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RE seen as a scary nuisance, Bishop complains

08 February 2013


"A bridge too far": the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, outlines his revised proposals for GCSE reform, in the House of Commons last week

"A bridge too far": the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, outlines his revised proposals for GCSE reform, in the House of Commons last week

CHURCHES and RE organisations have welcomed Thursday's announcement by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, that the Government is to scrap plans for a two-tier examination system that included the widely criticised English Baccalaureate certificate. Instead, the Government will retain GCSEs, although these are to be made more rigorous and knowledge-based.

The new benchmark of success, however, will be performance in a wider range of eight subjects, with three approved disciplines added to the EBacc five.

The Church of England's chief education officer, the Revd Jan Ainsworth, said that it was "inconceivable" that RE would be left out of the eight.

Last week, the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, briefed the bishops that, despite the Government's insistence that RE remains a legal requirement, its policies are sending the subject into "a spiral of decline".

The letter was written last month, shortly after Bishop Pritchard, who chairs the C of E's Board of Education, met the Minister of State for Education, David Laws.

Bishop Pritchard writes: "It's clear that the Government has no real interest in RE, because they see it as a scary nuisance, and its protected status as a guarantee that all is well. It isn't." The Bishop writes of the effect of excluding RE from the EBacc core syllabus, and halving the training places for specialist teachers.

After details of the letter emerged this week, Mrs Ainsworth backed Bishop Pritchard. "While relations with the Government are good, generally, it does seem difficult to get over the seriousness of the situation affecting RE. Bishop Pritchard was right to call attention to the facts in the hope that his brother bishops can lend their weight to the campaign."

After Mr Gove's announcement on Thursday, Mrs Ainsworth said that "The broader approach revealed today will enable RE to resume its rightful place in the curriculum. No educationalist would object to the more challenging subject content that ministers want."

The chairman of the RE Council of England and Wales, John Keast, said that members were "delighted" that the EBacc had been abandoned, and that it was a step in the right direction. "We have made it clear that to focus on five core subjects would restrict others which, like RE, are vital to education."

But the EBacc was only one factor in the current crisis, he said. "We continue to do battle on the issue of teacher training which has not been addressed today. The reduction in the places for RE PGCE places must be reversed, and bursaries restored."

The level of concern over the future of RE had been rising. After a meeting last week with the Junior Education Minister Elizabeth Truss, Mr Keast said that unless ministers act on the problem it will be impossible to sustain RE in community schools; but he said that the meeting was too short to address the issues adequately.

Outside ministerial circles, there is strong political support for RE. The All Party Parliamentary Group for RE is currently taking evidence on teacher supply and support, and will report its findings on 12 March.

A statement from the Catholic Education Service on Thursday mustered only one cheer for the Secretary of State's redrawn plans. "That the Secretary of State proposes to reform exams with the help of school and university leaders is particularly welcome. We are, however, disappointed that RE remains effectively relegated outside the 'core' under these proposals, when it is at the heart of the curriculum in our more than 2000 schools in England."

The RE Council launched an online campaign (www.rethinkre.org) this week.

The most recent blow was the announcement, just before Christmas, that bursaries for PGCE students were to be withdrawn from those graduates who wanted to specialise in RE. Formerly, they had received grants of between £4000 and £5000 for postgraduate training.

The chairman of University Lecturers in RE, Michael Castelli, said that since the Government came to power, PGCE places in RE had been cut from 675 to 321, six university courses had closed, and further closures were likely.

But this week an Anglican education charity, the Culham St Gabriel's Trust, announced that it was heading an initiative by a group of similar trusts to provide financial support to potential RE teachers.



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