Make schools teach new 'religion and worldview' subject, says commission

Religious education should be renamed “religion and worldviews” to make it more relevant, a new report has urged.

Under proposals set out in a report from the Commission on Religious Education, schools would be held to account by Ofsted for their legal requirement to offer the subject, and required to publish information about how they meet pupils’ “national entitlement” to study it.

By law, RE must be taught by all state-funded schools in England, with the syllabuses agreed locally. But school workforce data shows 39 per cent of primary academies without a religious character offer no RE, and 42 per cent of secondary academies without a religious character offer no RE. GCSE entries in the subject also faced one of the starkest drops this year of any subject, at 10 per cent fewer entrants than in 2017.

The commission warned RE is in danger of “withering on the vine”, and blames the decline on the fact that Ofsted doesn’t inspect individual subjects, the removal of the GCSE short course from performance tables and the exclusion of the subject in its entirety from the EBacc.

“Schools are breaking the law and no one is checking up on that,” Joyce Miller, one of the commissioners and a research fellow at Warwick university, told Schools Week.

Schools are breaking the law and no one is checking up on that

The commission says the current badge of “religious education” makes the subject sound as though it’s “making people be religious”, and fails to reflect the diversity of society’s views.

The re-named subject would reflect a focus on non-religious worldviews as well, such as humanism, secularism and atheism, which schools don’t currently have to teach. Schools would also have to teach about the histories and texts of worldviews, including how they interact, hold power and produce social norms and moral behaviours.

Ofsted’s increasing emphasis on a ‘broad and balanced curriculum‘ makes teaching R&W even more important, Miller added.

Under the proposals, the curriculum for local authority maintained schools would be changed and academies’ funding agreements would be amended to state they must teach R&W, said the report. The new subject should be implemented when the government next reviews GCSEs and A-levels – even though education secretary Damian Hinds said he won’t change the curriculum again in this parliament.

The report stops short of saying R&W should be made an EBacc subject.

It also does not state that parents should have their current legal right to withdraw their pupils from RE lessons scrapped, unlike a report by former education secretary Charles Clarke and sociologist Linda Woodhead.

That report called for RE to be rebadged “religion, belief and values”, or RBV for short, and warned that RE is at risk of seeming “less academic” than other subjects.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, which provided responses to the commission, said it was “disappointing” the commission did not call for a ban on parents removing children from RE lessons.

However, he said the DfE must review the “detrimental effect” the EBacc is having on RE and was warmly supportive of the report’s other recommendations.

The report was also welcomed by Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK, who said it represented a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to save the “academically serious teaching” of differing worldviews.

But a spokesperson for the Catholic Education Service said the current proposals would “fundamentally change the character” of RE.

“The proposed name change…means that the scope of the subject is now so wide and non-descript that it would potentially lose all academic value and integrity.”

A spokesperson for the DfE said the report by the commission highlights the “challenges faced in teaching religious education,” adding they would look at its recommendations.