Rabbi, who was a tireless advocate of Judaism’s ability to speak to the issues of the day.

It would also be possible to collaborate with other religious groups on material that presents a topic through the lens of different faiths. If RE is to be of value at sixth form in particular, children need imaginative, sophisticated tools to explore it — and we should not let the opportunity go by.

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