Feature: OfSTED RE Report

49OfSTED’s report on RE was published yesterday and, it seems, that they have added their voice to a growing chorus which suggests that our subject is experiencing an identity crisis and that this underpins a failure to achieve.  

Here, Charlotte Vardy asks how this identity crisis developed and what might we do about it.

In the UK, and in faith-schools the world over, religion has been protected in the curriculum because of its role in educating children about their own, or at least the dominant, faith tradition.  Nevertheless, traditional Religious Instruction (RI) seemed increasingly ineffective, even inappropriate where students come from a range of religious backgrounds, and none. 

Between the 1960s and 1980s, following Ninian Smart, RI was replaced with Religious Education (RE) and became a social science.  Studying religion comparatively and phenomenologically improved young peoples’ basic knowledge of other traditions – who wears turbans, who prostrates in prayer and what Rosh Hashanah is all about –but it had the effect of turning RE lessons into glorified episodes of “show and tell”, making them heavily reliant on videos and, in many cases, implying that the subject was a political sop and lacked academic importance and credibility. 

Chaplains, who had provided traditional RI, felt uncomfortable teaching RE.  Not only was the subject-matter alien to most of them, the drive to make RE into a social science deprived Chaplains of a pastoral opportunity and created difficulties in them ministering pastorally to students they also taught an academic subject.  RE specialists were few and far-between.  Because universities had not “caught up” with Smart’s re-imagining of the subject, even those who had degrees in Theology had rarely studied anything but Christianity, but were required to teach about Buddhism or Baha’i all the same.  Most lessons, therefore, were staffed by effective-non-specialists. 

That RE had a poor reputation and that few young people chose to take examination courses, was hardly surprising.  By the mid ‘80s RE faced becoming another Classics, a minority subject whose existence had been protected by quirks of history but whose future seemed uncertain.  Many schools effectively discontinued RE lessons, particularly for older secondary-school pupils.  As the country became more and more multicultural, schools felt under pressure to become secular, even where they had a Christian foundation; lessons set aside for RE were reallocated to “PSE” (Personal and Social Education) and School Assemblies quietly lost their element of collective worship.

Yet in 1988 England, Wales and Northern Ireland passed an Education Reform Act (ERA).  Its effect was speedy and dramatic.  The creeping secularisation of schools was confronted and denounced.  Schools were required to restore regular opportunities for collective worship and these were specified to be of a “broadly Christian” character.  RE, while not included in the National Curriculum, was specified to occupy 5% of curriculum time for ALL students in full-time education, its content to be determined by locally agreed syllabi as reflecting the religious make-up of the area. 

Especially after the re-establishment of the schools inspectorate in 1992, RE specialists were in-demand!  In response, the government included RE on a list of subjects whose teacher-trainees could qualify for additional money.  It also increased the range of degrees which could be seen to lead to an RE PGCE.  Graduates in Psychology, Sociology and Philosophy could now train to be RE teachers alongside those with degrees in Theology or Religious Studies. 

Newly trained RE specialists flooded into schools and tried to forge new curricula for RE, tried to expunge the previous reputation of the subject and re-create it as a rigorous and relevant academic discipline. 

The natural way of establishing the academic credibility of any subject is to set up examination courses in it.  Obviously, RE teachers pushed for students to sit GCSEs and A Levels in their subject. 

School managers found the prospect of getting useful grades out of compulsory RE lessons appealing, particularly once league-tables came in.  Usually, they were not willing (or able) to increase RE’s timetable allocation much beyond the statutory 5%, certainly not to make the time spent on RE equivalent to the time spent on other academic subjects, but RE teachers proved willing to provide exam-courses within the time available, maybe teaching an exam-course in 70 minutes a week instead of 140 minutes.  Some teachers agreed to trade the 5% they might have had in Year 11, the high-pressure GCSE year, for a slightly larger allocation in Year 9 and 10, pushing students to take GCSE exams in RS a year early. 

Struggling to make existing courses meaningful, let alone enjoyable, when crammed into less-than-ideal timetabling arrangements, RE teachers proceeded to push examination boards to make their courses more appropriate for the greater range of young people who were now taking them.  When examination boards became commercially competitive in the late 1990s they seized the imperative, launching new specifications to cater to the masses and allow for reduced-timetabling or early entries. 

Newly-trained RE teachers, often with backgrounds in Philosophy, seized on A Level papers in the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics and on GCSE papers on “Christian Perspectives on World Issues”, publicising how popular and relevant courses based on these papers were when compared with courses based on the Gospel of Mark or the practice of Judaism.  Those who hankered after the old days of teaching PSE found the prospect of teaching courses anchored on “big questions” and lots of discussion-work attractive as well. 

