TENS of thousands fewer pupils are sitting the Religious Studies (RS) GCSE exam, confirming a continuing sharp decline in the subject’s popularity.
This summer, only 264,000 students gained an RS qualification at GCSE level, a decline of 3.8 per cent compared with last year’s total of 276,000.
But. looking back further, the numbers of children taking RS has fallen significantly: by 28 per cent in the past four years and 43 per cent since 2011.
This means that more than 200,000 fewer pupils are taking the subject compared with eight years ago.
The decline in popularity of RS is largely a result of fewer students’ taking short-course RS, a much smaller subject that is equivalent to half a normal GCSE.
In recent years, short-course RS has declined significantly, although, until 2016, the full GCSE version was actually growing in numbers.
Since 2013, schools have no longer been allowed to add short-course qualifications to their overall GCSE tally. This move particularly hurt numbers signing up to short-course RS, because many schools used the miniature qualification as a way of more efficiently using the compulsory class time that they are obliged to devote to RS (News, 2 September 2016).
Although all schools are compelled by law still to offer religious education to Key Stage 4 pupils, even if it is not part of a formal GCSE qualification, the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE) warned that many were flouting their obligations.
About one third of schools, according to the Government’s own data, had no provision to teach RS in Year 11; so pupils not taking the subject as a GCSE would receive no education in it at all, NATRE said.
Speaking for the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, its chief executive, Rudolf Eliott Lockhart, said that the exclusion of short-course GCSEs and the decision not to include RS in the standard Ebacc measure by which school league tables are drawn up had made “a disastrous impact”.
“There are now almost 200,000 fewer Key Stage 4 pupils studying for a qualification in Religious Studies than there were in 2011,” he said. “This is particularly distressing, given how popular the subject is with pupils and how relevant it is in today’s world.”
The decline in GCSE RS is mirrored by a similar fall at A level: 26 per cent fewer pupils are taking the subject beyond GCSE than did in 2017 (News, 16 August).
New research by academics from Liverpool Hope University and University College London suggests that most of those sitting RS are from faith schools.
Only 30 per cent of pupils from non-faith schools received the qualification last year, compared with 95 per cent of students at Roman Catholic schools and 68 per cent of those at Church of England schools.
There were also links to poverty: schools that did offer RS GCSE on average had fewer pupils on free school meals.
More than 700 schools stopped offering RS at GCSE level altogether from 2017 to 2018, the researchers also found.
Overall, GCSE results across Britain improved. Grades rose for the second year running after an initial fall in 2017 when harder exams were introduced.
More than one in five — 20.8 per cent — of GCSE entries scored one of the top three grades (7, 8, or 9, which are equivalent to the old A and A*), a slight increase over the 20.5 per cent last summer.
Although both the Prime Minister and Education Secretary hailed the success of pupils, the head teachers’ trade union, the Association of School and College Leaders, warned that the harder exams were causing some students to be “written off” if they failed to get grade 4, which is the “national standard”.