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Designing a secular religious studies curriculum

Written by: Ben Arscott
7 min read

The Religious Education Council has warned that without good religious education (RE) teachers, religious discrimination could rise. Yet, 2017–18 saw a third of training places for initial teacher training in RE unfilled (Sellgren, 2018). This is perhaps symptomatic of one of the deeper problems with RE: a lack of clarity about the purpose, disciplinary methods and content that should be taught through the subject (Georgiou  and Wright , 2018).

Two  years  ago, I  was in the  lucky position  of designing a religion  curriculum from scratch. I  had joined East London Science  School, a free school that was committed  to teaching religion through a knowledge-rich  curriculum. By ‘knowledge-rich’, the school meant  that the intrinsic worth of the content should take  precedence over teaching generic skills. Gaining knowledge  is empowering because  it allows  students to  make sense of  a complex world  (Young  , 2009). Below,  I explain my efforts to  develop a knowledge-rich curriculum  that resolves some of the confusion  at the heart of the subject, avoiding  the pitfalls of either teaching content simply  because it was traditional or teaching disparate  facts superficially in an effort to equip students  for society.

The planning process

Summer  Turner’s  research provided  the structure for designing  the curriculum. In Secondary Curriculum  and Assessment Design, Turner lays out a  seven-step strategy to design a curriculum:  1) determine the purpose, 2) decide on the key  principles, 3) set the expectations, 4) determine the  big ideas, 5) determine the content, 6) determine the sequence,  7) review (Turner, 2016).


Turner  explains  that the purpose  of the curriculum ‘should  represent you and the school’.  Two relevant aspects of the school’s  vision were ‘the best pupils are open  to questioning their own thought’ and ‘we  can judge our success by the impact our pupils  have on the world’. Consequently, the curriculum would  need to foster self-reflection and offer students content  that challenged their thinking. The curriculum purpose that  was developed was to enable students to appreciate how the metaphysically  inaccessible can affect human behaviour. ‘The metaphysically inaccessible’ should  be understood  as entities or  forces that religions  posit exist yet there is  no verifiable method of evidencing  their existence. Examples could include  the afterlife, souls or karma. The purpose  represents both my and the school’s values, as  it establishes its goal of students becoming reflective  about the complex nature of religions. If the purpose was  achieved it would empower students, because they would have a  nuanced understanding of religions in the face of the reductive  generalisations and simplistic narratives plaguing the image of religion  in the popular press.


Determining  the key principles  within RE is difficult  because it lacks clear disciplinary  foundations. Religion is shaped by disciplines  including theology, philosophy, history and the various  social sciences, each of which has its own conventions.  Richard Kueh argues that the multidisciplinary approach of  RE should be embraced (Kueh  , 2018). Consequently, the curriculum  principles I developed were determined by the subject’s purpose and  each discipline’s method of enquiry. The first principle was that each  religion deserved to be studied on its own terms. This way, the theology  of each religion would get the position it deserved in order to explain each  religion’s internal logic. A second curriculum principle was that each religion should  be assessed through its historical and sociological context. Finally, in order for students  to appreciate how  the metaphysically  inaccessible can influence  behaviour, students needed to  understand a repertoire of several  different religions. So, a third, guiding  principle was that students should study a  range of religions in detail across Key Stage  3.

Expectations and big ideas

Establishing  the curriculum’s  expectation involved  considering what people  with expertise on religion  can do. One thing that experts  have in common is that they are  well informed. Perhaps more meaningful  than the number of facts they know is  their ability to conceptualise and categorise  knowledge in different ways (Willingham  , 2009).  Crucially for RE, this involves being able to distinguish  the aspects that make up religions. This ability is built into  the curriculum’s purpose as it presupposes a distinction between a  religion’s metaphysics and its ritualistic or ethical aspects. This, then,  shaped the curriculum’s big ideas, which were sourced in Ninian Smart’s influential  The World’s Religions (Smart, 1989), where he outlines seven dimensions of religions. Smart’s  approach is controversial because belief systems that would traditionally not be seen as  religions, such as Soviet Marxism, can fall under his definition. However, an inclusionary  definition of religion is appropriate for a curriculum, as debates about what belief systems  are on the definitional fringes are  in themselves  educative. I did,  however, adapt Smart’s  dimensions in order to achieve  greater clarity for Key Stage 3  students. So, the big ideas that would  shape the curriculum were also the aspects  of a schema that I wanted the students to develop.  These big ideas were: a) religious narrative, b) metaphysics,  c) doctrines, d) institutional aspects, e) ethics, and f) rituals.  These ideas would underpin the curriculum and its delivery would be  structured around them.


