Education about religions in English schools is broken, and it is too important a subject not to fix. That is the reality that drives the work of the Commission on Religious Education, which published its first major report last week.
The evidence is plain to see. Earlier this week it was revealed that thousands of schools in England are not teaching any RE at all, with nearly half of academies neglecting it at Key Stage Four. Last month the latest official figures exposed the fact that the number of pupils in England and Wales taking the full course Religious Studies GCSE fell by 4.6% against 2016 while those taking the short course GCSE in Religious Studies fell even more sharply, down 24.6%. In 2010 RE was left off the English Baccalaureate and has been absent ever since, in 2011 the Coalition excluded RE from their national curriculum review, and Ofsted has not commented meaningfully on the state of RE in English schools since its 2013 report found that six in 10 schools were 'not realising the subject's potential'.
As I say, Religious Education is broken. So how to fix it?
Questions of funding, of teacher training, and of curriculum time are as important to answer as any other, and there is much in the Commission's interim report that deals with these issues. But the question I want to answer here is, how do we ensure that the subject is relevant?
There are those, I know, for whom this is a dirty word in RE - one that seeks to reinvent the subject as something other than a purely academic discipline, or one which is taken as a veiled sleight on the relevance of religion itself. To the former, I would say that RE must and has always been more than purely academic. And to the latter - religion will always be relevant. But this misses the point.
First of all, for RE to be relevant, it needs to be accurate and grounded in the real world. In the papers and on the news, the religion encountered by children and young people is complex and controversial, characterised by division and disagreement. This, of course, is how religion has always been, and to airbrush this complexity, as some RE can, is not only to misrepresent the facts, it is to provide children with an education that is not as useful to them as it ought to be. If children are to understand the beliefs of others, an understanding of the differences that exist within religions is just as important as an understanding of the differences that exist between them. Equally, if children are to have the space to form their own beliefs and their own personal responses to questions of meaning, purpose, and morality, they need to know that religious and non-religious worldviews have never been one-size-fits-all. RE does sometimes fall short of that.
Secondly, and just as importantly, for RE to be relevant it needs to be inclusive. I say above that religion will always be relevant mainly because there will always be religious people, whose beliefs must be understood. But that is not to say that religion is always relevant in the personal lives of individuals. The latest British Social Attitudes Survey, published earlier this month, has shown that fewer people are religious than ever before. 53% of British adults say they belong to no religion, while 71% of those aged 18-24 say the same. If RE has nothing to offer in terms of non-religious answers to life's big questions and in terms of non-religious perspectives on meaning and purpose, then it can never be as relevant to such people, as it increasingly needs to be. Again, RE does sometimes fall short of that.
Happily, the Commission's interim report tackles both these issues head on, perhaps most notably suggesting the RE might be renamed to better reflect a subject that grapples with more than just religion. If this and the other recommendations in the report are properly heeded, we may well be able to fix RE - or whatever it is to be called - after all.