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Death by a thousand festivals

Nicholas Pyke on moves to beef up key stage 4 for non-examination students. God's a soft touch when it comes to breaking the law. Not only do schools backslide on Christian assemblies, in many cases they fail with near impunity to teach a supposedly compulsory subject, religious education. The Office for Standards in Education's inspectors have made it scathingly clear that by the time pupils reach examination years the subject gets barely a passing nod.

RE is commonly acknowledged to lack teaching time and status: it is not, of course, a part of the national curriculum nor, in most cases, does it lead to an exam. This, say groups like the Professional Council for Religious Education, is a major weakness. After 12 years of study, or putative study, most pupils leave with not so much as a scrap of paper. Can children be blamed if they prove to be no more inclined to study RE than their teachers are to teach it?

There is now a consensus among teachers, administrators and faith groups that some new qualification should be found to reward the great bulk of pupils who do not sit GCSE religious studies - but are none the less obliged to do RE by law. "The point of assessment is to give the subject some beef and credibility," says Stephen Orchard, director of the Christian Education Movement. "Not just for the sake of it. It's so that pupils get something to show for their work."

He and others point to the apparent success of council-based initiatives along the same lines. Dorset, for example, has created the Dorset Records of Achievement project. Ninety per cent of the secondary schools have now signed up and, according to Graham Langtree, county advisor and vice chair of the Association for RE Advisors, Inspectors and Consultants, the pilot schools for the scheme have seen a marked improvement in the children's attitude towards RE. Dorset attempts to set the subject in the context of children's experience - what might be described as a religious education rather than a religious studies approach to the subject. The GCSE RS syllabus is regarded as comparatively knowledge based. The core units cover such things as "Religious belief, practice and experience", and "Values and commitments".

There are also supplementary topics including: medical ethics; RE and the environment; and RE in the media. Graham Langtree is keen to avoid the "death by a thousand festivals" suffered by many unwilling students.

The records of achievement project, he says, has also been a useful basis for development in sixth-form RE. And now there appears to be some movement on a national basis. There has been no formal Government attempt to follow up former Education Secretary John Patten's promise to consider the idea of a new qualification. But it seems that behind the scenes the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority is giving the matter some serious thought. Both the teaching professionals and the administrators are keen to boost the part played by religious education as opposed to religious studies, and see accreditation as a way of helping them down this road. It could also divert attention from the controversial new two-faith limit at GCSE - a policy that puts some exam students at odds with their own local syllabuses, which demand the study of three or more religions.

A GNVQ could be one option although, as Stephen Orchard suggests, its vocational bent might mistakenly imply a sort of training course for vicars. Another possibility under consideration is a short GCSE course. The Government has not been keen to promote this approach in general, but there is a precedent of sorts in GCSE Welsh Language.

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