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'We must urgently act to restore rigour to the teaching of RE'

Rev Nigel Genders, the Church of England’s chief education officer, writes: Religious education and the teaching of it are being downgraded in our schools at a time when it is most needed. Billions of people around the world are religious and it is impossible to understand the modern world without understanding the place and influence of religion.

It has been said that if you want to understand somebody’s world view, go back and look at what was happening when they were 20. For those people turning 20 this year, I wonder what will stay with them as shaping their world view?

Certainly, 2014 has provided plenty of material to consider, which requires quite a high level of religious literacy: the rise of Islamic State (IS) extremists, a dramatic questioning of the values and culture which bind us together (or not?) as a nation, and the continued challenge to the moral framework on which we build our society.

The Ofsted subject report on RE of 2013 found that "too many pupils were leaving school with low levels of subject knowledge and understanding". Most GCSE teaching was described as failing "to enable pupils to adopt an enquiring, critical and reflective approach to the study of religion". 

This week the Church of England has published its own report into the teaching and learning of RE in our own schools. It found that, in contrast to the community schools in Ofsted’s report, in the majority of Church of England secondary schools the high quality of subject expertise amongst the teachers’ results in good and outstanding RE. But at primary level we have challenges and the report recommends a more robust and challenging approach to the teaching of Christianity in schools.

Together these two reports should be a wake-up call to all those involved in education. We take our role seriously, and we are in the final stages of developing the Christianity Project, which will ensure that students have a much deeper understanding of the Christian faith.

RE is most effective when its primary purpose of developing pupils’ religious literacy is set in the context of their own personal development and nurturing a search for meaning. However, the report also highlights the difficulty of translating the aspiration for the high priority that should be given to the subject into the reality of quality provision in primary schools where the subject has suffered from the same issues that beset it in community schools.

All of these are tough issues – complicated and nuanced – and we must ask how effectively we have prepared those 20-year-olds to engage with them. There can be little doubt that levels of literacy and numeracy for those entering adulthood in 2014 are much higher now than when I left school; we probably do better at equipping young people with empathetic skills – look at the many young people leading campaigns for justice and fairness in our society – but are we giving them the skills they need to know how our neighbours think and function at the level of beliefs and values?

But we rely on the same pool of teachers as all schools, and therefore need the government to take seriously their role as well. Religious Studies GCSE Short Course has been dropped from school league tables, prompting a dramatic drop in entries, and leaving the statutory RE curriculum without any meaningful accreditation.

Even though the government is working hard to reform the GCSE and ensure that it is rigorous and challenging, it will not be included as one of the humanities options in the English Baccalaureate. This exclusion has not stemmed the rising numbers of those young people who value and want to study the subject, but that is primarily because the Ebacc was not compulsory and schools can still offer the subject as one of the ‘Progress 8’ that will be measured in performance tables.

But recent announcements from the Secretary of State suggest that the Conservative Party’s manifesto is likely to see the EBacc becoming compulsory, and that will have a disastrous impact on the numbers of students able to take a subject which they value so highly.

Perhaps the largest challenge is found in the desperate shortage of specialist or dedicated RE specialist teachers. It is shocking that more RE lessons are currently being taught by non-specialists than by teachers trained in the subject. One can only imagine the outcry if this was the situation with Maths or English. Encouraging new RE teachers requires the government to reconsider their current policy not to provide bursaries to PGCE students wishing to train as RE teachers. Why would anybody want to train to teach a subject which is undermined by central government in such a fashion?

Interestingly, many young people themselves recognise the importance of RE as one of the few opportunities they have to explore the deepest motivations and values. Every year over the past ten years, increasing numbers of GCSE students have chosen to take Religious Studies, this year making it the most popular subject behind English, maths and science. Similarly, in 2014 Religious Studies A-level saw the largest increase in students of any subject.

We should be encouraged by the fact that so many of our young people see the value in being equipped to understand, analyse and evaluate the world views which account for 75% of the global population.

However, there is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that we are failing to equip young people with the vital skills of religious literacy that will become increasingly important for understanding global trends and events.

The primary purpose of any education system must be to prepare people to flourish in the challenges and opportunities they will face later in life. For the generation currently in our schools, robust critical thinking and reasoning skills and a strong understanding of religious thought will clearly be vital tools to enable such flourishing.

In this regard we are currently failing a generation and must urgently act to restore rigour, breadth and challenge to our RE curriculum. The Church of England will play its part, but the government has a key role in recognising the value RE can bring to the lives of young people and ensuring that the education system is able to deliver it.

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