RE departments often saw a re-branding opportunity here, sometimes ditching the word “Religious” altogether in favour of “Theology and Philosophy”, “Philosophy and Ethics”, “Spiritual and Moral Questions” or some such title.  Acronyms abounded!  Teachers, let alone parents, struggled to understand what the mysterious “TPE” or even “PSHCRE” lessons were!  RE teachers re-branded themselves and their classrooms as well – gone were the love-beads, ethnic clothing, the replica Torah-Scrolls and colourful prayer-flags and in came the palm-top computer, suits and ties, the display of famous philosophers…

When half-GCSE and stand-alone AS courses came along, our subject was an early and big adopter.  Numbers increased but depth often suffered, not least because the subject was rammed into content-driven modular exams (which totally ignored the skills which had once been developed through traditional RS courses) but also because schools and students were able to take the subject without investing a great deal in it. For example, half-GCSE courses were sometimes taught in as little as 35 minutes per week and only covered a few “Contemporary Issues” topics; gifted students were sometimes entered with NO teaching – and did well!  Unsurprisingly, this was popular with students and many became earnest fans of a subject in which their opinion was heard and rewarded! 

When it came to 2008, the reduction in the number and length of modules at AS and A2 Level allowed exam-boards to slim-down the content of RS courses AGAIN, meaning that a whole A Level now typically consists of less than 1/3 of the content of 1 out of 3 of the 3 hour papers sat by students in 1996.  Crowding onto the popular ground, OCR, Edexcel, AQA and WJEC specifications all looked the same – if you could describe Aquinas’ arguments for the existence of God and the main features of Utilitarianism and Kantian Ethics you were well on the way to your A Grade. 

While departmental statistics looked good and while students loved the subject few people wondered whether all this was sustainable or indicative of a healthy approach to the subject.  Most RE teachers felt OK that full-course GCSE and A2 classes remained relatively small while numbers doing half-course and AS continued to increase.  Most RE teachers even felt pleased when subject-content shrank again, because it made it easier for them to coach to exams whose results increasingly determined the teachers’ professional success, if not (directly) pay. 

For the first time, RE departments started to attract the academic elite; wannabe doctors, lawyers – even those taking business studies and economics – started taking RS AS Level alongside double Maths and Physics.  Heads of department started talking about how RS might make the difference when applying for competitive courses; they started to be invited to participate in Oxbridge preparation or Gifted and Talented extension, and not just for the occasional proto-archbishop. 

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The typical RE teacher had a lot to prove in the 2000s; theirs was not an easy job.  Tasked with re-inventing a subject-area, justifying its existence to managers and parents as well as to reluctant teenagers, RE teachers found themselves writing a great number of policy-documents, organising a lot of PR events and planning a lot of high-energy lessons. 

In 2004, when RE specialists tried to devise a National Framework for the subject, they struggled to define what the subject was for, let alone what it should contain or why.  The priority by this stage was making RE assessable, so that its results could be measured, counted in league-tables, used to please and appease curriculum planners. Jargon began to proliferate, perhaps because there was a fundamental lack of clarity about what the subject was trying to achieve.  This made many RE teachers lose confidence, worrying more about how they were being judged professionally than about their students’ real learning.  The number of INSET courses on assessment, data management and dry management skills proliferated and the number of INSET courses aimed at boosting RE teachers’ subject knowledge, however badly this was still needed, fell into decline.  

Further, busy RE teachers were constantly asked to take on new projects, whole areas of the curriculum sometimes.  RE teachers, busy, stressed and feeling vulnerable again, just couldn’t say no.  It is not surprising that focus, if it had ever existed, was lost. RE departments grew, encompassing some or all of…

  • Philosophy,
  • Current Affairs,
  • Critical-Thinking and/or the Theory of Knowledge,
  • Personal, Social and Health Education,
  • Community Service,
  • Wellbeing or “Happiness” lessons,
  • Pastoral Care,
  • Enterprise and finance-education,
  • Values Education,
  • Ancient Civilisations,
  • Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Guajarati and even Sanskrit lessons,
  • Faith-societies and communal worship,
  • Coordinating SMSC (Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural) provision

In trying to do all of this in an average of 35 minutes a week, with few teachers and fewer physical resources, it is unsurprising that the impression created by the subject was and is confused. 

