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Religious Education – Is it really a subject ‘not fit for purpose’?

Illustration showing figures and assorted iconography to connote concept of religious education

Andy Lewis examines Ofsted’s recent criticisms of RE teaching, and weighs up the question of whether the subject is fit for purpose…

Andy Lewis
by Andy Lewis
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When Ofsted published its latest Annual Report on November 23rd 2023, teachers of religious education were quick to notice in their online networks the negative headlines that their subject had apparently generated.

It was painful to read of ‘extensive weaknesses’ in its teaching. “In too many primary and secondary schools,” the report said, RE was of “a poor quality and not fit for purpose” – before adding that this was leaving pupils “ill-equipped for some of the complexities of contemporary society.”

Those words hurt, but they didn’t come as a complete surprise.

Postcode lottery

I’ve been an RE teacher for 18 years, and it’s a subject I’ve loved since my own GCSE and A Level. I’ve worked locally and nationally to help promote the subject and its development as a discipline. I love teaching RE, and do believe it’s one of the most important subjects on the curriculum.

However, the sad reality is that there is indeed some substance to Ofsted’s findings. Fiona Moss, CEO of the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education, recently described RE as being a ‘postcode lottery’ – only for Ofsted to then later confirm that the provision students receive does depend on their school. For some, the RE provision in their school is excellent. For others, it’s of poor quality, or barely even included on their timetable.

It’s important to understand the subject’s unique position within the curriculum. RE is a legal entitlement for all pupils on the roll of every school, unless their parents have withdrawn them. We can find it in the ‘basic curriculum’, which includes the 12 KS3/4 National Curriculum subject areas, as well as RSHE. Unlike other those other subjects, however, there’s no national set of standards for RE. Instead, schools set and oversee the subject in a range of different ways.

Creating complexity

In maintained community, foundation and voluntary schools without a religious character, schools teach RE in accordance with the Local Agreed Syllabus (LAS). The Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE), which every local education authority has to appoint, reviews this every five years.

Academies and free schools must teach RE in accordance with the requirements set by a LAS, as well as the law. As the wording of Education Act 1996 puts it, they must ensure that what they teach, “Reflects the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are, in the main, Christian, while taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain.”

Academies can opt to use the LAS, and many do, but bigger MATs will often develop their own. In foundation and voluntary controlled schools with a religious character, you must teach RE according to the Agreed Syllabus, unless parents request RE in accordance with the trust deed of the school.

In voluntary aided schools, you must teach RE in accordance with the trust deed. This means, for example, that a Catholic school will follow the Religious Education Directory (RED) set by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales.

It soon becomes clear that the challenge of simply clarifying what should be taught in RE has created complexity that many believe directly contributes to the mixed quality of provision we’ve seen. It’s certainly hard to argue that the system more broadly is currently fit for purpose.

Scared of the deep?

One interesting criticism of the Ofsted report is that only 5% of subject ‘deep dives’ focus on RE. Understanding the rationale for why Ofsted picked RE during those inspections might shed some light on why that proportion seems so low. Did the inspectors not see RE on the curriculum model? Was it absent from the school’s website?

What many within the RE community have found is that inspectors often lack the confidence and expertise to fully investigate RE and understand its place within curriculum. Schools with a religious character moreover have their RE inspected separately, creating another potential complication with Ofsted’s dataset.

Ofsted published its last RE Research Review in May 2021, so as an organisation it evidently has a clear idea of what it believes makes for ‘good RE’. Some believed at the time that Ofsted shouldn’t have conducted this review, due to that aforementioned complexity. But it did, and as such, inspectors ought to be confident in completing ‘deep dives’ into the subject as part of their regular inspections.

Ongoing concerns

This was far from the only official document aimed at improving standards of RE provision. As far back as 2013, the Religious Education Council of England and Wales published its ‘Review of Religious Education in England’. It made frequent use of the phrase ‘religions and worldviews’. Since this, schools have used it in various forms in recognition of the growing number and influence of those with non-religious worldviews. It also came with a non-statutory National Curriculum framework attached.

2015 then saw reforms to both GCSE and A Level, as well as the first version of the Rt. Hon. Charles Clarke and Professor Linda Woodhead MBE’s pamphlet, titled ‘A new settlement: religion and belief in schools’, which called for a national RE curriculum.

The RE Council, together with NATRE and RE Today Services, later published a ‘State of the nation’ report in 2017, which signalled then that the quality of RE provision was already highly variable and largely dependent on individual schools. People have known for a while that RE is in need of support.

Where are the teachers?

Yet one of the real problems lies in the shortage of teachers. In 2023, we recruited just 44% of the required number of RE teachers into ITT – down from 76% in 2022. This cuts to the very heart of the issue, in that too often, those delivering RE lessons aren’t specialists.

At secondary, this can mean that RE is regularly taught by anyone ‘under allocation’. At primary, it can result in RE being led across the school by someone with little understanding of the subject, or indeed little interest.

Given that RE is an area of the curriculum where ‘Big Questions’ can come up – the meaning of life, issues of suffering, the possibility of life after death, ethical and moral dilemmas – it seems self-evident that a proficient level of training, knowledge and expertise will always deliver better outcomes.

Changing the world

It’s indisputable that there are many amazing RE teachers and leaders out there achieving great things, as well as a lot of well-intentioned people who’d love to help deliver better RE, but lack the resources, space and time to do so. Yet it’s also impossible to deny that in some schools, the subject is perennially neglected and considered a low priority.

If, as Ofsted’s Annual Report concludes, this means students will be, “Ill-equipped for some of the complexities of contemporary society” then it should concern us all. In just the last few months we’ve seen huge rises in both antisemitism and Islamophobia, compounded by a news cycle fuelled by social media-driven sensationalism.

RE might not have all the answers, but it does give young people a set of tools with which to navigate and make their own decisions about the world they live in. To change the world, you need to understand the world – and I know that good RE can play a big part in precisely that.

Andy Lewis is director of RE at St Bonaventure’s, East London; follow him at @andylewis_re or visit mrlewisre.co.uk

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