State of the subject post…

Many of you will have heard Peter and Charlotte talk about the challenges that our subject faces.  Last week the data to support all the anecdotes about GCSE RS being cut across the country was released.

NATRE figures show that in England short course GCSE RS entries have fallen by a staggering 50% since 2012 and that, despite the 20% rise in full course entries over the same period, an estimated 60,000 fewer candidates are studying RS at KS4 than they were two years ago.  Out of 5,089,000 GCSE exam entries in England this summer, just 7.1% were in Religious Studies.  Very few schools offer non-examined courses which offer academically credible opportunities to learn about a range of different religions and/or beliefs at KS4 and KS5.  It is fair to say that a significant and growing proportion of children now stop studying religions and beliefs at age 14, whatever the law says and whatever OfSTED or Michael Gove might suggest about the protected status of RE, whatever research suggests about the central importance of RE in combating extremism and contributing to a quality, balanced education.

In Wales, where Michael Gove’s influence is slight, RS entries continue to rise.  This, along with the timing, suggests that the decline in England is directly attributable to policy changes made by the Education Secretary.

  • The English Baccalaureate measure excludes Religious Studies, while including the other two Humanities subjects History and Geography.
  • The “Best 8” measure excluded short-course grades.  This in itself led to many schools removing or drastically reducing the option of taking RS at GCSE level, which often meant students having no RE after the end of KS3, even Year 8.  “Progress 8” might do more damage to RS; managers are, reportedly, saying that RS results are too unpredictable to make the subject a good candidate to target for inclusion in this measure.

Although it seems as if Gove’s reforms have been about giving autonomy to schools, in practice funding arrangements, exam reforms, OfSTED and league table data policies are being used to reduce the choices open to schools, forcing them to become standard copies of Gove’s (potentially cheaper) blueprint.  Education is being shaped by price tags and by what is easy and convenient to measure rather than by any consideration of the skills and knowledge that young people need to acquire.  Routinely, students are being pushed to make “choices” in the interests of schools’ statistical profiles and bank-balances.  Managers spend an increasing proportion of diminishing funds on “selling” a narrower, less flexible and less enjoyable curriculum – and ever less on delivering it.

The re-branding companies, the construction companies, the lawyers and the accountants rake it in as schools convert into Academies or as Free Schools are set up and existing schools begin to close.  *Newsflash* There is no new money!  The cost of the glossy signs, iPads, highly paid managers and Costa coffee booths is being taken out of what would have been spent on teaching, this year or in the future.  Has any of it added its value to learning?  On balance, is the full cost of an architect designed teaching block, paid for with PFI, ever recouped in terms of students’ learning, achievements and prospects?  Is the cost of a new school logo, the Headteacher’s company car or the fingerprint-registration system?

Of course the problems for RS do not end with the EBacc and Best 8, with the commodification of education, the obsession with external appearances and dodgy statistics.  Even in schools which do not make the EBacc the be all and end all of curriculum planning, even where the temptation to use Gove’s rhetoric as a mask for narrowing choice, increasing class-sizes, replacing expensive specialist teachers, cutting facilities and saving a lot of money is ignored, RS is an easy target for administrators when budgets start to shrink.

Our subject requires specialist teachers if it is to be effective, it is not immediately appealing to students and parents in the manner of Art or Music, it is not part of the National Curriculum and there are no effective sanctions for not offering it.

When funding is short, managers like teachers to be flexible, able to teach a number of subjects, especially at KS3.  Many Geography, History and English teachers feel uncomfortable about teaching RE without training, fearing the complex subject knowledge, particular pedagogical skills, assessment strategies and most of all, giving offence.  Similarly, many RE specialists feel uncomfortable about teaching English, History or Geography!  Where economic realities mean that flexibility is required it is much easier to start offering “Humanities”, which effectively excludes RE, than it is to train teachers to teach outside their specialism.  History and Geography teachers have the advantage of providing an EBacc qualification; even where that is not an obsession, it will be a factor when staffing choices have to be made. In addition, the predictable shortage of specialist RE teachers, exacerbated by the removal of bursaries for RE trainees and the shift towards school-based training, provides another excuse to use non-specialist teachers and/or downgrade the provision of RE altogether on grounds of quality.

