Teachers of religious education could be forgiven the odd moment of private satisfaction. Despite notably barren terrain, an ever more crowded timetable and an increasingly secular society, their subject is flourishing as never before. Last year 201,854 students took the new GCSE short course in RE, a huge increase on the 165,520 who entered in 2001, and a further 122,537 took religious studies, the full two-year version.
Yet when Deborah Weston takes over as chair of the Professional Council for Religious Education later this month, she does so amid a gathering sense of unease. Despite months of hard work from her members and from advisers at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, there is still no sign of the promised national framework for RE. This is a set of central guidelines for what should be taught in a subject that has traditionally been locally determined. It would be non-statutory, but according to Mrs Weston, the framework would be a decisive step for a subject which has never been accorded the status of belonging to the national curriculum. The document is still lying in a drawer at the Department for Education and Skills even though it should have been published last year. Making sure it sees the light of day is Mrs Weston's first priority.
The PCFRE is the professional body for teachers in the subject. It is probably best known for publishing RE Today magazine, but it also lobbies for its 2,500 members in regular meetings with politicians and government advisers, and was the main mover behind the development of the national framework.
"The optimist in me says it will be published because religious education is so important we will have to do it right," says Mrs Weston, who believes the subject has been badly served by some of the SACREs, the local standing advisory committees on RE. "Some of the smaller SACREs are struggling, and the effect on students is not good at all," she explains.
In her more pessimistic moods, however, she is well aware that RE is a subject with the potential to provoke unwelcome headlines and fears the national framework will remain locked away for some time yet. "This feels like the old bargepole policy from the politicians: don't touch RE." In the current climate any government minister is bound to think carefully before risking a tabloid row over the respective merits of major world faiths.
In her view, of course, RE is a force for harmony rather than dissent. The sheer sensitivity of the subject is also one of the reasons why it is growing in popularity. Some 12 per cent of school children now belong to an ethnic minority, mostly Hindu or Muslim and the subject touches the students directly. In this context Mrs Weston, head of RS at the Mulberry School for Girls in Tower Hamlets, east London, is particularly well placed. Although most of her pupils were born in this country, 97 per cent are from a Bangladeshi Muslim background.
"There are loads of different pressures on the children from a religious angle," she explains. "Many go to class in the evening to learn about the Koran. We have groups of girls with all sorts of different views about the role of women. Some of them come to school feeling they want to have a complete education, others would say their role is more in the home. My role is to say these things are not mutually exclusive, and back it up with quotations from the Koran."
Although an Anglican living in Hornchurch, a largely white suburb in Essex, she has acquired a formidable knowledge of Islam, certainly enough to surprise the girls. She says their religious background is a major asset in teaching the subject and leads to good results. "We start from a higher base of knowledge," she says. "They are already religiously literate when they come to the school." Her other major priority is the shortage of RE teachers, notably exposed last summer when the exam boards were obliged to recruit vicars to help mark GCSE scripts.
Mrs Weston will have to manage the new responsibilities alongside her teaching at Mulberry, a separate career in RE consultancy and a home life bringing up two boys. But as a previous vice chair of the council, she is well used to the workload.
Professional Council for RE Tel:0121 472 4242www.pcfre.orog.uk