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Commission on Religious Education Final report

September 11, 2018

(The interim report from November 2017 is here.)

Religious education (RE) should become “religion and worldviews” to incorporate beliefs such as humanism, secularism, atheism and agnosticism. So instead if being an RE teacher, I’ll be a raw one.

One of the core responsibilities of the education system, it says, is to prepare pupils to understand and develop their personal worldview both as an individual and within a community. “One need only glance at a newspaper to know that it is impossible fully to understand the world without understanding worldviews — both religious and non-religious.”

Following a two-year consultation the commission concluded RE must change to better reflect modern Britain. Commission chairman Reverend Dr John Hall said: “Life in Britain, indeed life in our world, is very different from life in the 1970s when religious education began to include other world religions and beliefs besides Christianity….At present, the quality of religious education in too many schools is inadequate in enabling pupils to engage deeply with the worldviews they will encounter….Many structural changes in education in the past 20 years have unintentionally undermined the integrity of RE in the school curriculum….The commission is proposing a fresh start for the subject with a vision for the teaching of religion and worldviews in every school.”

There is some excellent practice in some schools. it says, but in others the amount of time allocated to the subject is being squeezed, and the subject is suffering from an across-the-board decline in specialist teachers. RE at England’s schools needs to be strengthened to ensure all pupils receive adequate preparation for life in modern Britain.

It also recommends changes to the laws and policies governing the subject, and that post-16 students should have the opportunity to study the subject in further education.

The core recommendation is a new national entitlement for all pupils that specifies nine broad requirements for what they should be taught, including the concepts of religion and worldviews, which the commission describes as “complex, diverse and plural”.

All schools would be required to ensure that every pupil has access to the subject and schools would need to publish a detailed statement about how they meet the entitlement.

One of the recommendations the commission makes is in relation to the right of withdrawal. The right of parents to withdraw their children from RE and from collective worship has been in existence since 1870 and has remained part of the legal settlement in both the 1944 and 1988 education acts. Parents may withdraw their children from some or all of the RE curriculum without giving a reason. When consulting on the issue, the commission found the majority of those who contributed on the interim report were in favour of abolishing the right to withdrawal. Many respondents were concerned about partial withdrawal due to racist or Islamophobic beliefs. The commission recommends that the Department for Education (DfE) should review the right of withdrawal from religion and worldviews and provide legal clarification on matters including whether parents have a right to withdraw selectively. Ben Wood, chairman of the National Association of Teachers of RE, said: “The right of withdrawal is being abused and used in a way that runs opposite to the intentions of the government in promoting a cohesive society.

“This recommendation should be acted upon quickly by the Department for Education in a way that both supports the government’s priorities and ensures that all pupils are given the right to learn about the religions and worldviews that are so influential in our society.”

Other recommendations in the report include creating a national body of experts to develop and revise a national programme of study (replacing locally agreed syllabuses an for all schools, church or not, academy or not) , and establish a Local Advisory Network for Religion and Worldviews.

Pupils, it states, are also entitled to be taught by teachers who have “secure” subject knowledge; can address misunderstandings and controversial issues; “demonstrate a critical understanding” of developments in the study of religion and worldviews; and promote the value of scholarship.

The commission – which comprises 14 leading academics, teachers, and advisers and is chaired by Dr Hall, dean of Westminster – will now present its recommendations to the DfE, proposing that non-statutory programmes of study should be developed at a national level by a body of 10 or fewer professionals, including teachers, and then ratified by the department.

By the end of KS2, pupils should have encountered all of ‘the big six’ religions plus humanism.

The Church of England’s chief education officer, Nigel Genders, agreed that the report’s call for a new vision for RE was vital and timely “if we are to equip children for life in the modern world where religion and belief play such important roles”.

However, a spokesman for the Catholic Education Service, while applauding the attempt at improving RE in all schools, said the report failed to produce a consensus on how to achieve this.

“This report is not so much an attempt to improve RE as to fundamentally change its character,” said the spokesman, who warned the changes risked the subject losing “all academic value and integrity”.

And the Vice President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Edwin Shuker, said the report was “fundamentally undermined by the dilution of religious education through the inclusion of all worldviews in an already tight teaching timetable”.

“This might be seen as an attempt by those hostile to faith to push their agenda of undermining rigour in religious education at a time when faith literacy could not be more important.”

But Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK, called the recommendations “a once in a generation opportunity to save the teaching of religious and non-religious worldviews”.

“If the nettle is not grasped, decline will continue and the subject will sink into irrelevance at a time when the need for knowledge and understanding… is more acute than ever. ”

Stephen Evans, chief executive of the National Secular Society called the proposals “significant progress, although the deference to religious interests has limited the commission’s ambitions, making its report an inevitable fudge.”


