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OFSTED criticises Government’s record on RE

11 October 2013

By Pat Ashworth


"Some ways forward": the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, speaks at the Conservative Party Conference, in Manchester, at the beginning of this month 

"Some ways forward": the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, speaks at the Conservative Party Conference, in Manchester, at the beginning of this mon...

THE Government has been told by its own inspectors to raise its game on the teaching of RE. A report from OFSTED this week, Religious education: Realising the potential, finds low standards, weak teaching and leadership, curriculum problems, a confused sense of purpose about what religious education is about, training gaps, and weaknesses in the way RE is examined.

Recent changes in education policy have had a huge impact, say the inspectors, whose 48-page report is based on evidence from more than 200 schools visited or surveyed between September 2009 and July 2012. Lack of curriculum time in secondary schools, and subject knowledge in primary schools were contributing factors to pupils leaving school with low levels of both knowledge and understanding.

Children could not say why Jesus was important, the inspectors found. OFSTED's director of schools, Michael Cladingbowl, reported: "We saw some great examples of that during the survey, but too often we found religious education lessons being squeezed out by other subjects. . . This just isn't good enough when religion and belief are playing such a profound part in today's world. Pupils deserve much better."

RE had virtually been abandoned in some schools, while in others it had been absorbed into lessons such as Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE). Teachers were fearful of not knowing enough and giving offence.

The report's recommendations include closer monitoring of RE provision; improvement to GCSE examinations and to the supply and training of religious education teachers; and provision of a challenging and coherent curriculum. Teachers needed help to clarify the purpose and aims of RE and to promote these through "lucid guidance".

The inspectors said that not enough had been done to implement the recommendations of a previous OFSTED report in 2010. MPs were also warned earlier this year that RE was under threat, after an inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) recognised that RE was becoming increasingly marginalised and unsupported. "The evidence is compelling, and can no longer be dismissed by ministers," the group said (News, 22 March).

That report blamed "a raft of recent policies" for the downgrading of RE. The Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, told bishops at a seminar at Lambeth Palace in July: "I think RE has suffered as a result of my belief that the protection it had in the curriculum was sufficient, and I don't think I've done enough."

The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, who chairs the C of E's Board of Education, said on Tuesday that the report confirmed the parlous state of RE in an age when it was more important than ever. "You can't understand the modern world without understanding the place of religion. . . And yet is it is not being done well."

An agreed meeting with Mr Gove after the Lambeth seminar has not yet materialised, but Bishop Pritchard said that Mr Gove had signed a foreword to the parallel RE review, conducted by the Religious Education Council (REC) and due to be published on 23 October. "So we have some ways forward to explore," he said.

So much ground had been lost that climbing back would be very hard, the Bishop acknowledged. It would require "real intentional decision" on the part of the Government to arrest the downward spiral, together with some joined-up work with the REC and all other people of good will.

The chair of the REC, John Keast, is calling for a strong signal on the importance of RE: "I have been trying to tell the DfE about the damage being done to RE for over 18 months now, and have basically been brushed off on the grounds that the evidence was lacking. . .

"We now look for government action. It is important for us all to remember that RE is not broken, even if damaged. The main thing now is to work on improvement and to spread the good practice more widely."

The chief education officer for the C of E, the Revd Jan Ainsworth, said that the report placed the blame for poor standards squarely on government policy. "In particular, the removal of support and squeeze on places for training RE teachers is a scandal, and will take years to reverse," she said.

Dr John Gay, a Research Fellow at Oxford's Department of Education, said that action on all fronts was necessary because each factor identified in the report had a multiplier effect on the other.

"I don't think the Government can now simply stand back and say it's nothing to do with them. OFSTED is their own attack dog: if they're saying something has to be done, the Government has to do more, hopefully, than just gesture politics," he said.

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