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Education Update

Transforming Religious Education: Ofsted's report into RE in England

By Rachel Noyce

In June 2010, Ofsted published their latest report on the teaching of RE in England’s primary and secondary schools of a non-religious character. This article is by no means exhaustive but it provides a brief of overview of some of the most interesting findings in relation to schools ministry. Although the ‘bad news’ of the report is a pretty bleak picture of a ‘typcial’ learning experience, the ‘good news’ is that YFC and other Christian schools workers go a long way to supporting excellent RE.

Major findings of interest

“Students’ achievement in RE in the secondary schools visited showed a very mixed picture. It was good or outstanding in 40 of the 89 schools visited but was inadequate in 14 schools.”

So, less than half of schools make it as far as ‘good’. And interestingly, this shows a decline in standards. Ofsted’s investigation in 2007 reported 1 in 10 schools failing in RE provision. This statistic represents 1 in 5. The change could be attributed to the new KS3 curriculum that was introduced in 2008. In a growing number of schools, RE is now being taught as part of cross-curricular projects that support literacy and personal, learning and thinking skills – often to the detriment of quality RE learning. This also means fewer RE specialists who are engaged in teaching RE discreetly – another stumbling block.

“There has been a continuing rise in the numbers taking GCSE and A- and AS-level examinations in RE. Some concerns remain, however, about the quality of much of the learning that takes place in GCSE short courses.”

Of course, the cynic will always ask: Is there increased interest in RE, or is it an easy way of getting another bit of paper? If RE is a legal requirement, why not just do it and get a GCSE grade out of it? This puts pressure on the subject, though. As with anything assessed, too many students are learning answers by rote to pass an exam, rather than engaging in critical RE.

The report also criticises the lack of continuity between the learning at KS3 and the content of the GCSE course; most often Christian ethics (i.e. what Christians believe about war, abortion, relationships, euthanasia, etc.) Ofsted suggest that, “In the worst cases, this lack of continuity distorted pupils’ understanding of religion and belief.” One of the key concerns was that students had very little ‘real’ understanding of the Christian faith to start with, giving them no real foundation to investigate ethics. As many of us have seen, students’ understanding of Christianity amounts to what Christians don’t believe in – leading to a very misguided and misrepresented view of what the Christian faith is all about.

“Most of the secondary schools in the survey with sixth forms did not fully meet the statutory requirement to provide core RE for all students beyond the age of 16.”

It is a legal requirement for students in school (as opposed to FE colleges) to participate in RE up to age 18. New changes such as the 14-19 diploma, which may be taught in partnership with other local schools, have made logistics of delivery a problem which few schools have sought to overcome: namely where and when? Consequently RE slips through the cracks.

“RE made a positive contribution to key aspects of pupils’ personal development, most notably in relation to the understanding and appreciation of the diverse nature of our society. However, the subject’s contribution to promoting pupils’ spiritual development was often limited.”

Reading the accounts of students’ responses, it becomes clear that young people equate the value of RE to what they find out about other people in their communities and society. They don’t appear to relate it to themselves: what they believe about the world, or whether they agree with any religious perspectives. Perhaps there is still a fear of asking the searching questions of young people: is this indoctrination, an abuse of authority? Is it really appropriate? It is interesting to see Ofsted so clearly advocating the need for meaningful spiritual development in young people, and emphasising the unique opportunity RE provides to do this.

“There were a number of specific weaknesses in the teaching about Christianity. Many primary and secondary schools visited did not pay sufficient attention to the progressive and systematic investigation of the core beliefs of Christianity.”

In the report, Christianity gets its own section: ‘Christianity: a tale of uncertainty’. Ofsted suggest that teachers don’t know how to approach it, often choosing the safe option of looking at Christian stories and drawing nice moral messages from it. They confine study of Jesus to historical person and don’t go anywhere near his theological significance. There is no rigorous investigation or analysis of Christianity as a faith, and consequently no real understanding of it either. This is clearly a matter of concern for them. Where ‘other’ faith traditions are taught systematically, Christianity is overlooked because, apparently, we know it already. But we don’t; and Ofsted all but say we are raising a generation of young people whose only experience of Christianity comes through the media. And what picture does that offer?!

Ofsted’s recommendations and implications for schools workers

Although first, a note of warning. The last report came out in 2007. Clearly nothing has changed since then, except that RE teaching has gotten worse! So there are no guarantees here. Having said this, Ofsted advise the following:

The Department for Education should

“Provide more guidance on teaching about Christianity and non-religious world views, and effective ways of balancing the need to foster respect for pupils’ religions and beliefs with the promotion of open, critical, investigative learning in RE.”

And OFQUAL should

“Review, and as necessary adjust, the short course GCSE specifications in religious studies to ensure that they are securing a stronger focus on extending students’ ability to understand the place of religion and belief in contemporary society.”

What does this mean? Hopefully it means that the people in charge will take a long hard look at the current deficiencies in how Christianity (and other world views) are being taught and come up with a better plan. Positively speaking, this looks like a great opportunity for YFC. Teaching of Christianity looks set for a new lease of life if these recommendations are properly followed.

YFC have gone some way to creating resources to support this. exploRE: the Christian faith is a great tool for helping students get to grip with the beliefs that they don’t currently understand. This report gives weight to offering it to schools for Year 9 to lay the foundation for the GCSE course. The same applies for exploRE: the life of Jesus. Since so much of Christian ethics relies on the example of Jesus, a crash-course of lessons 5-9 which looks at the Kingdom of God would go a long way towards giving students a starting point for grasping ‘what would Jesus do?’

Ofsted recommend that schools should

“Ensure that RE promotes pupils’ spiritual development more effectively by allowing for more genuine investigation into, and reflection on, the implications of religion and belief for their personal lives”

“Provide more opportunities to use fieldwork and visitors in RE.”

Once again, good news for schools workers. What comes across loud and clear is that RE works best when students have the opportunity to meet people from different faiths and talk meaningfully about their experience. Also, we can have confidence to move away from the shallows of a ‘presentational’ approach (‘Hello, I’m a Christian and I’m here to tell you what that means to me…’) into the depths of engaging in more dialogue with students (‘What do you make of this? What do you believe? Why?’). We can support schools by offering students an authentic and meaningful experience of Christianity in the 21st century and facilitating opportunities for students to reflect on their own response to the ideas we present, and know that Ofsted are right behind us.

To read the report in its entirety, look it up on Ofsted’s website: