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Is RE coming in from the cold?

06 June 2014

The Government's attitude to religious education appears to be thawing, at least in terms of the school curriculum, say Jeremy Taylor and Deborah Weston

New openness: Stephen Pett, RE Advisor at RE Today, at the Leicester diocese's pupil day, run by the Westhill Endowment Trust in March

New openness: Stephen Pett, RE Advisor at RE Today, at the Leicester diocese's pupil day, run by the Westhill Endowment Trust in March

THE decision by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, after his appointment in 2010 as the Secretary of State for Education, to create a core of five academic subjects as the basis for an English baccalaureate (EBacc), was bad news for religious education. In future, schools would be rated on their students' performance in just these five subjects.

Many educationists were concerned about this limited approach to school assessment, and none were more worried than religious-education specialists. Religious Studies (RS), as the GCSE exam is named, had been excluded from the magic circle.

But now there is a possibility that things are beginning to change. Since his meeting with the bishops at Lambeth in July last year, Mr Gove's department has begun to take RE more seriously. If not quite a road-to-Damascus experience, his admission that he had been over-confident about RE's protected status in the curriculum seems to have led to some significant changes.

First of all, by writing the foreword to A Review of Religious Education in England, he put his stamp of approval on the report that the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC) published in October last year. This was produced by the council after 18 months' work and consultation with organisations representing the varied faiths and beliefs in England, and with those professionally involved in RE.

The report provided RE with a curriculum framework parallel to the National Curriculum in all the other subjects. And it has stimulated much good debate about RE and its purpose and priorities in schools throughout England.

Second, the Department for Education (DfE) has agreed to fund an expert advisory group in RE (in the same way as they do for all the core subjects). The group has just begun its work to show how the curriculum framework in the RE review can be put into practice in classrooms. It will also identify good resources, and commission new ones where there are gaps.

Most of the people involved in the advisory group are classroom teachers nominated by the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education, representing the different Key Stages of education of pupils (aged three to 14), and different types of schools.

There is a Church of England/Methodist sub-group, led by Derek Holloway, from the diocese of Salisbury, to focus on the distinctive approach to RE in church schools.

Third, the DfE has also invited the REC to take the lead in the review of the RS subject-criteria for GCSEs and A levels. These rather technical documents are what set the parameters for the exam boards to create the syllabuses for what is taught in RS to students aged 14 to 18.

Again, teachers are playing a vital part in the group designing these criteria, and this includes Church of England representatives. They are getting to work speedily, as these new courses have to be ready to be taught from September 2016 onwards.

In all these ways, Mr Gove and his department have allowed RE to return to the fold, alongside all the other areas of the curriculum, after a period when we felt very left out.

But perhaps the most significant change he has made is hidden away in the apparently obscure detail of the way statistics are collected from schools, based on their exam results.

The EBacc focused on five subject areas: English, maths, science, a language, and either history or geography. This pushed RE and other subjects to the back of the queue when decisions about curriculum time, resources, and teacher recruitment were made. Because of schools' intense concentration on exam results, and their place in the league tables, this was probably inevitable.

The good news is that the EBacc is now being overtaken by a new, fairer measure, Progress 8, which increases the number of subjects that can count, and allows schools to include RE among them.

More significantly, Progress 8 will compare secondary schools on the basis of how much improvement their pupils make from when they arrive at 11 to how they fare when they leave at 16; this will now cover eight GCSE subjects, and RE may definitely be one of them.

Since schools are legally required to teach RE to all pupils up to the age of 18, it would make sense for them to capitalise on this investment by entering all pupils for GCSE RS.

Now, if only Mr Gove would reverse his department's decision to withdraw bursary funding from graduates who are training to teach RE, we could begin to rejoice over "one sinner that repenteth".

Jeremy Taylor was formerly Diocesan Director of Education in Chichester. He now chairs the PR committee of the RE Council of England and Wales, and the RE Strategy Group of the National Society. Deborah Weston teaches religious studies in a large comprehensive school in east London. She is the Company Secretary of the RE Council of England and Wales, and a member of the National Executive of the National Association of Teachers of RE.

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