Religious Education really is that odd peculiarity in the education system. It is part of the Basic Curriculum alongside The National Curriculum and Sex and Relationships Education. It is determined locally by SACREs (Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education) who produce Locally Agreed Syllabuses (LAS); there are nearly 150 different ones in operation in England.
This article first appeared in the July 2015 Edition of UKEdMagazine
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It is different in schools that have a religious character; they opt out of the LASs and teach their own distinct syllabuses. Academies and Free Schools, by law, must provide Religious Education, but do not have to follow the LAS; they can construct their own syllabus in accordance with government guidance. RE is inspected by Ofsted (Section 5), or inspectors from an appropriate religious authority for schools with religious character (Section 48). Historically, there has been few consequences for inadequate RE provision under Section 5 inspections.
Is it any wonder that this system has lead to great fragmentation in the world of RE? Historically people spoke of a ‘Dual System’ of faith schools and community schools. Now we have a diverse and hugely varied provision of the subject across schools. There is great difference in RE quality, purpose, quantity and perception.
There has been discussion and reflection about the role and need for SACREs of late. 152 Local Education Authorities produce a new, revamped or just reviewed, Locally Agreed Syllabus every 5 years. This requires a great deal of energy, effort, time and money. It is also pertinent to ask whether it is right that someone studying RE in Norwich learns something potentially very different from someone in Liverpool? Especially when they may move for employment or university. London further highlights the problem with its 32 Boroughs; Havering and Redbridge are working on a joint LAS, but don’t get a job in neighbouring Barking and Dagenham as you’ll have to have to teach something very different!
Over 20% of schools in England already do not follow the LASs as they are schools with a religious character; there is also an increasing number of Academies and Free Schools in every LEA who again may be opting out. It is also unclear how many schools who should be using the LASs actually are; it is telling when you ask a teacher about their LAS and they look blankly at you. Some have suggested that there needs to be an urgent undertaking of research into this.
Potentially local determination has served the education system well historically. It has kept funding in RE and allowed a number of excellent LASs to be created which reflect the local area in which they are written, ensuring relevance to students and schools. On the flip side, if the Nottinghamshire LAS is suitable, and good enough, for the students there, why is it not good enough for the students in Birmingham?
Surely it’s either good enough for both, or not good enough for either?
Some have suggested that the time is right for SACREs to take on a different role; supporting schools, providing INSET and training for teachers and putting forward faith members as guest speakers. There are numerous good, knowledgeable and willing people involved in SACREs who have served the RE community since the 1944 Education Act. However many are faith representatives rather than experts in education. Some ask the how beneficial, or potentially determinantal, this is to primary aims of RE? It is nonetheless important that their generous contribution does not get forgotten.
So what next? What is needed? Freedom to pick and determine your own syllabus sounds liberating and a fantastic opportunity. Those teachers in non-Academies, in subjects tied to the National Curriculum, would be envious of such a position. However, is the reality as positive as the potential? Do students get the best possible RE as a result?
Some have suggested that a move to ‘join’ the National Curriculum would be of benefit and assist in getting RE recognised as an EBacc subject. It would raise the profile, clear up any misunderstanding, and give a clear framework and status for all. Others have suggested a ‘Core Curriculum’ that sets out required knowledge for each Key Stage. A document was produced by the DfE for the new RE GCSEs and these knowledge filled ‘annexes’ could be transposed to KS3, 2 and 1.
Or is there another way? A third option has been suggested of a ‘Nationally Defined Minimum Entitlement’. This could be compulsory for all schools, including schools with a religious character, who could build confessional and instructional components around it with the extra curricular time allocated.
None of these could be forced upon academies or free schools under current law, but again there has been suggestion that if they were good enough, they would appeal to these schools as a solution to their legal requirement to deliver RE. There would be huge scepticism from schools with a religious character who would see this as a further threat to their existence and control over RE. However it is worth noting that this is the case at Key Stage 4 (GCSE) and 5 (A-Level) already.
