A NEW national framework for religious education in schools should be introduced in a move that would further reduce the power of education authorities, a conference was told this week.
While the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has overall responsibility for the curriculum, RE syllabuses are agreed at a local council level.
But Barbara Wingersgill, a senior inspector with responsibility for RE, blamed these arrangements for the lack of national standards and for the downgrading of the subject.
Calling for a national framework for RE, she said: "While recognising the need for the content taught in RE to be acceptable to the local population, we see no reason why agreed syllabuses should be so different in their structure, aims, objectives, attainment targets and so many other features.
"This singles out RE as a subject that appears to be unsure of its identity and nature, creates difficulties for teachers moving from one local authority to another and, as many heads have told us, diminishes the status of RE in schools.
"We believe that the status, the quality of teaching and subsequently standards could be improved by greater centralisation of the RE curriculum."
While recognising the important role played by local communities with regard to the RE syllabus, John Keast, principal manager for RE at the QCA, said he would also wlcome a national framework.
Speaking at the conference, organised by Culham College Institute, an RE development agency, he said: "There is a strong case for developing a non-statutory framework for RE, along the lines of the personal social and health education framework, in consultation with faith communities and RE organisations.
"In a few weeks, there will be the launch of far-reaching improvements in how the curriculum is presented, linked and resourced, by its going on line. RE could lose out nationally on such a development if there is not, at national level, some equivalent to a national programme of study.
"Such a framework could actually strengthen the work of local standing advisory councils and agreed syllabus conferences. It could offer them decisions to take on local variations of emphasis and content that are needed to reflect their local needs."
However, Dave Francis, chair of the Association of RE Advisers, Inspectors and Consultants, said the creation of a national framework would deprive children of the creativity, innovation and enterprise of the local community, teachers and other experts who currently determine the syllabus.
Baroness Blatch, Conservative education spokesman in the House of Lords, criticised the "supermarket" approach to RE and called for pupils to spend more time learning about their own faiths.
"In teaching all faiths, it is possible that we succeed in teaching none," she said.