Thursday 3rd November marks an important day for RE in this country. At 4pm, the members of the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) gather for their first meeting of the six that are planned over the following two years. The Commission is scheduled to publish its final report in the second half of 2018. It’s easy to be cynical about “yet another report” and of course the danger is that there is a flurry of media interest upon publication and then we all revert to life as usual. As a realist I understand that the result from CoRE could easily be “yet another report” telling us what we already know, namely that there is some good RE taught and it offers huge potential benefits for pupils but that the subject struggles in the current educational climate and that we lack qualified teachers and appropriate recognition. In the last year alone at least four major reports have trumpeted these messages. We don’t need a fifth doing the same. But I am optimistic about CoRE for four reasons.
First, as far back as I can remember (and I have been involved in RE for 30 years now), there has not been an equivalent initiative. CoRE is unique in my experience because it is comprised of leading figures who care about RE and who serve as Commissioners in their capacity as influential individuals and not as representatives of any organisation or belief system. However, between them, they have intimate knowledge of all the major organisations and belief systems that are active in RE. Their task is to listen carefully to the many voices that will speak through the evidence that is presented to them and then to make recommendations that are in the best interests of pupils and promote the best possible contribution from RE to their learning.
Second and following from this, although the REC set up CoRE, the Commission itself is independent of the REC. Rudi as the REC CEO and I, as Chair, will attend CoRE meetings in a support role, but we will not be participants in the proceedings. Furthermore, Amira Chilvers, the drafter who will be the Commissioners’ record keeper, is answerable to the Dean of Westminster as Chair of CoRE and not to the REC. Given how contentious our subject can be, this independence is a fundamentally important feature of this venture. No-one can accuse this Commission of only representing a pressure group or particular viewpoint. Personally, I am very proud that the REC has had the courage to take this step.
Third, the time is ripe for a creative input into the nature and purpose of RE and for new insights into how the quality of teaching and learning can be improved. The demise of Local Authorities and the rise of academies both mean that the structures on which RE has depended since 1944 are under threat. Furthermore, the increasing numbers of schools with a religious character and controversy about the place of religion and belief in society have reactivated debates about the nature and purpose of RE. CoRE has a unique opportunity to make an authoritative, incisive and influential input at a pivotal point in history.
Finally, CoRE will speak to two key audiences. First, there are the teachers. A key theme from past research reports is that lack of clarity concerning the nature and purpose of RE has significantly hampered teachers in providing quality learning experiences for pupils. Second, there are the policymakers. They need to grasp the nettle of the confused situation that RE now finds itself facing. CoRE has been specifically charged with producing visionary but practical recommendations for both these influential audiences.
On several occasions when asked about CoRE I have made reference to Schools Council Working Paper 36 published in 1971. This is the closest parallel to my aspiration for CoRE that I can think of. It was a game-changer in its impact and framed the modern approach to RE with its championing of a then pioneering multifaith approach. This had huge consequences for both teachers and policymakers. Forty-five years is a long time to wait for another report of such significant impact. My aspiration is that CoRE will fulfil that role.