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RE trust criticises Government for bursary rejection

28 February 2014

CHRIS DAVEY (SWNS)

Within these halls: a wing of HM Prison Canterbury, one of several prisons closed last year by the Government, has been bought by Canterbury Christ Church University from the Ministry of Jus­tice, to be developed as "high-quality city-centre" student accommodation

Within these halls: a wing of HM Prison Canterbury, one of several prisons closed last year by the Government, has been bought by Canterbury Christ ...

THE Government was charged this week with "rank discrimination" against religious education in schools. The accusation, by Mark Chater, a director of the Culham St Gabriel's Trust, a leading RE research organisation, was made in protest at ministers' refusal to reinstate £9000 bursaries for graduates training to be RE teachers. The decision would intensify the shortage of specialist teachers, he said. Nearly half of all RE lessons are taught by staff with no qualifications in the subject.

Dr Chater's strictures were matched by criticism from other senior figures in the RE community, including John Keast, who chairs the RE Council, and Stephen Lloyd, who heads the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on RE. Together with the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, the chairman of the Church of England's Board of Education, they had pleaded with ministers to restore bursaries for the academic year beginning this September.

The ministerial decision - in effect, a refusal to accept their case - was delivered to Mr Keast earlier this month in a letter from a junior Education Minister, Elizabeth Truss.

RE experts say that their warning that, without bursaries, fewer able graduates would opt to specialise in RE was borne out this month when it was confirmed that applications for RE postgraduate courses were 20 per cent below target. They see the continued "financial freeze" on their subject as further evidence that it is being downgraded by government ministers and their civil servants.

The only other subjects to be refused training bursaries are Art, Business Studies, Citizenship, and Design and Technology. PE will join the Cinderella list next year. A spokesman for the Department for Education said that there was evidence that more high-quality graduates were being recruited to teach RE: "We believe it is right to focus incentives such as bursaries on those subjects where they are needed most, such as maths or physics, where there has been historic under-achievement."

But Bishop Pritchard said: "If bursaries are to be focused where they are needed, RE should be first in the queue."

The denial of training bursaries is the latest in a string of government decisions that, RE experts say, is consigning their subject to the margins of the curriculum. The biggest blow was the decision to leave religious studies out of the list of core academic subjects that qualified for the English Baccalaureate. At a seminar in Lambeth Palace last summer, the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, admitted that RE might have been an unintentional casualty of government policy.

"In the light of the decision on bursaries, that admission now rings hollow," Ed Pawson, who chairs the National Association of Teachers of RE, said.

Potential RE trainees learned this week that they could apply to a new bursaries fund launched by a consortium of four charities: the Jerusalem Trust and three closed church college trusts: Culham St Gabriel's, St Luke's Foundation, and Keswick Hall. Between them, the four charities have contributed an initial £220,000 to establish the fund. Applications can be made through the Keswick Hall website, www.keswickhalltrust.org.uk/grants.

Praise for further-education colleges

Further-education colleges make a significant contribution to community cohesion because of their diverse student bodies, the C of E's adviser on FE and post-16 education, the Revd Gary Neave, told the APPG on RE this week.

Three million students attend the country's 339 FE colleges, of whom 22 per cent are from black or ethnic-minority backgrounds compared with an overall average of 15 per cent for schools. Mr Neave said that about 80 per cent of colleges had active chaplaincies.

"The fact that FE colleges have no statutory obligation to teach RE does not mean that matters of faith and belief are unimportant to our students and staff," he said. "On the contrary, most colleges meet these needs through spiritual, moral, social, and cultural education, which helps students develop the attitudes they need to become engaged, responsible citizens."

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