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Education: Disturbing downgrade

21 September 2012

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 now.

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 secondary schools.

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 prospect.

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 level.

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 face?

The Revd Peter Jackson is the Vicar of Christ Church, Southgate, and the author of Ethics for GCSE (SPCK, £14.99 (£13.50); 978-0-281-05564-7).

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