Heavyweights contest RE teaching in schools
Former dean goes head to head with Richard Dawkins
One of Scotland’s former deans of education has clashed in a public debate with the Darwinian scientist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, over the teaching of RE in schools.
The University of Glasgow’s James Conroy argued that RE focused too much on learning about religion, as opposed to learning from religion - drawing a vehement response from Professor Dawkins, who objected to the idea that religious education might impart values.
Professor Conroy led a comprehensive study of RE, the results of which were revealed in TESS last year (11 March). But in the past week, one of its findings - that schools spent as little as £1 per pupil per year on RE - has grabbed the headlines.
The study’s findings were given another airing last week when Professor Dawkins joined Professor Conroy in a panel debate organised by the thinktank Theos in London.
“Learning facts is important, but it doesn’t help you grasp the shape of somebody else’s life,” Professor Conroy said.
Teachers involved in the study, Does Religious Education Work?, steered clear of sensitive subjects and deflected probing questions such as: “Why does it matter why Jesus died on a cross?”, he reported.
Professor Dawkins said: “There’s a great deal to be said for religious education, in the sense of teaching about religion and biblical literacy … (But) I honestly don’t think religion has anything useful to teach us.”
He highlighted an Ipsos/MORI survey, commissioned by his foundation for reason and science, which found that only 10 per cent of people describing themselves as Christian sought most guidance in questions of right and wrong from religious teachings or beliefs.
“I don’t blame them, because if you go to the Bible … for your morals and values, you’re going to end up a very immoral person by the standards of a modern liberal citizen,” he said.
After Professor Dawkins scorned the teaching of religious values, Professor Conroy hit back: “Religious education in British schools, whatever else it does or doesn’t do, simply does not indoctrinate children.”
WHAT WORKS AND WHAT DOESN’T
The study Does Religious Education Work? examined RE in 24 schools across the UK, including seven in Scotland. RE emerged as a subject which was reduced to relaying key facts about religions, but shied away from deeper questions. Among its other conclusions were:
- Often led by highly committed, thoughtful teachers.
- Positive contribution to multicultural awareness.
- May emphasise skills of debate, reflection and creative discussion, in contrast to other subjects’ exam-driven approaches.
- Pupils show widespread ignorance of basic religious concepts.
- Suffers from competing expectations, under-resourcing and limited time allocations.
- Teachers caught between helping to explore life’s big questions, and teaching to the test.