Let's go for it
RE is the fastest-growing secondary school subject, with GCSE and A-level entries going up at around 10 to 14 per cent a year.
Dick Powell, of Culham Institute (a centre for research and development in RE), says that the main impetus is coming from changes in exam syllabuses, particularly the increased opportunity to study philosophical and ethical issues.
"Young people see it as relevant and cool," he says. "They tackle issues such as abortion, marriage, euthanasia. They can ask questions, and a lot of the answers make sense. Teachers have responded well by learning the new content and generating enthusiasm."
The challenge is to maintain the momentum with good teachers - and that's proving difficult. John Lithgow, head of RE at Henry Box School in Witney, Oxfordshire, with three full-time specialists in a successful department, feels fortunate: "We're a school with a good reputation, in leafy Oxfordshire, yet if people leaving hadn't given notice early, we'd have found it difficult to recruit."
Others haven't been so lucky. Bob Bowie, who runs the PGCE course at Christchurch College Canterbury, tells of an advertisement for a deputy head of RE, with a good salary boost, that had not a single outside applicant. The future of good RE teaching, he says, depends on convincing sixth-formers and graduates that it's a subject they should be teaching.
"We can't sit and wait for them," he says. "We have to do a lot of work, linking with colleagues in other institutions, hosting sixth-form conferences, talking to students."
More than 700 new RE teachers a year are needed, and Dick Powell says the figures don't add up: "Our research says it's impossible to attract all the graduates we need from the fewer than 1,000 who do theology and religious studies."
Now there's a drive by Culham, funded by a group of college trusts, to attract graduates from other disciplines - particularly sociology and philosophy - on to PGCE courses in RE. Culham has set up a "Teach RE" website, with a list of schools willing to host visits and sections on salary and qualifications. As part of the initiative, some training providers are putting on "booster" sessions in the summer term. Joy Schmack at Liverpool Hope University says this is one of the factors that enables her and her colleagues to take risks in recruiting: "The three of us sit at interviews, and if we think there's a way we can make the candidate into an RE teacher, one of us will say 'Let's go for it'."
It's an approach that's justified by results. "We found last year and the year before that those leaving with the best grades were not necessarily the ones who came with theology and religious studies degrees. Last year we had three students who didn't have RE at GCSE."
Bernie Trevelyan, just finishing his first term in the RE department at St John Fisher Catholic High School in Wigan, has cause to be grateful for Joy Schmack's good judgment.
"Joy took a massive risk with me," he says. "My degree was in media studies, and the course was the toughest year that anyone could have - challenging, exciting, thought provoking. A massive journey."
The booster course was a good start. "It was key to laying foundations and setting the tone for the course itself," says Bernie. "Lots of information and tasks, and all the time we were observed and checked, with lots of guidance and help. Every day counted."
There's every sign that Joy Schmack's faith in Bernie is being justified.
He's enjoying his teaching and even having an Ofsted visit in his first term hasn't dampened his enthusiasm.
"It was a good experience, being observed from outside," he says. That, surely, is a golden testimonial to his teacher training.
* RE recruitment website www.teachre.comThe Culham Institute: www.culham.ac.uk