Some clear thinking about RE and the EBacc?

A (minimally) edited version of a post I wrote on RE for Hodder Education. You can find all three of my ‘guest posts’ for Hodder here:

RE and the EBacc

What’s in a name?

Subject Matter

as well as a great beardy photo here.

So here it is:

I thought I’d kick off a month of blogging by offering some thoughts on the RE and the English Baccalaureate, since the education committee enquiry came out yesterday. There are all sorts of interesting educational questions surrounding this reform, not least of course what it is intended to be – a performance indicator for schools, a required qualification for students, or a statement of educational entitlement? The language employed by advocates and critics alike demonstrates a lack of clarity on this, and the nomenclature certainly doesn’t help.

For the time being I’ll restrict my comments to the implications for RE and RE teachers, introducing some questions about RE pedagogy that I’ll hopefully be able to develop in more detail in the coming weeks. I’d be really keen to engage in discussion about any of this, if anyone would like to make any comments either to this site (below) or to @DaveAldridgeRE.

Despite reasonable expectations that the government might have waited for the publication of the report before confirming the choice of subjects for the EBacc, we already knew earlier this month that RE had not made the cut (see I have relied on RE Today to keep me energetically informed about the various campaigns and developments!) At least for the short term, then, that battle is lost. Nevertheless, the report seems largely to concur with ‘the views of many on the front line’ that it was a bad idea to leave out RE as a contender (alongside history and geography) for the required humanity subject. The report quotes the Catholic Education Service’s view that RE ‘has a strong claim to be the humanity par excellence as it demands knowledge and skills in history, textual criticism, anthropology, ethics, philosophy and theology’ and that ‘its omission from any measure which seeks to ensure that pupils receive a genuinely broad education is indefensible’. There’s not much to be added to that really: I think it sums up pretty clearly RE’s claim to sit alongside history and geography.

The next paragraph (50) notes the Minister’s defence of the decision. These two arguments are elaborated in detail in the generic letter sent out by Gove in response to written expressions of concern over the EBacc, and they require careful scrutiny: firstly, that RE ‘is already compulsory by law” and is ‘the only subject that has been a compulsory part of the school curriculum since 1944’. There has always been an irony attached to RE’s status as a required (in fact for all key stages in community schools), but not foundational, subject. At the time of the 1988 education reform act, the rhetoric for maintaining this situation was that it ensures for RE a special protection that means it is not subject to revision or removal from school provision on changing ideological or political grounds (in the way that foundation subjects are in principle). In practice, of course, this has meant that RE has not been subject to normal assessment requirements and has not had to follow any national or central curriculum requirements, which has caused all sorts of confusion about its compulsory status. I’ll say more about this in a moment. Suffice to say now that this allows the Minister for Education to argue that RE in fact has a special status at KS4 in particular that history and geography do not, and that by not changing this legislation (he has decided not to review RE along with the National Curriculum) he is upholding and continuing this special situation.

The second defence offered by the Minister is that ‘the EBacc aims to encourage increased take-up of those subjects where fewer students were achieving, or even entering for, GCSEs—such as history, geography and languages—which is not the case for religious education.’ This defence seems to undermine the special status apparently accorded RE in the first, but aside from sitting uneasily with its partner, it seems a bit dodgy in its own right. The intention expressed here is to ensure breadth not among the range of subjects an individual student chooses, but among those subjects selected by an examination cohort as a whole; the upshot of such an engineering measure would seem inevitably to be a restriction of choice for the individual. For the individual student, there is absolutely no educational justification for insisting on a choice of either history or geography unless, in fact, some claim is being made about their educational value over and above RE, which the government have been scrupulously careful to avoid. The expectation that more students will take geography rather than RE demonstrates, in fact, that the government expects pupil choice to be influenced by this measure. In educational philosophy we usually expect a pretty robust ethical justification for the restriction of pupil choice. In the case of the EBacc, a loose argument has been presented about accessibility to a university education for the least privileged, supported by some hastily gathered opinions from leading universities about their preferred A Level choices. It is clear from the committee’s concluding remarks, and yesterday’s media coverage of the report, that they were far from convinced that the EBacc will lead to any increase in the number of less privileged students gaining access to a decent university education. An alternative tack, of course, might have been to attempt some research into why RS has become such a popular GCSE choice, so that geography and history might benefit from these successes.

