Yet, despite widespread support for the subject, it seems schools aren’t prioritising it and, according to industry experts, in some cases are flouting the law and not providing any teaching on it at all.
So why is this so much of an issue for our schools? Premier Youth and Children’s Work investigates.
A recent report from the Commission on Religious Education claimed the quality and provision of RE across the country is so inconsistent that pupils are facing a lottery as to whether they’ll be given access to high-quality teaching on the subject. It suggested those missing out are not being given the vital preparation needed for life in a multicultural society and globalised world.
Chair of the commission and Dean of Westminster, Very Revd John Hall, told YCW: “There are quite a large number of schools where there is no effective religious education taught, certainly at key stage four for children in their years up to 16. 40 per cent of academies without a religious character do not offer religious education at key stage four.”
All state-funded schools, including academies and free schools, are legally required by the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act to provide RE as part of a balanced curriculum.
The defence given by some schools that don’t offer formal teaching on the subject is that it is covered in other lessons. Speaking to the BBC, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “They might be teaching through conferences, they might be using citizenship lessons, they might be using assemblies.”
This issue is a relatively new one, with some putting the blame on the government’s 2010 introduction of the English Baccalaureate, a qualification system that measures school performance. Despite concerns raised at the time by campaigners, RE was omitted from the list of core subjects. It means schools are effectively judged on maths, English, science, history or geography, and a language. Critics claim schools would naturally lean toward putting more resource in those areas.
The government says it remains committed to ensuring RE is a priority for schools. In response to the recent concerns over the quality and provision of teaching, a spokesperson from the Department for Education said: “Good quality RE can develop children’s knowledge of the values and traditions of Britain and other countries, and foster understanding among different faiths and cultures. Religious education remains compulsory for all state-funded schools, including academies and free schools, at all key stages and we expect all schools to fulfil their statutory duties.”
While the government might have expectations of schools, it seems they’re not being met. According to the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE), 28 per cent of secondary schools give no dedicated curriculum time to RE. It estimates that this equates to 800,000 pupils missing out.
The number is even higher within academies, which make up the majority of secondary schools. A third don’t offer formal RE teaching to 11 to 13-year-olds, rising to 44 per cent for 14 to 16-year-olds. There’s a concern that, as more academies are introduced, more pupils will miss out. Even where curriculum time is given, less than 20 per cent of schools say all their RE lessons are delivered by a teacher with a degree or PGCE in theology, RE or philosophy.
Teachers responding anonymously to a survey on the issue said there are serious concerns about staffing when it comes to delivering the subject and when non-specialists cover it the content is difficult for them to understand, let alone teach.
It would seem something needs to happen if the government’s expectations are to be met. NATRE has produced a number of recommendations for the government, schools, Ofsted and parents. It wants ministers and head teachers to be more transparent on what is actually happening at schools so they can be held to account.
The Commission on Religious Education also wants to see change. After releasing an interim report at the end of the summer, a consultation period has begun, which will lead to a full report and a number of recommendations being made early next year. One of the recommendations is expected to be a new National Entitlement for Religious Education, which sets out the purpose of a school teaching the subject and what a pupil should experience in the course of their study.
So what’s our role, as youth and children’s workers, in this escalating problem? Speaking to YCW, Graham Nicholls from the church network organisation Affinity said there’s a positive aspect to look at. “This does present an opportunity for churches that can often help schools by providing the Christian and ethical elements in the teaching programme. There are plenty of excellent materials available for teaching about the Christian faith, and also about Christian views on sexual ethics and beginning and end-of-life issues. We encourage churches to contact their local schools and offer to assist in this way.”
We know many youth and children’s workers already have good relationships with local schools offering assemblies, chaplaincy support and RE lessons. It would seem those relationships are needed more than ever now to encourage schools, but also hold them to account to ensure our children and young people are being given the right education to equip them to better understand the world around them.