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RE is under threat, warn MPs

22 March 2013


THE Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, was told this week that religious education in schools was "under threat as never before" from the Government's changes to the education system. The warning came in the report of a three-month inquiry by the 50-member All Party Parliamentary Group on RE.

The report, RE: The truth unmasked, says that the subject has been the unintended victim of a combination of policy changes rather than a deliberate attack, it says. "Nevertheless, the combined impact of so many severe setbacks in such a short time has been to convey the message that, even though it is a statutory subject, RE is of less value than other sub- jects."

Stephen Lloyd, the MP for Eastbourne and the group's founder, said that the investigation - which took evidence from inspectors, specialist organisations, and staff at 430 schools - confirmed that RE was increasingly marginalised, and support structures were being dismantled. "The evidence is compelling, and can no longer be dismissed by ministers," he said.

Delivered to the Department for Education (DfE) on Monday, the report blames "a raft of recent policies" for downgrading RE's status in the curriculum and exacerbating a serious lack of subject specialists.

More than half of those teaching RE do so without any qualification or expertise in the subject, and many struggle to meet competence demanded by the Department's own teaching standards, it suggests. At about a quarter of primary schools, RE lessons are delegated to teaching assistants.

The Government's decision to cut postgraduate training-places for RE specialists, at the same time denying them the bursaries available for other subjects, has made matters worse, the MPs say. (So far, the cuts have led to the closure of five university courses, and a drop in applications for those that remain. Further RE training places have been lost through school-based training schemes.)

"Scrapping bursaries for RE while retaining them for others - in-cluding Ancient Greek - cannot be regarded as an unintended consequence. They must be restored," John Keast, a former government adviser and chair of the RE Council, said. He dismissed as "risible" the DfE's claim this week that there are now 1000 more RE teachers than in 2010. "The DfE counts anybody who teaches one lesson of RE a week as an RE teacher, whether they are trained or not; so the more non-specialists used, the more RE teachers it says there are."

WITH its capacity to help pupils to appreciate the differences and similarities between religions in an increasingly multi-faith society, RE was encouraged by the previous Government as a way of encouraging greater tolerance. The numbers taking religious studies (RS) at examination level rose. A more general short course, leading to half a GCSE award, improved statutory RE in secondary schools, and had a strong take-up. Recruitment to PGCE courses in RE was encouraged with bursaries and "golden hellos".

But the subject's position changed swiftly after 2010 as the Coalition's policies took effect. A significant problem was ministers' refusal to include RS as a humanities option in the core curriculum subjects (formerly the EBacc). As a result, school leaders cut time for RE, and replaced heads of RE departments with history and geography specialists.

Moreover, because more RE lessons were taught by non-specialists, sources of help dried up. Local authorities no longer had the resources to provide advice or in-service training. In many parts of the country, Church of England dioceses are now the main providers of RE support to community schools as well as church schools, the report notes.

Ministers have consistently batted away complaints that RE is being undermined by their decisions, and emphasised that the statutory position of RE is secure.

But this week's report, the Church of England's chief education officer, the Revd Jan Ainsworth, said, should be a "wake-up call" for the DfE. "It provides compelling evidence that cannot be dismissed. RE is about religious literacy for all, and has never been more important than in today's multifaith society."

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