IN THE GCSE exams this year, religious studies (RS), sat by almost 300,000 pupils, was the fourth most popular subject, after English language, English literature, and mathematics, and just ahead of science, government statistics show. The number of pupils sitting the full-course RS has dropped a little in the past three years (News, 1 September), but the subject is demonstrably seen by pupils as relevant and interesting.
Despite this obvious strength, there are weaknesses in religious education (RE). Four years ago, an All-Party Parliamentary Group published a report on RE in schools, which stated: “In over half of the 300 primary schools participating in this inquiry, some or all pupils were taught RE by someone other than their class teacher. In a quarter of these schools, RE was taught by teaching assistants,” and “about a half of subject leaders in primary schools lack the expertise or experience to undertake their role effectively”.
In secondary schools, “over 50 per cent of teachers of RE have no qualification or appropriate expertise in the subject,” and “the inclusion of non-specialists in the total number of RE teachers given by the DfE gives the false impression that we have enough RE teachers.”
An Ofsted report on RE, in 2013, found that “the teaching of RE in primary schools was not good enough because of weaknesses in teachers’ understanding of the subject, a lack of emphasis on subject knowledge, poor and fragmented curriculum planning, very weak assessment, ineffective monitoring, and teachers’ limited access to effective training,” and that “weaknesses in provision meant that too many pupils were leaving school with low levels of subject knowledge and understanding.”
This is not surprising: more than 20 per cent of local-authority secondary schools and 44 per cent of academies without a religious character include no RE teaching at Key Stage 4.
IN SEEKING to address these and other weaknesses in the subject, the Religious Education Council for England and Wales last year set up a Commission on Religious Education (News, 15 July 2016), which I chair, and whose interim report has just been published.
Our report is based on evidence as well as the knowledge and experience of the Commissioners. We received oral evidence from 53 individuals and organisations, at five evidence-gathering sessions in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Exeter, and York, from February to July this year, in addition to 1377 responses to an online survey, and 49 further submissions by email. The Commission have met residentially three times, and received evidence in person at our meetings.
We report that “RE remains a vital academic subject for education in the 21st century. Studying RE gives young people the knowledge, understanding, and motivation they need to understand important aspects of human experience, including the religious, spiritual, and moral. . .
“The young people that we have spoken to told us that RE enables them to have better friendships, and to develop greater respect and empathy for others. RE is highly valued by many employers, who increasingly understand that, in a globalised world, understanding others’ world-views and their impact on people’s lives is essential to success.”
istockphotoHelp needed: primary-school children learn about prayer, but, in many schools, RE is suffering, owing to a lack of subject-knowledge among teachers
TO ENSURE better and more effective teaching of RE at all stages of schooling, and the right support for the subject, we propose a statement of national entitlement for RE, and offer a draft statement in our report.
This national entitlement will provide a reinvigorated vision for RE for all pupils in the future, drawing on the very best of the RE that, we know, happens in some schools. It will be a basic statement of what all pupils are entitled to, but will not be a national syllabus or curriculum.
We hope that the flexibility of the proposed national entitlement will ensure that a diversity of high-quality approaches will emerge, and that this will best suit the landscape of a school-led system.
We are seeking responses to the questions how and whether guidance should be given to schools at a national, regional, or local level about how they might interpret the national entitlement in practice. We are conscious that there are many different bodies that would be interested in offering such interpretative guidance.
We propose that inspectors should monitor whether schools meet the national entitlement for RE, and that all schools should publish details of the place of RE in their curriculum. We consult on the possibility of a revised qualification for pupils in Key Stage 4 who are not taking Religious Studies at GCSE, to ensure that their work can be accredited.
We are impressed by the National Plan for music education, and propose a National Plan for developing teaching and learning in RE, which would bring together the Commission’s recommendations for improving teacher subject-knowledge and confidence, and we seek to consult on how this can best be achieved.
While Church of England and Roman Catholic schools, and other schools with a religious character, take the subject seriously, and have effective means of support through diocesan advisers and their local faith communities, the same is not equally true for local-authority schools and academies without a religious character.
THE traditional local-authority support systems for RE have withered or disappeared. Even so, the evidence we have received suggests that SACREs (Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education) can play an important part. We would like to see their structure and support revived, and their function widened. We consult on removing the duty on a local authority to provide an agreed syllabus for RE.
We also consult on changing the name of the subject, and removing the right of withdrawal.
The report is on the Commission’s website: commissiononre.org.uk. We look forward to receiving reactions to the interim report, and we plan to produce a final report in a year’s time.
The Very Revd John Hall is the Dean of Westminster and a former Chief Education Officer and Head of the Education Division of the Archbishops’ Council