RE’s problems are not being addressed

by
21 November 2014

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From Mr Jack Parkes
Sir, - I have been following discussions on the Government's reforms for religious education with interest, but I am now wondering whether we might not be missing the point. (News, 14 November).

The previous Secretary of State for Education made an active decision to exclude RE from the English Baccalaureate options, significantly marginalising it. Not only has his successor shown no enthusiasm for putting this error of judgement right: she is on record as having advised young people that they should avoid humanities subjects because they do not lead to the best career choices. Presumably this wisdom comes from her previous job as a careers adviser. Oh, she wasn't a careers adviser. My mistake.

I am assuming that the Curriculum Working Party believes that RE students are being given an appropriate time allocation for studying the subject. If so, they have been labouring under a serious misapprehension. Most of us who teach RE have to contend with one lesson a week, while being expected to achieve good GCSE grades. Other humanities subjects, however, have two or three times more teaching time allocated.

It seems that this is the accepted order of things in curriculum timetabling, regardless of the fact that all the exam boards expect the humanities subjects to be taught at between 120 and 140 hours for a full-course GCSE. On the one-lesson-a-week model, RE is allocated well below that minimum figure. Until RE is granted a level playing-field in the allocation of curriculum time, curriculum development is just so much hot air. "Sir, why should we take this seriously when the school doesn't?"

RE is further disadvantaged because it is increasingly being taught by non-specialist teachers: when I and one of my specialist RE colleagues recently moved on from a large high school, the subject was left to be taught by one specialist RE teacher and 12 non-specialists, often teaching to GCSE level. This is not uncommon. How can it be acceptable practice? Again, if we are serious about the effective teaching of RE, schools need properly trained and qualified practitioners.

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So, at risk of labouring the point:

1) RE has been institutionally marginalised throughout the length of my 30-year teaching career.

2) There aren't enough specialist RE teachers.

3) Students are not given enough time to study the subject adequately and gain a depth and breadth of understanding.

Until these inequalities have been addressed, curriculum reform is merely window-dressing, and I have no confidence that things will improve in any way for our students and teachers as a result of these proposed curriculum reforms: the primary problems of RE are not being addressed.

JACK PARKES
29 Huntington Crescent
Leeds LS16 5RT


From Mr Michael J. Wilson
Sir, - The report by Margaret Holness and your leader comment suggest that the proposed changes for religious studies are far-reaching and new. I disagree.

When I taught the original GCSE RS syllabus set by the Midland Examination Group (now part of OCR), the requirement was for students to study Christianity and two others from the "world religions", through six themes plus course work designed to show further understanding. It was very tight to fit everything into the 80 weeks of clear timetable time, but it was exciting to teach, and, from the results, accessible to all-ability students.

Certainly, the academic rigour needed to achieve the highest grades was contained within the curriculum requirements, with examination questions well designed to test knowledge and understanding. Three religions meant at least three visits to places of worship and settings to develop my pupils' wider appreciation; many epiphanies were witnessed when they spoke with authority about the relevant faith afterwards.

There was nothing wrong with the GCSE RS when first introduced, and perhaps it is time to rediscover those requirements, which would help not only academic standards, but also social cohesion, which at present is worryingly undervalued in the examination system.

MICHAEL J. WILSON
(Retired teacher of RE/RS)
54 Queen Street, Balderton
Newark NG24 3NS

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