Monday, December 1, 2008

Suggested Questionnaire

Here is a questionnaire I would like put to all school children in all schools, at various ages. I'd be very interested in the results.


(i) It's a good thing for [child's religion] children to be at school with children of other or no religion.
(ii) If you disagree with someone's religion, it's OK to say so.
(iii) I have to have a religion.
(iv) People without religion are more likely to be bad (follow up question - if they believe this, why? were they told it?)
(v) We get to ask lots of questions and discuss things in religion class.
(vi) My teacher tells me what I must believe about religion.
(vii) We pray at school.
(viii) My teacher makes it clear it's up to us what we believe about religion.
(ix) I have heard people from other religions talk about what they believe.
(x) I have heard a humanist/atheist talk what they believe.
(xi) All religions are equally true.
(xii) There is only one true religion.
(xiii) There are no true religions.
(xiv) If I didn't believe in [child's religion], my teacher or my school would be angry with me.
(xv) I am free to choose my own religion.
(xvi) I know quite a lot about some other religions.
(xvii) I know quite a lot about what atheists and humanists believe.
(xviii) I shouldn't question my teacher about whether [child's religion] is true.
(xix) At school, we sometimes think and talk about whether [child's religion] is really true.
(xx) It's best to be friends only with people of the same religion as you.

I'd be particularly keen to put this questionnaire alongside a questionnaire for their teachers aimed at revealing the teacher's own perception of what they are doing and see whether they match up. Would be interesting!

Also, to compare answer to question (v) with answers to (iii), (xiv), (xviii) and especially (xix) [my guess is this would reveal that though many RE teachers encourage "discussion" it's of a very stage-managed and superficial sort.]

What kind of answers would you predict for various different kinds of school, and why?

What answers would constitute worrying or unacceptable answers?


few more questions:

(xxi) I might get in trouble at school if I said I didn't believe in [child's religion]
(xxii) My parents would be angry if at school we discussed whether [child's religion] is really true.
(xxiii) My parents would be unhappy if I was friends with children of a different or no religion.
(xxiv) My parents would be angry if my school told me I can choose whether or not to believe in [child's religion].

I think a lot of schools are concerned about (xxii), which is one reason why critical discussion of religion, while officially encouraged, tends in reality to be stage-managed and toothless.


Freethinker said...

I'd be interested to know whether you'd be permitted to put such a questionnaire to school children, and if not, why not.

Perhaps this is something the British Humanist Association could assist with.

Paul said...

You could always set up an online version first, in order to determine factor structure, reliability, validity and so on. Plus you would have some data to bolster an ethics application.

Mike said...

I don't think I have anything very useful to contribute at this stage but I'd very much like to see the results of this. Assuming, of course, that you'd be allowed to conduct such a questionnaire.

Toby said...

I too would love to see this widely distributed in schools. I taught (briefly) in Primary and I can guess what some of the answers might be. (I was asked once by a Year 3 boy in a, not particularly rabid, CE Primary "Is it naughty not to belive in God or Jesus?" I assured him that it was not.) Unfortunately, I now teach Post 16 so cannot be of any practical help.

I also think you would run into lots of opposition. Faith Schools, in particular, seem to view how they teach RE as their business alone. And even in non-faith schools there is a requirement for RE and compulsory worship. As neither of these are popular with most teachers, they are inevitably left to the "faith-heads" on the staff. Exactly the ones who would need to administer the questionnaire - and the least likely to do so.

Tony Lloyd said...

I think you'd have a real challenge in stopping schools from influencing the answers their pupils give.

The influence could be reduced by explaining the steps taken to ensure confidentiality. But some headteachers are going to slip in an assembly on how open minded their school is and whilst it is confidential on an individual level the good name of the school is at stake etc...

You could keep the actually questions secret (no Tory MP's in on the deal!) or you could pretend that the questionnaire is just screening process for a series of interviews/taking a base line for a different survey/some other diversion. Got it! The test is not a test of attitudes but wholly a test of consistency in thinking: throw in some duplicates and get the teachers worrying about the wrong thing.

Anonymous said...

Tried this out on my primary aged children and - unsurprisingly - they came out as uncritically respectful of all religions. I say unsurprisingly since they are at a community primary school in East London which is extremely multicultural and where I guess teaching children to respect each other, whatever their belief system, is key in maintaining some sort of peace. Interestingly my lot thought it to be a strange idea that anyone should get a rough time because they don't have a religion - the consensus being that all their friends know that my lot don't have a religion and they are fine with that. But at the same time they were clueless about what a humanist or atheist is. I don't know at what age you can introduce the idea of getting children to question whether in fact some beliefs or some practices associated with a belief system are dubious.

Incidentally despite all this multicultural stuff my lot have recently come home with a letter from school asking them to take part in the Franklin Graham inspired Samaritan's Purse Christmas shoebox charity. Seems an inappropriate choice in a school where Christians are certainly not the majority religion.

