How RE lessons can reduce prejudice and improve community relations

With hate crime on the rise in UK schools, researchers are calling for schools and policy makers to adopt new approaches to reduce prejudice and foster positive community relations.

Academics from the University of Bristol joined forces with the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE) in the Shared Space Project to explore the best ways of promoting tolerance and understanding within RE lessons.

Their findings come at a critical time for the sector: schools are becoming increasingly more diverse with around 30 per cent of students identifying as ethnic minority. Although such diversity is beneficial, sometimes this can cause tension which has led to a rise in the number of hate crimes related to religion or beliefs.

The Shared Space Project specifically looked at how social psychology research and theory can inform teaching methods to improve community relations. This project was motivated by research which has found that small scale changes such as sharing stories that value diversity or using seating plans may be successful in encouraging pupils from different ethnic/racial groups to interact with each other.

In a recent policy briefing , they argue that ’understanding how to promote positive community relations in the UK is of urgent importance for current and future generations’.

The Shared Space Project showcases how a theory in social psychology called ’the contact hypothesis’ has the potential to meet this goal. It has been described as one of the best ways to improve relations among groups that are experiencing conflict.

Meeting the four conditions outlined in the contact hypothesis - equal status, common goals, cooperation and authority support - in the classroom can encourage meaningful interaction and conversation between different groups, thereby promoting positive community relations.

As a subject that explores different faiths and cultures, RE is ideally placed to promote positive community relations. Recommendations for how the contact hypothesis can be successfully applied to RE classrooms can be found in the freely available toolkit developed by the researchers and NATRE.

Ben Wood, Chair of NATRE, said: "Promoting positive community relations is an important part of a school’s work, and it is clear that good quality religious education can play a vital role in this. The research informed practices outlined in the toolkit provide clear and accessible advice, enabling teachers to realise this aspect of a school’s work.

"NATRE has welcomed the opportunity to work collaboratively on this research and feel the findings of the Shared Space project offer invaluable insights for the RE classroom and beyond. Improving community relations, however, should not be the task of single subjects and needs to be a whole school effort."

Dr Shelley McKeown Jones, from the School of Education at the University of Bristol, said: "Teachers in RE and beyond should be offered the opportunity to engage with research expertise on how to promote positive community relations during their professional development. Part of the Shared Space Project’s agenda is to determine the best way to support teachers in this."

One of the key policy implications from the research urges the Department for Education to ensure that teachers have the time and resources they need to promote positive community relations in the school ethos and across the curriculum.

The publication of this toolkit is timely, as the government has this month published its Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper to explore how we can build stronger, more united communities. Local and national policy makers should draw on research expertise when developing policy to promote positive community relations in education.