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Report of an Enquiry into Religious Education/Christian Education Research Needs

The Institute ceased its activity and the charity was dissolved at the end of April 2013 This is a copy of the NEICE website active at that date

Report of an Enquiry into Religious Education/Christian Education Research Needs

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NEICE 1981 – 2013
The Institute ceased its activity and the charity was dissolved at the end of April 2013
This is a copy of the NEICE website active at that date

This paper is based on one hundred and forty-three questionnaire returns from a wide sample of teachers, clergy, religious education and Christian education advisers and inspectors, church leaders, scholars, researchers and others, together with a number of discussions with groups of religious educationalists and Christian educationalists (amounting to approximately one hundred people) in a variety of locations. It is an updated version of The Interim Report to the Hild-Bede Trust of the NEICE Enquiry into Religious Education/Christian Education Research Needs (October 1994), with amendments based on further discussions of that Report with a ‘reference group’ of twelve nationally-recognised researchers and advisers (including SCAA, OFSTED and Christian education national advisers of major denominations).

Definitions of Terms

Christian education is a phrase that is often used to cover a very wide variety of activities, including:

(a) teaching leading to the formation in the learner of Christian beliefs, attitudes, values etc (‘Christian nurture’, ‘formation’ or ‘catechesis’);
(b) the facilitation of critical reflection on Christianity within the Christian learner;
(c) implicit Christian learning, for example through worship and general church life, that is not intentionally facilitated by teachers or educators;
(d) broad educational or education-related endeavours such as preaching and evangelism;
(e) teaching about Christianity in religious education programmes in church schools;
(f) teaching about Christianity in religious education in county etc schools (‘state’ or ‘secular’ schools);
(g) general education ‘of a Christian kind’ in church schools, based on a ‘Christian philosophy of education’; and
(h) general education ‘of a Christian kind’ in state schools, based on a ‘Christian philosophy of education’.

In this paper ‘Christian education’ is understood quite narrowly, restricting Christian Education in Churches to activities (a) to (d).

(e) and (f) are viewed here as parts of Religious Education in Schools; whereas (g) and (h) are treated in relation to Personal Education or Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education in Schools.

Research Needs in Christian Education in Churches

The thirteen topics that have been proposed the greatest number of times in the survey data are (in alphabetical order):

i Adult Christian education in Churches/Congregations:* provision of; attitude of clergy towards
ii All-age learning and worship:* effectiveness of; attitudes towards
iii Catechumenate models of Christian education: effectiveness of
iv Christian education materials:* effectiveness of; theological evaluation of; problems of promoting critical reflection through
v Christian education with less literate learners: examination of good practice in
vi Faith development: promotion of; gender differences in; parish application of
vii Hidden curriculum of church’s life and worship:* effect of; reflection on
viii Home/family: impact on Christian education of
ix Relating faith to life in Christian education:* problems and possibilities of; relation to effects of the mass media
x Religious beliefs, understanding and attitudes of Christian learners:* analysis of; relation of their ‘subterranean theologies’ to orthodox Christianity
xi Sermons:* educational value of
xii Training of Christian educators: analysis of provision for clergy and lay people
xiii Use of Bible in Christian education:* theological implications and effect of various methodologies for

Underlying many of these topics is a fundamental area of research that has itself also been mentioned several times: i.e. measuring (a) the outcomes of Christian education and (b) spiritual development.*

(* Those topics marked with an asterisk were given particular emphasis by the reference group of advisers and researchers.)

Research Needs in Religious Education in Schools

Religious education (RE) is here understood as the curriculum subject taught in county, grant-maintained, church and independent schools. The majority of respondents confined their suggestions to religious education in maintained schools in England and Wales. A substantial minority of respondents, however, also made reference to research needs relating to the provision of collective worship in schools, as defined in the 1988 Education Reform Act and elsewhere.

Listed below (in alphabetical order) are the twelve topics that were suggested the greatest number of times in the survey under this heading:

Churches and school RE: contacts between
ii Delivery of collective worship:* studies of what is actually happening in; effect of the ‘wholly, mainly, broadly Christian’ requirement (in the 1988 Act) on; effect on RE outcomes of; attitudes of teachers and pupils towards
iii Delivery of RE:* studies of what is actually happening in (especially at Key Stage 4); progression in
iv Justification of RE: theological, educational and political issues in
Methods/Content of RE:* effectiveness of; appropriateness of (at different ages); teaching strategies related to new Agreed Syllabuses
vi ‘Multi-faith RE’:* effectiveness of; testing of claims about confusion caused by; effect of systematic compared with thematic teaching in; relation to development of relativism of
vii Parents and children: attitude to and expectations about RE of
viii Religious beliefs, understanding and attitudes of school pupils:* analysis of [see Christian education in Churches topic (x)]
ix Religious development of children:* impact of RE, church, home and other factors on; theological and metaphorical/analogical reasoning at different stages of
Religious language:* children’s use of and understanding of
xi Teachers of RE: attitudes towards RE; monitoring of changes in initial teacher training and their effect on quality of
xii Teaching about Christianity in RE:* studies of nature and effectiveness of; relation to teaching about other faiths

