Commission on Religious Education

By Clare Jarmy, Head of Philosophy, Religion & Ethics

The Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) recently reported its findings after a long period of consultation with stakeholders. CoRE was set up by the RE Council, but was run independently of it. As independent schools, we are unlikely to feel the full force of CoRE’s effect, but times are changing for Religious Education, and independent schools will surely find themselves influenced by the findings.

These key recommendations are likely to have the biggest effect on independent schools:

1. Religion & Worldviews

CoRE recommends that ‘Religious Education’ should be renamed ‘Religion & Worldviews’. Do not be fooled: this change of nomenclature is no mere windowdressing. The Commission recognises the huge change that has taken place in religious affiliation in the last fifty years, and argues that the subject must evolve to recognise this. Around 50% of adults in the UK have no religion. 41% identify as Christian. Focussing on ‘The Six World Religions’ does not reflect the religious (or increasingly nonreligious) nature of the UK. By introducing ‘worldviews’ to the subject, and requiring students to handle concepts such as secularism as well as religion, it is hoped that the subject will be useful in reflecting the conversations students will need to have in their lives as well as at work. Even though most schools in the Independent Sector tend to call this subject ‘Religious Studies’ and not ‘Religious Education’, this name change, and everything it implies, is causing controversy. The term ‘worldview’ is defined by the report, but not closely enough. Couldn’t a worldview mean any set of beliefs that are in some way foundational to the way someone sees the world? As Philip Robinson, the RE Advisor to the Catholic Education Service puts it, “communism, libertarianism, capitalism, nationalism and socialism are just a few nonreligious worldviews; should they be taught in RE too? It…seems hugely ironic that the answer to declining religious literacy should be to teach less religion.”

2. National Entitlement

Provision for RE has been found to be patchy in recent years, and increasing academisation of maintained sector schools has diminished the amount of RE being taught. 34.1% of academies with no religious character were not teaching any RE in KS3 in 2015; 43.7% at KS4. CoRE recommends that a National Entitlement is created to ensure that all students can access the subject. This might cause some independent schools to examine the provision they have in place themselves. Whilst there is no suggestion that independent schools will have to conform, the National Entitlement confirms the importance of the subject, and some independent schools might see fit to follow suit.

3. An ‘Academically Rich & Rigorous’ subject

A key aim that has come out of CoRE is a call for an “academically rich and rigorous” approach to the subject. Religious Education has historically served many goals: community cohesion; spiritual development; formation of world view; tolerance and understanding of others. Academic rigour has not always featured at the top of priorities in RE for successive governments. In the independent sector, there has been a longer history of an academic approach as the term ‘Religious Studies’ implies. The sector has a wealth of expertise amongst its teachers: expect to meet lots of textbook authors at the ISRSA Conference! Having argued that this is a challenging and academic subject, CoRE recommends that Religion and Worldviews is finally given the status that, as such, it deserves. For its whole history, RE has been a bit different, in its legal status, in its provision, in its locally agreed syllabuses, and, many would argue, this was for some good reasons. Yet, its unique place on the curriculum has also made it a bit of an outlier, difficult to categorise, and difficult, for some, to take seriously as an academic pursuit. Recent government decisions, namely the exclusion both of RE from the EBacc and of short-course RE from schools’ performance figures, have hugely undervalued the subject and led to a dramatic downturn in uptake nationally at GCSE. The Russell Group’s list of ‘facilitating’ subjects, where Religious Studies A Level is conspicuous by its absence, also hugely underestimates the usefulness of the subject for all sorts of areas of further study. CoRE requests that the Russell Group re-examines its list. Here, CoRE could have direct implications for the independent sector: some Heads of RS feel under an unfair amount of pressure to justify their subject, purely because of its seemingly arbitrary exclusion from that list. If CoRE’s recommendations are taken up, we can hope for better resourcing for teacher training, and hence higher quality applicants for jobs in both sectors. We can hope that students expect RS to be taught, and to be taught well, as it so often is by colleagues in the independent sector. More thanthis, we can hope, finally, to be understood for what we are. We are teachers of a valuable, viable, challenging and rigorous academic subject: so much more, but nothing less.

This article was originally published in Independent Schools Magazine