A LEADING religious educator from Yorkshire has challenged the Government to fix up alleged failings in the country’s RE teaching by reversing a chronic “undermining” of the subject in recent years.
The Rev Clive Sedgewick, diocesan Director of Education for Bradford, Ripon and Leeds, was speaking after a damning new report by the education watchdog claimed more than half of England’s schools are failing to give pupils good religious education lessons.
Ofsted inspectors said RE was being “squeezed out” by other subjects, leaving youngsters with little knowledge and understanding of different faiths.
Schools are confused about the reasons for studying RE, the watchdog said, adding its inspectors had also found low standards in the subject, poor teaching and problems with the way it is tested.
It criticised the Government and England’s primary and secondary schools for failing to pay proper attention to RE.
Mr Sedgewick said the findings were “disappointing but not surprising” and blamed policymakers. “Changes in education policy have diminished schools’ understanding of RE,” he said. “This is about preparing children and young people to understand and be at ease with the world in which they are going to live.
“Michael Gove was quoted as saying that RE is a statutory subject that he believed was safe. But policy has undermined the development of the subject.
“If you can be open about the failings, then it follows that you can do something about it, and we look forward to seeing that.”
The Ofsted study, based on inspections of 185 schools, concluded many RE lessons are still failing to help pupils “explore fundamental questions about human life, religion and belief”.
It said there were eight areas of serious concern: low standards, weak teaching, problems in developing an RE curriculum, confusion about the purpose of the subject, weak leadership, weaknesses in exams at GCSE level, gaps in training and the impact of recent changes to education policy.
Overall, more than half of schools were found to be failing pupils on religious education, Ofsted said.
Six out of 10 schools were not realising the subject’s full potential, according to the inspectorate, with many youngsters leaving school with “scant subject knowledge and understanding”.
Mr Sedgewick said poor quality of initial teacher training and clarity from school leaders were also factors, and there had been a “communications” gap about the subject at all levels.
“We have to redouble our efforts to get central education policy changed,” he said.
“The amount of time given to the subject of RE is something that falls far short of what is required.
“We have too few specialist teachers, and a lot of the teaching of RE is done as a subsidiary.
“That is concerning because it would not be allowed to happen in other subjects.”
Another key concern was that local authority SACRE panels – standing advisory committees for religious education – which traditionally set the RE syllabus, had been “marginalised and minimised over the last few years”.
Rare success stories like Bradford, he said, had done “groundbreaking work in the development of the RE syllabus”, and should be used as positive examples.
The new Ofsted report also found that many teachers were confused about what they were trying to teach, with primary teachers finding it difficult to separate the subject from general spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, and a lot of secondary school work focusing on studying philosophical, moral and social issues.
It added that there was evidence of a “significant reduction” of RE in some schools, with headteachers citing the Government’s new English Baccalaureate and short-course GCSEs as reasons for the changes they were making in RE.