Religion in Education: Findings from the Religion and Society Programme Mon 25 July–Tues 26 July 2011 ahrc/esrc religion & society programme

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Warwick Religions & Education Research Unit
Religion in Education:

Findings from the Religion and Society Programme
Mon 25 July–Tues 26 July 2011


Scarman Conference Centre, University of Warwick

Conference Report
by Dr Bill Gent
Religion in Education: Findings from the Religion & Society Programme
The picturesque Scarman Conference Centre at the University of Warwick was the venue for a major conference that took place from lunchtime on Monday 25 July to late afternoon, Tuesday 26 July 2011. The conference had been jointly organised by the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme and the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit (WRERU), the latter hosting the event. Planning and administration, under the watchful gaze of Dr Elisabeth Arweck and colleagues, appeared faultless.

The conference provided the opportunity for various researchers and research groups involved in the Religion and Society Programme (the largest cluster of research projects on Religion and Society ever to be conducted in the UK) to present their insights and findings to others as well as to have them questioned and, if needs be, challenged.

About 100 delegates, including several from mainland Europe (Sweden, Norway, Finland, Estonia, representing various universities and the Oslo-based European Wergeland Centre) attended the conference. At both the human and the academic level, however, the events that had happened in Norway the previous Friday were never far from delegates’ minds - in that themes such as diversity, identity, social justice and inter-religious understanding threaded their way through virtually all conference presentations.

As is the nature of such meetings, the conference worked on two planes: the formal (the programmed events) and the informal (friendship-renewal and contact-making).

The formal programme began with brief welcomes and introductions by the heads of the two sponsoring organisations. Professor Robert Jackson, Director of WRERU, set the context for the conference, noting the wide range of organisations and groups represented at the event. Professor Linda Woodhead, Director of the Religion and Society Programme, then outlined the nature of that programme and expressed her delight at the dissemination and discussion that the conference would encourage.

In two instances, papers were formally commented on by respondents who had agreed to take on this task in advance of the conference. As it happened, the two respondents—one Swedish and one Estonian—and another Swedish colleague presenting a paper were non-native speakers of English. Each apologised for her lack of skills in speaking English … and then proceeded to express her comments with eloquence and precision. English-only speakers quietened in admiration.

The following short vignettes of a sample of the presentations will, I hope, provide a feel for the scope and variety of the proceedings.

Professor Jim Conroy and associates outlined some of the findings of work based at Glasgow University, including the power of ‘forum theatre’ in highlighting the mixed messages that RE classroom practice can sometimes give to students (particularly the teacher’s refrain, ‘We’ll deal with that later’). The nervous laughter of many in the conference audience showed that realisation had dawned.

In contrast to the ethnographic methods used by most researchers, Professor Leslie Francis gave an outline of the WRERU project in his presentation “Researching Attitudes towards Religious Diversity: Quantitative Approaches from Social Psychology and Empirical Theology”. Not only did his spirited presentation remind listeners of the powerful role of quantitative research as a balance to the qualitative, but his grasp of underlying philosophical and theological issues, informed by a dry humour, was also most impressive. But was I the only one who had to remind himself of what ‘Likert Scaling’ was …?

Jasjit Singh, currently carrying out PhD research at the University of Leeds, presented on “Keepers of the Faith: Formative Influences in the Lives of British Sikh Religious Transmitters”, offering insight into the transmission of Sikh values. This was enlivened by an impish sense of humour—as shown in, following a very animated Powerpoint slide, his throw-away comment, “Sorry, I’ve been on a course.”

Dr Mathew Guest of Durham University briefly outlined his and his colleagues’ research in his presentation “The University Campus as a Site of Religious Expression: Allegiance, Controversy and Community among Campus-based Christians in England”. Their three-year project involves a nation-wide survey of undergraduate students, supplemented with qualitative case studies, examining how the university experience shapes on-campus expressions of religious and moral values. Amongst other things, the findings show that the impact of campus Christian Unions was less than might have been expected.

WRERU itself was represented by a number of the team both attending and presenting at the conference. The presentation by Judith Everington on “’We’re all in this together, the kids and me’: Beginning Teachers’ Use of their Personal Life Knowledge in the RE Classroom” excited particular interest from the audience, not only because of its obvious relevance to daily classroom practice (the extent to which teachers are willing to share ‘life knowledge’—details of their own lives—with their students), but also because of the accessibility of the presentation. It was the kind of presentation—particularly its inclusion of concepts like ‘the tyranny of intimacy’—that left the listener pondering.

Other presentations focused on: “Young People’s Attitudes to Religious Diversity”; the “Youth on Religion Project”; “Christian Youth Work as Religious Education”; “Religious Education in Two Contrasting Christian-Ethos Schools”; and “Sexual Knowledge among Religious Young Adults”. Three WRERU Associate Fellows gave brief accounts of their own research enterprises and how findings were being disseminated: on the role of Qur’anic memorisation within the Muslim community, on community cohesion and teachers’ continuing professional development, and on motivation in secondary religious education.

With such a full and rapid-paced conference programme, the refreshment breaks were much appreciated as, too, was the live jazz music provided after the evening meal. After such a heavy diet of research findings, it was somehow reassuring to see Professor Bob Jackson playing a trombone as a member of the (international) jazz quintet and to learn that the casually dressed person plucking the double bass with great gusto has a PhD in the field of Graeco-Roman religion. Let the syncopated rhythm play on…


Associate Fellow, WRERU, University of Warwick

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