RE within a Holistic view of Education

A Whole School Approach to Integrating Academic and Holistic Personal Development: Placing RE within a Holistic Vision of Education.

Knowing where to start is often a problem when faced with such a broad topic but I would like to thank you Vince and the RE department here at St Angela’s for the invitation to address this conference, the theme of which is indeed close to my heart.  For a long time RE teachers have laboured under the misconception of their peers that their subject is either useful safety valve for the release of tension in an otherwise overcrowded and demanding curriculum or a half hearted attempt on the part of church bodies to maintain their influence over young people that really should be abandoned in the enlightened times in which we live. The sense of struggle for legitimacy has been added to with the rise of so called militant atheism and people like Prof Richard Dawkins arguing that giving children a religious education is comparable to erecting a firewall in their minds against scientific truth. So the conference is timely indeed and takes place now as we enter the tenth year since the introduction of the Junior Certificate Religious Education Syllabus. Indeed my preparation for today was greatly helped by my attendance at a Colloquium organised by Lorraine Gillespie of RE Support Services in Kilkenny in mid December the purpose of which was to initiate a review of the experience of those ten years and I will refer to this later.

The structure for what I propose to say today relates to the topic of the talk which is placing RE within a holistic view of education. I intend to consider what might be meant by a holistic view of education, and to reflect on how a whole school approach to integrating academic and personal development is both possible and indeed necessary if RE is not to fall between the two stools of either championing the academic approach which neglects the formative side or pursuing the personal development aspect in a way which undermines the intellectual credibility of a very important subject in the curriculum. In the last part of the paper I will consider ways in which the RE  Junior and Leaving Cert syllabi can help use to achieve the balance we are seeking.  My own conviction is that these aspects can be done together and done well and I suggest this is in fact taking place in schools all over the country.

A Holistic view of education

In 1996 the International Commission on Education for the 21st Century presented a report to UNESCO entitled: Learning: The Treasure Within and since then the commission has been promoting reflection and discussion on its ideas. In that report it was argued that education throughout life is based on four pillars: Learning to know, Learning to Do, Learning to Live Together and Learning to Be. The authors asserted at the outset that:

“Education should contribute to every person’s complete development – mind and body, intelligence, sensitivity, aesthetic appreciation and spirituality.”[1]

They go on to say that: “The aim of this development is the complete fulfilment of the human person, in all the richness of her or her personality, the complexity of his or her forms of expression and his or her various commitments – as individual, member of a family and of a community, citizen and a producer, inventor of techniques and creative dreamer” [2]

There can be no doubt that here at the highest international level we have a holistic view of education: the focus is on the development of the whole person. While the emphasis in on the individual it is not promoting individualism but rather is seeking to “ensure that everyone has the personal resources and intellectual tools needed to understand the world and behave as fair minded and responsible human beings.”[3]

However just because such international reports are in the public arena does not mean that this view of education will inform policy makers around the world. We know that governments and other bodies involved in education can often be guided by political, economic or religious ideologies that are not concerned with the development of the whole person.

It is easy to think of totalitarian or fundamentalist regimes where education is entirely at the service of those in power but a recent report published in Britain focusing on the education and training of 14-19 year olds came up with very interesting conclusions in relation to the aims of education.

The Nuffield Review of Education is an independent study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, of education and training in England and Wales spanning a six year period from 2003 to 2009 and was published last May. It found that the concerns of the economy and the language of business and commerce were significant influences in shaping educational policy. In their conclusions the review body, headed by Dr Richard Pring from Education dept of the University of Oxford, argued that such an approach meant that education policy lacked coherence and an overall sense of purpose.  In their conclusion authors called for:

The re-assertion of a broader vision of education in which there is a profound respect for the whole person (not just the narrowly conceived “intellectual excellence” or “skills for economic prosperity”) irrespective of ability or cultural and social background, in which there is a broader vision of learning and in which the learning contributes to a more just and cohesive society.[4]

Under “aims and values” the review asserts that:

The impoverished language of “performance management” needs to be challenged as we help young people to find value in what is worthwhile, lead fulfilling lives, gain self esteem, make sense of experience and become responsible members of the community.[5]

So from the point of view of a teacher of Religious Education I find it very encouraging that  significant secular bodies are wholeheartedly supporting a holistc view of education that sits very well with the aims and purposes of Religious Education as currently practiced on this island where we are trying to “help young people find value in what is worthwhile, lead fulfilling lives, gain self esteem, make sense of experience and become responsible members of the community.”

