One of my clearest school memories was the day in Primary 4 when Mrs Wilson announced the names of those who would be receiving the class prizes for that year. I was astonished when she announced that I was to receive the prize for Religious Education. To this day I’m still not clear what I had done to deserve it but I recall that I didn’t hesitate to claim the glory when I told my parents.
I can’t say that I have too many other memories of my experiences of Religious Education being particularly noteworthy in my years in primary and secondary school. However, I do recall many of the teachers and how they offered personal witness to faith in how they prayed and how they modelled Christian values and attitudes. I also recall the great contributions made by local clergy when they visited classes and spoke with young people. Some of these experiences were truly formational.
Some of these memories returned to me recently when I read a report, published by Education Scotland, entitled ‘Religious and Moral Education 3-18’ . The report evaluates current practice in Religious and Moral Education in Scottish schools, both denominational and non-denominational. The report acknowledges that, within Curriculum for Excellence, there are two distinctive frameworks for learning, teaching and assessment within the Religious and Moral Education curriculum area – one for non-denominational schools and another for Catholic schools.
The report identifies good practice and highlights important areas for further development within both school sectors. It makes fascinating reading and offers insights into some of the excellent experiences of religious education which young people are having in some schools. It points to the true value of religious education for young people today and it makes the case for all schools to give priority to its further development and for teachers to be better supported by local education authorities. Tellingly, it gives the lie to the clams of some secularist groups that religious education is irrelevant and unnecessary today.
Among the strengths found in Religious and Moral Education in all schools are the fact that most pupils value their learning and enjoy their lessons and that the majority of pupils contribute confidently to classroom discussion and debates about local, national and international religious and moral issues.
Pleasingly, in Catholic schools, the report finds that most pupils think that Religious Education supports them well in their own faith development and that they are increasing their understanding of the importance of prayer and reflection. Further, in Catholic primary schools, most pupils are developing well their knowledge and understanding of Catholicism. The report makes it clear that the publication of This Is Our Faith, as the Church’s national syllabus for religious education, has provided teachers with a clear progression framework to ensure that pupils are able to deepen their understanding as they progress through the school stages.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to all those who contributed to the development of This Is Our Faith and to those who continue to support teachers with advice on the content and methodology of lessons when implementing This Is Our Faith.
Many will also be heartened to read in the report that Religious Education is often central to the life and work of the Catholic school as a community and that, consequently, pupils often demonstrate strong awareness of social justice and the need to serve others. In most secondary schools this is well exemplified in the uptake of the Caritas Award by S6 pupils.
Of course, there is no room for complacency in Catholic schools where much remains to be done to ensure high quality experiences for all pupils in religious education. We know that, in most schools, arrangements for the assessment and moderation of Religious and Moral Education are still at an early stage of development. Work is ongoing to ensure that teachers are able to assess pupil progress appropriately and fairly, without distorting the nature and purpose of religious education.
We also know that improvements to religious education in the senior phase (S4-6) are at an early stage in most schools. We hope that the publication in draft of This Is Our Faith-Senior Phase will help secondary schools to ensure that young people from S4 to S6 will experience better planned opportunities to deepen their knowledge and understanding of the Catholic faith, Christianity more widely and of other world religions.
Interestingly, the report also indicates that, in many Catholic schools, there is scope to strengthen partnership working with parents and the parish community to extend learning and achievement. So the introduction of the Pope Francis Faith Award and the further extension of the Caritas ward should assist with this.
One of the most significant recommendations of the report calls on local authorities to ensure that young people are able to access their entitlement to good experiences of religious education at all stages in all schools, with most non-denominational secondary schools failing to provide sufficient time for religious and moral education.
Given the statutory requirement that religious education is provided in all schools at all stages, we should look to the Scottish Government and to local authorities to ensure that they help all schools to provide memorable experiences of religious education for all children and young people. Above all, we should keep our teachers of religious education in our prayers – that they might act as true and faithful witnesses to the Good News of Jesus Christ.