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RE in England is lamentable, the Lords are told

26 January 2024

Schools are said to be routinely flouting statutory obligations

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THE state of religious education (RE) in schools in England is “lamentable”; and one in five schools offer zero hours of the subject to 15- and 16-year-olds, in breach of their statutory obligations, the House of Lords has heard.

Lord Harries of Pentregarth, a former Bishop of Oxford, said that no government money had been spent on RE projects in schools in the past five years, compared with £387 million given to music projects, while the number of RE teachers had declined by six per cent in the past decade.

In a debate that he introduced into the Lords, he said: “With the Government’s stated ‘firm belief’ in the importance of RE in mind, there should be a national plan for RE on a par, at least, with the national plan for music.

“There should also be, as part of this national plan, the provision of teachers who are properly qualified to teach the subject and able to take part in continuing professional development; this is not the case at the moment. The Department for Education has missed its recruitment target for secondary RE teachers in nine out of the last ten years. What is happening now in RE is professionally unacceptable.”

Lord Harries quoted Ofsted’s 2023 report on religious education, which said that the provision was “unfit for purpose” and “undervalued”.

He told humanist peers that they needed to understand that “religious education is education. It is not propaganda. It is simply basic to any understanding of what it is to be a citizen of our society in the world today.”

The failure to fund RE meant that schools were failing to prepare their students for understanding the importance of religion for building good community relationships, he said. “It goes without saying that, in a world of conflict such as ours, where religion is so often a factor, this is more important than ever.”

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, who is the Church of England’s lead bishop on education, urged the Government to regard RE not as an “afterthought”, but “as an essential part of education, equipping young people to live and engage in society today”. The Government’s decision not to include RE in the English baccalaureate was, he said, “disastrous”, and he urged it to reconsider.

Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, a former President of the Methodist Conference, said that he had spent 40 years involved in school governance, and, in that period, the situation had become “ever more dire”.

Lord Storey, a former head teacher of a C of E school, said that one quarter of schools in England and Wales left it to teaching assistants rather than qualified teachers to deliver RE.

But Lord Warner, a member of Humanists UK, said that the church hierarchy and Parliament were refusing to accept that attitudes to religion had fundamentally changed, and there were dramatic falls in religious adherence among young people.

He called for the abolition of compulsory acts of Christian worship in schools, and for a broader national curriculum based on faith and non-faith beliefs. He ended by calling on the House of Lords to change some of its own religious practices, including the Anglican prayers and the presence of 26 Anglican bishops.

The Minister for the School System and Student Finance, Baroness Barran, said that the Government had recognised the ongoing failure to recruit enough RE teachers, and was introducing a £10,000 bursary for those who started training this year.

There were no plans, she said, to introduce a national plan for RE, as “our policy remains that curricula should be determined locally. . . The Government’s stance remains that we trust schools to judge how to use the funding that we give them. We trust their judgement, and we give them autonomy to decide how to use that funding.

“On the question from the Rt Revd Prelate the Bishop of Durham about whether we are planning to include religious education in the EBacc., I think he knows the answer: there are no current plans to do so.”

Schools that failed to deliver on their statutory duty to teach RE were not monitored, she said, and any concerns had to be raised with individual schools.

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