By Kymberley Dainty
15 June, 2023
This article was originally written for, and first published in, Education Today magazine, Thursday 15 June 2023.
Having worked as a religious education (RE) specialist for my whole career, I know that RE is an essential part of education, opening pupils up to learning about diverse beliefs and mindsets from different people across the world.
Expanding pupils’ worldviews can help them grow and understand their environment, providing an avenue to explore questions of purpose and meaning, as part of equipping them with the skills to thrive as they take their next steps. Alongside the moral imperative of the subject and its scope for character building, the subject also offers academic rigour and scholarship.
In accordance with the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, all maintained school in England must provide RE “for all registered pupils at the school including those in sixth form, except for those withdrawn by their parents.” Similarly, an academy without a religious designation must arrange for RE to be given to all pupils in accordance with the DfE requirements. The National Association for Teachers of Religious Studies recommends 5% of curriculum time – around one lesson per week.
In April 2023, the government published the Bloom Review, which considers how government engages with faith. The report looks at improving government’s overall faith literacy and helping to understand how equality of opportunity can be improved across communities and through all people of faith.
RE is considered as part of the review, and despite religious diversity in England increasing over recent decades, the place of faith in the education system faces significant challenges, including the provision of quality RE and the levels of understanding towards pupils’ faith-specific needs. The review examined how the positive aspects of faith could be supported, whilst tackling sensitive topics and practices which are crucial in protecting pupils from such practices as forced and coercive marriage, faith-based extremism, and unsafe educational environments.
The Bloom Review found that faith in the UK is very much alive and well, albeit in a more diverse and different setting than a generation ago. Within education, the positive impact RE can play is clear, but there is significant work to be done to improve provision in schools. The review found that generally, RE curricula are not comprehensive enough and schools fail to explore its full potential, especially in teaching empathy and respect in increasingly multicultural environments. Often, outside of the required curriculum, RE is the first subject to be dropped at GCSE and there is little emphasis on devoted timetabling and provision. In 2021, Ofsted found that the overall proportion of teaching hours devoted to RE had fallen to 3.3%. Other challenges are found in the lack of time and resources allocated to training non-specialist teachers who are needed to fill gaps during a time of wider recruitment challenges, thus resulting in RE being seen as confusing and difficult to teach, and falling to the bottom of priorities.
Although there are benefits to not having a centrally mandated system, it also means that the quality and content of RE provision across local authorities is inconsistent and has arguably resulted in sustained de-prioritisation and a lowered standard of provision.
However, there is also an opportunity. The guidance found in RE and collective worship in academic and free schools states that academies can choose to follow their locally agreed syllabus but may also adopt different areas or develop its own. At OAT, we have drawn together the best of what each agreed syllabus provides, creating something that resonates with our values and vision, as well as being an academically rigorous programme of study.
Following the Bloom Review, schools should be conducting reviews of RE provision and current practice to help develop their curriculum and resources in order to bring RE on a par with other humanities subjects. Sharing this with heads of departments and other senior leaders, especially across trusts, will help provide support and structure to staff who are lacking confidence in teaching RE.
At OAT, we have been focusing on developing a new RE curriculum with input from all heads of departments, which provides access to unit-by-unit rationale and resources packages. The lesson will also contain retrieval activities, substantive and disciplinary knowledge, and deliberate practice opportunities to facilitate learning across all year groups.
With a grant obtained from Culham St Gabriel’s Trust, I am working with the OAT lead practitioners to research and develop an assessment model for a new curriculum offer which is innovative and robust whilst being sensitive to the needs of the subject and staff. For example, teachers of RE are likely to have the highest number of classes and the least amount of time with each of those classes.
Within RE provision, it is crucial that schools support colleagues who are delivering RE lessons but who are not trained in the subject. One way of achieving this is to develop a school or trust-wide support and knowledge sharing programme with sessions delivered by subjects experts. Providing all staff access to these sessions allows for wider participation in RE and a forum for colleagues to reach the RE entitlement without creating additional workload alongside their own subjects. Utilising a subject specialist RE teacher as a school-wide resource can be beneficial here, especially for providing ‘cover-friendly’ resources and lessons. Insist on challenge, ambition and rigour.
One additional reason that this subject may be side-lined is the fact that it is not classed as a humanity in the English baccalaureate (Ebacc) and so remains in the open bucket for measuring school performance. Without the power to change that as it stands, we must demand academically challenging RE to change the perception of this subject for our young people and their families.
In a time of increasing multiculturalism and societal challenge, it is imperative that we promote constructive dialogue and provide young people with the resources, time and space to discuss and learn about the full range of beliefs, practices, and traditions in their education. If schools and trusts can invest time into strengthening RE provision, everyone will reap the rewards both socially and academically.