Theory and practice

Why is the teaching of RE so crucial to primary school today? A head teacher’s view

This is why what children see and hear from us in school needs to be respectful dialogue between people whose beliefs are different. It also allows for discussion and a space for listening. This is what well-taught RE provides, and thus influences not only the culture of the school, but families and whole communities.

Emily Norman

The editorial boards of REtoday and Professional REflection are always keen to encourage more primary colleagues to write for us. Here we have a bonus: a primary head teacher writing about the value of RE and how that is realised in her school.

This is why what children see and hear from us in school needs to be respectful dialogue between people whose beliefs are different. It also allows for discussion and a space for listening. This is what well-taught RE provides, and thus influences not only the culture of the school, but families and whole communities.


As a head teacher, I always championed RE. Why might this be so? Is it because I am a Christian and want to make sure that the Christian faith is well taught for what it is (and not for what it is not)? Is it because I worked in church schools, and was conscious of the SIAMS inspection framework? Is it because, as a main-scale teacher, I was RE co-ordinator of my school and

therefore accustomed to fighting RE’s corner? Absolutely. But my unrelenting passion for RE as a head teacher has also been driven by the contribution that RE makes to the lives of pupils, teachers, families and the local community, and to the whole school culture. I believe RE is a subject that can offer more beyond great academic learning in the classroom, as long as it is done well.

Therefore, RE has been a genuinely core subject in the schools where I have been head teacher, which means a significant timetable allocation, a decent budget for resources, an assessment

system specifically tailored to RE, regular INSET training and performance management for staff around RE, a separate pupil ‘faith’ council and a prime position within the school’s

improvement planning. In doing so, I have discovered three main added benefits of prioritising RE as a primary head teacher:

  1. It teaches children to listen to one an other well, fostering mutual understanding and respect, while clarifying their own ideas, beliefs and views.
  1. It encourages teachers to be active learners in a different way from other subjects.
  1. It contributes to the culture and ethos of the school, setting out how important faith and belief are within the school community and promoting genuine inclusion.

Listening children

Our modern world does not make it easy to teach listening. Smart phones and electronic devices are the things that keep children’s attention, not radios and story tapes. This, as we know, creates a challenge for educators. Equally, a shift towards more active learning techniques in classrooms and an important emphasis on oracy means that over the last 10–15 years we have rightly moved away from the idea of the teacher as ‘sage on the stage’ with pupils passively recording what they hear lecture-style.

But listening is important too! We cannot know what we haven’t already learnt or experienced, so talking about our own ideas can only teach us so much. One of Jordan B. Peterson’s ’12 Rules for Life’ is to ‘assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t’ (Peterson, 2018, p. 245). This is always going to be true in an RE lesson. There will never be another human being who shares the exact same ideas, beliefs, experiences or understanding that you do. Therefore, the only way to find out about other people’s ways of making meaning out of life is to hear what they have to say, to listen to them. In my last school, we started to reintroduce textbooks for some subjects, and were surprised at how effective they could be. However, what a textbook (or app, or website) cannot tell you is what the person next to you believes. In an RE lesson, the only real way of learning about the lives of believers is to ask them. We can study their beliefs, but only by asking them the difference these beliefs make to their lives can we gain that more personal insight. And this comes by listening.

In a world that is becoming increasingly ‘tribal’ (in so far as people gather in tribes of people who think the same way as they do – Brexiteer vs Remainer, for example), one of the most important things we can teach our children is how to listen to people who are different from them. They don’t have to agree – in fact it is good for them to learn how not to agree – but they can learn to develop understanding about why others do what they do. Why do some Muslim women wear particular head coverings? Why do some Christians take the teachings of the Bible literally? Why is the land of Israel so important to some Jews? Learning about others’ ‘why’ starts to build up mutual respect, and while we might not necessarily agree with the belief, in the RE classroom we can begin to appreciate its importance to the believer (if done well). The hope is that this creates a greater sense of generosity towards those who are not like us. Dr Brene Brown, in her book Braving the Wilderness, titles one of her chapters ‘People are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In’ (2017, p. 63). Both she and Peterson identify how difficult this is.

Peterson quotes psychotherapist Carl Rogers, who says, ‘the first requirement is courage, and we don’t always have it’, but goes on to say: ‘He [Rogers] knew that listening could transform people’ (2018, p. 245).

Listening also enables the listener to reflect on their own ideas and question them. Are there any ideas I hold which need challenging? Why do I think this? Can I articulate why I believe what I believe and what it means to me personally? How do my beliefs influence the way I act? Phil Champain, in his excellent explanation of how we can enable children to engage with others, shows how ‘RE, more than other subjects, offers the potential to explore personal expressions of faith, belief and identity’ (Champain, 2018, p. 55).

And this doesn’t just apply to children!

The contribution of RE to reflective teaching

In my experience, teachers are often pretty anxious about teaching RE in a primary school, unless they have extensive personal experience of a faith tradition. Even so, those with a faith may

be nervous about teaching faiths or beliefs that differ from their own – in a way that they are not about teaching any other subject (except possibly relationships and sex education!). Whereas a teacher may happily teach about a country they have never visited in geography, from studying maps, reading information in a book and following a scheme of work, there is not the same confidence and ease about teaching RE. Teachers are often, I find, concerned not to offend by ‘teaching the wrong thing’, and worry about being asked a question they don’t know the answer to (even though

this may also happen in any other subject), especially if there are children in the class with a faith they are not knowledgeable about. I would suggest that this is due to a declining religious literacy generally, and that while we have become obsessed with the basic skills of numeracy and (English) literacy, religious literacy (among other things) has been very much side-lined.

Now, there is the possibility, if handled correctly, that this can actually become a benefit of the subject. If a teacher is anxious, it means that they care. And they should! Neil McKain critiques the ‘no right answer theory’ thus: ‘I have lost track of the number of times I have heard RE teachers say that the subject is special and different because there are no right answers’ (McKain, 2018, pp. 171–72). Religious beliefs are distinctive and hold truth claims, so there is a huge responsibility for teachers in teaching about them. Because of this, however, we have a great opportunity to use RE very powerfully with teachers to get them to think deeply and meaningfully about what and how they teach. In my schools,

it has meant that teachers have asked for help with planning and with subject knowledge (either before or after a lesson; for example, if a child has written an answer they are not sure how to respond to) in a way they haven’t in other subjects. This would then involve partnership working with the RE subject leader (as long as they were sufficiently knowledgeable themselves) and/or

myself as the head teacher. It also meant working with local faith leaders; for example, the parish priest and church staff, members of faith communities (such as outreach workers from the local mosque), RE advisers and even some carefully chosen parents, who have been delighted to share their knowledge and experience of their own faith tradition. In what other subject does this happen? I think this is an excellent habit for teachers to get into and it develops in them a pattern of reflective practice and partnership working that can have a hugely positive impact on their teaching across the whole curriculum.

The contribution of RE to the culture and ethos of the school

As shown above, championing the teaching of high-quality RE has an impact on children’s ability to interact respectfully with each other and, I would maintain, on teachers’ ability to be reflective in their practice. Together these benefits can also help contribute to a whole-school culture of mutual respect, curiosity and interest in one another’s cultures, practices and beliefs, and of celebrating ‘faith’ as something we can be proud of. The newly formulated SIAMS evaluation schedule now includes RE for non-voluntary aided schools too and looks at the way in which RE can contribute to the whole of school life, and how it aligns with the school’s vision and enables pupils to flourish through (among other things) ‘giv[ing] pupils a safe space to critically reflect’ (Church of England Education Office, 2018, p. 15). For non-church schools this can also be the case. Our local SACRE recently considered a determination request from a school where interfaith dialogue was clearly strengthening the school’s positive inclusive ethos. And it’s not difficult to see why. If children are learning to appreciate the beliefs of others, while refining their understanding of their own beliefs, it cannot but impact upon behaviour. One of the things we were most proud of when our school was graded ‘Good’ after being ‘Requires Improvement’ was that the inspectors called the school a ‘harmonious community’. Of course, many different elements go into creating such an ethos and culture, but there is no doubt that our commitment to RE played its part: ‘[Pupils] get on very well with each other in this harmonious community, no matter what race, faith or culture, because all subscribe fully to the school’s inclusive values’ (Ofsted, 2016, p. 5).

I have already touched on the role that the local community and our families played in enhancing RE teaching in our school. Involving faith leaders, community members and parents can, I believe, strengthen the culture of the whole school as an outward- looking, community-focused place that values all and includes all, regardless of their faith background. We set an example to the children (and their families) when people of different faiths or worldviews stand side by side and discuss the different perspectives they have on life. It reminds them that they too can have meaningful conversations with others. This may sound simple, but we only have to look at the news or Twitter on any given day to see how challenging it actually is for adults in our own country, let alone around the world. Brene Brown says,

it’s hard to believe that we ourselves could ever get to a place where we would exclude people from equal moral treatment, from our basic moral values, but … we’re hardwired to believe what we see and to attach meaning to the words we hear.

This is why what children see and hear from us in school needs to be respectful dialogue between people whose beliefs are different. It also allows for discussion and a space for listening. This is what well-taught RE provides, and thus influences not only the culture of the school, but families and whole communities.


In conclusion, I believe that RE has a vital role to play in primary schools, both as an academic subject with intrinsic merit and as a tool to foster the somewhat lost art of listening. It encourages reflective practice among teachers, who work so hard and are so determined to do a good job, subsequently influencing the culture of a school as a microcosm of society. In such a school all are valued, having a personal belief is important and respectful dialogue is the norm.


Brown, B. (2017), Braving the Wilderness (New York: Penguin Random House).

Champain, P. (2018), ‘Facing the strange’ in Castelli, M., and Chater, M. (eds), We Need to Talk About Religious Education (London: Jessica Kingsley).

Church of England Education Office (2018), Statutory Inspection of Anglican and Methodist Schools Inspection (SIAMS): An Evaluation Schedule for Schools and Inspectors (London: National Society (Church of England and Church in Wales) for the Promotion of Education).

McKain, N. (2018), ‘Religious Education as a Safe Space for Discussing Unsafe Ideas’ in Castelli, M., and Chater, M. (eds), We Need to Talk About Religious Education (London: Jessica Kingsley).

Ofsted Report for St Mary’s Bryanston Square C.E. School (2016)

Peterson, J.B. (2018), 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos (London: Allen Lane).