What keeps me awake at night - A subject held back by contempt

Elizabeth Tomlinson

Recently, it was reported that there is a shortage of qualified RE teachers. What's new? This has been the case ever since I began teaching religious studies 55 years ago.

I love my subject and there have been many fulfilling experiences that I can look back on with pleasure. Yet I would not advise a young religious studies graduate to follow my path of being a specialist in a secondary school. They will have very little chance of teaching the subject in as thorough a fashion as any other academic subject. It is likely that your headteacher will be either indifferent or hostile to RE and resentful of the fact that it must be fitted into the timetable.

It was my misfortune to serve under heads who all thought in terms of "science or religion", and considered my presence to be an inconvenient legal requirement.

I remember the dismay of one of them when "too many" opted to take religious studies for GCSE. Two groups were inevitable unless I could persuade some not to do it, as indeed I was asked to do. It is not pleasant to work in a situation where your head hopes you will fail. Many of the staff will also think that your place in the establishment is irrelevant to the serious business of education.

The meagre timetable allowance for RE will reflect the official contempt. For many years, I taught each class once for 35 minutes a week. This meant that I taught many more pupils than other teachers, at one time about 500 a week. Marking work for this number was a "Forth Bridge" task, and yet I was able to cover so little ground that I felt the pupils' progress was minimal.

The frustration at not being able to teach my subject to any depth mattered more to me than the real limitations to career progress or a top salary. But there are teachers who need to be hard-headed about such matters. The cost of mortgages and raising children is as great for RE teachers as it is for the heads of languages, maths and science departments. And while mathematicians and scientists can expect a #163;20,000 sweetener to attract them to the profession, I cannot see the same being offered to theologians.

Now we gather that RE is not a suitable subject for the English Baccalaureate. This will do nothing for its status lower down the school, where pupils will take the line that RE is not important and is a lesson to mess around in. The sad part about this is that the GCSE in RE has been successful in recent years. Young people have owned up to enjoying the subject, something nobody did when I was a pupil at school. But the reality is that pupils only respect a subject if it leads to a recognisable qualification.

It is laughable that secularists should think that the faith groups have an advantage in state schools. Our minimal RE provision has created contempt for and ignorance of religion on a grand scale.

Elizabeth Tomlinson is a retired RE teacher. To tell us what keeps you awake at night, email david.marley@tes.co.uk.

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Elizabeth Tomlinson

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