Impact Journal Logo

What does ‘scholarly’ RE look like in the primary classroom? Developing disciplinary ‘ways of knowing’ in a coherent primary religion and worldviews curriculum

Written by: Katie Gooch
7 min read

Religious education (RE) as a subject has long existed in a hinterland, outside of the National Curriculum and subject to regional variation through the local Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACREs) and locally agreed syllabus (LAS). Academisation is changing (perhaps challenging) the status quo because academies, while legally required to teach RE, do not have to follow a local syllabus. Discussions on the position of RE as a subject within the curriculum surrounded the publication of the recommendations of the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) Report in 2018 (Tharani, 2018; Cooling, 2020). The 2021 Ofsted research review into RE (Kueh, 2021) usefully drew together much of the research and internal discussions of academics and teachers in England in a document that is influencing thinking on how we design curricula fit for purpose in today’s world.

The 2021 Ofsted research review suggests that curriculum designers should explicitly consider the types of knowledge built within a coherent curriculum. Kueh suggests that in high-quality RE curricula, substantive knowledge, ways of knowing (disciplinary knowledge) and personal knowledge are sequenced and not artificially separated (Kueh, 2021).

With this context in mind, in January 2022 United Learning began designing a primary religion and worldviews (R&W) curriculum for use across multiple primary schools within United Learning and beyond. United Learning is a group of schools including 38 primary or all-through academies and 12 independent schools with primary provision.

(Note: We have made the considered decision to name the curriculum subject ‘religion and worldviews’ to reflect a new direction, as suggested by the CoRE Report (Tharani, 2018), but have used the still legally correct term ‘RE’ in this article for clarity.) 

This was an opportunity as curriculum designers to build specific substantive knowledge and personal knowledge through carefully sequenced, disciplinary ‘ways of knowing’. There were three issues that needed to be problematised within the design, and these will be explored in this case study:

  1. how a well-designed primary curriculum can include the meaningful beginnings of a scholarly approach to a complex subject discipline
  2. how such a curriculum can enable a non-specialist primary teacher to introduce challenging concepts confidently and in a way that children can understand
  3. how both substantive and disciplinary knowledge can be introduced successfully, even to quite young children, who can use their knowledge in sophisticated ways and have respectful and informed conversations about different beliefs.


1) Meaningful beginnings

The disciplinary nature of RE is complex. RE draws from many different scholarly disciplines: theology, religious studies, history, philosophy, history of art, anthropology, psychology, geography and sociology to name a few. A skilled student of RE is able to draw upon the correct skill at the correct moment in our multidisciplinary subject; this is what we hope for in Key Stage 3 and beyond, and what we consider to be the ‘end point’ in our primary curriculum design. The challenge for primary curriculum design is how to weave the meaningful beginnings of the types of conversations, methods and processes of disciplinary scholars into Key Stage 1 and 2 learning. The United Learning secondary curriculum, which some of our primary students will move onto, draws these scholarly threads together by introducing a multidisciplinary approach to the study of religion and worldviews.

We have grappled with this complexity and focused on the explicit development of three principal disciplines of theology, philosophy and social sciences within the curriculum, while not excluding others when appropriate. For example, pupils will often apply historical or geographical disciplinary skills. This approach is not new; the Norfolk agreed RE syllabus (Norfolk County Council, 2019) and the work of Gillian Georgiou (2018) are just two examples. Our thinking broke down these complex disciplines into simple statements of the types of conversation and the methods and processes (tools) (Kueh, 2021) that might be utilised by primary students in accessing substantive knowledge in RE.

Once desired substantive knowledge had been identified, we used these disciplines to determine which scholarly approach (or approaches) might be the most appropriate lens with which to interrogate the subject matter, and what the scholarly approach looks like in relation to the specific substantive content at that specific stage in the student’s development. The disciplinary approach was then used to formulate a ‘big question’ for each unit.