At this point it’s worth clarifying my position on RS GCSE, because I think there tends to be quite a lot of confusion over means and ends in this debate. Of course RE teachers would argue against any measure that might see a reduction in GCSE numbers: fewer GCSE candidates means fewer sets in years 10 and 11 (and as a result 12 and 13), fewer sets mean fewer periods of RE that need teaching, and the reality of this in many departments is that one less RE teacher might be needed. That’s going to have an impact on the job security of many RE educators, not to mention my own; as a teacher educator my position relies on a consistent supply of RE vacancies in schools. This is a real and serious risk, but not one which has any educational bearing. We ultimately value our jobs in RE, of course, because we are convinced of the educational value of compulsory religious education (at least within an education system as currently conceived) and it is that, rather than the GCSE in Religious Studies, that we should be defending most vocally. In fact, I would argue that the swelling numbers of students opting for RS GCSE is of no particular value in and of itself; the GCSE has been until now, however, of immense benefit – albeit indirect – to the safety of the endeavour of compulsory RE at all key stages.

Let’s be clear about what that benefit has been: it is statutory that all students receive 5% of their overall curriculum as RE provision, either as a regular lesson or in some kind of equivalent arrangement, throughout their time in a community school – that means up to KS5 if they stay on. However, Ofsted do not enforce this requirement. I know from my own experience that offering no significant RE provision at KS5 is certainly no barrier to a school receiving an ‘Outstanding’ write-up overall. Even at KS4, inadequacies in RE provision might be noted but they are not weighted particularly heavily in making judgements about the quality of the school’s overall curriculum. One reason for this is that ‘equivalence’ to 5% provision (effectively an hour per week) can be interpreted loosely. Whatever this means in hours, it can hardly be argued that two or three off-timetable ‘RE days’ across KS4, often combined with other inconvenient impositions such as PSHE and Citizenship, can have the same educational value as a weekly lesson; complex subject-specific concepts are surely best addressed through an extended learning sequence that builds in time for assessment and the ongoing development of a student’s understanding.

The reality is, therefore, that although Gove is right that de jure, RE has a special status all the way up to KS5, de facto compulsory provision has often been squeezed for exam years by other requirements that are actually scrutinised externally, such as GCSE success. This is why the RS qualification, in particular the relatively new short course, has been such a boon to compulsory RE. Headteachers have in many cases made the RS short course compulsory for all students – that way they provide the required 5% RE provision at the same time as contributing to their overall number of A* to Cs. The fact that students tend to be able to do particularly well in RS GCSE on an almost derisory allocation of curriculum time (whatever the reason for this) has also been attractive. Many RE departments will confirm that the Short Course GCSE has been the only way they have been able to secure anything like an appropriate level of RE provision at KS4. The fact that the subject has been examined at KS4 has also offered it a measure of academic respectability in the eyes of students throughout KS3 that has also not hurt the subject (this is also noted in the report, para 52). The big issue to be addressed, then, is not how many students will now opt for a GCSE in RS, but what will remain of compulsory RE at KS4 once the EBacc has done its work? We already have widespread reports of Headteachers deciding to discontinue the RS GCSE in anticipation of the EBacc; will compulsory provision fall by the wayside as a result? Will this end at KS4 or have implications lower down in the school?

The refusal to include RE as one of the possible humanities options in the EBacc can therefore be seen as one of a number of new developments, either intentional or otherwise, that threaten the place of compulsory RE in schools. Other threats have not received nearly as much media coverage, although they look set to do far more damage over the coming years. In particular, the growing number of academies and free schools, since they are not community schools, will not only not be bound to follow any locally agreed syllabus in RE, they will also not be bound, according to the specific wording of the 1988 act, to offer any compulsory RE at all. The challenge facing RE teachers over the coming years is to make sure that all of their students are given an appropriate amount of compulsory RE provision, that it is appropriately challenging, and that it is perceived as valuable by colleagues and students alike regardless of whether it is externally examined. This means dusting off some arguments that may have been allowed to atrophy a little in recent years as RE has been ‘sitting pretty’ – arguments that take into account the nature of the subject matter of RE, the justification for its compulsory status on the curriculum, and the appropriate methodology for delivering it: in other words, digging up all of that philosophical thinking on pedagogy we dimly remember from our PGCE courses! It will also mean, although I know this will be less welcome to RE specialists, engaging with broader questions about the relation of religion, spirituality and education, and questioning whether a discrete curriculum subject is the aspect of that relationship that is most valuable.

Hence my call for some clear thinking – it is not apparent at all to me that there has been any consensus among advocates of RE in the EBacc about the nature and value of the subject they are defending. I do not argue that such consensus is possible or even necessary, but our presuppositions need to be made explicit or there is a danger that parents, RE teachers, academics and faith communities (not to mention the students who are the key stakeholders here!), all potential advocates of the place of religion in education, will be working at cross purposes in the debates that lie ahead.

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