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Many RE lessons simplistic and ill-informed, Ofsted report declares    

17 April 2024

Non-religious worldviews are not neutral, teachers are told


RELIGIOUS EDUCATION (RE) in English schools often fails to prepare students to “live in a complex world”, a new report from Ofsted says.

The report, Deep and Meaningful? The religious education subject report, published on Wednesday, asserts that it is “simply not the case” that unbiased teaching “equates to teaching a non-religious worldview”.

The report examines the curriculum and teaching practices in a variety of schools in England. It concludes that the chief factors determining the quality of RE are not the type of school, but the strength of the teacher’s subject knowledge, regular time for RE lessons, and a “well-organised curriculum containing knowledge chosen by leaders to enable pupils to deepen their understanding term by term”.

The curriculum “rarely”, however, enables the development of such a depth of understanding, the report says, because it does not “identify clearly the suitable mix of content” which would enable pupils to “make sense of religious and non-religious traditions as they appear around the world”.

The Church of England’s chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, said on Wednesday that Ofsted’s concerns “deeply resonate”.

“RE is pivotal for equipping children and young people to live in a modern diverse society,” he said. The subject was not just about knowledge, he said. “It’s about fostering respect, critical thinking, and understanding in a pluralistic world. The misconception that neutrality equals a non-religious world-view must be corrected.

“We urge educators and policy-makers to heed the recommendations, refining curriculum content, enhancing teacher training, and ensuring consistent assessment practices.”

The report was published ten years after a previous Ofsted report called on the Government to improve the teaching of RE (News, 11 October 2013).

Wednesday’s report finds little improvement: “The unrealised potential of the subjects remains now, as it was then.”

It criticises the Government for failing to implement the recommendations of the previous report, which included establishing clearer expectations about what pupils should be taught, and calls on the Government “urgently [to] update guidance for schools about its statutory expectations for RE”.

The status of RE as a mandatory subject but not part of the national curriculum has meant that there is significant variation in approaches to the subject, a situation that makes improving overall standards harder, the report suggests.

The report says that there is no centrally coordinated support for RE teachers: instead, independent organisations are stepping into the breach.

The chair of one such organisation, the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC), Sarah Lane Cawte (Feature, 9 February), said on Wednesday: “RE has suffered from a gulf in government funding and the axing of the teacher-training bursary.

“Whilst the bursaries have been reinstated, there is still much to be done. We are pleased that this Ofsted report calls for more government action to support RE across the sector.”

Next month, the REC will launch a “curriculum toolkit” to help schools to develop their syllabus and teaching practices.

The REC has also entered into partnership with the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education to create the Religious Education Policy Unit (REPU), representing more than 60 organisations and teachers in 4000 schools.

The chair of REPU, Deborah Weston, welcomed Ofsted’s report, particularly its focus on the importance of RE in helping young people to “make sense” of the world, while also aiding in their personal development.

Ofsted recommends that school timetables be organised to prevent gaps in teaching which might affect the accumulation of knowledge, and that pupils receive an education that is “both broad and deep”.

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