STRONG government backing for a new national-curriculum style
framework for religious education, drawn up by the Religious
Education Council (REC) and given a House of Commons launch on
Wednesday, could kickstart the subject's recovery, the Bishop of
Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, said this week.
Bishop Pritchard, the Church of England's chief spokesman on
education in the House of Lords, said: "RE has been downgraded and
degraded, but ministerial support for this professional framework
could change the situation."
Religious-education experts and sympathetic politicians hope it
will begin to reverse the damage inflicted on RE by the
Government's shake-up of the education system.
"It demonstrates our willingness to help ourselves, but a close
working relationship with the Department for Education will be
crucial to its success. We look forward to the Department's
response," said John Keast, chairman of the RE Council and a former
The Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, accepted
that RE had been an unintended casualty of his reforms at a Lambeth
Palace seminar in July, when he said: "I think RE has suffered as a
result of my belief that the protection it had in the curriculum
was sufficient. I don't think I've done enough."
In a foreword, Mr Gove commended the RE Framework as a "national
benchmark document", and welcomed the RE Council's wider review.
"It demonstrates a commitment to raising expectations and the
standards of RE received by all children and young people."
The RE Council's review follows on the heels of OFSTED's own
assessment, published earlier this month. Both are highly critical
of the Government for failing to act on evidence, including that
provided by concerned MPs, that the subject was in a parlous state.
Its work, carried out over 18 months without public funds, was
undertaken because RE - part of the "basic curriculum" - was left
out of the official National Curriculum Review made public in
The detailed framework sets out programmes of work in RE for all
Key Stages of schooling from Early Years to post-16 classes,
compatible at every stage with National Curriculum
Mr Gove - and RE experts - hope that it will be taken up by
schools across the country. But it carries the health warning that
it is not a statutory document. This caveat has dogged RE for more
than half a century, and results from the fact that RE syllabuses
are locally determined - a shibboleth enshrined in the 1944
settlement to meet historical denominational objections.
As a result, while GCSE and A-level-religious studies programmes
are set by national examination bodies, RE is the only subject
where the staple syllabus followed by most schools is devised by
local committees of religious leaders, teachers, and local
authority representatives, known as standing advisory committees
(SACREs). Formerly, the only exceptions have been for Church of
England and Roman Catholic aided schools, which follow diocesan RE
programmes, and for the score or so of maintained Jewish schools.
Now, however, the curricular freedom given to academies and free
schools has nibbled away at local-authority influence, further
weakened by funding cuts.
Attempts to counter the inconsistency of content and quality of
RE across the country created by this historical diversity have
been increasing over the past 20 years. An earlier national
framework was published in 2004 with the support of the then
Secretary of State, Charles Clarke. Though the current system
prevents the inclusion of RE in the national curriculum, moves to
end local control of RE have always been strongly resisted.
But minds are changing, the review suggests. "There is also a
strongly held view that a new system is needed for organising RE
nationally and locally," it says. Whether the 4000 or so aided
schools with a religious character could continue to teach
denominational RE if a national curriculum for the subject were
accepted is largely a question for Churches. Mr Keast, however,
believes that agreement could be reached.
The C of E's chief education officer, the Revd Jan Ainsworth,
strongly backs the framework. "We're happy that the REC has tackled
the big issue of the statutory arrangements for RE. SACREs don't
have the capacity to develop really good syllabuses, and there has
to be a national template," she said this week.