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An Interview with Jacqueline Watson

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I am delighted to share with you an interview with Jacqueline Watson, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, on her many years of research on the subject of spirituality in education, including connections between spirituality and Religious Education (RE), and the inclusion of Humanism in RE in the UK.

Jacqueline retired in 2014 and is putting her academic interest in spirituality into practice as a Humanist Celebrant and as a Humanist member of the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital chaplaincy team. For more information about Jacqueline’s research and publications see Jacqueline Watson University of Exeter Research Profile.


Dr Jacqueline Watson

  1. Who or what inspired you to forge a career in religious education?

Good question!  After 8 years looking after children (around 1989) I thought I’d do a PGCE but didn’t know what subject to choose (I had a philosophy degree) and a friend who was already doing a PGCE suggested RE.  I said I couldn’t teach RE as I wasn’t religious but she said she’d met PGCE RE students who were not religious and I found out that it was a multi-faith subject and it sounded fascinating.  Also, I’d just been reading Rushdie’s Satanic Verses which had sent me to the library to find out about Islam as I didn’t know why Muslims were burning the book in Bradford!

  1. How has the teaching of religion changed over the course of your career?

Sadly, it has become more restrictive because, when I started in 1991, I taught a very multi-faith curriculum and now there tends, I think, to be more of a focus on 2 main religions one of which is Christianity and the other is often Islam.  I don’t know how true that is, and it presumably varies across the country, but that’s the feeling I have.  I actually stopped teaching RE over 15 years ago.  Also, of course, Humanism has been introduced into RE since I stopped teaching, although how much it is actually being taught in schools I don’t know.  I very recently contributed to a multi-faith conference for 3 schools locally – in my case, talking about Humanism – and none of the pupils from the 3 schools had studied Humanism or knew what it was.

  1. What are the challenges faced by those with nonreligious (including humanist) and minority religious world-views in education?

There is no space to properly engage in discussion and exploration of their beliefs and values.  My feeling is that pupils will just switch off as RE will be seen to be irrelevant to them.  This also means they haven’t had the opportunity to consider their own spiritual journey.

  1. In your view, should RE focus on improving objective knowledge of religious and philosophical traditions, beliefs and practices, or should its primary purpose be to nurture children’s spirituality?

Very much both.  We need basic information about religions and beliefs but we also need space to explore meaning and values for ourselves.

  1. How is spirituality (or spiritual development) in children defined by professional bodies and what is your preferred definition?

I’ve written a lot about this.  I think it’s very important to keep any definition for professional purposes simple, broad and open.  There is a constant danger that people try to define it as they see it and not realising this is their particular view.  People’s spirituality is highly diverse today.  I say, spirituality means how a person develops meaning and purpose, beliefs and values, for their life.  It’s essential to listen to an individual because they will have constructed spiritual meaning and beliefs highly individualistically.

  1. In what ways could the spiritual needs of children be better met in schools and at home?

Listening.  Giving space for open discussion.  Making sure RE isn’t just about teaching facts about specific religions.  Making sure Humanism is included as well to explore and challenge atheism and materialism/naturalism.

  1. In what ways could religious and philosophical literacy be improved among children and the population at large?

More space for and respect for a broader RE.  Better media!

  1. What are the most important or surprising things you have learnt from your research on the connections between spirituality and religious education?

That it is important to have a solid subject – currently RE although sometimes given a better name – where this area can be explored.  The idea was that opportunities for spiritual development could be provided in all subjects but I have come to think that it is vital to have a dedicated subject as it is a complicated topic.

  1. What inspired you in more recent times to become a nonreligious pastoral carer and humanist celebrant?

Retirement partly.  And I’d spent about 25 years thinking about spirituality and non-religious spirituality academically, and I wanted to put that study into practice.  I feel that I do have some understanding of the breadth and individualism of contemporary spirituality which prepares me for listening to people who want a ceremony or pastoral care.  Having been a teacher and lecturer I had the confidence to be a celebrant and I love writing ceremonies.  I find it fascinating to take on the role of chaplain/pastoral carer which is a challenge in so many ways and – because we’re breaking new ground as non-religious carers – feels a bit like action research.

  1. What are the main challenges and rewards of your current work?

Being a celebrant is rewarding – it’s wonderful to present a ceremony that engages people and makes them laugh and cry.  It’s frustrating that not enough people know about Humanist ceremonies and that we still can’t conduct weddings legally.  Being a chaplain/pastoral carer is very rewarding when people appear to have benefited from the opportunity to talk about their experiences, although it can be challenging not knowing whether I have been of benefit or not.  It’s very frustrating that Humanists and nonreligious chaplains are still not accepted across the board and the battle for recognition is a slow and frustrating one – but hugely vital as over 50% of the population are now ‘nones’!

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