It is also worth remembering that in 2004 a ‘Non-Statutory National Framework’ was launched and ‘A Curriculum Framework for RE’ was produced in 2013. These have influenced many LASs, but many would argue that they did not ultimately have the desired effect. A primary criticism of these documents is that they do not set out any notion of knowledge or curriculum content. LASs also don’t set out a full curriculum. This is the distinct difference to new proposals and discussion.
RE & The Law
A few further peculiarities exist in the Law. Firstly RE is linked into the part of the law on Collective Worship, which should still be ‘broadly Christian’. Students, and teachers, may withdraw from RE (although parents would need to provide an alternative curriculum provision for their child). It is also a legal requirement to study RE until the end of compulsory education; although this is often flaunted and rarely highlighted as a weakness by OFSTED.
Again some are now asking, do these laws, part of the 1944 Education Act, reformed but not removed in the 1988 Act, need change?
Collective Worship perhaps needs redefining to ensure that assemblies are reflective of the school community. Many would argue that in an increasingly secular society, this is no longer appropriate. The law is also widely ignored; schools just often do their own thing anyway. Schools that apply for a ‘determination’, trying to follow the law, can find themselves in difficultly, as seen with the Trojan Horse schools. See more at bit.ly/uked15jul10.
The right to withdrawal from RE lesson (for students) and from teaching RE (for teachers) also seems very odd given the subject is now vastly different to Religious Instruction. No other subject has one; imagine if students or parents could dictate this in other subject areas? Very few withdrawals from RE actually take place. Many would suggest that a parent wanting to withdraw a child does not understand what modern RE entails or due to family prejudices, should be exactly the person who needs some good RE!
Would the removal of compulsory RE at Key Stage 4 improve the standards of teaching? As there is a legal requirement for RE, many schools opt to do at least a short course GCSE in Religious Studies. If this obligation was removed, only those who wanted to do the subject at KS4 would elect to do it as one of their options. Many would suggest students would naturally be more engaged and teachers would have smaller numbers enabling them to provide more specialised resources and lessons rather than having to manage an entire cohort of varying enthusiasm and ability.
There is a big question here about numbers, and there would significant resistance to removing this part of the law for this reason; numbers for GCSE RS could drop hugely after previously rising year on year.
Why are some suggesting we need changes to the law and an introduction of prescribed knowledge into a form of national or core curriculum, or minimum entitlement for RE?
1) Less Freedom – Teachers searching for relevance and engagement include activities that do not always facilitate best learning. In very limited and precious time teachers must focus on the deeply fascinating world of religion and belief. It generates enough questions, controversy and debate in itself. Some teachers end up teaching a personal curriculum, with a personal agenda, that would be unacceptable in any other area of the school.
2) Greater Support and Resource Sharing – If everyone was following a similar structure CPD and collaborative working would be simplified. It would also give teachers greater freedom to move further in a geographical area without fear of having to start all over.
3) Savings – Of time, money, effort and energy. There is scarce money in education, and quite simply, it is hard to justify LASs in this context.
4) Improving RE – Weak structures lead to low status and consequently poor quality RE. Even many headteachers do not understand the complexities of RE and the law and as such, mix it with PHSE, collapse to ‘RE days’, or merge into a general humanities subject. Would strong structures lead to a higher status and therefore improved quality in RE? Many believe so. Everyone would be clear on what is needed, there would be a greater parity with other subjects, and this would no doubt raise standards.
RE is one of the few subjects that has been rebranded beyond recognition: Philosophy and Ethics (P&aE), Books and Beliefs (B&B), Ethics and Religion (ER), Culture, Religion and Philosophy (CRP), Society, Theology And Religious Studies (STARS). This shows something of the subject communities lack of shared vision, aims and objectives.
This is not entirely unique, but
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Andy Lewis @iTeachRE is Head of Year 10 and Assistant Subject Leader in RE at a girls’ Catholic school in the London Borough of Havering. He runs BlogSyncRE.org.uk and blogs via MrLewisRE.co.uk.