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It's vocational - even without a vocation

So, a University of East Anglia study has identified RE as the least popular subject among 11 to 15-year-olds (TES, May 23). Who would blame the Year 10 girl quoted as saying: "Unless I want to be a nun, I do not see how RE is going to get me a good job in later life, therefore, I feel I'm wasting my time."

Aspirations to join a convent do not figure highly on lists of careers when you're in Year 10, while notions of securing "a good job" (whatever that is) do. But the good job might be in law, the media, medicine, social work, industry, politics or teaching.

Each of these draws on the staple fare of RE lessons. The subject is about a diversity of belief and behaviour, and is unique in the curriculum in offering time and space to reflect on the big issues and age-old questions about our human experiences. It's a misconception to think it's all about arcane religious practices, or that it's irrelevant because we live in a highly secular, materialistic and technological society.

Because our religious heritage is swiftly evaporating, the relevance of the subject has never been greater. You'd have to be living on another planet not to be engaged by some of the questions on offer in current RE courses.

Power, injustice, sex, money, abortion, capital punishment, assisted suicide, war, animal rights, evil and suffering, fertility treatment and Third World issues all come under scrutiny. And in our world-on-your-doorstep lifestyle, it's essential to have an insight into the three major world religions.

Anyone wanting to enter a convent had better steer clear of RE. It's too gritty and realistic. The Year 10 girl quoted had probably not encountered a stimulating RE course. But an increasing number have - last year's GCSE had more than 300,000 entries.

Maybe employers need re-educating, too. RE is still often seen as the Cinderella of the curriculum, a soft option for the faint-hearted or religious God squad. Instead, it's a robust academic challenge for all which develops a mature level of religious literacy and human savvy. It is a vehicle for understanding what holding a religious belief might mean, and learning to respect those who do.

If the girl feels she is wasting her time because the subject has no bearing on her job prospects, who would blame her? Much of what contributes to a versatile education is not meant to be of "use" in a practical, rat-race sense, but are experiences through which we grow and gain a glimpse of who we might become. In this journey, RE has a central and influential place. So it is vocational, after all.

Sandra Tew was head of religious studies at a Dorset school and a school inspector

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