For example, the fairly basic substantive content of the Exodus from Egypt, often approached in Key Stage 1, is transformed by applying a philosophical disciplinary approach with the question ‘What does it mean to be free?’. In this unit, students explore their understanding of freedom to choose, they examine the story of the Hebrew slaves as a journey to freedom, and they think about how the importance of freedom is expressed through symbolism in the Seder. The disciplinary framing of the substantive content is transformational; this is not just a story of 10 horrible plagues, and its significance is so much more than that.

2) Challenging concepts

One barrier to meaningful learning in primary RE is the lack of subject knowledge and confidence of non-specialist teachers. In the process of designing the United Learning curriculum, we have provided comprehensive teacher subject knowledge packs that contain not just the principles of the curriculum design or substantive content, but also both the substantive and disciplinary knowledge required to teach the unit confidently. Teachers know more than the students, are advised how to challenge misconceptions and are signposted to further reading or CPD where appropriate. Subject leads are part of a cross-country network with regular meetings, access to a subject adviser and recorded webinars.

Some teachers find approaching philosophy a challenge with primary students. The purpose of including a philosophical lens within the curriculum is to develop pupils’ critical thinking. We considered the ‘critical REc approach (Easton et al., 2019), aimed at secondary students, and wondered how such an approach might work at primary level. We designed the philosophy aspects as follows:

Philosophers deal with types of conversation that consider:

  • the nature of knowledge, meaning and existence
  • how and whether things make sense
  • issues of right and wrong, good and bad.


Methods and processes used by philosophers include:

  • analysis of the validity of ‘truth’ claims (doubt)
  • development and use of coherent questioning
  • development and analysis of coherent argument
  • understanding of the human quest for knowledge and meaning
  • connecting belief (motivation) with behaviour.


Teachers are equipped to teach complex ideas in an age-appropriate, accessible way through teaching resources. For example, Year 4 students develop philosophical skills in the unit ‘What do we mean by truth?’. Through carefully crafted stories and appropriate discussion, students explore the story of ‘the blind men and the elephant’ and Plato’s cave, and they apply the conceptual learning to their analysis of differing ‘truth’ claims of religious beliefs and the human quest for knowledge and meaning through religion. Initial teacher feedback on the challenge and accessibility of these resources is very positive.

3) Successfully introducing substantive and disciplinary knowledge

To develop students who can use their knowledge in sophisticated ways, and who are equipped to have respectful and informed conversations about religion and belief, students are gradually introduced to disciplinary vocabulary and skills throughout Key Stage 2. Teaching resources provide opportunities for modelled and independent oracy development, as well as explicit, staged introductions to methods and processes through scaffolded examples. As students progress, they will require fewer scaffolds and develop independent disciplinary skills.

By Year 6, students have developed the disciplinary skills to consider the question ‘Why is the resurrection significant to Christians?’ through the lens of a theologian. Students consider their understanding of reliability of sources, looking at who wrote the text, when and for what purpose. Students read the Gospel accounts and compare narratives using explicitly scaffolded lesson resources, and they discuss how a Christian theologian might reconcile the differences. Students discuss the words of Justin Welby’s 2017 Easter sermon and 1 Corinthians 15:14, as well as encounter case studies in individual Christians’ worldviews. This explicit teaching and the careful scaffolding deepen their exploration of the significance of a key Christian belief. We have found that although this is challenging work for our students, it is not beyond their capabilities when the resources are carefully designed, and the teacher is empowered through secure subject and disciplinary knowledge to focus on teaching and engaging with the students on these ‘big ideas’.


Introducing both students and non-specialist teachers to a scholarly, disciplinary primary RE curriculum requires careful construction, resourcing, support and continual response to feedback. A curriculum must be subject to continual improvement; it is never ‘done’. The design requires building meaningful beginnings, small steps, teacher and pupil scaffolding and comprehensive, empowering access to teacher subject knowledge. This approach to curriculum design is ambitious but prepares students for encountering a world in which the messy nature of religion and belief impacts everyone’s lives. Students with these kinds of disciplinary skills can begin to hold respectful and informed conversations and are prepared to apply a broad base of skills in increasingly complex multidisciplinary contexts as they reach Key Stage 3.

    0 0 votes
    Please Rate this content
    Notify of
    Inline Feedbacks
    View all comments

    From this issue

    Impact Articles on the same themes