RE review’s proposals are welcomed by experts

25 October 2013

KEITH BLUNDY/AEGIS ASSOCIATES

Lined up: the Bishop of Jarrow, the Rt Revd Mark Bryant, visits Northern Saints Church of England primary school, earlier this week 

Lined up: the Bishop of Jarrow, the Rt Revd Mark Bryant, visits Northern Saints Church of England primary school, earlier this week 

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 government adviser.

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 September.

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 developments.

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.

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