RE sits within humanities faculties in secondary schools alongside history and geography, with RE teachers planning, preparing, teaching, managing pupils' learning, marking and writing reports. In primary schools also, RE sits alongside the national curriculum as a full subject in its own right.
But this was not the case 20 or even 10 years ago.
Because of the national-local partnership that has developed, RE is now taking its proper place in the school schedule. This partnership is the result of the requirement placed on local education authorities, nationally, for the curriculum and assessment arrangements to be determined locally or (in aided schools) by the faith community.
Nationally we require the subject to be taught in all schools to all pupils, except those withdrawn by their parents. We require LEAs to devise syllabuses agreed by councillors, teachers and representatives of faith communities, stipulating only that they should reflect the mainly Christian traditions of Britain and take account of the other principal religions found here. We leave most of the rest to each LEA, advised by their standing advisory councils for RE (SACREs). This means that locally, each LEA decides the content of syllabuses, programmes of study, standards of attainment, assessment processes, teaching methods, resources and training.
To support the local arrangements and provide more commonality, the QCA has provided non-statutory guidance including model syllabuses, exemplifiation and schemes of work, making RE look as much like a national curriculum subject as possible. At the same time national bodies apply to RE similar criteria and rules about qualifications, inspection and teacher training as for other subjects.
This partnership can be very effective when it works well. National support and local ownership is a powerful lever for involving many individuals and communities in RE. If the partnership does not function well, RE in schools suffers from lack of support, leading to lower standards and poorer quality. But the number of LEAs has increased by almost half since 1995, leading to inevitable differences and dissimilarity in content, provision and quality between various parts of the country and even between schools. LEAs and SACREs themselves vary and the effectiveness of their support for RE is often too diverse. OFSTED inspections of LEAs rarely comment on how well either body discharges its legal responsibilities in RE.
Within this diversity and at a time of change and challenge for LEAs, the ability to discharge local responsibilities for RE, including support for effective SACREs, must be safeguarded. Failure to do so will result in the weakening of the national-local partnership, leading us back to poor provision, low quality and marginal status. This should not be allowed to happen.
John Keast is principal manager of RE, citizenship and PSHE for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, 29 Bolton Street, London W1Y 7PD. Tel: 020 7509 5555