This brings us to the next point I would like to consider which is; the importance of a whole school approach to the integration of academic and personal development. It is necessary to give a little time to reflecting on the framework within which our schools operate and how they are required, under law, to carry out their responsibilities and functions. The reason for doing this is so that we might address the perception that RE is be viewed as an optional extra that can be left to the margins of school life or even simply handed over to parish groups to deal with outside school hours. Both of these opinions have been aired in recent discussion on the place of religion in schools

According to section 9 the Irish Education Act (1998) one of the functions of a school is:

“To promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students and provide health education for them, in consultation with their parents, having regard to the characteristic spirit of the school.”

This too constitutes a holistic view of education and offers a rationale as to why Religious Education has a place in our curriculum but more importantly from the perspective of a whole school approach it recognizes the importance of what it calls the “characteristic spirit of the school” which is sometimes also referred to as the school’s ethos. Without going into detail on the governance of Irish Secondary Schools it is worth pointing out that the preparation, implementation and evaluation of the school plan which is required under the Education Act is the responsibility of the Board of Management whose function is to:

“uphold the characteristic spirit of the school as determined by the cultural, educational, moral, religious, social, linguistic and spiritual values and traditions which inform and are characteristic of the objectives and conduct of the school” (Education Act  15 b).

Therefore when a school, through its staff and Board of Management, is engaged in the process of planning, it is appropriate to say that the whole enterprise should be guided by the values that underpin the very reason for its existence. This view wil be expressed in the School mission statement and means that, theoretically at least, our educational system requires that the school plan supports the integration of the academic and personal development aspects of each child’s education. So that is why we can concur with the statement in the introduction to the syllabus :“while it is the concern of the whole curriculum, built around the principles of knowledge, understanding, skills and attitudes, to promote personal growth and to facilitate the spiritual development of students, Religious Education is well placed to provide students with opportunities for reflection on human experience as well as for understanding and interpretation of that experience.”[6]


The Junior and Leaving Certificate Syllabi in Religious Education

As noted at the outset it is now ten years since the Junior Cert syllabus was introduced and even though there were some heated debates in religion department meetings over its introduction there can be no doubt that there was a readiness in the country for this development. The uptake of the subject for assessment at Junior Cert was astounding with some 25,000 students sitting the exam within a few years of its introduction. However some RE teachers and indeed principals are arguing that it was at a cost. Some of the negative points being made about the introduction of the Syllabus could probably be summarized under the following headings:

–          RE has suffered from becoming like the other subjects: namely exam driven.

–          No time in a packed programme and wide ranging syllabus  for reflection and personal formation

–          The “religious studies” approach which is suitable for people of all faiths and none has led to a relativising of the particular traditions and a lack of familiarity with the students’ own tradition.

These broad headings can then be backed up by anecdotal evidence that has come my way which reports that retreats and pastoral aspects of the religion programme in school have been dropped or curtailed due to pressure of time. Others have suggested that because the major world religions, (Section C of the syllabus) are easier to learn and have a certain novelty value, Section B dealing with Christianity is being undermined especially in relation to exam preparation. Likewise in the journal work the topics being chosen are selected on the basis of easier exam preparation. No doubt there are other criticisms that you are aware of but before going to address some of these points I would like to also comment on the positive aspects of the introduction of the religion syllabi:

–          children are benefitting from the stated aim of the programme and are exposed to a broad range of religious  traditions and to non-religious interpretations of life. That is a very significant development given the changes in Irish society over the last ten years: we have become a more multicultural society, a more secular society and yet the religious / spiritual dimension remains strongly present at a personal level.

–          Given these changes the introduction of the syllabus has helped in the promotion of tolerance and mutual understanding. 

–          It is developing in students the skills needed to engage in meaningful dialogue with those of other, or of no, religious traditions. In my experience this is something that is particularly noted by parents who express amazement at how their children are able to talk freely and respectfully to their fellow students from different religious traditions about their customs and religious practices.


