Professor Rob Freathy
Associate Dean (Education), College of Social Sciences and International Studies


Research interests

Rob Freathy is Professor of Education. His research interests include religious education, education for citizenship, the historiography of 20th century education and the application of historical methods in educational research. His previous research has been theoretical and empirical, as well as historical and contemporary in focus. In his historical work, he has utilised published and unpublished documentary sources, as well as oral history interview data. In his contemporary work, he has used qualitative and quantitative data derived from social scientific fieldwork, including interviews and questionnaire surveys of school students and teachers.

Research projects

His most recent and current research projects include:

(1) Exe Libris: On-line Bibliography (UK History of Education Society)
Through the Exe Libris project, Rob Freathy, William Richardson and Marie Bryce developed an online resource to help historians of education more easily identify scholarly articles relevant to their field of interest that have been published in a broad range of British academic journals. The project originally aimed to digitize data from 56 journals published between 1939 and 2005. The electronic resource produced by this project was named Exe Libris, and hosted by the University of Exeter at, as well as being easily accessible via the History of Education Society's own website ( There have been two stages of development to the database since its introduction. In 2009, Exe Libris was updated to include all articles published in the previously selected journals between the beginning of 2006 and the end of 2008. In 2012, coverage of articles published in the previously selected list of historical journals was extended up to the end of 2011 which saw around 400 articles catalogued and categorised for inclusion in the bibliography. Exe Libris was also expanded to include articles from four major international journals specialising in the history of education: ANZHES Journal (1972-1982) and History of Education Review (1983 onwards), History of Education Quarterly (1961 onwards) and Paedagogica Historica (1961 onwards). As a result of this expansion, over 2,200 articles have been added to the database.
Visit the Exe Libris Online Bibliography

(2) The hidden history of curriculum change in Religious Education in English schools, 1969-1979 (British Academy and Westhill Endowment Trust)
Rob Freathy and Stephen Parker undertook a historical research project with a view to contributing to knowledge about curriculum change in Religious Education (RE) in English schools between 1969 and 1979, with a focus on the controversial Birmingham Agreed Syllabus (1975). Both original archival material and oral life history data were utilised and contextualised within their educational, socio-cultural and political milieu. The research uncovered political processes associated with RE’s development, both locally and nationally, that had been neglected in the existing literature, for example, significant campaigns by secularists and humanists to abolish, reform or establish a secular alternative to, RE; fervent responses by certain Christian groups, including Mary Whitehouse’s well-publicised Save Religion in State Schools campaign; forgotten national policy developments led by the Department of Education and Science and Her Majesty’s Inspectors; and theoretical tensions surrounding the dominance of Christianity in the RE curriculum due to historical and cultural reasons and the need for multi-faith content as a response to the mass immigration of adherents to non-Christian religions.

(3) The Art of Narrative Theology in Religious Education (Bible Society)
This project aims to develop curriculum resources for use with Key Stage 3 pupils using the contemporary biblical paintings of Brian J. Turner ( which show biblical scenes in a quirky, contemporary style that is both engaging and thought-provoking. The project seeks to develop a pedagogy of Religious Education (RE) based upon a narratival framework informed by both narrative theology and narrative philosophy. Working from the narrative assumption that individuals and communities are formed by reading, sharing and living within stories, the project team suggest that such a narratival pedagogy of RE might encourage pupils to think about how the lives of Christians are shaped by their interpretations of biblical narratives, to offer their own interpretations of biblical and other texts, and to consider the stories – religious, non-religious or both - which shape their own lives. In so doing, the project seeks to move away from a 'proof-texting' approach to the Bible towards one in which pupils are enabled to think about the significance of biblical narratives for both Christians and themselves. The resultant pedagogy comprises four phases of learning: encountering narrative; interpreting narrative; understanding narrative in community contexts; and reflecting on narratives of self and others. This pedagogy has been implemented in practice to form a set of commercially-published curriculum materials for use with KS3 students (Freathy, R., Reed, E. D., Davis, A., and Cornwall, S. (2014). The Art of Bible Reading. Buxhall: Kevin Mayhew Ltd).

In this film, Rob Freathy, Esther D. Reed, Anna Davis and Brian J. Turner introduce you to their narrative approach to Religious Education in schools. 

(4) RE-flect: A programme to foster metacognition in the Religious Education classroom (Esmee Fairbairn Foundation)
Rob Freathy, Shirley Larkin, Karen Walshe and Jonathan Doney undertook this project between 2010 and 2012. It was informed by consultative action research principles and with a mixed methods design. Six primary school teachers and 160 pupils (8-10 year olds) took part in the second year of this two year project. With the teachers, the project team sought to create and evaluate metacognitive learning environments - consisting of meta-thinking, worldview and resources zones - in which Religious Education (RE) could be taught in primary schools. As part of the project, pupil attainment in RE and pupil perceptions of the learning environment were measured. Data from classroom observations, Worldview Profiles, and pupil and teacher interviews were also analysed qualitatively. The results showed an overall increase in attainment in RE; a positive change in pupil perceptions of the learning environment and learning in RE; and the ability of pupils to reflect on and articulate their worldviews.
Visit the project website.

(5) RE-searchers: A critical dialogic approach to RE in primary schools (Culham St Gabriel's Trust)
An innovative pedagogical approach to Religious Education (RE) has been trialled very successfully in one primary school in the southwest of England. It is informed by the belief that the main purpose of RE should be to teach pupils the disciplinary knowledge and skills associated with the communities of academic practice concerned with theological and religious studies, and it synthesizes critical and dialogic pedagogical principles. The approach seeks to enable pupils to enter into the kind of informed, critical and sensitive dialogues which are at the heart of academic study of religion(s) (see Freathy & Freathy 2013). It acknowledges that there is no neutral vantage point from which religions can be explored without prejudice, and it seeks to facilitate the critical discussion and evaluation of a plurality of perspectives through practical, participative and inter-active methods of critical dialogic enquiry. For the purpose of trialling the approach in practice, pupils were re-conceived as joint researchers working alongside teachers to investigate the effectiveness of different methods of studying religion(s), and thereby, acquiring the knowledge and skills associated with the communities of academic practice concerned with theological and religious studies. To do so, a simple technique was developed utilising four cartoon character 'superheroes' (with illustrations and accompanying profiles) each representative of one of the pedagogical approaches outlined in Michael Grimmitt's Pedagogies of Religious Education (2000). These 'RE-searchers' were then utilised by pupils to explore the efficacy of the different research methodologies upon which the respective pedagogies were based, and thereby pupils were introduced to more abstract issues concerning ontology, epistemology and methodology. The current project (Freathy, Freathy, Doney, Walshe and Teece, Jan 2014 - Dec 2014) seeks to develop these pedagogical principles and procedures further, in consultation with a wider range of schools and teachers, and in preparation for a longer-term and larger-scale research and development project.

Please click here to watch a short-film of Rob Freathy introducing the RE-searchers approach.

Downloadable resources:

(6) Identifying Principles and Big Ideas for Religious Education (St Luke's College Foundation)The aim of this project was 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 were: (i) to identify principles for RE that will clarify for political, public and professional audiences the purposes and practices of the subject; (ii) to identify a manageable number of Big Ideas for RE which can be used subsequently to determine the selection of curriculum content; (iii) 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, (iv) 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. 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. 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.


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