David B. Ellis said...

And even in non-faith schools there is a requirement for RE and compulsory worship.

As an American this business about compulsory RE and worship in school seems so strange. A religion class I can understand but compulsory worship? How would that be done in a school with children from a variety of religions?

Its funny how the least religious nations are often also the ones without separation of church and state.

Stephen Law said...

With reference to your recent post “Suggested Questionnaire” I hope you find our school Religious Studies Sixth Form blog site encouraging – . It is written by students and myself as we work our way through the Edexcel Religious Studies (Philosophy and Ethics) A-Level paper.

It is essential that we allow students the opportunity to explore critically and reflectively the nature and truth of religious perspectives. At our non-faith school dealing with working class pupils just under 50% of our students opt to take it for A-Level (of around 350 students). The department consists of one atheist, one agnostic and one so-called ‘faith-head’! Internet media like blogs allows students to take a rigorous look at faith issues. No ‘stage managed discussions’ here. In addition we went to see A C Graylings play ‘On Religion’ and got an audience with him in the bar afterwards! Also we have invited Dr Denis Alexander from the Faraday Institute, Cambridge to lecture on the relationship between religion and science preparing students with critiques from Dawkins and Peter Atkins to address the balance (details and pictures on the blog!)

I believe you are referring to religious education as the old religious instruction which by the nature of our current PGCE students (one from an agnostic philosophical background and the other a Religious Studies student in the tradition of Ninian Smart) is dying out.

Kind regards,

Simon Hardwick

Stephen Law said...

Thanks for the link and info Simon. Yes encouraging. But is old style religious instruction really dying out?

I was struck by two things recently - the Telegraph report that 35% of young British Muslims' think the appropriate penalty for anyone who leaves the faith is death, and Islamia school headmaster Ibrahim Lawson's long correspondence on this website on which he encourages and defends "indoctrination".

Clearly, not all schools are getting the message across that religious belief is a matter of free choice - or something they should think critically about.

I also have direct experience of being asked to talk in nice middle class religious schools where there's suddenly be a "problem" about me speaking when it's discovered I'd be making a case for atheism. I have come across e.g. a leading grammar school where teachers have been told not to express points of view at variance with religious belief because parents threaten to remove their children. Even at my own nice local church school, my daughter's Muslim friends are not allowed to our house to visit, because we are not Muslim. A local Muslim school was set up in the grounds of a State school but with different times so the Muslim children would not come into contact with non-Muslim children. I could go on and on and on. There is a serious problem here, I think. A much more serious problem than many realize. A problem exacerbated by an explosion in the number of state-funded religious schools (on which there are, in reality, very few checks when it comes to RE - their pupils could certainly come out looking very iffy on my questionnaire, even while getting good OFSTED results). My Questionnaire is designed to find out. The fact that we know that many religious people would object to such a questionnaire confirms that they do have something to hide. Otherwise, why object?

But obviously there are plenty of good schools - and yours, Simon, is certainly one of them.

Maya said...

I think this would be a hugely interesting set of questions to ask (although you could probably shorten the list and simplify some of the questions - I don't think that many primary age pupils would know what 'atheist' or 'humanist' means).

As 'anonymous' says, at many community schools the main drive behind RE teaching is (1)getting through what they have to for OFSTED and (2)encouraging multi-cultural tolerance. Enabling children to ask big questions about their own religious upbringing or others' is not high on the agenda.

The local authority RE syllabus (at least where I live - Herts) seems to be designed purposefully to keep discussion at at the most superficial level. It focuses on the (nicer) practises rather than the truth-claims of religion, and is based on the underlying (but never stated or examined) acceptance that 'all religions are different ways of relating to god'. Which may be great for keeping the peace but puts a full stop on any kind of critical discussion. My son came home from school one day and asked me 'is it illegal to say that god doesn't exist'.

But I can see why teachers just go through the motions on RE. Why start a potentially explosive discussion, that isn't required by the curriculum and may upset some children and parents...

I wonder whether a useful approach would be to use something like this questionnaire (in online form) as part of a toolkit for teachers to help them to think about and assess their own school RE policies and to start classroom discussions that go deeper. So rather than just researching them or assessing them, you would be giving them immediate feedback (e.g. whole class charts, comparisons to other schools, comparisons between their own policy and the outcomes as seen by pupil etc...) that they could use as starting points for their own thought and for direct classroom discussion.

Stephen Law said...

That's a very good idea, Maya. Trouble is how to bring it to a wide audience and encourage people to use it...

Online version also a good suggestion.

Stephen Law said...

And thanks, too, anonymous for trying it out.

Toby said...

