Currently, RE classes, which are mandatory in state schools in England up to age 16, offer little more than a “naive and cartoonish” understanding of Christians, and fail to delve into more substantive theological content, the group has said.
“Fearful of evangelising,” teachers “may reduce Christianity to a series of factoids” while avoiding more personal, “confessional, nurturing approaches,” particularly in non-religious state schools, said Dr. Nigel Fancourt, the group’s lead researcher.
The reluctance of teachers to give substantive lessons in the meaning of Christian doctrines has resulted in students being “presented with inaccurate stereotypes of Christians,” and a skewed and watered-down understanding of Christian moral doctrine. Out of a fear of offending non-Christian students, teachers are instead favouring more in-depth study of other religions, such as Islam or Judaism, rather than Christianity.
“Concerns have been raised about how pupils often leave with an incoherent or stereotypical picture of Christianity, or without having been intellectually challenged,” Fancourt added.
Teachers tend to shy away from the religious content of RE, focusing instead on a “soft generic moral message.” “The feeding of the 5,000 becomes sharing your lunchbox, not a way of raising questions about ‘miracles’”.
Such teaching, Dr. Fancourt wrote in the Guardian, cannot help students “develop the essential values for life in a multicultural society, such as tolerance and respect” and presents little more than a “cardboard cutout” of Christians.
“If Christianity is better taught, pupils will be able to make more nuanced cross-references and comparisons with other religions and views,” Dr. Fancourt wrote. He wants to see Christianity taught in a more effective way than it was to previous generations, for whom “religion has become in some instances a bitter and polemical issue.”
The group is preparing an internet-based training program, the Teaching Christianity in Religious Education project, for primary school teachers that they expect to be ready by September 2013. Led by Dr. Fancourt, a lecturer on the RE program at Oxford’s Department of Education, the team hopes to raise the quality and tenor of religious education across Britain.
Fancourt said the teaching of religions in Britain’s schools has suffered from a distancing from the genuine “lived experience” of Christianity.
“What is the difference between teaching Christianity and teaching about Christianity? …The lived experience of the practice of religion can be missing in a dry presentation of facts.” Teachers, he said, are routinely distancing their instruction from the realities of Christian faith because of “their own educational ghosts,” and fears of upsetting students of different faiths.
The Oxford group commissioned a Yougov poll that showed two thirds of Britons want Christianity to be taught in schools so that children could better understand their own society. Sixty-four per cent of the 1800 people surveyed supported teaching Christianity and 57 per cent said the subject was important if pupils are to understand the English culture and way of life.
Andrea Williams, Chief Executive of Christian Concern, commented on the group’s research, saying, “We are often given the impression that teaching about Jesus and His message is old-fashioned and irrelevant to a modern generation. But this survey shows that many people value the Christian framework.
“This is not surprising, given that our society is increasingly confused about a basis for moral decisions, for human dignity and for community. Jesus is the personal basis for this, as well as the foundation for so much of our nation’s culture and history.”