Religious Education in Schools is Failing. Headline

In October the major newspapers and the BBC reported that RE is failing in many schools because it has been downgraded and because too many teachers are not trained to teach it.  This is the subject I devoted my career as a teacher to promote.

Religious Education in Schools is Failing

In October 2013 this headline was widespread. OFSTED had issued a report describing how RE is failing in many schools. Why?,Because it has been downgraded and because too many teachers are not trained to teach it.  The report could have added that it is hard to see why anyone should now want to choose to train to be a specialist Religious Studies teacher in this climate. Similarly depressing conclusions are to be seen in the RE Council for England and Wales report and a report of the National Association of Teachers of RE. What is happening however, is exactly what has been predictable, given Mr Gove’s policies in this area.

He refused to allow RS to be counted a humanities option in the new English Baccalaureate saying only History or Geography could be chosen. This removed at a stroke RS from being taken as a serious academic subject and destroys its standing. Already the RE Council report notes, numbers are dropping.

Over the past 15 years RE has been the fastest growing subject in the curriculum with GCSE numbers going from 130,000 to 460,000. The numbers doing A level have tripled. This has been driven by pupil choice.  When students are well taught by specialists they want more for it can be the only place they can safely explore beliefs and values and engage in open discussion and debate.  The Religion and Philosophy options at A level have been particularly popular and recognized by the universities as promoting critical thinking. All that is now at risk

Local Authorities using their multi-religion SACREs and the updated document Religious Education in English schools: non-statutory guidance 2010, have been able to develop good, open, syllabuses. The Anglicans and Methodists have generally accepted these for their Voluntary Aided and Controlled schools supervised by their own inspectors. Mr Gove however has almost destroyed all LA work with schools. Possibly it came as a surprise to him to find legally the LA’s are responsible for RE.

His reaction has been to allow all Academies and Free Schools to ignore this locally agreed guidance by placing RE in the hands of governors. This leaves the non-faith academies free to reduce the vital staffing and time given to RE and pay mere lip service to its provision. The NATRE report says this is already happening. They say this is also happening in other LA schools.

As regards the “faith” academies governor control allows them to teach what they like from whatever biased “faith” point of view the governors sanction, be it exclusive Roman Catholicism, fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity or rigid and intolerant forms of Islam. It also allows them to ignore an open-minded approach and attempt to inculcate religious beliefs in an unquestioning atmosphere – the opposite of Religious EDUCATION.

In setting up his “faith academies” and some “free schools” with a “religious foundation”, Mr Gove has ignored what happens when “faith groups” have control of schools and RE.  Northern Ireland where sectarian schools keep alive sectarian antipathies is a powerful case in point. Allowing Catholics and Jews here to have a free hand with the RE in their Voluntary Aided schools may seem OK, but what happens if we have a proliferation of burka wearing academies and other intolerant and fundamentalist Jewish, Evangelical or quirky Steiner free schools?  The long term effect of undermining good open Religious Education and academic Religious Studies together with more and more divisive “faith” schools could seriously undermine our comparatively open and tolerant society.

Just when RE has been showing how important it is to help students work out and reflect on their own beliefs and values and understand and respect something of the religions and cultures both of Christians and those of other religions and the views of those who reject any religion, the place of this vital, important and engaging area of education is being critically downgraded into what Professor Conway has described as “superficiality”delivered by unwilling non-specialists.

Critical thinking, tolerance and openness will inevitably suffer as more and more young people will learn less and less about the culture and beliefs of those not like themselves and as fewer and fewer have opportunities for examination work in Religious Studies. This is tragic. It is also catastrophically short-sighted.                                                  

Missing the Bigger Picture.                                                        On 7th November we had the heads of the three security services speaking to the Commons Select Committee pointing out that they consider that there are several thousand young men so infected with the Islamist jihadi ideology that they pose THE major threat to the security of the country.

That this would happen was totally predictable since 9-11 given not only the current appalling war in Syria but the fact that a narrow Wahabi Sunni form of Islam continues to be promoted and funded by the Saudis as the normative form of Islam in this country. Currently we have three million Muslims, and many of them feel isolated and alienated from British society. This social and religious context makes a move to jihadi activism not unattractive to some young male British Muslims. What is needed is that all our young Muslims, male and female, have the opportunity in schools and in the mosques to meet teachers and imams who as a result of a British university education will have the self-confidence and knowledge to better understand and promote the breadth, richness and diversity of Muslim culture and thought while having a good understanding of Christianity and other religions. It is equally important that the non-Muslim majority in our schools – whatever their religion or lack of one – should be well taught to respect and engage with Islam as an impressive and challenging religion and life-style that deserves to be taken seriously and understood – even as their numbers increase.

Like the war in Syria, there is no military or “security” solution to Muslim alienation.  The only long term solution to the growth of the jihadi threat is EDUCATION EDUCATION EDUCATION. That means high quality Open RE as part of the curriculum for every pupil and student for that is the only way to corrode the false certainties of fundamentalism and the intolerance of racists and to provide young people with the knowledge and skills to stand up and express their own beliefs and values in a rational manner.

Open societies do not just happen.  They have to be actively promoted.

So what now? Politicians across the parties have the opportunity to recognize and embrace the importance of good open RE and the duty to understand and that changes are made to develop and promote it before it is too late. We need:

Religious Studies as a humanities option in the Baccalaureate

OFSTED inspected RE in all state funded – including “faith” schools to check standards.

Special incentives for students to study RS and go into teaching.

Funding for universities to run good courses in Religious and  Islamic Studies for our Imams and RE Teachers.

If you are a teacher, imam, priest or minister write to your MP and or to Mr Gove on this subject. If teaching A level ask your students to write to Mr Gove and send him the letters.

First though see this excellent video debate on the Religion and Society website where you will see all the speakers, including Richard Dawkins, (YES) John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford and professors Linda Woodhead, Robert Jackson and James Conway.all putting the case for RE.

As an RE teacher for 25 years, a member of the Devon SACRE and the National RE Teachers Committee I am appalled by what is happening. Currently I have been supporting Julie Arliss with her Philosophy of Religion and Ethics and Gifted and Talented Academy Conferences.

John Baxter, 2 Lifeguard Villas, South St., Wincanton BA9 9DW 4-12-2013 email Visit my website

Visit Open RE and read the letter I have just sent to David Laws MP Minister for Schools.

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