What do we mean by Religious education?

31st October 2017

THE RECENT interim report on the provision of Religious Education, produced by the Commission on Religious Education, found an alarming decline not only in the teaching of RE but also in the availability of the subject in mainstream schools. Increasing numbers of schools are not even meeting the basic legal requirement. Provision of Jewish religious education in Jewish schools, however, is not a problem. Most, if not all, maintained Jewish schools teach JRE and consequently meet the legal requirement.

There are, of course, differences in the amount of JRE taught and certainly differences in the quality of provision, although it is generally true that the standard of JRE teaching is far higher today than it was a generation ago.

Nevertheless, it is important, at this time of general educational change and Jewish renewal, to re-visit what we really mean by “Jewish education”.

If one looks at some Jewish-school prospectuses, we find laudable statements such as: “It is our mission to produce well-rounded individuals who possess the deep moral feelings that lie at the root of our Jewish religion and the intellectual curiosity which lays the foundation for future learning.”

“Our aim is for pupils to experience the joy and wonder of Jewish life while celebrating the diversity around us.”

“We are very proud of our academic success, as well as our outstanding spiritual, moral and social education. This enables us to produce positive and responsible young citizens, who leave year six passionate about lifelong learning.”

“Jewish education is at the heart of all we do, enhanced by British values, enabling pupils to celebrate what it means to be Jewish as well as exploring other faiths.”

What schools are emphasising here is the importance of creating within the child a Jewish spirit bound by Jewish values, a child who, through those values, will become a sensitive, informed and valuable contributor not only to the Jewish community but to society in general. In reality, however, schools tend to focus more on the transmission of Jewish knowledge and ritual, while a child’s spiritual development is often left in abeyance.

Education expert Professor John West-Burnham has observed: “Spiritual and moral development has to be about deep and profound learning, or it will become the unthinking recitation of a catechism, a sort of philosophical or theological trivial pursuit.

Education, in these troubled times, is not only about imparting knowledge and passing examinations, it is also about teaching values that guide our thinking and drive our behaviour.”
He also says: “It is a sad reflection of a society that values schooling above educating that we celebrate 17 GCSEs
at A* but fail to recognise personal authenticity.”

The Government emphasises the importance of teaching British values and requires schools to have a clear strategy for teaching them. It is an irony that many of our schools now teach British values effectively to meet the Government requirement but do not have the means or strategies to teach Jewish values, upon which British values are based.
The Chief Rabbi recently asked: “How can we engage a child with values in the 21st century?” I assume he was referring to Jewish values, which include responsibility, trustworthiness, respect for others, community, fairness, caring and kindness.

Values such as these are central to a child’s spiritual development and are an integral part of our Jewish heritage.

Our children need to know this not by way of a knowledge-based curriculum but as the result of deep learning and
inspired teaching that will help them shape their future and give meaning and purpose to their Jewish lives.

Jeffrey Leader is the director of Pikuach, the Jewish schools inspection service