A further comment on RE teaching. I have a problem with RE in schools (as distinct from collective worship - which is a whole other can of worms) for a number of reasons:

1. (As I said above) it is often taught by "faith-heads" - those who are more likely to be biased.

2. It sanitizes. There's lots of teaching about the nice sides and practice of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc, with no mention of pogroms, treatment of Palestinians, the position of women, the Caste system, etc. It's like teaching about WWII without mentioning the holocaust.

3. It discourages evaluation. From Key Stage 1 onwards, children are expected to evaluate the learning they do. Whether it is scientific theories, historical accounts, etc. There's nothing like this in RE as far as I know.

4. It doesn't allow (as far as I know) what might be called the free-market of beliefs: i.e. that it is possible to change or abandon religion. He's a Muslim, she's a Christian, etc; as if this was fixed.

5. Lack of belief (atheism, humanism, whatever) is given very little (if any) space. I wrote up an RE policy for a school and inserted the words "or none" into all the nice phrases about "respecting those of other faiths".

There. Got that off my chest!

Stephen Law said...



Thank you for your reply.

You wrote: “I have come across e.g. a leading grammar school where teachers have been told not to express points of view at variance with religious belief because parents threaten to remove their children”

I had a similar issue when I brought in a practicing gay priest for a conference on family with some members of staff – non religious! - refusing to sit at the same table as him over lunch. Sometimes taboos need to be challenged, good well taught RE has the potential to do this. However I also had a similar parental and senior staff problem when I brought in a Jehovah’s Witness elder to speak on their peculiar system of belief. Staff concerned over mass indoctrination! Give our pupils some credit. Generation Y are more savvy than we give them credit for.

It is possible the problems you mentioned are localised due to the variety of cultural make up across the country. Locally Agreed Syllabus are supposed to reflect this difference which is why some oppose a national RE framework. I don’t doubt the issues you raise, however good well taught RE with well trained specialists has the potential to be very positive. It is the fundamentalists who do not like their faith challenged. I have a local clergyman who has allowed four of his five children to go through RS A-Level so they are challenged in their faith positions – for that purpose (incidentally they all came out with A’s and one is studying Philosophy at Norwich).

Good RE challenges – that is how I was trained and how we train out RE PGCE students. RE is changing. The last vestiges of Christendom are fading and a growing robust subject taking its place.

Kind regards – again!


Toby and Maya,

Speaking as someone who is an RE teacher (ex-head of department now senior leader) in a non-faith school, I wish to address some of the misconceptions you have about the state of RE teaching today. My expertise is in the secondary sector and I have taught in three contrasting schools including a predominantly white working class school and a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic ‘inner London’ school.

1. I have addressed the issue of ‘faith heads’ in my previous comment. Some of my students, who are high achieving, continue to study Philosophy at Degree level then return to become RS teachers (we have had three past students in the past four years). I am sure Stephen teaches many students who come to philosophy through the route of Religious Studies. The issue of bias is tricky. Everyone has bias and comes to these topics with a view or opinion atheist, agnostic or believer. It is essential the teacher recognizes their own bias and allows students, perhaps even giving pupils the opportunity to challenge the teachers bias in lessons. Bias will always be there – it just needs to be out in the open. It is important for teaching to give students the tools to critique others and their own opinions/assumptions.
2. Schemes of work often do address these issues (speaking of myself and other professional colleagues within RE associations). You cannot teach Islam without addressing issues of fundamentalism. However Daily Mail Islam (and for that matter other faiths as well), which often gets presented in the classroom by students, also needs challenging especially with traditions within Islam like Sufism.
3. Evaluation plays a huge role in assessment across key stages in RE. AT1: Learning about religion; AT2: Learning from religion. The last attainment target brings the evaluation – what, if anything, can we learn from religion? In Year 7 the QCA SOW address philosophical, mythical and scientific versions of beginnings and origins of the universe. Our very first assessed essay deals with mythical and scientific approaches to beginnings. We also include evaluation and..wait for it..analysis!
4. Notions of conversion are addressed as well as change of belief. In a unit of suffering for Year 7 we explore how/why people who are religious may well lose faith.
5. Your final point has some value. Our department is now called religion, philosophy and ethics, to reflect to changing national approach to RE teaching. There are no explicit references to Humanism/atheism/non-belief in KS3 (QCA) as critiqued by the Secular society. However, living in a post Christendom society you may well be pleased to know that the default position of many of our students (especially in white working class schools) is non-religious. Therefore by implication this is our starting point, evaluation point and point of critique. Confessional faith plays a very small role within RE departments. However in the ‘inner London’ school the situation as different with a wide variety of faith positions represented. I can see how some of the issues you presented may well be true here.

