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Lauren Nicholson-Ward-The Tablet - Thu, Feb 22nd 2018

We need to be ‘religiously literate’

The Tablet Education Supplement


Last year, for the first time in more than a decade, the number of pupils in England and Wales taking a GCSE in religious education fell and the data showed that many schools were no longer even offering RE.

In 2017, the number of students taking a full-course GCSE in RE fell by 4.6 per cent against the previous year, to 269,839. Meanwhile, the number studying the short- course GCSE in RE (in which pupils study half the GCSE syllabus and take an exam after one year instead of two) fell by a quarter to 53,071.

Legally, schools and academies have a duty to provide RE to all pupils, with detailed syllabuses agreed locally.  However, as has been the case historically, some institutions fall short of their obligations.

Schools are increasingly data-rich, data-driven places, and with RE being sidelined in many of the measures of school progress (or, in the case of the GCSE short course, entirely excluded), some have decided to forgo RE examinations, and indeed lessons, to focus on ensuring positive results in other subjects that have been prioritised by the Government.

The National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (Natre) says schools should not be blamed for this, as Deborah Weston, research officer at the association, explained: “The decisions schools make about what courses to offer have been affected by the Government’s exclusion of RE from the English Baccalaureate subjects listed in the performance tables. Performance tables are hugely important to schools, so we shouldn't be surprised when their timetables appear to prioritise subjects which matter most in those tables.”

Suzanne O’Farrell, curriculum and assessment specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, agreed that government policies on the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) have exacerbated the problem. The EBacc is a school performance indicator that requires pupils to study a combination of core academic subjects for GCSE, including English literature, English language, maths, a language, two sciences and a humanity – history or geography.

“The fact that RE is not considered to be a suitable EBacc humanity subject has contributed [to the problem],” said O’Farrell. “Pupils on average study nine GCSEs and with seven of them linked to EBacc subjects this does not leave a lot of room for a wide uptake of other subjects.”

She added that the RE short course, which was very popular in schools, had been affected by its exclusion from performance tables from 2013-14 onwards.

“I think it is really important for all students to be studying RE in terms of learning and understanding about different religions in a diverse society,” said O’Farrell. “Maybe the Government should reconsider its inclusion as an EBacc option among the humanities.”

Natre and the Religious Education Council published their “State of the Nation” report last September, showing that a third of academies were not offering RE to

11- to 13-year-olds and almost half were not offering it for GCSE. The majority of secondary schools in England are now academies, which have more freedom than other schools to decide their curriculum, although they too are legally obliged to offer RE.

Deborah Weston would like to see the Government impose an obligation on schools to report how they are meeting the requirement to teach RE to all pupils.

“The lack of accountability by schools is a serious issue,” she said. “They have to report on how pupils achieve in the EBacc subjects but they don’t have to report the equivalent information for RE which is a legally required subject but also vitally important to prepare pupils for life in modern Britain. Schools have so many pressing and complex issues to deal with that if they don’t have to report on RE, the subject becomes very vulnerable indeed.”

The Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC) is concerned and agrees that schools should be held to account. Last September, its Commission on RE published an interim report saying schools should be required to present details of how they “meet the national entitlement for RE” and “inspection frameworks should be revised to ensure that inspectors monitor” this. The commission has been consulting on its wide-ranging report and will produce a final study at the end of this year.

Schools are also hampered by a serious shortfall in RE teachers, which could lead to a cycle of decline. The “State of the Nation” report pointed out that this had a direct impact on the number of pupils taking GCSE, as some schools are unable to fill RE teaching posts. If this situation is not corrected urgently, fewer pupils will then take A level and “this in turn affects university entries, and further again, the number of theology and religious studies graduates, alongside those in other related disciplines, who might decide to train to teach RE”.

All this means that the prognosis for RE looks pretty bleak in some schools and the wider benefits of RE are not being felt. The Government has highlighted the need for increased religious literacy and deeper understanding of religious and non-religious beliefs among young people.

The Prevent agenda (part of the Government‘s counter-terrorism strategy) relies heavily on the cooperation of schools and academies, and often, though not exclusively, it is in RE that the bulk of the work is done.

“The need to be religiously literate pervades every aspect of our lives,” said Deborah Weston. “Likewise, a lack of knowledge and understanding about religions and non-religious world views can lead to a lack of understanding in communities and even bigotry.”

Anna Sallnow, a Religious Education consultant helping to support teachers in Catholic schools, added that pupils’ appetite for RE was strong. “It’s no longer the Cinderella subject,” she said. “Pupils are very interested in religion and the issues it raises in their lives.”

One local authority bucking the trend is Hampshire, where full-course GCSE entries have increased by 25 per cent since 2014. Hampshire has an RE advisory team consisting of qualified teachers with specialist experience. “We offer staff development and training, curriculum advice and resources,” said Peter Edgar, Hampshire’s Executive Member for Education. “I have no doubt that structured support from the county council is key for many Hampshire schools that are striving to offer pupils the wide choice of subjects that they deserve, at the high standards we all expect for our children.”

Lauren Nicholson-Ward teaches at a comprehensive in the Midlands. Additional reporting by Isabel de Bertodano

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