Identifying Principles and Big Ideas for Religious Education

The aim of this project is to address long-standing practical issues concerning curriculum content selection, curriculum coherence and subject relevance in Religious Education (RE) by applying the theories of Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe and Lynne Errickson to develop principles and ‘Big Ideas’ that teachers, curriculum designers, syllabus writers, textbook authors and other stakeholders can use in determining the selection and sequence of RE curriculum content. More specifically, the project’s objectives are:

  • To identify principles for RE that will clarify for political, public and professional audiences the purposes and practices of the subject;
  • To identify a manageable number of Big Ideas for RE which can be used subsequently to determine the selection of curriculum content;
  • To provide a progressive description of each Big Idea, using concepts and language appropriate for pupils at each Key Stage, which can be used subsequently to determine the sequencing of curriculum content; and finally,
  • To use these Big Ideas and progressive descriptors as criteria to select exemplar RE curriculum content and demonstrate how this could be sequenced appropriately across the Key Stages.

In October 2016, Dr Barbara Wintersgill (Honorary University Fellow) and Professor Rob Freathy (Professor of Education) from the University of Exeter, and Professor Michael Reiss (Professor of Science Education, UCL Institute of Education), led a three-day symposium on Dartmoor in the South West of England to kick-start the process of fulfilling the objectives above.  Participants included members of the Religion, Spirituality and Education Research Network, and invited national RE specialists from the fields of academia, inspection and training, in association with teachers. 

The results of these face-to-face discussions and the following correspondence are presented in the following report: 

Big Ideas for Religious Education Report (pdf)


The report presents a new and radical approach to RE. It takes account of recent changes in the government’s policy on curriculum and assessment, and draws on principles that have been implemented in other parts of the world for some years. It identifies six ‘Big Ideas for RE’, which set in narrative form the understanding expected of students aged 5–7, 7–11, 11–14 and 14–16. (See an overview of the Big Ideas for different age groups.) By understanding these ‘Big Ideas’ progressively as they move through compulsory education, students will be equipped to engage intelligently with situations, issues and questions that they will encounter after they leave school. In summary, these ‘Big Ideas’ are that:

(i)  there is an amazing variety of religions, non-religious worldviews and ways of life in the world, each being characterised by continuity and change, and internal consistency and diversity;

(ii)  people use both verbal and non-verbal forms of communication, literal and figurative, to express beliefs, values, experiences and identities;

(iii)  there are many ways in which religious and non-religious worldviews provide guidance on how to be a good person and live a good life;

(iv)  religions and worldviews are about experience as much as belief, and they can help individuals interpret their experiences;

(v)  religious and non-religious worldviews interact with wider communities and cultures, affecting and being affected by politics, artistic and cultural life, social values and traditions, and sometimes having considerable power and influence beyond their own adherents; and

(vi)  religious and non-religious worldviews provide coherent overall accounts, 'grand narratives', of the nature of reality - life, the universe and everything.

If you have any comments or questions about the project, or would like to provide feedback, then please email Rob Freathy or Barbara Wintersgill.


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