RE has always had an image problem.  Many parents’ experience of the subject was meaningless hours colouring in maps of Paul’s journeys round the Mediterranean!  They don’t realise what the subject is like these days and dismiss it as unimportant without understanding what they are doing.  Students hear the word “religious” and react negatively.  Being asked to take RE seems akin to being made to watch “Songs of Praise” with Granny.  They turn up expecting to be bored, expecting the teacher to try to convert them, resentfully thinking that the subject is only there to appease minorities.  If it comes to a choice between studying Art, Music, PE… or something useful like Business Studies or Law… and doing RE, then few parents and few children are likely to give RE a thought.   Managers have no reason to challenge these perceptions, or to facilitate RE teachers challenging them; to do so would be to create demand for resources they don’t have.  Add to that the noisy anti-religious minority in the UK, which trumpets the flawed case for totally secular schools and the abolition of RE in the name of increasing tolerance, and RE seems to be fighting a losing battle.

RE has never been a National Curriculum subject because of the difficulty of defining set content for any RE course – but the lack of defined content and the lack of National Curriculum status has made RE seem like a compulsory waste of time.  Given that the curriculum is under huge pressure it is unsurprising that schools have squeezed RE time and resources, leaving a token if anything at all.  OfSTED have so many boxes to tick in such little time that they are easily convinced to tick the RE relevant boxes when managers wave a dusty policy-document, a photograph of a nativity play or a school newsletter with mention of Rosh Hashanah.

In the face of these challenges it would be easy for RE teachers to feel rejected, dejected even.  The difficulty of maintaining our subject, let alone building it, seems too great.  Perhaps it is easier to give the managers, the parents, the noisy anti-religious brigade and even Michael Gove have their way, to go for the perceived security of a management job, whatever the stress and personal compromises, to retrain as an ICT or Citizenship teacher or even to leave the profession.  The appeal of property development, running a B&B in Spain… even of being an estate agent is probably considerable if you have read this far into this article, and yet… we are teachers, and RE teachers at that.  Our first concern is for the young people we educate.  We know that their learning and development will be impoverished if we do not make a stand!

What needs to be done?

As a subject, we need to produce a clear and realistic definition of aims, skills and content so that we can create and communicate a coherent and convincing rationale for RE.

It is no good relying on old definitions, because our subject has become fractured and no existing definition or rationale represents what we have in classrooms today. There are still those who see RE as Religious instruction, and there are those who see it as sociology, citizenship, ethics, philosophy or PSHE as well.  For all their good intentions, NATRE and the various RE associations tend to represent only one part of the RE community and fail to engage with the other parts.  Can phenomenological RE at KS2 and KS3 survive without a rigorous and popular GCSE and A Level option or when the aims of the subject and the rationale for its existence suddenly changes in Year 10?  Surely we must build skills and knowledge consistently and use the same hymn-sheet when it comes to defending our existence?  Unless we can come together and engage – and unless all of us are willing to listen and make compromises – our subject will die divided and unnoticed and future generations will miss out.

It is no good relying on a hotch-potch of lame rationales.

  • Yes RE is protected by law, but that is not a persuasive reason for its continued existence; the definition of RE that is protected is confused and contradictory and wide open for being reconsidered, in practice if not in principle.
  • Yes RE can contribute to SMSC development, but it is not the only subject which can or does do this – ditto critical thinking skills, higher-order thinking skills and values.
  • Yes RE can prevent gaffes like offering a ham sandwich to a Muslim or planning events for Jewish friends on a Friday night, but aren’t those benefits a rather limited return for an investment of 5% of curriculum time?  Couldn’t they be achieved more efficiently?
  • Yes RE contributes to community cohesion, but do we really want to define ourselves as part of a pragmatic, political response to disorder?  If we do then we become responsible for prejudice, discrimination and unrest when we are unable to do much on a national scale in any foreseeable timescale.

We are four years into these reforms and yet no meaningful attempt has yet been made to argue for our subject, even to engage a proper cross-section of teachers and experts in developing a working definition of what it is that we would like to argue for.  Of course we are all busy and, naturally enough, there is no money to pay for people to attend meetings or to cover term-time absence, but surely most of us care enough to give up a few days of holiday time and a train fare or two?



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