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Preparation for lifein a complex world

Graham Langtree sees much to praise in RE teaching but there are also serious weaknesses

Religious education is enjoying a high profile with a record number of students taking the subject at GCSE and A-level. It is increasingly valued for its central role in promoting respect and sensitivity and combating prejudice and discrimination.

The non-statutory national RE framework (2004) has had a positive impact. New agreed syllabuses are making extensive use of the framework, especially in the programmes of study and the accompanying eight-level scale. Recent world events have also highlighted the significance of RE in the curriculum. The core skills of enquiry, communication and evaluation are vital in preparing young people for life in a complex, multicultural society.

While there is much to celebrate there are also some key deficiencies, as the latest analysis from Ofsted shows. In primary RE, key strengths include:

* pupils' good attitudes towards the subject; * its contribution to children's spiritual, moral, social and cultural development;

* the overall quality of teaching and learning.

However, there remain some important weaknesses:

* The quality and effectiveness of assessment in RE;

* RE subject leaders are good role models, but monitoring the RE curriculum lacks sufficient rigour;

* there has been a plateauing of the subject, because of reduced training time and resources and restricted opportunities for in-service.

In secondary RE, key strengths include:

* entry numbers and standards at GCSE and A-level;

* very good teaching at key stage 4, where RE is one of the most improved subjects;

* the quality of teaching in RE at post-16, which is higher than any other subject;

* the vital role of the subject in provision for students' spiritual, moral, social and cultural development;

* the overall improvement from being "one of the weakest subjects in the curriculum" (1993-1997) to "no longer standing out as a subject giving cause for concern" (2005);

* the positive impact of the secondary strategy leading to clearer learning objectives, challenging learning activities and effective plenary sessions.

These strengths demonstrate the real progress RE has made in secondary schools.

However, important weaknesses remain. These include:

* the quality of assessment, particularly the neglect of transfer information at Year 7;

* leadership and management of RE, which remains unsatisfactory in one school in six. One in five schools do not adequately monitor and evaluate the RE curriculum; * the achievement of boys in RE remains significantly lower than that of girls; * the shortage of specialist teachers in the subject ("golden helloes" are a welcome and much-needed boost for RE). Apart from citizenship, RE has more non-specialist staff than any other subject. While there are some effective non-specialist teachers of RE, the overall impact is that teaching is a grade lower than for subject specialists in the same school. The effect is a lack of subject knowledge and confidence. leading to dull lessons.

The RE Council recently called on the Government to develop a national strategy for RE. The strategy, rooted in the national RE framework, contains key elements, such as training the existing workforce, disseminating the national RE framework and improving initial teacher training.

Clearly this would do much to improve the quality of RE. A striking feature of the national RE framework was the partnership between faith communities and the professional associations in building quality RE. There is real scope for the RE world to continue to work collaboratively.

Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education (Sacres) have a key role here. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's annual analysis of Sacre reports highlight significant variations in the impact of Sacres' work in RE.

Many thrive and provide valuable guidance. Others struggle to fulfil even the basic duties of a Sacre. Devon Sacre (in partnership with Plymouth and Torbay) has produced guidance on assessment in RE entitled How Well Am I Doing?, which addresses some of the key issues highlighted by Ofsted. Other Sacres have produced guidance on boys' achievement, using ICT effectively and supporting non-specialist teachers.

What is needed now are ways of sharing best local practice in a national context, for the benefit of all pupils.

Graham Langtree is the Devon adviser for RE. Until recently he was RE adviser at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority

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