Community cohesion and religious education

Joyce Miller

Teaching world religions and beliefs is a necessary but not sufficient contribution to the duty on schools to promote community cohesion.

RE can be effective in increasing:

  • Respect for difference
  • Awareness of commonality
  • Understanding of religions and beliefs
  • Understanding the impact of religions and beliefs on communities
  • Open-minded and empathetic enquiry

But, there are also potential dangers in RE. These include:

  • Stereotyping of communities and their members
  • Exoticism – focusing on what is ‘interesting’ and different about religions and beliefs
  • Teaching topics that pupils find irrelevant to their own lives which are then ridiculed or dismissed.

Ofsted provides guidance on community cohesion, including the four ‘communities’ that should be explored: the school as a community; the local, national and global communities - Community cohesion guidance document

The RE Council takes these four areas and provides detailed guidance for RE teachers in their fulfilment of the duty - Religious education and community cohesion

There are some particular contributions that RE can make to the duty to promote community cohesion and these include:

  • An informed exploration of the concept of ‘community’ - which like ‘identity’ needs to be understand as complex, changing, diverse and multiple. We all belong to a range of comunities that are based on residence, religion, ethnicity, language, interests, sport etc. It is necessary for this exploration to be explicit: osmosis is not a reliable pedagogy and pupils will only fully engage with such concepts if teachers plan specifically for such learning
    • The exploration of ‘community’ in RE should include how communities express themselves in ritual
    • Text-based and doctrinal teachings about religious communities- the Christian church, the Muslim ummah, the Buddhist sangha etc.
    • Ethnographic approaches to learning in RE through participant observation, interviewing and research of religious and belief communities. This is very effective with pupils, and links to Learning Outside the Classroom, but it is also effective with teachers as a means of increasing their understanding of the communities their school serves.
  • Focusing not just on individual religious communities but on the local community as a whole, including its history, demographics, religiously-based community action and contributions by individual people of faith.
  • Breaking down stereotypes. For example, RE can help pupils challenge public discourse on ‘Muslims’ including the assumptions on which generalisations are made and specific statements from politicians and others. ‘Muslims’, like many other religious and belief groups, are from a wide range of national/ethnic/linguistic/social backgrounds with considerable internal diversity. Talking of ‘Muslims’ as if they were a homogeneous group is unhelpful and inaccurate
  • Critical engagement with media representation of religiously-focused stories, such as the partial ban on the niqab in France or the ways in which the media have reported on ‘ghetto-ization’ and ‘segregation’. Work by academics such as Nissa Finney and Ludi Simpson can offer alternative interpretations of the data (see the final chapter of their Sleepwalking into Segregation? for a summary of the arguments – if you haven’t time to read the whole book).
  • An articulated and planned focus on pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. The skills and attitudes that promote those areas of pupils’ development - open-mindedness, empathy, respect, enquiry etc – also promote community cohesion
  • Interfaith and intercultural dialogue can be promoted though RE: actual by linking with other schools serving different communities or through email and virtual dialogue such as that initiated by Julia Ipgrave Pupil to Pupil Dialogue in the Classroom as a Tool for Religious Education (Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit, Occasional Papers v. 2). Whatever form such dialogue takes, it is necessary to find ways of enabling in-depth conversations about difference, similarity, beliefs, practices, culture, religion etc. See http://www.schoolslinkingnetwork.org.uk/ for advice.

Suggested reading

Alam, M Y and Husband, C (2006) British- Pakistani Men from Bradford (York, Joseph Rowntree Foundation)

Commission on Integration and Cohesion (2007) Our Shared Future (London, CIC)

Finney, N and Simpson, L (2009)_ Sleepwalking into Segregation? _Challenging myths about race and migration (Bristol, The Policy Press)

Ipgrave, J (2001) Pupil-to Pupil Dialogue in the Classroom as a Tool for Religious Education, (Coventry, University of Warwick) WRERU Occasional Papers 2,

Lewis, P (2007) Young, British and Muslim (London, Continuum)