The BBC, Daily Telegraph, Independent and the Daily Mail all ran big stories about RE during the third week of September, prompted by the NATRE analysis of the Government’s School Workforce Census, which reveals that more than one in four (28%) state secondary schools are struggling to meet their legal obligation to teach pupils about major religions and systems of belief, depriving teenagers of vital knowledge about different faiths and beliefs in community, public and world affairs.
All state-funded schools, including academies and free schools, are legally required by the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act to provide Religious Education as part of a balanced curriculum. Every pupil in such schools is entitled to RE.
The analysis of Government figures prompted the Religious Education Council and the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE) to create a new State of the Nation report. The report includes data from the School Workforce Census and GCSE figures, as well as survey responses from 790 secondary schools. The research found that:
- 25% of all schools surveyed said a weekly RE lesson to ensure pupils understand different religions and beliefs is not available. In academies and free schools, where RE is determined as part of the funding agreement, this figure rose to 34% for 11 to 13 year olds, and 44% for 14 to 16 year olds. Four per cent of schools with a religious character do not offer a weekly lesson. So why are the academies so poor at offering legal RE?
- RE also receives the lowest level of teaching time in academies and free schools. A majority (56%) dedicate less than 3% of their timetables (around 40 minutes) to RE; this low level of RE is only found in a third of schools where a locally agreed syllabus applies and 10% of schools with a religious character. Students are not asked to do GCSE Physics in 45 minutes a week. Or French. So why RE?
- Despite Religious Studies GCSE remaining a popular choice among students with about 350 000 candidates in all, it is still allocated less than the recommended level of teaching time of two hours per week in many schools; 43% of pupils are taught their GCSE full course in under one hour a week, nearly half (48%) receive one hour and a half or less of teaching.
- Students are more likely to have a teacher trained with the appropriate level of subject knowledge and expertise who can create a space to discuss faiths and beliefs in a school with a religious character (90%) than in schools where RE is determined with the locally agreed syllabus (73%), or academies and free schools where RE is determined as part of their funding agreement (66%).
The need for RE
NATRE’s Research Officer, Deborah Weston, said: “Whilst many schools, including academies and free schools, are continuing to deliver good RE, these statistics highlight serious problems that have implications for cohesion and inclusivity in our society, as well as presenting questions around the role of specialist RE teachers in schools. By developing knowledge and understanding about different religions and worldviews in the security of a classroom, young people have the opportunity to engage with complex, diverse and constantly evolving subject matter.
“Today, it is important to be religiously literate and to understand and question the accuracy of claims about different religions. RE provides for critical exploration of individual beliefs and values, whilst opening up the discussion about religion and belief in the communities we live in. These figures are alarming as they provide statistical evidence of a trend we have been hearing about from RE teachers, and come at a time where respect and tolerance for others’ beliefs is essential.”
Chief Executive of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC) Rudolf Eliott Lockhart, added: “More than ever, as our society becomes multicultural and religious extremism dominates the news agenda, we need young people to be religiously literate. We have been encouraged by an improved profile and better understanding for RE in schools from policy makers at both Ofsted and the Department for Education. They have committed to paying closer attention to RE, which makes these new statistics about schools’ struggling to provide required levels of RE all the more alarming.
“RE knowledge is vital in ensuring all school leavers go into the world of work and beyond, understanding the differences, identifying distortions and being part of the broader change needed to ensure communities are cohesive and well-integrated for future generations.”
The need for action
In light of these findings, both the REC and NATRE remain committed to ensuring all pupils in all schools receive fair access to Religious Education. They are calling for the Government to make a clear public statement that it is not acceptable for a school to provide no RE as well as to review how provision is benchmarked.
My own view is that this is nothing new (provision was at its best between about 2004 and 2010), but the scale of poor or non-existent RE should demand action from the government. Even a simple letter to schools, or instructions to OFSTED to check the subject would improve things a lot. Whether you’re a Christian with a vision to share spiritual life with students, or a teacher of RE who wants to do a good job, or an anti-racist who believes RE can build a more harmonious society (and I am all three), this is a campaign worth engaging with. Write to an MP, and copy your letter to Justine Greening, Secretary of State for Education.