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O levels a threat to RE, say specialists

29 June 2012

by Margaret Holness, Education Correspondent

SPECIALISTS in religious education warned this week that the introduction of examinations of the O-level type in a narrow group of subjects, predicted in a leak to a Sunday newspaper last weekend, would worsen the position of RE, already damaged by its exclusion from the English Baccalaureate.

Advisers to the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, are said to be drawing up plans for more academically rigorous tests in English, mathematics, and science, set by a single examination board.

"If that happens, it is probable that the plans would be extended to other EBacc subjects - history, geography, and modern languages. If RE is left out, the result will be further marginalisation of the subject," said the chairman of the RE Council, John Keast, a former government adviser on the subject.

Although there is growing evidence that RE is suffering as schools shift resources and curriculum time to EBacc subjects, the Government is reluctant to admit the problem. At the annual general meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on RE earlier this month, the chairman, Stephen Lloyd, MP for Eastbourne, said that attempts to convince Ministers resembled "talking to a brick wall".

He said this week: "While I share the view that a single exam board makes sense, the introduction of a two-tier system would confuse and undermine the sector, and particularly risks marginalising RE."

The issue was raised again in Parliament, during Education Questions on Tuesday, by David Amess, MP for Southend. He asked the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb: "What reassurance can my Hon. Friend give the House that this Government is committed to RE, given the disappointment in certain quarters that that subject was not included in the English Baccalaureate?"

Mr Gibb, who earlier reported that entrants for EBacc subjects had more than doubled this year, said that, in 2011, 32 per cent of students entered for a GCSE in religious studies, up from 28 per cent the previous year. "RE is already a compulsory subject, and our intention behind the EBacc is to encourage the greater take-up of geography and history, in addition to, rather than instead of, compulsory RE. The EBacc will not prevent any school from offering the RS GCSE, but we will keep the issue under review."

Dr Mark Chater, director of the Culham Institute, which specialises in RE research and development, said that teachers of the subject would welcome having a single board in charge of examinations in the subject. They would not, however, be in favour of replacing the GCSE by an O-level style examination, he said.

Educational trusts to merge. The two largest closed-church-college trusts, St Gabriel's and the Culham Educational Foundation, are to merge next month, creating one of the largest grant-giving charities in support of RE. The two organisations have worked together for more than a decade. The new Culham St Gabriel's trust will have an annual income of about £600,000.

The chair-designate of the new Trust, Dr Priscilla Chadwick, said: "By combining forces we will be able to offer more help to RE teachers at a very challenging time." Dr Mark Chater, currently at Culham, will be director of the joint trust.

There are about ten closed-church-college trusts, formed after the closure, in the 1970s, of diocesan teacher-training colleges. Most have strong links with church schools and RE in their dioceses.

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