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Lord Harries: Religious Education needs to change

09 February 2024

In a Lords debate last month, Richard Harries challenged the Government on the state of RE


RE recruitment for this year was predicted to be 60 per cent short of the target, and this also put university courses where people learnt the subject under strain, Lord Harries said

RE recruitment for this year was predicted to be 60 per cent short of the target, and this also put university courses where people learnt the subject...

THE 2023 report by Ofsted on religious education could hardly be more damning. It said that, in too many schools, RE was of “poor quality” and “not fit for purpose”. Ofsted suggested that, as a subject, RE was “undervalued” and often considered as an “afterthought” by schools. It argued that the “lack of clarity and support” from the Government made the schools’ job “harder”. This is not a new situation but one that has been known for many years and, despite some input by government, the situation has continued to deteriorate.

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.

First, it is impossible to understand the literature, art, music, history, or political values of this country and Europe without some basic knowledge of the Christian faith, and the Hebrew scriptures on which it was built. It should be general knowledge in our culture why we have Christmas and Easter, for example, but polls indicate a widespread ignorance. Teachers of literature in universities are appalled at the lack of any kind of knowledge of the Christian faith that permeates so much of what students will study.

Then, in our plural society, in which Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism, for example, are so widely present, religious education should give people the mindset to begin to enter into the narrative of other worldviews. 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.

I am delighted that a number of my humanist friends will be speaking in this debate, but I emphasise to them that what we are talking about is education, not propaganda. Most young people today say, apparently, that they have no religion. This makes it all the more important for them actually to know something about what it is that they say they do not believe. Religious education is, therefore, essential for understanding both our own society and the world in which we live. Why have successive governments allowed it to be so marginalised for so long?

At the moment, the main responsibility for RE lies with local authorities and SACREs. Some of them take this responsibility seriously, but, in others, very little has been done. In August last year, a survey of LA funding to SACREs found that five authorities declared no spending on RE at all, and a further 34 — 39 in all, or 31 per cent — stated that they do not spend any money supporting RE in schools. Some authorities allocated sufficient funding for a proper review of the agreed syllabus in a timely fashion, but 21 authorities had a syllabus from before 2017 — more than five years old.

SACREs have, on the whole, worked well as enablers of co-operation and community between the different faith communities, but they have not been able to bring about the radical improvement in RE that has been shown to be needed for many years now. The time has come for much more direction at a national level.

I agree with the Religious Education Policy Unit that there should be a properly funded national plan for RE, which should include a national curriculum. A national curriculum is used as a benchmark for standards in other subjects, and, if academies do not choose to follow it, they must provide a curriculum that is similarly broad and ambitious. The present situation, where responsibility lies at a local level, means that there is no standard available to the Government to challenge weak or invisible RE provision.


THE present situation is lamentable. In England, schools have a statutory obligation to provide RE to their students. According to the school workforce data, one in five schools offers zero hours of RE in year 11: this equates to about 500 secondary schools. In the absence of a national standard, the current Government have no mechanism to challenge this.

It should also be noted that no government money has been spent on RE projects in schools over the past five years — that is, 2016 to 2021. During this time, English has received £28.5 million, music has received £387 million, maths has received £154 million, and science £56 million.

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 past ten years. While the total number of secondary teachers in history and geography has risen by six per cent and 11 per cent respectively during that period, the number of teachers of RE has declined by almost six per cent in the same time.

The result is that pupils are now three times as likely to be taught RE by someone with no qualification in the subject than, for example, in history. Some 51 per cent of RE lessons are taught by people whose qualification is in a subject other than RE, and RE often becomes the lesson that is filled by a teacher with a few spare lessons on their timetable.

One way in which this situation can be addressed is through the provision of more bursaries for those training to teach RE in a way that is comparable to those training to teach other subjects where there is a shortage of teachers. I welcome the Government’s commitment to fund bursaries of £10,000 for trainee teachers in RE, and the provision of eight-week subject enhancement courses. Even with these measures, however, recruitment for this year was predicted to be 60 per cent short of the target, and this has the further effect of putting university courses where people learn the subject under strain, and creating a vicious circle of decline.

Despite the sterling efforts of some schools and some SACREs, it is widely recognised that the present situation is lamentable, and it is failing to prepare pupils for understanding the part played by religion in our culture and history, and its importance for good community relations in the modern world. What is happening now in RE is professionally unacceptable.

Finally, I will press the Minister on whether she agrees that, first, we need a properly funded, clear national plan for RE, and that it can no longer simply be left to SACREs, and this plan should include a budgetary provision at least comparable to other subjects that need a boost, such as music; second, this plan should include what is expected from the syllabus, and that what happens locally should be judged by this benchmark; and, third, that RE should be taught by people who have qualifications in the subject, and who are given regular opportunities to enhance their professional skills, and that more bursaries and more money for enhanced professional training should be made available to this end. I beg to move.

This is an edited extract from: hansard.parliament.uk

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford.

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