POST-ELECTION uncertainty is inevitable, but all the signs point to there being no significant governmental shifts in attitude or approach to religious education (RE).
Time and time again in discussions about how to improve teaching and learning in RE, the elephant in the room has been the law requiring syllabuses to be locally determined. This is enshrined in primary legislation — along with the requirement for daily collective worship.
The last settlement, in 1988, was precariously achieved, and since then there has been an implicit cross-party consensus to leave well alone and not risk opening up a religious can of worms. The last Labour administration fought shy of legislation change, and there is every indication that the current Coalition Government will do likewise.
The biggest impact on RE will arise from the inevitable swingeing cuts in public expenditure. Already, the RE Council has been told that there will be no further central help when the current three-year RE action plan ends in March 2011. There will also be a bonfire of the quangos — and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency has already been put on notice. This body has undertaken excellent support and development work for RE over the years, and its demise, when it happens, will leave a big gap.
ALTHOUGH responsibility for RE will remain with local authorities, their ability to fund advisory and other support will be eroded even further. A few of the larger local authorities may still be able to provide such funding, but most will not. The prospect of continuing with up to 170 different RE syllabuses, most of them inadequately resourced, is daunting.
A lighter style of government will be reflected in a less prescriptive curriculum. The National Curriculum itself could disappear, and schools will be given much greater freedom to structure the curriculum, especially outside a basic core. RE is fortunate because its position is protected by primary legislation: whatever new curricular arrangements are devised by schools, a coherent offering of RE will still be required by law.
Teacher-training is likely to change, with an increasing shift towards on-the-job training in schools. University RE departments, many of which have been developing important in-service training opportunities for teachers, could be under threat.
BUT it is not all gloom. As the least-well-resourced of all curriculum areas, RE is used to receiving very little from the public purse. Unlike comparable subject areas such as music, history, and geography, which have each received multi-millions in very recent years, RE was given less than £2 million — and that was spread over three years, and mainly earmarked for specific government-identified projects.
If you have been used to nothing, then having it halved is less disastrous than if you have been used to millions.
RE is unique in having the support and commitment of numerous voluntary organisations. About 50 of these operate nationally, and are members of the RE Council, which acts as the umbrella body for the subject. The Council’s encouragement of collaboration among member organisations is vital: in years of plenty, duplication may not matter, but in times of famine, resources need to be carefully managed.
RE also finds immense support at local level, for example in parishes that get involved in RE lessons and that welcome school visits to the parish church.
Diocesan RE advisers are another resource. They are already playing an increasingly significant part in supporting the subject, and not just in church schools. As local-authority RE advisory support is cut, so their importance will increase. In addition, more than £1 million of annual funding for RE comes from the 11 endowed Church of England college trusts. Other endowed trusts, including Farmington and Jerusalem, are further big players.
Perhaps the greatest risk in the emerging climate is that the ongoing professional development of RE teachers, so vital for building up the quality of teaching and learning in the subject, will suffer badly.
Imaginative ways of providing for this will be called for. One route, already being piloted, is through online courses with email and telephone tutorial support. Such courses are flexible, inexpensive, and do not require teachers to be out of school.
But why should the Church of England be promoting RE, which by law has to be multifaith and non-proselytising? The rationale is clear. It is because:
1. The law also requires that RE must be mainly about Christianity.
2. For most children and teenagers, their main experience of and knowledge about Christianity is gained through RE lessons in schools rather than through the churches.
3. The quality of the lessons on Christianity has a significant effect on children’s longer-term attitudes to Christianity.
Ensuring that there is high-quality RE in all schools is not an optional extra: it is an essential component of the Church of England’s overall mission.
The Revd Dr John Gay is director of the Culham Institute, Oxford.