Non-statutory programmes of study for each of Key Stages 1–4 should be developed at a national level, at a similar level of detail as those for History and Geography in the National Curriculum. These should be ratified by the DfE.

The national body should be appointed by the DfE on the basis of recommendations from the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, following an open application process.

Programmes of study should be reviewed whenever the National Curriculum is reviewed, but the national body should also have the power to request the DfE for a review if they believe this is warranted

When GCSE and A-level specifications are next reviewed, this should be done in the light of the National Entitlement.

The national body should also consider how the study of Religion and Worldviews may be incorporated into vocational qualifications, either as a stand-alone course or as modules within existing vocational courses

The DfE should publish data on hours taught in all subjects (Key Stages 1–4) and GCSE entries for all subjects, including trend data, in an easily accessible format on their website

The Russell Group universities should review the list of facilitating subjects and consider whether, given their stated comments on the academic rigour and value of Religious Studies A-level, it should be included.

Our consultation highlighted the need for there to be space for the local within RE. The landscape of religious and non-religious worldviews in England is varied, and it is important for children and young people to understand the worldviews of people in their immediate locality as well as nationally and globally significant religious and non-religious worldviews. Thus, the programmes of study will need to include clearly defined space for a local study at each Key Stage.

Many locally agreed syllabuses include much more detail and exemplification than national curriculum programmes of study allow for. It is likely that the national programmes of study for Religion and Worldviews will follow the model of the National Curriculum. Therefore, there will be a role for local authorities and other providers to provide this detailed exemplification, building on strong provision where it already exists. We note here that many SACREs and teachers have told us that where teachers are involved in the development of locally agreed syllabuses, this

is important professional development for them and gives them a sense of ownership of the content. Our recommendations here retain the possibility for teachers to be involved in curriculum development, both through local authority structures and through the role of individual schools in designing or selecting their own curriculum materials.

Recruitment for specialist RE teachers at secondary in 2017–18 stood at 75. 63% of target – the lowest of all subjects apart from Design and Technology. Bursaries for RE teachers are £9,000 for First Class degree holders and £4,000 for 2:1 degree holders, compared to £26,000 for both for Geography and Classics, which both recruited over 80% of target in 2017–18. Subject Knowledge Enhancement (SKE) courses for Secondary RE are no longer funded. Funding continues to exist for Subject Knowledge Enhancement in maths, physics, languages, biology, chemistry, computing, English, geography and design and technology. Between 10–20% of those applying for secondary teacher training in RE pay for an SKE course themselves, at a cost of £150. The SKE course that they pay for is 60 hours, whereas most funded SKE courses are 200 hours.

There should be a minimum of 12 hours of contact time for Religion and Worldviews for all forms of primary ITE including School Direct and other school-based routes.

Bursaries for ITE in Religion and Worldviews should be set at parity with other shortage subjects

The government should allocate funding for CPD for Religion and Worldviews to support the delivery of the new non-statutory national programmes of study. This funding should be for a period of at least five years

Local structures to support teachers are at risk from reduced funding to schools and local authorities and from academisation. Many local authorities are paying for fewer days from RE advisers, reducing the amount of expertise available to their schools. Academisation has also led to reduced funding to local authorities and a corresponding reduction in capacity.

Local hubs have emerged in some localities to provide CPD support and advice for teachers. Many of these are grass-roots, started and supported by teachers and affiliated to national organisations such as NATRE. Some are affiliated to local structures such as the SACRE or diocese. Others are partnerships between the local authority (through the SACRE), Church of England diocese and local schools including Teaching School Alliances.

Some hubs have gained funding from trusts and foundations for their activity, while others operate solely on the goodwill of volunteers. In spite mixed outcomes, hubs continue to be funded in Mathematics and Music Education. They have a better chance of working in Religion and Worldviews because they often already exist at the grassroots level. We therefore consider funding local hubs in Religion and Worldviews to be good value for money.

Many SACREs take on a wider role than this, where funding and expertise permit. Most SACREs analyse examination results every year, and many also support RE in the following ways:

providing continuing professional development for teachers through conferences and workshops or contributing to teacher network days and INSET days. Many of these are led by professionals such as RE advisers or external consultants bought in by SACREs supporting local hubs and teacher networks

giving presentations to headteachers, governors and the local council to keep RE on the agenda of these different groups promoting RE through competitions and awards, or through events in the local community

supporting and advising schools on a range of faith and belief related issues, such as absence due to religious observance, fasting, the wearing of articles of faith, providing prayer and reflection spaces, and other frequently asked questions

supporting schools with specific cases, particularly in dealing with complaints and queries linked to sensitive issues such as safeguarding, the Prevent agenda and the right to withdraw.

