Education: Disturbing downgrade
Posted: 21 Sep 2012 @ 00:31
Peter Jackson deplores changes that may reduce
the teaching of RS in schools
ABOUT 30 years ago, a spoof publication, Not the Church
Times, appeared, gently satirising this newspaper - not just
the editorial content, but the advertisements as well. One of these
was an ad for the episcopate (the spoof was prescient). Applicants
were invited to apply, stating their public school, Oxbridge
college, year at Westcott House, and Lodge. At the time, this
satire was only partly justified, and it became far less so - until
While Religious Studies is a compulsory subject within the
Common Entrance examination for independent schools, RS has been
excluded from the core subjects of the English Baccalaureate
(EBacc), which has now become the benchmark of success for state
The exclusion of RS, which usually entails teaching about ethics
and the main world religions, may relegate the status of RS to an
add-on after 20 years of progress in the subject, and,
unintentionally, bring about the situation imagined by the Not
the Church Times satirists. This is a needless and awful
I taught religious studies for 20 years, and for 12 of those
years when I was chaplain and head of RS at Harrow School, teaching
ethics at A level and GCSE was a significant part of my work. I
found that most of my students appreciated learning how to handle
ethical questions intelligently.
During that time, I worked closely with colleagues in the state
sector, and together we fought for better religious education, and
for its status in the school curriculum. Through several steps -
the 1994 publication of model syllabuses, for example, and the
establishment of the short course in RS - the subject's status
soared. By the time I left Harrow, RS was a core subject on the
curriculum, and all students took either the full or short-course
GCSE examination. I had founded and chaired the first organisation
for independent school teachers of RS (ISRSA).
The increased interest in RS at Harrow mirrored its growing
popularity in state schools. Over two decades, the student numbers
taking GCSE in the subject more than doubled. This year, 239,000
took the full course, and 236,000 the short course. At A level
there were 23,000 entrants in RS, and, crucially, 31,000 at AS
The reason that RS is popular at GCSE short-course and AS level,
is the opportunity it gives for teaching about, and serious
discussion of, ethics. At Harrow, many students destined for
careers in medicine or science chose to study RS at AS level for
just that reason.
Interest in ethics is not confined to schools. In parishes, and
on adult-education courses, ethical issues crop up all the time.
Some ethical questions just do not go away. Why do people suffer?
Should very sick people be helped to die? Is it right to intervene
with force in the affairs of other countries? Is it right for some
people to be vastly wealthy when others remain poor?
Young people today are far more likely to be able to address
these questions knowledgeably than would have been the case a
generation ago. This is the consequence of the campaign for better
and more effective RS.
But these national achievements in RS could soon be completely
squandered - or become something that benefits only those in
independent schools. The EBacc is creating a league table of
subjects. Performance in the core premier league will be what
counts. RS has been relegated to the second division.
The effects of the EBacc are already showing. To ensure
resources are used to the maximum, vacancies for RS teaching posts
have been switched to history and geography, the EBacc core
humanities options. The negative effects for RS are spreading to
teacher training, as university departments halve the PGCE courses
places in RS, and withdraw bursaries and golden hellos. Religious
education as a whole has been left out of the review of the school
curriculum and primary legislation.
Good RS could soon become the preserve of independent schools;
the place of RS in the Common Entrance exam ensures that it is easy
for students to continue with RS to GCSE, and even AS and A level.
If good RS becomes simply an independent school privilege rather
than a national opportunity, we will find ourselves living in a
society in which most of those who become bishops, serve on ethics
committees, or have anything intelligent to contribute about
ethical questions went to independent schools.
Apart from being a depressing end to two decades of progress in
RS teaching, this must rank as a disastrous outcome for education
reforms touted as being intended better to equip young people for
life. How can these be positive reforms, if their net effect is to
deprive young people of an awareness of the impact of different
world religions on the life of our diverse society, and limit a
deeper understanding of the ethical questions which we all
The Revd Peter Jackson is the Vicar of Christ Church,
Southgate, and the author of Ethics for GCSE (SPCK, £14.99