The value of religious education: Are we listening?

Written by: Dr Kathryn Wright | Published:
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The public value the importance of religious education but we need a funded National Plan for this vital subject, says Dr Kathryn Wright

Nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) of the UK adult population think that religious education (RE) is an important part of the school curriculum, research published earlier this year revealed.

Furthermore, 65 per cent of 2,000 respondents agreed that the subject has an impact on people’s ability to understand each other in wider society. The survey also found that 71 per cent agreed that the subject should reflect the diversity of backgrounds and beliefs in the UK today.

As chief executive of the education charity Culham St Gabriel’s Trust, I commissioned this survey (CSGT, 2021) to help myself and my trustees better understand public opinion.

Our vision is for a broad-based critical reflective education in religion and worldviews in all schools as we believe this contributes to a well-informed respectful and open society. As a charity we wanted to know whether the public agreed with this vision. This research suggests they do.

We were also mindful of the Ofsted research review (2021) which set out what a quality education in RE looks like. The review highlights the subject’s important role in young people’s academic and personal development. It states: “RE is vital in preparing pupils to engage in a diverse and complex multi-religious and multi-secular society.”

The public appear to support Ofsted’s view. Seven out of ten people surveyed agreed that RE’s role is to provide pupils with the opportunity to learn more about other people, beliefs, worldviews, and cultures (73 per cent), to foster the mutual understanding of different beliefs among young people (71 per cent), and to encourage them to openly discuss their beliefs with others (69 per cent).

For me, this research highlights the value of good RE in equipping young people with the knowledge they need to interact with others who have different perspectives in our ever-changing society. RE also plays a vital role in ensuring they receive a balanced education and supporting a vibrant economy by preparing employees and future business leaders for the globalised workplace.

Yet, I wonder whether everyone is listening. The backdrop for this survey is less positive.

The Ofsted research review notes several issues. For example, it highlights that around 54 per cent of secondary RE teachers do not have a post-A level qualification in the subject (twice as many as in history for example) and calls for the prioritising of RE-specific professional development. It states that there is often insufficient teaching time to teach an ambitious curriculum and that RE is often under-resourced.

This point has also been made by the National Association of Standing Advisory Councils on RE (NASACRE, 2021). According to data from Freedom of Information requests, there is a postcode lottery when it comes to RE funding by local authorities in England. Twenty-five authorities (18 per cent) claimed to use no funding on SACRE business in contravention of statutory responsibilities. More than a quarter (27 per cent) of local authorities said they allocated no funds to professional support for the SACRE. And more than half of authorities (53 per cent) disclosed that they did not use any funds to support RE in schools.

So, if we are listening, then surely the research serves as a call to action to governors and headteachers to make the teaching of RE a celebrated part of the curriculum and to acknowledge the vital role it plays in a child’s education.

In addition, I believe it is time for us to urge the government to listen to the public, recognise the subject’s essential role and fund a National Plan for RE (as called for by the Commission on RE in 2018).

We need to ensure RE is properly resourced and taught by professionally trained teachers, and to enact a statement of entitlement to a high-quality education in religion and worldviews for all pupils.

  • Dr Kathryn Wright is chief executive of Culham St Gabriel’s Trust, an endowed charitable foundation that offers teachers of religion and worldviews support, connections, and professional development. Visit and follow Dr Wright on Twitter via @kathrynfenlodge

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