Short Courses in Religious and Moral Education: 30 Years On

William Liston (Former R.E. Adviser, Diocese of Motherwell)

Photo by George Milton on

It is thirty years since the Scottish Catholic Education Commission published Short Courses in Religious and Moral Education. The document introduced four possible new courses: Christianity Today; A World of ValuesLiving in a Plural Society and Issues of Belief – all designed for pupils in S3 and S4.

The publication was significant for several reasons, not least because it was the first Catholic religious education document to make it possible for pupils – during the time allocated for so-called ‘core’ religious education – to gain a Religious Education qualification from the Scottish Exam Board.

This development came about as a result of a series of discussions between representatives of the Catholic Education Commission and the Scottish Exam Board. Aims of short courses developed for use in non-denominational schools, e.g. “to promote an enquiring, critical and sympathetic approach to the study of religion”, were adapted for use in Catholic schools by the addition of two other aims relating to catechesis, namely: “to assist pupils to consider the implications of Christian belief in their lives” and “to assist pupils in preparing to make an adult commitment to God in faith” (p.6). Significantly, it was agreed that choice of course content would remain entirely in the hands of the Catholic Education Commission.

For the writers of the Catholic Short Courses, religious education sought to accomplish two tasks: 1. to develop pupils’ knowledge and understanding of the areas of man’s religious search for meaning, value and purpose – what they described as ‘education in religion’ (p.3) – and 2. to be a form of catechesis by promoting the development and maturing of faith – what they described as ‘education in faith’ (ibid.p.3).

In choosing the term ‘education in faith’ instead of the more commonly applied ‘catechesis’, the writers underlined their emphasis on the educational value of the Short Courses. This focus on educational value can be seen in the significant changes the courses made to hitherto standard aspects of both learning and teaching – in particular, to the balance between skills and content, and to methods of assessment.

The writers had noted that “many well-intentioned R.E. teachers have found to their cost that merely telling teenagers what the Church’s teaching on a particular topic is fails to motivate or interest” (ibid. p.7). Instead, they advised that skills such as “Active Learning, Resource-based Learning, Investigation and Discussion be part of normal classwork in the Short Courses” (p.7) and suggested that a balance of whole-class teaching, group activities and individual work should be the norm at the S3/4 stage.

In relation to assessment, the writers again suggested significant changes to standard practice. Specifically, they made a distinction between the traditional kind of assessment which takes the form of an end-of-term test, and what they termed ‘assessment in learning and teaching’whereby pupils address a number of learning outcomes throughout the course, with each outcome being assessed individually, thereby making assessment “an ongoing and integral part of the learning and teaching process” (p.9).

This latter form of assessment was a new initiative – one which challenged the view of many Catholic teachers of the time that “assessment has no place in the R.E. classroom” (p.9). Teachers were no doubt concerned that if less gifted pupils received a lower mark in the end-of-term test, they might develop negative feelings towards religious education. (I myself remember similar feelings when scoring only 35% in my third-year religious education test! – at that time referred to as ‘C.D.’ – Christian Doctrine).

To allay such concerns, the writers offered a series of mitigating proposals, specifically that:

– assessment will “be ungraded. There will be no order of merit”;

– “in the attainment of each learning outcome pupils must be informed of tasks which contribute to summative assessment”;

– “normal classroom activities will provide the evidence for the greater part of assessment”;

– “pupils who have not been successful must have the opportunity to be re-assessed after appropriate consolidation” (p.10).  

It is interesting to note, however, that the writers acknowledged “that there may be some well-motivated and diligent pupils who still fail to achieve all the learning outcomes” (ibid.p.10). In this circumstance, the writers suggested that schools or dioceses “consider the possibility of awarding such pupils some form of Certificate of Course Completed” (ibid.p.10).

In summary, the writers of the Short Courses made substantial efforts to ensure that religious education engaged pupils in a range of educational activities more specifically tailored and appropriate to the teenage stage of development. Furthermore, in proposing a vision of religious education as both ‘education in religion’ and ‘education in faith’ the writers made a significant contribution to the development of R.E. in Catholic secondary schools in Scotland. They would no doubt be in wholehearted agreement with Fr. Stephen Reilly, who in a recent Cloisters blog asserted that “the key is for R.E. to be truly educational”.

Thirty years on, the principles of the Short Courses retain their relevance in the ongoing debates over such issues as assessment in RE, certification of core RE, and the balance of education and catechesis in the current This is Our Faith era.

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