Campaigners are blaming the EBacc for the drop and say the figures prove that RE’s statutory position is not enough to ensure the subject is prioritised by schools.
This summer’s examination results for England and Wales combined show that GCSE entries for religious studies fell eight per cent year-on-year from 420,151 to 387,915.
However, entries in England have dropped from 427,642 in 2012 and 390,030 in 2013 to 357,668 this year. While in Wales – where the EBacc does not exist – GCSE entries have increased from 29,591 in 2012 to 30,121 in 2013 and 30,247 this year.
Within the figures for England, there has been an increase in GCSE full courses being taken (216,373 in 2012 to 258,067 in 2014), but a sharp drop in short course GCSEs (211,269 to 99,601).
The EBacc league table measure was introduced by the government in 2010 and recognises the number of pupils who gain A* to C GCSEs in English, maths, the sciences, a language and a humanity. However, RE does not count as a humanity under the measure.
Schools have a statutory duty to deliver RE to their students. However, campaigners fear that the EBacc measure has encouraged schools to ignore this. The National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE) issued research last year showing that a third of community schools and more than a third of academies without a religious character were failing to meet their legal duties at key stage 4.
Ed Pawson, chairman of NATRE, said: “While it’s encouraging to see a continued increase in the number of students taking the full course GCSE, the overall decline in the number of entries is a major concern.
“The government has continually hidden behind the statutory nature of RE, claiming that it provides sufficient protection, but it’s clearly not working. You only have to look at the stark contrast between England and Wales to see the damaging impact of government policy over the past few years. Now is the time to reinstate checks to ensure schools are meeting their legal or contractual obligations to teach RE.”
John Keast, chairman of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, said: “I’d like to congratulate those schools that have increased the number of students entering for the GCSE full course, despite the negative pressure of the EBacc and average point score performance measurement systems.”
However, he described the drop in short course entries as “alarming”. He added: “The danger is that, as our society becomes increasingly multicultural and religious division continues to dominate the news agenda, we create a section of society that lacks the understanding of diverse faiths and beliefs that is essential to growing up in 21st century Britain.”