Converts to a neglected subject

13th October 1995 at 01:00
The Ecclesbourne School, a grant-maintained comprehensive near Derby, has been praised for the quality of its religious education by Government inspectors. This by itself makes the school a rarity.

The fact that large numbers of children volunteer to do a poorly regarded subject like RE is a better indication still that something is going right in the commuter village of Duffield.

For the past two years, between 55 and 60 out of 200 fourth-year pupils have chosen religious studies at GCSE. This enthusiasm feeds into A-level where it claims 50 out of 300 sixth-formers.

The results are also good, with an A-C pass rate of 75 per cent at GCSE and an overall success rate of 94 per cent at A-level.

The school, out in the countryside just beyond the city boundary, does have some advantages: a predominantly middle-class catchment, for example, with a high proportion of professional families. But this by itself is no guarantee of success; the subject has known bad periods at Ecclesbourne as at most other schools.

Now, however, the school can call on four RE specialists: most others have one or, worse still, none. This shortage of trained RE staff is consistently quoted by both HM Inspectorate and the profession itself as a major problem.

As a consequence Ecclesbourne is able to treat RE not as a confessional hobby-horse for committed Christians on the staff, but as an independent, rigorous study.

"Good RE to me is treating the subject as a distinct academic discipline, " says the head of humanities and RE, Kevin James. "Which means giving it an equivalent profile to other subjects in schools."

The syllabuses certainly include a traditional Judeo-Christian element, but at A-level the students broaden out with world religions and a specialist section on Buddhism while at GCSE they also study Islam. Both fifth and sixth-formers do substantial chunks of coursework.

Pupils not taking exams do their religious education through personal and social education (PSE) up until the fifth form, or in general studies in the sixth. In fact some of those on the sixth-form religious studies courses have enrolled thanks to an interest awakened in the fifth-form PSE sessions which, written by the school, cover topics like race and prejudice, war and propaganda.

"If you're an academic discipline it's good to be taught by someone trained in religious studies," says Kevin James. "So often in secondary schools you see the music teacher trying a bit of RE. That's where you need the backing of the head - to pay for the extra professionalism." And with parents more suspicious of RE than most subjects, he believes that even more is expected of people like him.

"If it's not accepted as part of the culture that the subject is as important as anything else, then you've got a big battle on your hands," says Petra Owen, a colleague in the department. "You've not only got to convince the students but their parents and the senior management team. Many of my friends in other schools are battling at the moment - reduced to half an hour of PSE. And if they're lucky they get to mention the word Muslim twice."

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