From 9/11 onwards the spotlight turned on RE and the pressure mounted.  Schools were expected to contribute to the countering of extremism and within schools the task was, as had become a pattern, delegated to the RE department.  RE departments had already, in many cases, been tasked with teaching the growing number of “issues” which, from time to time, had been highlighted by politicians and/or the media.  They already tackled drugs, eating-disorders and STIs alongside teaching about the Hajj and Holy-Week.  When Citizenship was introduced in 2002 and, perhaps because there were precisely no trained Citizenship teachers, many RE teachers were tasked with delivering the Citizenship curriculum as well, often with no additional time or resources. 

RE departments, which had once been PSE departments, became PSHRE departments and, by 2003, were PSHCRE departments.  Are you following?

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By 2007 RE in Britain was being proclaimed as a success-story, despite occasional claims from OfSTED that standards of teaching were actually poor at the chalk-face.  The last Labour government looked at the exponential rise in GCSE, AS and A2 entries and a steady “rise in standards” year on year, they looked at the popularity of the subject amongst young people and the range of relevant topics which now fell within the department’s remit, and they concluded that this was a subject in which Britain did well (by marked contrast with Maths and Languages!). 

In Toledo, Spain, the ODIHR seemed to agree.  Experts from across the 50-odd member countries of the OSCE proclaimed the positive value of Religious Education which is non-confessional and open to those of any faith and none, both in terms of cultural literacy and in terms of combatting extremism.  While not explicitly referring to this model of RE in terms of what had been pioneered in Britain, after reading the Toledo Guiding Principles, British RE teachers will not be surprised to learn that they were shaped by Professor Robert Jackson, then of Warwick University’s acclaimed RE teacher-training programme. 

Curriculum authorities and examination boards around the world began to develop opportunities for young people to learn about and from religion in a neutral, academically rigorous way.  For example, in Australia once courses in “Studies of Religion” (SOR) came online, the many senior students who attend Religious schools (eg. 21% of secondary school students attend Catholic Schools) felt under pressure to use their compulsory RE lessons towards a recognised exam-grade, despite the fact that the SOR course approaches RE as a social science and is barely compatible with the sort of RI which religious schools envisaged. 

Nevertheless, other countries soon encountered the same difficulties over defining RE as Britain had.  How the OSCE-endorsed academic, neutral RE related to the RE already provided in Religious Schools or the Christian or Muslim Education already enshrined in law is rarely clear.  Should Toledo-RE replace Religious Instruction or exist in addition to it – and if it should exist in addition, who pays?  Either way, religious authorities have not received the idea of Toledo-RE with joy and positivity. 

Whether in Britain or abroad, when tasked to provide opportunities for young people to learn about and from religion, faith-schools (under advisement from their religious authorities) usually say that they already provide these opportunities in the form of Catholic or Muslim education.  When pressed to explain how these lessons help young people to learn about and from other faith-traditions, these schools often get away with tokenism because politicians and journalists are unwilling to have that argument. 

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In 2010, Michael Gove became the Secretary of State for Education.  As he saw it, RE had drifted away from being the subject that had been protected in 1988.  It had become a “soft subject”, attracting students for all the wrong reasons and leaving them unprepared for university and adult life.  In times of austerity education must adapt to the needs of the workplace, making our young people competitive; resources cannot be spent on subjects which put popularity and accessibility before substance.  The English Baccalaureate boosted History and Geography, which had both suffered for being “difficult” and less likely to yield stellar grades than RS. 

Despite pressure from teachers, unions, charities, faith-groups, Labour and even his own back-benchers… Gove refused to compromise and do anything to endorse RE.  Looking at it from his point of view, the findings of Professor James Conroy in February 2012 might do a lot to explain why. 

As Conroy found, RE provision across the UK is dangerously unfocussed and patchy.  Teachers, let alone school managers, have no clear vision of what they subject is or aims to achieve and RE still struggles to assess achievement or progress effectively.  RE’s presence, remit and resourcing varies widely between schools and depends to a large extent on the opinions, personal skills and preferences of individual teachers and of Headteachers. 

In one school the RE department might resemble an academic Philosophy department, focussing on “big questions”, critical thinking and helping students to form reasoned opinions about contemporary ethical issues, in another school the department might be a single part-timer in a broom-cupboard decorated with cheap Hindu icons and an old prayer-mat and providing half-an-hour a week to the under 14s whilst in yet another school the department might still be the Chaplain’s domain, with a box of tattered Good News Bibles and a much-worn VHS of “The Miracle Maker” as the only resources. 