At the outset I mentioned the RE Colloquium orgainsed by RE Support services before Christmas. For me a highlight of that very beneficial get together was the brief input given by four students from a local school on their experience of Junior Certificate Religion.

The girls are now in Transition year but each of them commented very favourably on the experience of Junior Cert Religion :

  • They enjoyed in particular coming to understand other religious traditions the way in which this understanding made them think differently about their own religious tradition and in certain instances appreciate them more.
  • Reflecting on the miracles of Jesus not simply amazing actions but as meaningful signs helped them to understand his mission and to read Scripture as documents of faith.
  • They came to appreciate the importance of ritual in human behaviour
  • They were particularly challenged to think more deeply about morality and the consequences of their choices.

What was most impressive from my perspective was the capacity of these students to engage meaningfully in a reflection on RE. They had the language and they knew how to use it and that provided an eloquent testimony on the value of the course in promoting the holistic development of these young people. They were engaging with the world around them, reflecting on their experience, thinking about the search for meaning and appreciating the richness of a range of religious traditions as well as deepening their awareness of their own tradition.

However, as we might expect, the experience was not without its difficulties. They complained of what they saw as the massive course content, and the difficulty in revising for the exam – the awareness that “these are not answers that we can learn off” and concern over how to express one’s opinions appropriately. In short, it could be said that their problems related to the exam preparation for it.

This highlights the source of much of the perceived tension regarding the so called “academic” teaching of religion. It is important to say that the syllabus does not insist on or demand an exclusively academic approach to the teaching of religion but because we now have a state sponsored method of assessment the focus of much of the teaching and learning is shifting to the final examination. Is worth pointing out here that this is not just a problem for RE.

 Emer Smyth’s longitudinal study of 900 students at second level which is funded by the NCCA is offering very valuable insights into the processes shaping student experiences of the educational system. Among other things it has highlighted the student perception of the exam focus that tends to take over in third year and which has a negative impact on their experience of education.[7] There is more emphasis on covering the course and learning off; the classroom atmosphere changes, becomes more strict  with less variety in teaching methodologies and forms of assessment. The relationship with the teacher also changes and school becomes less enjoyable. Students of higher ability can cope with this but for others it can lead to a disengagement from school work. These findings are important because they highlight how negative aspects of Junior Cert RE are part of a broader problem within the system. While this debate is beyond the scope of today’s conference it does challenge us to consider ways in which the formative aspects of the course can be addressed while still teaching the particular objectives of each section of the syllabus. 

To this end it is useful to consider the findings of the subject inspection reports from the Department of Education. In reviewing five inspection reports relating to the last two years there are valuable recommendations that would help schools and RE teachers in integrating the academic and formative aspects of the course.

In the reports two recommendations tend to recur and they relate to planning and assessment. The inspectors find that while there is very good planning relating to the topics to be taught within a particular time framework , there is much less or no attention being given what the learning outcomes for that same period might be, in other words the teacher will know what has been taught but will  s/he know what the student has learned. These outcomes are given for each section of the syllabus and can be helpful in ensuring that the broad educational aims of the syllabus are achieved.

In the light of this recommendation it is not surprising that the next area of concern for the inspectors is that of assessment. While teachers are widely praised for their setting and correction of homework and giving class tests for the purposes of revision it is suggested that students should be encouraged to develop their understanding and critical skills through the setting of questions that would facilitate reflection and developed thought. Even here the inspectors might be falling into the trap of considering assessment only in terms of settings questions. Might there not be more creative ways of discovering the impact of the course on our students?


It has been said that Education is about giving our young people “roots and wings” and it is a metaphor that can certainly be applied to Religious Education. At this time of change and uncertainty in Irish society we, as religious educators in a system that promotes a holistic view of education, are very well placed to offer a hugely significant service in this area but it is important that we rise to the challenge of the time. We are not in the business of erecting firewalls against scientific thought as Professor Dawkins would hold. Rather we are concerned with the development of what Howard Gardner almost called “spiritual intelligence”.  We acknowledge and celebrate the human capacity and indeed the human need to reach for the skies while being wholly focussed on what is going on in our world. We know that to do this and to do it well is a process that involves the whole person, body, mind and spirit and that is who we are called to be in our teaching, a whole person and it is also  who we address in our teaching, the whole person. If we lose sight of that then there will be no proper integration of the academic and the holistic personal development.