With  the big  ideas established,  the content of the  curriculum could be planned.  Didau and Rose explain that ‘the  most important difference between an  expert and a novice is that a novice  hasn’t had the time or opportunity to build  up the schemas of an expert’ (Didau and Rose, 2016). As  a result, the content had to be planned to provide  the opportunities for the schema of the big ideas to  develop. Schemas cannot simply be imposed on students; instead,  students initially need to learn concrete examples. Or, as Turner  explains, whilst the big ideas are ‘the skeleton, the knowledge… is  the flesh and muscle’ (2016, p. 114). So, each half term, students would  learn about a religion and then each lesson would focus on one of the big  ideas. For example, to teach Hinduism, individual lessons would focus on Hindu  rituals: puja; Hindu narrative: the Ramayana; etc. 


Regarding  sequencing the  curriculum, there  were three major considerations.  Firstly, what best served the coherence  of the subject? Secondly, how could we use  cognitive science to support students in remembering  the content? Thirdly, we needed to consider school-based  factors. Conveniently, the first and second considerations were  mutually supportive. To develop expertise, students needed to categorise  the content using the big ideas and under a schema for each religion. So,  each religion would receive a dedicated half term where the theology of that  religion would be studied. Running through each of these half terms would be the  strands of the big ideas. To support the spacing and interleaving of the content, the  following half term would assess the same religion. Thus, content could be revisited in order  to boost the likelihood of it being stored in long-term memory (Firth, 2018). A final consideration  was school-based factors. Given the school’s commitment to tolerance in the face of extremism, the leadership  wanted the curriculum to address myths and media-misrepresentations of Islam early in a student’s education. Despite  this being an instrumental justification for the sequence, it would not seriously undermine the subject’s coherence, so  half term one of Year 7 was Islam and half term two was assessing Islam. To see the fully mapped curriculum, visit my  blog at


The  review  process should  be constant, although  it is helpful to have  periodical formal reviews  with the whole department and  outsiders. During these reviews,  it is crucial to remember that no  curriculum is perfect and time is severely  limited. The school’s two-year Key Stage 3 reduced  the content that the curriculum could cover and the  lesson time that could be dedicated to contemplating major  questions. If the school had offered a three-year Key Stage  3 then the knowledge could have been consolidated by approaching  the content from different angles, like how different disciplines understand  the relationship between truth and narrative. However, our reviews, so far, have  concluded that the current curriculum stands the best chance of equipping our students  with powerful knowledge. 



Didau D and Rose N (2016) What  Every  Teacher  Needs  to  Know  About  Psychology. Woodbridge: John  Catt  Educational  Ltd.
Firth J (2018) The  application  of  spacing  and  interleaving  in  the  classroom. Impact 2: 23–26.
Georgiou  G and Wright  K (2018) Re-dressing  the  balance. . In: Castelli  M and Chater  M (eds) Manifestos  for  the  Future  of  Religious  Education. London: JKP, pp. 101–114.
Kueh  R (2018) Religious  education  and  the  ‘knowledge  problem’. In: Castelli  M and Chater  M (eds) Manifestos  for  the  Future  of  Religious  Education. London: JKP, pp. 53–69.
Sellgren K (2018) Lack  of  good  Religious  Education  leaves  pupils  at  risk. Available at:  (accessed 2018). [Source]
Smart N (1989) The World’s  Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Turner S (2016) Secondary  Curriculum  and  Assessment  Design. London: Bloomsbury.
Willingham  D (2009) Why  Don’t  Students  Like  School? . San Francisco: Wiley.
Young  M (2009) What  are  schools  for?  Royal  Society  of  the  Arts  lecture. Available at: (accessed 2018).
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