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Cross-party group deplores lack of government funding for religious education

22 September 2023

Bishop of Durham among signatories of letter to Education Secretary

Alamy

The Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, leaves Downing Street after a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday

The Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, leaves Downing Street after a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday

A GROUP of cross-party peers, MPs, and religious educators has decried the lack of funding for the teaching of religious education (RE), and called on the Government to address the crisis in teaching and recruitment, including the introduction of training bursaries.

The 30 high-profile signatories to a letter to the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan, describe current provision as “a postcode lottery”, in which some children are receiving a comprehensive and well-taught education, while others receive “either tokenist RE or none at all”.

They point out that half (51 per cent) of the RE lessons in secondary schools are being taught by non-specialist teachers. Pupils are now three times more likely to be taught RE by someone with no qualification in the subject. RE will recruit only 44 per cent of its target by the end of the current recruitment year.

Those who are receiving RE “appreciate the place of religious and non-religious worldviews in our culture and have been supported as they develop their own worldview”, they suggest. The remainder are leaving school “without the knowledge and understanding of their own worldviews, or others necessary for life in modern Britain.

“They are consequently ill prepared to play their part in our complex religious and non-religious society, with all the opportunities created by its diversity.”

The group, which includes representatives of other faiths, writes of the lack of government funding both for the subject itself and for the professional development of teachers. In comparison with the £387 million for music projects, £144 million for maths, and £56 million for science projects between 2026 and 2021, RE received nothing at all.

In its absence, the RE community had to resort to charitable trusts, “an unsustainable model moving forwards”.

The letter refers to a Savanta Survey in 2022, which found that about seven in ten parents regarded what their child learnt in RE as important. It emphasises: “In the absence of consistently high quality RE, our children miss out on an essential opportunity to learn knowledge and skills that will equip them to create tolerant and cohesive workplaces and communities, especially in the context of a diversifying and globalized world.”

The Bishop of Durham and lead bishop on education, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, is one of the signatories. He said on Tuesday: “There is a critical shortage of trained RE teachers in our schools. Yet RE remains a compulsory part of every school’s teaching.

“Action needs to be taken both to raise up a new generation of high quality RE teachers, and in the short term equip teachers who are bravely standing in to be able to deliver the subject well. RE at its best is about how we live well together as human beings who hold a wide range of beliefs. It equips all children to understand their own faith and those around them.”

A Religion Media Centre briefing earlier this month on securing the future of RE, concluded: “Headteachers, especially in urban areas with multiple nationalities, are enthusiastic about providing Religious Education, as children are surrounded in daily life by different religious dress, symbols and customs. And the future of all children, from rural or urban settings, is global, with many religions, many cultures, many languages and a competitive global market.

“This year’s exam results showed GCSEs as stable, with RE remaining as the 7th most popular subject. A-level results showed a slight dip in entries, fewer students chose to study Theology or Religious Studies at university, and fewer have chosen to train to teach RE, forming a dangerous cycle.”

The briefing included a plea for a national plan to support high standards in RE provision, and bursaries to encourage new teachers.

The C of E’s Chief Education Officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, said on Monday: “We wholeheartedly welcome this cross-party letter addressing the critical issue of religious education. . .

“We echo the call for funding for teacher training bursaries and improvements in recruitment strategies. Together, we must ensure that every child has access to high quality RE, empowering them to thrive in an increasingly globalised and diverse world.”

Gillian Keegan and the Catholic Union President, Sir Edward Leigh MPPlea to Government. An open letter to the Secretary of State for Education, calling for the removal of the 50-per-cent cap on faith-based admissions to oversubscribed free schools with a religious character in England, has been signed by 1000 Roman Catholics, including bishops, parliamentarians, teachers, and lay people from every part of the country.

They say that the current policy, introduced by the coalition government in 2010, has made it impossible for new RC free schools to open in England, as it would lead to pupils’ being turned away on the basis of their Catholic faith.

The President of the Catholic Union, Sir Edward Leigh MP, has described the cap as “a source of huge frustration to Catholics in this country. There has never been any justification for the policy or any evidence to support keeping it in place.”

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