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2018 could be the turning point for RE. Or then again, maybe not

2018 could be the turning point for RE. Or then again, maybe not

Religious Education is facing major challenges. The Commission on RE will make recommendations about how to improve the subject later this year. We’ve asked a range of RE professionals and researchers to set out what they think RE might look like five years in the future. In Part 5 in our series on the future of RE, Derek Holloway offers two alternative visions of the state of RE in a few years’ time.

In Part 1, Simon Perfect outlines the main challenges facing RE today.

This September will see the publication of the RE Council’s Commission report on Religious Education. It could be a seminal moment in the development of RE in this country and beyond… or then again it may not.

A seminal moment…

Looking back from the summer of 2024, it’s clear that the publication of the Commission’s report on RE was a turning point. It contained a Statement of Entitlement for RE which defined good RE as, in essence:

·       knowing and understanding about a range of religions, beliefs and worldviews

·       appreciating diversity, continuity and change in those religions and worldviews

·       critically evaluating religious and non–religious texts, teaching and practice

·       being a safe space for pupils to explore their own religious, spiritual and/or philosophical ways of seeing living and thinking.

It was well received by all but a few academics and professional associations. Although to this day it remains non–statutory, its inclusion as a link guidance document to the 2019 Ofsted inspection framework effectively gave it statutory status as far as schools were concerned. The Church of England Education Office, the Catholic Education Service and the other significant faith groups with schools adapted it for inclusion in their inspection schedules, making it ubiquitous. The references to the Statement of Entitlement for RE in the 2020 Integrated Communities Act further enshrined its standing, as did its status as a linked but separate document to the finally published PSHE national curriculum documents of 2021.

This greater clarity and agreement about the aims of RE led to a raft of resources and training that led to a flourishing of a subject that is increasingly valued by schools, students and politicians. Teachers were released from the pointless and destructive ideological debates about the nature of the subject, the role of faith communities in RE and the interminable discussion about the name of the subject. They took back control and selected, experimented and blended systematic and thematic approaches to the subject to meet their school’s context. The formation of REPPA (the Religious Education Professionals and Providers Association) in 2020 brought together RE teachers’ associations, schools with a religious character and academy providers with a focus on research and the quality of classroom provision. This helped educate the public and even journalists about the educational value of RE, making it the firmly established popular relevant academic subject it is today.   

…or then again it may not.

Looking back from the summer of 2024, it’s hard to remember what all the fuss was about when the Commission’s report on RE was published. Its call for the subject to be redefined as a ‘purely thematic study of the phenomena of religion (as opposed to religions) seen through the multiple lenses of a range of disciplinary perspectives’ was well received in universities and by some Standing Advisory Councils on RE (SACREs).[1] It was politely received in government circles, with despair amongst the faith communities and with confusion amongst teachers. Despite this, 2019 was a heady round of conferences and symposiums as the RE community of advisers, professors and other experts had fun defining the balance, extent and distinctiveness of this new multi–disciplinary subject.

The bubble burst somewhat in 2020 when the Integrated Communities Act placed a requirement on Ofsted to ensure that schools teach about ‘the diverse interpretations of the religions and traditions in an area’ and to counter ‘conservative religious interpretations’. Sitting alongside the expectation in the 2019 Ofsted framework of the study of at least two religions to achieve a ‘broad and balanced curriculum that prepared pupils for life in modern Britain’, it became clear that the definition of the subject was drifting away from the professional RE community and toward the Prevent agenda. There was no mention of non–religious worldviews in any of this, perhaps because there was no perceived threat from the non–religious.  

The landmark Department for Education–backed ‘Protocol on Religious Education in Schools with a Religious Character’ ensured that RE would include the objective study of a least two religions and their diverse traditions and a critical evaluation of text. This helped define the subject and provided a clear market for resource providers and trainers. Professional RE subject specialists were now increasingly located in schools with a religious character and, driven on by the requirements of denominational inspection, were now the main source of innovation in the subject. Increased investment of time and money led to rising standards of teaching and learning in this sector and is the probable cause of the significantly higher GCSE RE results now achieved in schools with a religious character. Outside this sector, however, RE specialists became increasingly difficult to find. In most community secondary schools, religion surfaced only as an ‘issue’ in KS3 Humanities courses and became a recognisable academic subject only occasionally and optionally in GCSE groups. Religion is now ‘problematised’ in the school curriculum, as an issue to be discussed and something to be countered, but rarely considered an academic subject to be studied. 

After some initial enthusiasm for the Commission’s approach, several SACREs developed original and imaginative syllabuses but a lack of finance and capacity meant that few of these syllabi made it to publication. Those that did were often ignored by schools, maybe from fear that they wouldn’t meet Ofsted expectations, but probably because schools had grown weary of waiting for local SACREs to resource RE and so had already invested in alternative approaches. Few SACREs meet these days and where they do their work is largely ignored. The Commission’s report continues to gather dust on the shelf.


[1] Each local education authority is required to have a Standing Advisory Council on RE (SACRE). SACREs support the work of the local Agreed Syllabus Conference in constructing the locally agreed syllabus for RE, which must be followed by maintained schools in the local authority.

 Image Pixabay by available under this Creative Commons Licence

Derek Holloway

Derek Holloway

Derek is the School Character and SIAMS Development Manager for the Church of England Education Office. He leads on RE, collective worship and church school inspection. He is a former teacher and head of RE and has worked as an RE adviser and a Section 48 inspector. @HollowayDerek

Watch, listen to or read more from Derek Holloway

Posted 29 June 2018

Education, Religious Education


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