Project to tackle teaching of Christianity in the classroom

A YouGov poll commissioned by Oxford University's Department of Education has found widespread support in England for the teaching of Christianity as part of Religious Education. The survey was undertaken as the initial part of a national intervention project by Oxford researchers to support teachers tackling the subject of Christianity in schools.

In the poll of a random sample of 1,832 adults in England, 64 per cent agreed that children need to learn about Christianity in order to understand English history; 57 per cent agreed it was needed to understand the English culture and way of life; and 44 per cent said they thought that more attention should be given to such teaching. Areas of Christianity that people regarded as particularly important for children to learn about in RE were the history of Christianity (58 per cent), major Christian events and festivals (56 per cent), and how Christianity distinguishes right from wrong (51 per cent).

The project is being launched by a research team of educationalists and practitioners at Oxford University, as part of their wider work on religion in education. The project follows concerns raised by Ofsted inspectors and others about how Christianity is taught. One problem identified in research literature is that teachers are sometimes nervous about tackling issues related to Christianity because they are worried that it could be considered as evangelizing.

The Oxford team is producing a web-based introductory package aimed at trainee primary teachers, which will be free and is expected to be available by September 2013. The project will explore ways of helping all classroom teachers in primary schools, as well as non-specialists teaching RE in secondary schools. The online materials provide a basic background on RE generally, but focus on the teaching of Christianity. They also touch on issues of personal faith and how this sits with teaching about Christianity, as well as other world faiths. Further online materials for teachers exploring other faiths are anticipated in the longer term.

The online materials for trainee primary teachers are being produced with £100,000 funding from the Jerusalem and Culham St Gabriel's Trusts, charitable trusts that support school-based RE.  A further donation of £48,500 from the Jerusalem Trust will enable first stage work on a package for all primary teachers already in schools.Lead researcher Dr Nigel Fancourt, a lecturer on the RE programme based at the University's Department of Education, within one of the UK's leading PGCE courses, said: 'Christianity statutorily receives more attention than other religions or worldviews, so it will probably be the only religion that pupils study throughout their schooling.

'It is treated in the same way as other religions, but studied more frequently.  While this is challenging and vibrant in some schools, the fact that the basics are often already vaguely familiar to some teachers and pupils means it can present problems. For instance, the presentation of Christianity can be incoherent, lacking in intellectual development, or too stereotypical.'

Also involved in the project is Dr Liam Gearon, who has authored a forthcoming book entitled MasterClass in Religious Education. He holds the University Lectureship in Religious Education at the Oxford University Department of Education in association with a Senior Research Fellowship at Harris Manchester College.

Commenting on the aims of the project, he said: 'The teaching of Christianity in English schools is part of Christianity's decisive shaping of English history. It  has been a philosophically rich and politically contested history. The academic study of Christianity, including the challenges it continues to face, is a source of often unrealised intellectual engagement. But, for all its institutional faults, past and present, Christian tradition also opens for young people a source of lifelong spiritual enrichment, and a reminder that Christianity has a place in history while looking beyond it.'

Dr Fancourt added: 'The subject is often conceived as "faith development"', particularly in some church schools, or "moral development". This is not to ignore these elements, but to argue that all types of schools need to refocus on understanding whatever else is considered important too. Teaching about Christianity should therefore engage pupils with the depth and breadth of the Christian tradition, present the subtlety of diversity, and provide an academic challenge.'