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20 January 2011

The future of Religious Education

The schools White Paper, The Importance of Teaching, sets out a radical reform programme for the schools system aimed at freeing schools from the constraints of central government direction and placing teachers firmly at the heart of school improvement. Objectives include raising the prestige of the teaching profession, transforming the quality of initial training and continuing professional development. It commits the Government to cutting away unnecessary duties, processes, guidance and requirements.  

The White Paper also sets out: 

  • powers for teachers to improve discipline, and trialling a new approach to exclusions
  • a vision for a transformed school curriculum supported by rigorous assessment and qualifications
  • more academies and free schools, and a strong strategic role for local authorities
  • changes to school performance tables, Ofsted inspections and governance
  • a fairer funding system including a pupil premium to channel more money to the most deprived children
  • school-led school improvement replacing top-down initiatives.

However, the White Paper does not mention Religious Education (RE). Christian teachers are expressing concern, especially with regard to implications for the spiritual development of children in the context of an increasing apathy towards religion in society and the tendency for schools to focus on the subjects which get them points in league tables. The threat to RE is that although it is a statutory subject, it will simply wither if it doesn't get recognition in the forthcoming Bill.

Whilst the White Paper includes a greater emphasis on humanities subjects, the position of RE in the curriculum is uncertain. The two main concerns involve the status of RE and the position of an RS (Religious Studies) qualification within the proposed English Baccalaureate.

It is highly likely that schools which apply to become academies in the near future will not have a statutory requirement to teach RE as a specific legally-protected subject. RE is an essential element to any school curriculum, especially through its philosophical and ethical approach. It provides many excellent academic skills such as critical thinking but also educates students so they understand the importance of each individual as a person and how they fit into the 'Big Society' which is multicultural, religious and secular. Also there is a need for students to discuss philosophical issues and recognise the place for ultimate questions and the role of faith in relation to the development of science. A good RE department has an essential part to play in 'community cohesion'. However, if the funding for schools moves from a local education authority to an academy-based approach, the statutory requirement for RE no longer applies. This means that the subject, already under timetable pressure, could be squeezed even more within the curriculum. It could be merged with a more general programme of personal development which requires no religious or spiritual input. The distinctive subject could easily disappear altogether.

Whilst the concept of an English Baccalaureate is a good one, offering a broad and balanced education, RS is an equally important humanities subject which should be added into this qualification. Not to include RS in this qualification would effectively remove it from the curriculum at Key Stages 4 and 5 in good schools.Premier Christian Media Group is launching a new campaign on the issue. It believes RE is an important subject which should not be excluded from the list of core humanities for several reasons, including:

  • It is an academically rigorous subject which includes theology, philosophy and ethics to name a few
  • Take-up of RE GCSE has increased four times in the past 15 years amongst young people
  • It enables young people to explore other faiths in depth, creating a culture of tolerance and greater understanding towards other faiths which Premier believes is particularly important given that Britain is becoming increasingly multicultural and multi-faith.

RE should be taught because it underlines the importance of religion in society and Christianity in Britain. As the Government works out details of the proposed Education Bill, it is crucial that it carefully considers the position of RE in schools and the positive contribution it makes now and would make in the future within state schools. Christian teachers should consider writing to Education Minister Nick Gibb asking for RE to be specifically mentioned and protected in the proposed Bill.