Ithink RE is great. You never know what to expect. It's good to know what other people believe and it helps you sort yourself out as well. Sometimes it's hard knowing what you do think, but the teachers keep making us think and that's great!" says Callum, Year 8.
Callum is absolutely right. RE lessons are relevant, challenging, exciting and frequently unpredictable when they are taught by confident teachers who are committed to the subject and understand what it offers.
Sadly, this is not the experience of every Year 8 pupil or other year groups in key stages 3 and 4. Increasingly - because of a growing shortage of RE specialists - a significant minority of pupils find the subject uninspiring, irrelevant, boring and confined to the textbook.
This is particularly disappointing, since secondary RE has enjoyed something of a regeneration in the past few years. The Office for Standards in Education made a difference, especially in its first cycle, when non-compliance was often a key issue.
The introduction of the GCSE short course has given many RE departments a credibility they didn't previously enjoy. This has raised the profile of the subject at KS3 and 4 and, contrary to expectations, has not undermined the popularity of the full course. Last summer, almost half the cohort gained a nationally accredited qualification in religious studies. This is good news for RE.
Success, however, comes at a price. In the past three years, there has been an explosion in the number of vacancies for RE teachers. In 1999, 689 posts were advertised in The TES. In the previous three years there had been a small but steady increase from about 600 in 1996. In 2000, there were 1,148 advertisements and last year the total had risen to 1,243, an increase of 80 per cent on 1999.
Many of those vacancies will have been filled by newly qualified teachers.
There are concerns, however, that the annual allocation of places for the Postgraduate Certificate in Education - although modest - is difficult to fill and the quality of candidates is variable, so the pool of NQTs is limited.
By far the greatest need is for experienced teachers. In the past three years, the increase in advertisements for posts carrying management points is 150 per cent, and the biggest jump is in those offering three and four incentive points, indicating schools are desperately seeking to appoint the best staff, in many cases having to re-advertise.
Last summer, the Association of RE Inspectors, Advisers and Consultants (AREIAC) surveyed its members on recruitment to secondary RE posts. The purpose of the survey was to determine how difficult it was to fill posts and, although only about a third of local education authorities replied, a common picture emerged.
Respondents estimated that there was an average of only two applicants for every subject leader's post and some reported no replies whatsoever. They expected an average of 2.3 heads of RE posts and 5.5 general RE posts per LEA would remain vacant by last September. All except one member noted that two or more secondary RE posts in their LEA had been filled by teachers without RE qualifications, and some reported that 40 to 50 per cent of posts had been filled by teachers with other specialisms.
More than a third of respondents reported that at least one school, and sometimes as many as six - had modified their curriculum because of RE staff shortages. In a number of schools, the short course for all in KS4 was no longer viable, others were struggling on with a course staffed entirely by non-specialists. It is not unusual for an NQT to be the only specialist and to have the responsibility for leading the department. It goes without saying that such a situation would not be tolerated in science or maths and would be unlikely even in history.
There is a recognised and well-documented crisis in teacher recruitment and retention, which the government is addressing through a number of incentives. While the shortfall in the number of RE teachers may be small compared with shortages in other subjects, the impact on a school may be far greater. In one RE department, an unfilled post means that all teaching has to be done by non-specialists. In its latest update to inspectors, Ofsted highlighted the problem, acknowledging that last year "RE remained the biggest shortage subject".
Despite much lobbying by AREIAC and other RE bodies the incentives, which have been successful elsewhere, have still not been introduced for RE.
Indeed, because there is now a clear disparity between subjects, the golden hellos and waiving of student loan debts encourage potential teachers away from RE in favour of other subjects. To include RE in the category of shortage subjects would not be enormously costly and would have a considerable impact. Then we would stand a better chance of replicating Callum's experience and being truly inclusive.
Julie Grove is chair of the Association of RE Inspectors, Advisers and Consultants