Finally on 9/11 and the aftermath I was teaching in an ‘inner London’ school. For three weeks we had to ditch the scheme of work and focus on the issues this event brought up. There were some limited tensions between Muslims, who although not agreeing with the atrocity, felt the pain of Palestinian occupation and understood why the bombers did it. We had Christians blaming Muslims for events half way across the world. It is here, in events like this when RE has the potential to step up to the mark. It was here I had the privilege of encouraging dialogue between groups who misunderstood one another. Here where potential seeds of fundamentalism were rooted out as we addressed and struggled through these issues together. Here where common ground was found between those of differing faiths and those with none. Not in the name of multiculturalism – but in the name of tolerance. Differences were not put aside, but rather explained and challenged.

I hope someone within the profession is useful within this discussion.

Kind Regards,


Mr Simon Hardwick
Assistant Headteacher
Rainham Mark Grammar School

Maya said...


It is extremely interesting having an RE teacher in on this discussion.

One of the things I found frustrating about Stephen's book "The War for Children's Minds" is that it was that it mainly stuck to the philosophical arguments with the likes of Melanie Phillips, rather than giving an insight into real-life approaches to teaching about religion and morality in schools. I felt like it was half a book (and could have done with the answers to this questionairre, and involvement of a few more RE teachers).

Anyway, as you might have gathered my experience of RE is from primary school (as a parent) and it accords more with Toby's experience (points 2-5, of course in primary school all subjects are taught by the class teacher). I do hope that secondary school approach is more like the liberal, questioning one you describe.

I wonder what do you think of primary school RE - are there critical skills, knowledge and attitudes that students need to have from KS1 and 2 in order to be able to engage in critical discussions at KS3? What are they, and do the students coming up to you have them?

From my reading of the KS1 and 2 scheme of work here in Herts it seems to say all the right words about openness, questioning, diversity etc.. but at the same time it sets up activities which seem perversely designed to ensure that time is taken up in busy-work while politely avoiding the big questions about death, god, truth etc..that 5-11 year olds love to ask.

For example in year 1 for the lesson religious authority , children were given homework to think of someone important to them, who they look to for guidance in different areas of life. The idea was to come up with parents, teacher, police, lollipop lady etc..Then they have a discussion in class about the role of religious authority figures. Similarly the lesson on special books they were asked to write about books that are special to them and then they have a discussion about what books are special to different religions and how they treat them.

The idea seems to be not to talk about why religious authorities and ideas might claim respect or knowledge but to align them with the things that students already have reason to respect. And crucially not to make a distinction between supernatural claims on authority and rational ones. The key learning, other than the general knowledge key words like bible, vicar, rabbi etc.. seems to be that religion is 'special' should be treated with 'respect'.

In year 2 they talk about 'what is god like' (ideas from different religions), but it isn't till year 6 that the possibility of gods not existing gets discussed (and even then only under the heading of - 'questions that it is not possible to answer')

It does seem to me that there is an agenda here which is not about helping children develop critical thinking skills.

The AT2 'learning from religion' objectives about right and wrong, evidence, knowledge and opinion, belonging, values, celebration etc... are all important things, but they could equally well be explored through Aesops Fables, Greek Myths or philosophy for kids. As you say, 'learning from religion' begs the question what, if anything, can we learn from religion about these questions. But the fact that teaching about religion and morality are tied together for 9 years of compulsary education seems to give the strong message that that question has been answered.

I know primary school RE is not your area, but I would be interested in your thoughts.

Toby said...

Thanks for the response. I may have exaggerated some of my points, and most of my knowledge of RE is from the Primary sector, but I stand by some of it.

Whilst I am sure there is good RE practice (maybe more at Secondary and Post 16 in the the non-faith schools?); I still think there are also some problems.

Ceretainly it is good that the "darker side" of religions is discussed - and the may happen in KS 3 and above - but it isn't lower down. Yet, children are taught about the holocaust in Primary, so it can't be a matter of such things being too "unpleasant" for them. I'm sure that teachers deal with such things when raised by pupils, but there is little guidance.

I am also glad to hear that conversion and loss of faith are addressed in good practice. I wonder how true this is of faith schools? (RE is, I believe, outside of the National Curriculum, so some schools may have very different teaching at yet still be meeting legal obligations.)

I am also glad that RE is bringing students to Philosophy. I came to the subject via another route (Ancient History A Level) as at 16 I would never have considered studying RE voluntarily. That was a long time ago, but I fear that the name "Religious Education" still puts some off. If it has changed as you say - perhaps time for some "re-branding"? I know there's an AS in Critical Thinking - this would have appealled to me more.

BandF said...

Hi its Frances Tilda friend,
Im realy interested in philosophy. I have done the questionnaire and I think it is very interesting. these are some of my main questions:

What would it be like to be someone else?
Why am I me? Why aren't I someone else?

I have millions of questions and perhaps I can talk to you out of school.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Frances

Glad you liked the questionnaire - and yes of course I'd be happy to talk about philosophy sometime. Maybe when next you're round?

all the best