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Religious Education, brought to you by G4S: RE futuregazing

Religious Education, brought to you by G4S: RE futuregazing

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 6 in our series on the future of RE, Paul Smalley imagines a future RE landscape changed by marketisation.

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

It is May 2023. Jeremy Corbyn has been Prime Minister for just a year, but this has yet to make much impression on RE, or indeed education more generally. Corbyn has set about National Infrastructure Programmes, with Transport for England (re–nationalisation) and Health for England (expansion of free provision) preceding educational reforms planned for the latter half of the Parliamentary term.

When Gove had become Prime Minister, following the Brexit debacle, many in education had feared the consequences, particularly when he promoted Nick Gibb to Secretary of State for Education. However he seemed to look favourably on RE, some suggesting Gove has asked Gibb to rectify some of the ‘unintended consequences’ for RE of his previous educational reforms. These included Gove’s exclusion of the subject from the English Baccalaureate (Ebacc) in 2010, which led to schools cutting the time they allotted to RE.

The thinnest National Curriculum document in history – the 2020 Curriculum for England – had reiterated the legal position that RE must be taught to all pupils in maintained schools. It instructed academies and free schools that whilst they were free to create their own curricula in line with their funding agreement, Ofsted would “inspect to ensure that pupils were making at least as good progress in the academy’s broad and balanced curriculum offer”. In one of the first inspections of a Multi–Academy Trust carried out under the new framework, all of their schools were judged not to be providing this in respect of RE (and music), which were being delivered in assembly and PSHE time. The new Ofsted framework had no grades, but the MAT had their funding cut by 20%. This quickly led almost all academies to adopt their locally agreed syllabus for RE,  whilst the Oasis chain quickly produced their own syllabus called Sanctuary, with support from RE Today, and a complimentary text book called Understanding Everything.

The Curriculum for England included the National Entitlement from the Commission on RE’s Religious Education for All report, and a statement that local RE syllabi must develop character and ensure pupils are taught to resist extremism, as well as reflecting ‘the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian, while taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain’.  The absence of a specific requirement to deliver education about non–religious worldviews led to a legal challenge from Humanists UK. Much of the case rested on European Human Rights legislation, which the judge suggested be ‘set aside’, given our new relationship with Europe. The appeal to the House of Lords was progressing slowly when the election came. 

Since 1988 each Local Authority had to set up a Standing Advisory Council for RE (SACRE): a body to help create a local RE syllabus and oversee RE teaching in the area. In 2018 there were 152 English SACREs. Prior to the 2020 Curriculum, the Department for Education had issued ‘marketisation guidance’ regarding SACREs: Local authorities were still required to ‘establish’ a SACRE, but they were able to, encouraged even, to outsource this function. RE Today Services quickly capitalised on this, providing regional SACREs which local authorities were able to buy into. This means that by the time of the election, of the 15 ‘super–SACREs’ only the North West, West Midlands and South Central were largely run by what had originally been local authority–based SACREs (Lancashire, Birmingham and Hampshire). The South–West SACRE had grown out of the LTLRE group and two regions had their SACRE services provided by G4S and First Group (who had sought to diversify from travel). The remaining 9 were RE Today SACREs. Brent was holding out as the only truly local SACRE still largely run by the local authority.

One aspect of the ‘marketisation of guidance’ which was missed by most mainstream media was the widening of roles of SACREs to include much more Community Inter–Faith work. This included opportunities for SACREs to compete for ‘Community Enhancement Funding’ from the DCLG and the Home Office. These capital grants were won by several of the new super–SACREs. There was controversy when funding was withdrawn from the East Midlands super–SACRE, when it was alleged that some of the funds were being given to a group of right–wing extremists.

One element of the guidance was widely trumpeted in the media. The guidance suggested that ‘Local authority representatives’ on RE bodies should be widened to include ‘non–religious community groups’. This was seen as a huge victory for Humanists UK, who quickly set about appointing Humanist representatives. In some areas Scouts and Guides are now represented along with many Freemason groups.  Newcastle United FC are represented on the Northumbrian super–SACRE, as part of their commitment to “diversity and integration within the community”. A judicial review began when a publishing company was refused a representation in the South West.

A number of long–standing members of the RE community have complained that they feel that they do not have the same influence over the RE curriculum as in the past. Some teachers feel that they are wasting their time organising interfaith community festivals and civic ceremonies. They are asking what is the point of having teachers helping to make and support RE syllabi, when so much RE is provided ‘a la carte’ by commercial providers. It is true that the developments over the last five years have led to a greater homogenisation of RE curricula in schools. It is estimated that 78% of key stage 3 RE lessons delivered in schools without a religious character use the RE for Everyone text books. Some commentators have expressed concerns about alleged links which the author has to the Conservative Party, suggesting that her father’s donations have allowed privileged access in some way, but nothing has been proven. At her son’s recent baptism, Michael Gove was one of the godfathers.

In many places RE in school has continued with little change since the early 21st Century. In some places rigorous RE is provided by teams of dedicated specialists leading to success in GCSE and A level. In others, difficulties recruiting teaching staff has led to many lesson being delivered by Teaching Assistants, and many of these have gained Professional RE qualifications supported by Culham St Gabriel’s Trust. There is some evidence of improvements in Primary RE teaching since the Teachers’ Standards were changed to include a duty to promote religious literacy and avoid extremism.

But provision is still somewhat patchy. There have been reports of voices within Jeremy Corbyn’s Cabinet suggesting that education be taken away from the Academy Chains and publishers, and advocating a National Education Plan returning curriculum control for all subjects to the Counties of England. Only time will tell.



 Image by Crystal available under this Creative Commons Licence

Paul Smalley

Paul Smalley

Paul Smalley is a Senior Lecturer in RE at Edge Hill University and is the Chair of NASACRE. He leads an Undergraduate Secondary RE with QTS degree and researches educational policy and practice related to RE and Collective Worship. @PabloPedantic

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Posted 2 July 2018

Education, Religious Education


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