Church of England RE review reveals highs and lows

Provision is patchy in primary but excels in secondary, it finds

With the spiritual development of pupils central to their ethos, Church of England schools might be expected to have a firm grip on the teaching of religious education.

But an internal review has found serious problems with RE, with the majority of primary schools failing to reach "good" standards of teaching.

A team of inspectors sent by the CofE to a cross section of schools found that among the 30 primaries visited, just 12 had "good or better" RE provision. Only one was judged as outstanding and teaching in five was deemed inadequate.

The survey highlights a lack of access to effective training in some schools and poor monitoring by governors. It also reveals confusion about the relationship between RE as a subject and schools' wider Christian ethos, which sometimes restricts the breadth of learning about Christianity "to a narrow diet of Bible stories".

The CofE defines successful RE teaching as covering Christianity and how it "shaped British culture and heritage", as well as a wider exploration of other major religions, faith in general and philosophical convictions.

Despite the disappointing outlook in primary, the report describes a "very positive picture" of RE in secondary schools, praising the high level of teacher expertise. Inspectors judged 21 out of 30 secondaries' RE provision to be good or better and it was outstanding in seven of the schools. However, they also highlighted "a tail of ineffective practice". Seven schools required improvement and two were inadequate.

The review follows a scathing report from Ofsted in October 2013 that was highly critical of RE in state schools, pointing to low standards and weak teaching.

The subject has been going through a tumultuous period, which reached a peak in 2010 when it was excluded from the English Baccalaureate measure of school performance. Many feared this would result in RE becoming a second-class subject because schools would be less motivated to offer it, although the numbers sitting the full GCSE course in England and Wales this year rose by 7 per cent on 2013. Numbers sitting the short course fell by a third, however.

In her foreword to the latest report, the CofE's recently retired chief education officer, the Reverend Janina Ainsworth, acknowledges that it makes for "mixed reading". "There is very strong commitment to RE in every school but somehow that doesn't translate into excellent practice," she writes. "We have a major task in raising the standard of RE in a significant proportion of Church of England primary schools."

A key issue, she argues, is that CofE institutions draw from the same pool of teachers as community schools. "If there is a deficit in RE training across the board then that will be represented in our teachers," she says.

The CofE's new chief education officer, the Reverend Nigel Genders, told TES that the review showed RE was "exceptionally well taught" in secondary schools and led by well-trained specialist teachers. "We want to see that training improved for all teachers," he said.

The government had a "major role to play" and should implement policies that ensured the subject was valued, he added.

Ed Pawson, head of RE at a school in Devon and chair of the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education, agreed that training was an issue, especially in primary schools.

"There is such a lack of time devoted to it in the PGCE courses and even in a dedicated degree course," he said. "Surveys we have done show teachers are getting three hours on RE whether they are going into community schools or church schools. They are going in without that much expertise or confidence."

Find the survey at www.churchofengland.orgeducation and a piece by the Reverend Nigel Genders at

`RE is about emotions and feelings'

Upton Noble (VC) Primary School in Somerset took part in the recent CofE review. Executive headteacher Mark Solomon says it can be hard to assess pupil achievement as RE is often about "emotions and feelings" rather than measurable outcomes.

He says it can also be "tricky" for rural schools to compare Christianity with other religions, because they do not have easy access to non-Christian places of worship.

But Mr Solomon argues that expertise in Christianity beyond "an awareness of Christian values" is not fundamental for new teachers. "The RE curriculum is set out for us like any other," he says. "If you have empathy for the children in your class, you can teach it."

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