If  any contributors to the written and oral evidence pointed out the value of having a group of people in each locality whose role is to support RE, and that other subjects would find this of great value. The best parallels are in music, where the quality of music education would be seriously impoverished if there were no connection with local musicians, music venues and ensembles.

SACREs also have a role in monitoring and providing determinations for collective worship, which was outside of the scope of the Commission’s work.

These key functions need to continue, but capacity to maintain them is diminishing in many SACREs. The National Association of SACREs’ (NASACRE) reports to the Commission show clearly that many SACREs have seen reductions in funding and support. There is less access to  professional advice, as SACRE budgets reduce.

The composition of SACREs has not kept pace with changes in the education system. There are many more stakeholders involved in supporting high quality RE than are represented on SACREs, including higher education institutions and school providers. We have also found in the written and oral evidence that SACREs can sometimes become battlegrounds for representation rather than focused on improving support for schools. We therefore recommend a number of changes to the composition of SACREs.

It should be noted that legislation will need to be amended in any case to remove the requirement for local authorities to hold Agreed Syllabus Conferences, so it is logical to review the duties and composition of SACREs at the same time.

Our recommendations retain the statutory duty for Local Authorities to convene and host Local Advisory Networks for Religion and Worldviews.

The name of the body should be changed to Local Advisory Network for Religion and Worldviews

The Local Advisory Network for Religion and Worldviews must submit an annual report to the DfE and their local authority. The DfE and the local authority must publish the annual reports on a dedicated web page.

The Local Advisory Network for Religion and Worldviews should be made up of members from five groups:

teachers of Religion and Worldviews from all phases including Higher Education

school leaders and governors

ITE and/or CPD providers

school providers including the LA, MATs, dioceses etc

religion, belief and other groups that support RE in schools or wish to do so (this might include local museums and galleries as well as religion and belief groups

The Local Advisory Network for Religion and Worldviews may also:

provide CPD support for schools

develop programmes of study to support the National Entitlement and supplementary curriculum materials for use within and across their local authority boundaries

provide extra resources for schools on local faith and belief communities to support local studies

provide further support for learning outside the classroom

provide advice to schools and school providers on matters of religion and belief in schools

facilitate school-to-school collaboration

celebrate success including through offering prizes and competitions

promote good community relations within and outside schools.

Statutory funding must be provided for all Local Advisory Networks for Religion and Worldviews, calculated by size of local authority and of a sufficient level to enable the group to carry out its activities effectively. This should be ring-fenced within the Central Schools Services block of funding (CSSB) provided to local authorities.

The DfE should publish data on hours taught in all subjects (Key Stages 1–4) and GCSE entries for all subjects, including trend data, in an easily accessible format on their website.

Subject specialists are losing their jobs, or not being replaced when they leave, leading to more hours being taught by teachers without a relevant post-A-level qualification in the subject.

The DfE should consider the impact of school performance measures on the provision and quality of Religion and Worldviews, including the impact of excluding Religious Studies GCSE from the Ebacc and of excluding GCSE Short Courses from school performance measures. In the light of the evidence, the DfE should make amendments to school performance measures to ensure that the study of

despite the majority of respondents in favour of abolishing the right of withdrawal, we reluctantly recommend retaining the right of withdrawal. Given the freedoms afforded to schools to design their own curricula, we could not guarantee that every school curriculum nationally would be sufficiently ‘objective, critical and pluralistic’ to justify ending the right of withdrawal, particularly as so many of the challenges which have been brought have been successful

Having said that, there are ways that schools can – and do – manage the right of withdrawal so that parents can make informed decisions and in keeping with the need to promote fundamental British values including tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.

Some of our respondents insisted that parents provide an alternative curriculum. This appeared to be effective in the schools where it applied. It should be noted that parents are not currently required to provide an alternative curriculum, although many school leaders believe that they are required to do so.

Many school leaders are not clear on the scope of the right to withdrawal, for example whether parents need to give a reason (they do not) and whether partial withdrawal is acceptable (it is). The DfE should therefore review, clarify and where necessary amend the guidance currently given to schools

The curriculum for Religion and Worldviews is more than learning ‘facts’ about a series of institutional worldviews. It is about understanding the human quest for meaning, being prepared for life in a diverse world and having space to reflect on one’s own worldview. Systematic (i.e. one worldview at a time) and thematic (i.e. studying a topic across several traditions or even across curriculum subjects) approaches are both potential elements of a balanced programme

You can read it here.





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