What is the Big Ideas for RE Project?

Feb 14, 2022 | Big Ideas for RE

In the beginning…

Exploratory work at Exeter University established that :

  1. Big Ideas were being used successfully as a basis of organising both subject curricula and the whole curriculum in several countries
  2. In none of these countries had Big Ideas been used in relation to RE 
  3. In the UK the only subject to seriously consider using Big Ideas was science.
  4. Big Ideas had the potential to offer realistic solutions to many of the problems that had beset RE for several decades.

A farm – somewhere on Dartmoor

In Autumn 2016 Exeter University convened a group of twelve RE specialists to identify and develop Big Ideas for RE. The members of the group varied considerably in their academic and professional priorities. The group was chaired by a scientist, Prof Michael Reiss, who had been a member of the group that developed Big Ideas for science education.

‘Transfer’ and ‘relevance’ are at the heart of Big Ideas.

If young people are to engage with RE, they have to see that it has some relevance for their lives, whether or not they regard themselves as ‘religious’. ‘Relevance’ in this context refers to the world in which young people are growing up today. It is not a call for a return to ‘relevance’ as it was understood in the 1960s and ‘70s, when, in order to be ‘relevant’, RE had to focus on matters within the personal experience of teenagers: hence the popular description of RE at that time as ‘sex ‘n drugs ‘n rock ‘n roll’.

‘Relevance’ in the context of Big Ideas is closely related to ‘transfer’. A ‘relevant’ idea is one that young people can apply to a wide range of situations in the contemporary world in order to make sense of them. In order to do so, they need to be able to transfer what they have learnt in the classroom to other subjects and to situations beyond school.

Therefore the development group began by asking, ‘when today’s students leave school, what issues and debates relating to religion and spirituality are they most likely to encounter during their lives?’ 

It was from their answers to this question that the six Big Ideas for RE emerged.

Three years in development

Following the initial working group meeting, the project has been developed in the following ways:

  1. In 2017 the first book about Big Ideas for RE was published 

Click here for BIRE2017

  1. Between 2017-2019 three members of the original group (Barbara Wintersgill, Dave Francis and Denise Cush) publicised the project through writing and speaking at conferences in the UK and abroad. They edited the original Big Ideas, taking account of feedback received and developed programmes of study for RE based on the Big Ideas. They also began the lengthy process of writing schemes of work for schools. 
  2. In September 2018, the Commission on Religious Education released its final report, acknowledging the positive impact of the Big Ideas project on the National Entitlement.
  3. In 2019 the second book about Big Ideas was published, which explained in greater detail how to write a syllabus and scheme of learning based on Big Ideas. In 2022 we published the 2nd edition.

Click here for BIIP2022

  1. In 2020 work began on developing a Big Ideas for RE website. 

Did you know…?

People who identify themselves as having no religion are known as ‘Nones’. They are now the largest belief group in the UK. To find out more about them and why they are important for RE and Big Ideas, click the face.

Funding and Support

Exeter University


St Luke’s College Foundation

The Sea of Faith Network