Reassessing religious education: understanding the challenges and exploring the possibilities in Scottish non-denominational primary schools

This paper seeks to address a significant lacuna in existing scholarship by re-assessing the provision of Religious Education (RE) in Scottish non-denominational primary schools (Matemba, 2018). It responds directly to the conference theme as the paper provides fresh insights into the challenges, possibilities, and the alternatives for a curriculum area that often languishes at the margins of school curricula. The paper reports on a documentary research project covering 203 non-denominational primary schools across four local authorities in Scotland. The project examined the available inspection documentation and handbooks for each of these schools, recognising that they provide valuable, though limited, snapshots of educational practices and processes (McCulloch, 2004). This sample has allowed for a regional-level analysis of provision in RE between August 2016 and August 2020 to be offered in this paper. The documentation has been analysed through qualitative content analysis, thematic coding, and triangulation with curriculum and inspection frameworks. Attention has also been paid to the relevant legislation concerning RE, given that it occupies the unique position of being the only curriculum area made mandatory by law in Scotland.

Building on the previously recognised situation for RE provision, the findings highlight that there is variability with respect to the degree of school compliance with statutory expectations (Robertson et al., 2017). The findings also draw attention to how schools are enacting curriculum expectations through various practices, including school visits. Most significantly the findings highlight that the focus of teaching in RE is shifting from an emphasis on Christianity to an engagement with the broad themes of inclusion and diversity. This supports the position advanced in this paper that RE in primary schools is increasingly centred around the development of pupils’ capacities for citizenship, contributing to community, and living in a multifaith society.