The religious education community first realised there was trouble ahead when in 2010 the subject was omitted from those classed as humanities within the English Baccalaureate.
If RE, the history of human thought, was not seen as one of the humanities, something was seriously wrong.
Secondary schools all over the country responded to this omission by sidelining RE at GCSE. Courses were cut as students were steered towards EBacc subjects, while resources, time and funding for RE were similarly reduced.
After the shock of omission from the EBacc, the threats on RE’s horizon multiplied further. The new school types forming under the coalition government – academies and free schools – would not be subject to locally agreed RE syllabuses, as has been the practice since 1988.
A report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for RE earlier this year showed how a chronic lack of initial training and CPD for primary and secondary teachers of RE was having a detrimental affect on the subject (RE: The Truth Unmasked, 2013).
RE was also omitted from the Department for Education’s review of all other school subjects. The school curriculum would be redesigned, levels were to be abandoned and assessment would be revolutionised, but none of this was to apply to RE.
Were we to continue to work in a curriculum and assessment museum, with no training or resources, while the rest of education moved on? RE was indeed facing difficult times.
It was this review of the curriculum, announced in 2011, which made it clear that RE needed exactly the same treatment as all other school subjects, as well as a wider consideration of its aims and purposes.
The subject’s existential crisis was no less important than its lack of structural support. Before an RE curriculum could be produced which embodied excellent RE for the 21st century, these questions first had to be addressed: What is good RE? What is it for?
The Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC), an umbrella body encompassing the faith groups and professional organisations who work with RE in schools, undertook to fund the review itself in the absence of any government funding.
Eighteen months later, and the REC’s Review of Religious Education in England was launched last month in the House of Commons, and it is thorough, honest and decisive.
The two questions posed above form the backbone of the review, and the answers have led to a reconceptualised RE curriculum.
The review’s findings
The picture painted by the review is mixed. There is often a lack of vision of what good RE is in schools, and teachers are often non-specialists or poorly trained; but when it is taught well, with clarity and coherence, RE earns the loyal support of headteachers, pupils and parents.
Some of the confusion as to what constitutes good RE comes from external factors, such as a reduction in initial teacher training places for RE, which limits the number of trained specialists entering the profession and limits the number of specialist teachers of RE at large in schools.
However, the review is honest in its acknowledgment that much of this comes from within RE itself, caused by the wide variety of visions of what RE is, from faith-based nurture, to a vehicle for multicultural studies, to academic theology or anthropology; a confusion which has never been seriously addressed.
Thus the review recommends a combination of external and internal measures, which go to the heart of the factors limiting good RE.
Public examinations in the subject must demand good RE, Ofsted must measure and monitor it, and must consider sanctioning schools which fail to provide it.
Government must address the legal oddity of RE – it is compulsory yet not part of the national curriculum – in light of how best to enable good RE. And the RE community itself must take control of a clear and coherent vision of good RE, co-ordinating its own expertise and collaborating effectively to this end.
The newly conceptualised curriculum for RE – entitled The National Curriculum Framework for RE, has been produced as part of the Review and to parallel the DfE’s review of the national curriculum.
Although it is easy to blame education secretary Michael Gove entirely for RE’s diminishing status, the truth is that the RE community must take responsibility for the confusion and for the sense of irrelevance and lack of challenge in RE. This has happened on our watch, despite living in a world that is continually shaped by religious conflict, religious ethics, religious thought and religious beliefs. If we seem irrelevant, we must be doing something wrong.
As a classroom teacher of 10 years, I greatly valued the chance to be part of the RE curriculum review, and to create a curriculum that is challenging, inspiring and rigorous. We have presented RE as a discipline in its own right; that is, a method with internal integrity.
As I have mentioned, RE is a mishmash of different pedagogical paradigms, ethics and ideologies, which do not always sit happily together. This has not been good for RE because it has warped what every subject needs first and foremost: internal coherence. The National Curriculum Framework for RE is an attempt to provide this, to communicate to teachers what good RE looks like, and to inspire them to teach it.
The RE review was launched in the House of Commons at an event which was noticeable for the feeling of confidence and promise about the future of RE.
Since 2010 and the EBacc bombshell, RE events have often been gloomy, anxious affairs, with RE teachers mystified and oppressed by the capriciousness of fate and Mr Gove’s DfE.
However, over the last three years some serious stock-taking has clearly been undertaken, driven by groups such as the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE) and the REC. It felt at the launch as if the RE community no longer saw itself as a victim of an unfeeling secretary of state, but as an agent for change, standing up and telling the government what we wanted it to hear.
In my view, it is the act of being overlooked, and being forced to fund the review ourselves, which has brought the disparate elements of the RE world together to focus what we do well, and to face up to our survival.
Dying quietly in a corner is not an option: when it comes to it, we know that English education, and indeed society, would be a poorer place without RE.
As the review states: “Every child and young person who goes to school is entitled to an experience of religious education that is both academically challenging and personally inspiring.”
Kate Christopher is head of RE at Southend High School for Boys.