RS by any other name would smell as sweet

Religious Education, Religious Studies, Morality and Ethics…

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about changing the name of RS. I say at the moment but actually it comes around like double denim. I say RS but many of you reading this won’t use that term in your school. 

I have always favoured Religious Studies- possibly because that’s what it was called throughout my own time in school, so it’s what I saw as ‘normal’. I can’t shake the feeling that it may alter the impression of the subject and when I think about a national change being imposed upon me I feel a little uneasy, especially with such CRaP (Culture, Religion and Philosophy) alternatives knocking around. Mostly that’s because I don’t like not to get my own way and a quick glance at Twitter tells you we have some very different ideas about what to call the subject. 

However, when I stop sulking like the eternal teenager that I am, I very quickly reach the conclusion that it really doesn’t matter whatsoever. All this talk about the potential names for RS is an irrelevant debate and a waste of 140 characters. Until we can agree with as much national concurrence as possible where we are taking the subject, (the aims, content and assessment) you can call it whatever you want and I’ll continue to teach my students in the way I see fit. This is worrying. If changes were made and teachers (such as myself) continued with our own take on the subject we will never get anywhere. This is not to say I oppose progress and will ignore improvements, I am as keen as anyone to raise the status, rigour and academic demands of the subject whilst maintaining its unique ability to allow students to just ‘wonder’ sometimes and think about the world we live in. I’m just hoping anybody who reads this is considering putting their time and effort towards helping shape the future content rather than branding. 

I’m fortunate enough to have whole school T&L role, experience across many other academies and increasing this role to SLT in January and I’ve seen the subject delivered in lessons that could easily have been named:

  • Colouring in and poster making
  • Social issues for schools that don’t deliver PSHE
  • Memorising things you don’t care about 
  • Elements of vaguely religious history for the apathetic

and most commonly

  • Fulfilling our obligation in the minimum time

Any one of those lessons may have been called RE, Philosophy and ethics, morality, beliefs and values or any other exciting acronym that a keen HoD could dream up. The truth is, it really doesn’t matter what we call it if the content or delivery is weak. 
Changing the name of diarrhoea wouldn’t improve the situation for anyone suffering from it. Starburst are still just Opal Fruits after all!

In my mind (a funny little place) religious education implies getting taught how to be religious or the basics of how different religions follow their belief. It conjures images of spending 5 compulsory years labelling holy buildings and yet I know that this is unfounded, I’m sure many of you are a part of an RE department which does amazing things to open the minds of our young people to the wonderous variety of spiritual and moral expression. To those people I ask, would changing your department to Religious Studies mean anything to you? and where do you think the connotations for our beloved subject come from?

I choose to teach thematically, looking at a relevant world or religious issue from a variety of viewpoints and encourage students to appreciate the diversity of views as well as formulating their own well-reasoned opinions, which may or may not be based on a religion. If asked, I am honest with my students about my own (lack of) beliefs, telling them that as an agnostic I am open to the idea of all kinds of ultimate truths but accept that I may never really know any of them, so I just try to be a good person and have faith that a benevolent God would appreciate the effort.*** Having said this, I’m keen not to take the ‘religion’ out of RS. My degree was a combined honours with philosophy and it is philosophy of religion which is my specialism, however, it just doesn’t feel right to call the department ethical studies or morality or philosophy or any other turn of phrase which doesn’t include religion.

As I attempt to navigate twitter and build a stronger network of co-professionals in order to develop myself, I have realised how important a name can be. We are very careful with our little boxes as we attempt to get a whole careers worth of pedagogy into 140 characters, we choose our handles in order to attract like-minded folk to embark upon this journey with. We are giving a representation of our whole selves in a couple of profile pictures and a brief bio. So maybe it matters, maybe there will be a flurry of comments to tell me that it’s ludicrous to assume that ‘RE’ signifies learning to be religious and that religious instruction is implied by neither. Maybe you feel strongly that ethics should play just as much a part in the name of the subject as to make it relevant for all. Or maybe, just maybe, you use the phrases interchangeably and feel that there is as long as the holistic needs of the student are met you could call it ‘poohsticks’ if you wanted. Either way, I’m interested in how you do things and if there is a rationale behind it.

Perhaps we could all agree to just use one term from now on?

If so, I suggest ‘poohsticks’.

*** An interesting issue picked up on in another blog I read recently which I’ll be going into at another time. I had actually planned on talking about that tonight and got totally sidetracked with this after feeling the inexplicable need to alter the phrase ‘RE’ on the programme of study sheets I was given.


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