Religious Education in schools has more than a whiff of crisis about it. Recent reports from Ofsted, the Religious Education Council for England and Wales (REC), and the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education, point to the subject being edged out of the curriculum due to government reforms.
The new accountability measure, the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), which lists the key disciplines that ministers feel pupils should study, has done little for RE by not including it. Further, the proliferation of academies and free schools with powers to determine their own curricula has led to schools naturally prioritising other subjects.
The loss of the bursary for trainee RE teachers, and the erosion of decades of capacity-building expertise within universities due to the reduction of teacher training numbers, and the diversion of numbers into school-based teacher training, has had a real impact, as well as further stoking alarm. This all begs the question: why the “attack” on RE and why now?
The first thing to remind ourselves of is that RE has never really been valued. Teachers, academics, religious bodies and professional organisations have had to politick and campaign continually on the subject’s behalf since RE became compulsory in 1944. And it is laudable that the multiple stakeholders have managed to find a common purpose in working together for RE, perhaps instinctively realising that this was in their mutual interest.
Many Standing Advisory Councils for RE (SACREs) have done sterling work in providing a forum for interdenominational and inter-faith dialogue, channelling mutual energies to good purpose. Likewise, the REC, founded in the early 1970s, and which now has taken the mantle of being the representative body for RE nationally, has done much to give RE a coherent voice.
Despite this useful work, there is still no getting away from the fact that RE is a political hot potato. Who in power has the appetite to meddle with the “holy grail” 1944 settlement, let alone take on the disparate religious and secular voices that RE stands for? Yet at the same time, the subject is often regarded as being of marginal educational import and seemingly redolent of the past. Religion might not be dead, but RE is – at least in the minds of those who only associate it with hymn-practice and dusty old Bibles.
So what is to be done? First the notional RE community needs greater coherence. Having an established and representative REC is a step in this direction, and there is something to be built on by making this a mandated body representing the subject to and for professionals and the religious communities. RE needs to speak with one voice.
Second, we need politicians with sympathy and courage to deal with the legal anachronisms around RE, resolving the issues around collective worship that leave schools unsure what they are meant to be doing in the “god slot” and falling foul of Ofsted when they do the “wrong” thing. The distinction between curriculum RE and collective worship needs to be made clear (if the latter can still find education justification).
Likewise, the position of SACREs in the changed multi-school climate needs ironing out, to preserve the good things they do, but to give them teeth. Should RE be a nationally agreed subject? RE appears to be moving towards this just as the government of the day is sitting more loosely to the idea of a “national” curriculum. Certainly the benefits of national agreement would be that of greater clarity for teachers over what should be taught and learnt in RE and, perhaps as importantly, why. This is no bad thing.
One down side to this might be that the local autonomy over the subject, which has often brought a creative edge in curriculum design and enabled local religious differences to be responded to, would be lost. But the joined up thinking that would result from a coherent political overview could be enormously beneficial. Ultimately, it could dispel the current crisis and resolve the decades-old problem of RE’s Cinderella status.
This guest editorial has been written by Stephen Parker, professor of the history of religion and education at the University of Worcester, and Dr Rob Freathy, senior lecturer in history of education at the University of Exeter.