Today RS examination syllabi are almost entirely dominated by increasingly narrow papers in Philosophy and Ethics.  Decent training and academically substantial teaching-resources have followed suit – obviously now that commercial exam-boards cash-in on INSET and textbook tie-ins.  Even if teachers wanted to teach about world religions at GCSE or A Level, they feel hampered by the lack of training and the lack of exciting teaching resources as well.  Further, the content of exams affects the content of schemes of work in Years 7-9.  Understandably, teachers want to recruit students who understand what the subject will be like in Years 10-13, so they often introduce a bit of Philosophy and Ethics in Years 8 & 9.  There is a practical issue here as well.  Teaching about whole religious traditions, rather than focussing on a few philosophical or ethical questions, is complicated and time-consuming.  In 35 or 70 minutes a week tough choices have to be made – which Religion? Will I cover both history and festivals?  Any choice is open to damaging criticism.  If a teacher chooses to focus on Islam then Christians and Hindus will complain – and even the Muslims will protest because the version of Islam their teacher thinks they know does not tally with the students’ (or their parents’) understanding. 

Is there any wonder that RE teachers prefer to focus on the discussion of “unanswerable questions” (as Philosophy and Ethics was once described to me)?  Is there any wonder that once they do that, students end up with precious-little factual knowledge, say of the five pillars or what a Shofar is? 

Ofsted’s recent report “Religious Education: Realising the Potential” claimed that RE “plays a key role in promoting social cohesion and the virtues of respect and empathy, which are important in our diverse society” but that “many pupils leave school with scant subject knowledge and understanding” and that “RE teaching often fails to challenge and extend pupils’ ability to explore fundamental questions about human life, religion and belief.”

In a couple of sentences OfSTED put their finger on the real problem, though apparently without realising it.  RE is supposed to promote social cohesion, increase respect and empathy, provide sound factual knowledge about all the religious traditions represented in the UK AND help students to understand those traditions and the fundamental questions those traditions raise at a deep level – all in 35 minutes a week, for less than £1 per student per year in resourcing and with largely non-specialist and untrained teachers. 

Further, since 2010 RE teaching has been taking place under a barrage of negative publicity.  Headlines have told students and their parents that the subject is covert indoctrination, that it is soft, that it won’t help them get into university or to get a job – and that it is poorly taught.  The same headlines have told school managers that, after all that, RE won’t now count in school league-tables and that, although still enshrined in law, RE won’t really be inspected by OfSTED any more.

Surely, that around half of schools convinced OfSTED that they provide good RE is the story, not how many fail to do this!  How do they manage it? 

Seriously though, I doubt things will really improve until we all do some reflection, evaluation, and critical thinking about, not just in, RE. 

We need a clear statement of what the subject is; its aims, remit and criteria for success.  This would establish RE within a proper policy framework and so provide consistency.  It would ease both curriculum planning and assessment.  It would provide checks and balances against examination boards or even individual teachers seeking to re-shape the subject in the name of popularity.  It would provide protection for RE teachers and schools, who would know that what they were doing was appropriate and within the spirit of legislation. 

Of course, no definition of the subject, its aims and remit will please everybody.  Nobody could consciously ratify the sort of all-inclusive jumble which presently answers questions about what RE is and does, though none too clearly, and if we are to create a vision for the subject then some people are going to be disappointed.  Nevertheless, the statement has to be adopted throughout the RE community and recognised by school managers, politicians, journalists and faith leaders.  We need a creed if we are to steer a way out of the confusion and create clarity.  Creeds are always controversial and lead to schism, but good ones stand the test of time. 

There are some obvious issues to confront.  For just three examples…

  1. RE cannot BOTH train young people to become part of a particular Religious Tradition AND enable them to learn about and from World Religions in plural.  That is not to say that young people cannot be offered both Religious Instruction AND Religious Education – just that it cannot be provided simultaneously, in the same room, in the same lesson and by the same person.  We must EITHER choose RE OR RI or provide the wherewithal for BOTH to be provided.
  2. Perhaps RE cannot be BOTH a credible academic subject, just like History or Geography, AND an effective form of Pastoral Care.  RE teachers with pastoral responsibility for their students tend to assess to encourage and prioritise the needs and interests of the group over set curriculum content…
  3. Young people cannot analyse, evaluate, compare and contrast religious and non-religious perspectives on philosophical and ethical questions without first knowing something about the traditions which gave rise to those perspectives.  Whilst 11-14 year olds, even 6-10 year olds, enjoy considering “big questions” it may not be appropriate for their RE courses to be dominated by them. 

If we are serious, as a country, about providing all of the educational opportunities which currently fall within RE’s remit then we should get behind them, provide proper resources – and decide which core subject(s) we want to discontinue so as to allow timetable-space for new ones!  Otherwise we need to be selective, cutting away some of the well-meaning initiatives or potentially popular topics on pragmatic, if not principled grounds. 

Charlotte Vardy studied Theology before qualifying as an RE teacher in 2000.  She has been giving INSET since 2005, around the world since 2010.  

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