In this blog, I will be discussing the future of religious education in the light of the recent publication of the final report of the Commission on Religious Education which proposes changes to the subject to reflect more diverse beliefs under a new name ‘Religion and worldviews’.
Religious education (RE) is a subject facing many challenges at primary and secondary level, from key stage 1 to A Level. Teaching hours are being squeezed, some schools are not teaching RE and there are fewer students taking GCSE and A Level Religious Studies.
To meet this challenge the Religious Education Council (REC) established the Commission on Religious Education to develop a new national plan for RE. The final report was published in September 2018 and over the past academic year, the report and plan has been a major focus of debate and discussion amongst the RE subject community.
The Commission on Religious Education was established by the Religious Education Council to review the legal, education and policy frameworks for religious education. The Commission gathered its evidence from a wide range of interested parties – students, teachers, lecturers, advisers and faith and belief communities. It aimed to inform policymakers and ultimately to improve the quality of RE and its capacity to prepare pupils for life.
In September 2018, the Commission released its final report. Some of the statistics given in the report are a cause for concern for the RE subject community.
According to School Workforce Data 2016 23.1% of schools were offering no RE at Key Stage 3 and 33.4% were offering no RE at Key Stage 4.
The numbers at GCSE are even more worrying. 433,750 students were entered for GCSE RS (Full Course or Short Course) in 2011; this had fallen to 260,300 entries in 2018. The number of students studying A Level RS has fallen from 26,086 in 2017 to 20,527 in 2018.
The report sets out a National Plan comprising 11 recommendations (pp 15 – 20) which include a new name for the subject - ‘religion and worldviews’. It states the importance of the study of religious and non-religious worldviews for all pupils as a core component of a rounded education.
A new Statutory National Entitlement is proposed, which would apply to all publicly funded schools and be subject to inspection. The entitlement would reflect the new vision for the subject while allowing schools flexibility to best meet their own needs.
The report does not propose a national curriculum for religion and worldviews, as with other subjects.
The Commission also proposes that when GCSE and A Levels are next reformed this should be done in the light of the National Entitlement. There should be an improvement to Initial Teacher Education for Religious Education, including increased contact time for PGCE Primary students and Subject Knowledge Enhancement courses at parity with EBacc subjects.
The report has the backing of TRS-UK (the professional association for University departments of Theology and Religious Studies), the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education, the National Education Union and the National Association of Head Teachers amongst other groups.
The Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, welcomed the work of the commission and acknowledged the general consensus secured in the subject community on some important matters. He reiterated that all state-funded schools must teach RE and that it is important that they do it well.
Good quality RE promotes children and young people’s spiritual and moral development and fosters mutual respect and tolerance. He has announced additional funding for RE bursaries for initial teacher training and RE subject knowledge enhancement courses.
However, he stated that ‘some stakeholders have concerns that making statutory the inclusion of “worldviews” risks diluting the teaching of RE’. The Secretary of State has previously announced in March 2018 that there will be no further changes to the national curriculum, statutory assessment, GCSEs or A Levels, beyond changes already announced.
Consequently, he has concluded that now is not the time to reform religious education which would require the development of a programme of study for religion and worldviews, extensive training and further change for teachers and schools.
On 27 March 2019, we hosted our Religious Studies Consultative Forum. The forum played an important role in the development of our new qualifications and continues to do so as we consider the impact of the reforms, how best to support teachers and look to the future.
Rudi Lockhart, Chief Executive of the Religious Education Council joined us at the forum and spoke about the establishment of the Commission and the subsequent publication of their Final Report, ‘Religion and Worldviews: the way forward. A national plan for RE’.
He outlined the key aspects of the report: the new vision for Religious Education – Religion and Worldviews; the national entitlement and a national plan for the teaching of the subject. Rudi also discussed the feedback that the report has received including the government response.
Our religious studies forum members were very positive about the commission’s report and the idea of teaching religion and worldviews was well received. However, questions were asked about the political will for change and it was also felt that greater clarity was needed on the scholarship of worldviews.
There was a view that the proposed changes will make the subject more interesting for students. However, there was concern regarding the rapid decline of RE in schools and whether change would come quickly enough.
Questions were raised about what would actually be studied in future at GCSE and A Level and how it would be assessed, as this will need to be clearly set out in detail – and the commission has not proposed a national curriculum.
It was felt that action is needed and that RE needs to be valued more as a curriculum subject with sanctions for schools who are not meeting their statutory duty.
As an exam board offering GCSE and A Level courses in religious studies, we are very interested in the work of the commission and any future developments in the subject.
The commission has recommended that when the time comes to reform GCSE and A Level Religious Studies this should be done in light of the new national entitlement. Our current qualifications, introduced in 2016, were based on the GCSE, AS and A Level subject content produced by the Department for Education.
The proposed new national entitlement would perhaps form the basis for new, reformed GCSEs and A Levels. Looking at the current aims and learning outcomes for GCSE and A Level and the national entitlement it is clear that these new qualifications could be quite different and that ‘religion and worldviews’ is more than just a change of name.
At OCR and Cambridge University Press & Assessment we will look on and listen with great interest. We will keep you informed of any updates following this report.
You can read the full report, or the executive summary on the Commission on Religious Education website.
If you have any questions please submit your comments below or email them directly with your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Ewan Brady, OCR Subject Advisor
Ewan Brady joined OCR as a subject specialist in June 2014. Since joining OCR Ewan has been responsible for a number of subjects including law, government and politics and sociology. Ewan led the redevelopment of our new AS and A Levels in Law for first teaching in 2017. He took over responsibility for religious studies as subject advisor in 2017.