RS Matters: Article for The Tablet

RS Matters
Recent education reforms have sidelined religious studies in schools. In this week’s Tablet Education Supplement, Peter and Charlotte Vardy look at the current situation and ask how it has happened, calling on Catholic schools to do more to promote the subject.
In recent years the picture for religious education in schools has changed dramatically. Michael Gove’s reforms have had potentially catastrophic consequences for the subject.
  • Religious studies (RS) was not included in the English Baccalaureate which, as of this month, is effectively compulsory for all schools and for all pupils.  This means that RS grades at GCSE will no longer count in most league tables and that RS will have to compete with every non-EBacc subject for one of the two or three optional GCSE timetable-slots.
  • Bursaries for trainee RS teachers were withdrawn, meaning that the shortage of specialist teachers will grow more and more acute and the quality of new recruits is likely to be affected.
  • Short-course GCSEs, of which religious studies was by far the most popular, were downgraded, meaning that around 60,000 fewer students in England got the opportunity to do any religious studies after the age of 14 this year than did last year.  Numbers will fall further and faster in the years ahead.
  • The Russell Group’s list of “facilitating subjects”, those which open doors to more degrees and professions, was promoted. However, religious studies, praised as a good, solid foundation for most degree courses, was left off the list because no degree course requires students to have taken the subject. This gave the mistaken impression that taking religious studies A Level is a waste of time.
Meanwhile, changes in funding have left many sixth formers unable to take a fourth or fifth AS Level, which might well have been RS. Reformed two-year A Levels will not provide the same opportunity for breadth in Year 12 and will discourage students from trying out or carrying on with RS.
To us, the economic imperative behind these reforms seems obvious. Setting aside all the supposed ideology and the confrontational style of the former education minister Michael Gove, the potential cheapness of the slimmed down curriculum shines out.  Small classes, specialist teachers and practical subjects are too expensive for austerity Britain. Sadly rather than straightforward honesty, we see ideology being used to turn a vote loser into a vote winner, to claim that the impoverishment of education is about improvement.
In the discussion about religious education the real issues are often obscured by a lack of clarity about the fact that the term “religious education” is being used in different ways.
Religious education may refer to faith formation. This might involve religious instruction in the classroom, but will also involve the ethos, rules and values, governance and other structures in faith-schools. Importantly, lessons might include summary teaching about other religions, but the principle aim is to produce practicing Catholics, Anglicans, Muslims or Orthodox Jews. It may refer to the historic legal obligation of all schools to dedicate 5 per cent of teaching time to religious education, which will include teaching about all the major world religions.  The law does not stipulate exactly what should be covered, let alone why or how.  Increasing numbers of schools do nothing at all.
More merge RE into PSHCRE (personal, social, health, citizenship and relationship education) – an unholy mix of all compulsory-but-undefined-and-unassessed subjects crammed into about half an hour a week. Teachers are usually non-specialists and many are untrained. Lessons are just as likely to cover local government as putting a condom on a banana, just as likely to cover calculating the annual percentage rate as studying Hindu festivals.  To be brutal, the main aim is to convince inspectors to tick a box.
Finally, Religious Education might refer to religious studies, where students learn about religion and religions in an academically rigorous, non-confessional way.  Teachers are usually specialists and are sometimes highly trained. The underlying aim is to produce young people who are religiously literate; knowledgeable; sensitive to diversity and perspective; able to analyse beliefs, practices and issues and evaluate responses to them. Perhaps above all, they should be able to engage with the big philosophical questions of meaning and value, which underpin all religions.
There has been a lack of meaningful discussion of the aims and purposes of compulsory religious studies, particularly of how it relates to faith formation in faith schools. The law remains opaque, confusing and wide-open to misinterpretation.  Nevertheless in 2007 the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) produced The Toledo Guiding Principles for Teaching about Religion and Belief in Public Schools. This document, written by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) provides a clear rationale for religious studies and confirms the ambition of the 57 participating countries, including the UK, to provide more of it.  Whatever their attitude to faith schools and religious instruction, few British people would disagree with Ambassador Christian Strohal, director of the ODIHR that “misunderstandings, negative stereotypes, and provocative images used to depict others are leading to heightened antagonism and sometimes even violence” or that “it is important for young people to acquire a greater understanding of the role that religions play in today’s pluralistic world.” Despite the confused state of the law and persistent misconceptions about religious education, many of the models of good practice drawn on in developing the Toledo Guiding Principles came from the UK. In 2007, the situation for religious studies, although certainly not perfect, was good and improving rapidly. Despite chronic underinvestment, numbers at GCSE and A Level were rising fast; the subject was well on the way to becoming the most popular humanities subject. Increasing numbers of schools had well-qualified, inspirational teachers and it seemed that progress was being made towards the goal of most students having a meaningful opportunity to learn about religions in an academically rigorous, way.
Since 2010 however, the picture has changed and Michael Gove’s reforms have had potentially catastrophic consequences. There is no economic logic behind cutting religious studies. We should not try to compete with emerging economies – as a sophisticated, globalised, multicultural democracy we need young people who can deal with others, engage with the wider world, think both critically and creatively to address immense challenges.  Further, as John Locke remarked “the only fence against the world is a thorough knowledge of it.”  We are facing a generational struggle against fundamentalism, which can only really be won by exposing its flawed foundations and superficial logic.
In 1998 Pope John Paul II recognised the importance of engaging with central questions of meaning and value in his wonderful encyclical ‘Fides et Ratio’.  He argued that postmodernism and relativism threaten to dominate our world and present a great challenge to the Church, to the future of Christianity and to humanity than people realise. Given this, given the proven ineffectiveness of Religious Instruction in producing practicing Catholics, given the increasing importance of young people engaging with the wider world and given the increasing numbers of non-Catholics attending Catholic schools, we would argue that Catholic schools should commit to religious studies, seeing other aspects of faith formation as an adjunct rather than a replacement for it, that Catholics should come together in defending the subject against so-called reforms, if it is not already too late.
As Pope John Paul II affirmed, “the Church considers philosophy an indispensable help for a deeper understanding of faith and for communicating the truth of the Gospel to those who do not yet know it” and “the more human beings know reality and the world, the more they know themselves in their uniqueness, with the question of the meaning of things and of their very existence becoming ever more pressing. This is why all that is the object of our knowledge becomes a part of our life.” Young people don’t want to be told what to think. Catholics are not like the fundamentalists of IS, brainwashing the young or learning what to believe by rote. Young people must be shown how to think and to recognise the intellectual richness of the Christian tradition and, through thinking, come to realise the sense of the Gospel and accept God for themselves.

Why not subscribe to The Tablet?  It is a great resource for any RS department, with a wealth of useful articles on topics common to all RS GCSE and A Level specification.

student.thetablet.co.uk/ is designed to help schools to access The Tablet and provides clear introductions to all topics commonly studied at A Level, including video clips, and a wealth of free .pdf teaching resources as well.  The content was developed by Charlotte Vardy in 2011 and is due to be extended soon.

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