Two further topics that bridge the gap between RE and religious nurture were proposed by OFSTED’s specialist adviser in RE:xiii Church schools: research into their distinctive features
xiv ‘Religious children’ in ‘secular’ schools:* difficulties experienced by; evaluation of techniques for resolving such difficulties

The problem of evaluation underlies many of these areas of research, and several respondents (including the SCAA and OFSTED officers) emphasised the importance of research work on the development of proper forms of evaluation of the effect of school RE* on children’s religious understanding, attitudes and beliefs, and other educational outcomes.

(* Again, those topics marked with an asterisk were given particular emphasis by the reference group of advisers and researchers. Proposals for research on time/resources/ qualifications/staffing allocation of RE have been omitted from the list on the grounds that these data have been made available in a recent RE Council publication written by Brian Gates.)

Research Needs in Personal Education or Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education in Schools

The NEICE Survey did not examine this area in any detail, although the relation between RE and these educational goals was noted by several respondents as worthy of research, as was the contribution made by the teaching of ‘secular’ subjects. A number of researchers and practitioners stressed the importance of not severing studies of PSE and Moral Education from reflection on RE or collective worship.

The OFSTED specialist adviser in this area made it clear that, in his view, there is a great need for systematic reflection on and research about the effect of general education on pupils’ personal, moral and spiritual education (variously defined). ‘We know very little about how children’s values and attitudes are changed in this area.’ He underlined the danger of encouraging and developing materials and methods that are not themselves evaluated, and which are not based on any clear picture of what is effective and what is not in promoting moral, spiritual and valuational changes. This view was endorsed by a wide range of respondents.

Higher education is at present better served with projects analysing the possibilities of a ‘Christian curriculum’, and the learning outcomes in terms of personal education of a variety of secular subjects, than is education at primary or secondary school level.

Final Comments

It is worth noting at this point two (complementary) registers of research in Christian education and religious education that are presently under development:

(i) the Church College Trusts’ Exchange database of current and recent research projects (mainly related to RE in schools), held at the Culham College Institute; and
(ii) NEICE’s Bibcerep computer database of journal articles, books and dissertations on Christian education/religious education topics published over the last twenty-five years or so. See Bibcerep database.

The great majority of research suggestions surveyed in this paper are for empirical studies rather than for theoretical reflection (whether educational, theological or philosophical). This empirical work falls into three broad categories:

(a) Surveys designed to produce data about what is going on in school RE, school worship or Christian education in churches;

(b) Controlled research into the nature of religious understanding and attitudes of children, young people and adults, and their religious development;

(c) Evaluative studies of the outcomes and effectiveness of methods, approaches and materials in RE and Christian education.

The survey work in category (a) would relate, in the case of schools, to the reports of OFSTED inspectors, data from which are soon to be available to researchers in electronic form. Data about church-based Christian education, however, are not readily obtainable from other sources.

While category (c) studies in RE would be able to draw to some extent on work such as the FARE proposals on Forms of Assessment in Religious Education, these studies focus on assessment of pupils rather than evaluation of materials and methods. There is little available work on the evaluation of the outcomes of church-based Christian education. The overwhelming impression given by the survey, and endorsed by Christian education and RE advisers (including OFSTED and SCAA officers) on the reference group, is that the lack of serious research on evaluation is – in Barbara Wintersgill’s words – ‘a mammoth weakness’ that cries out for strengthening.

The development of both RE and Christian education materials should surely be based on, and evaluated by, an in-depth study of the educational effects of the use of such materials. The work of advisers, inspectors and initial and inservice teacher and clergy trainers would greatly benefit from related studies of the effectiveness of teaching methods and educational strategies.

In both schools and churches such research would need to draw on the more fundamental category (b) work, a part of which was described by one respondent as ‘a rigorous empirical study of children’s religious thinking à la Goldman (but without his faults!) in the current scene’. Such a study would demand the development of appropriate research instruments for assessing the different dimensions of religious and Christian learning. These instruments could be of enormous value to teachers, clergy and others who are engaged in education in religion.

J Astley
Director, North of England Institute for Christian Education
Honorary Lecturer in Theology and Education, University of Durham
December 1994