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RE teaching lacks depth and clarity says Ofsted

by Donna Birrell

The head of the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE) says the government needs to do more to support the teaching of religious education (RE) in schools.

It comes as the latest Ofsted report has found that the subject's teaching lacks depth and clarity.

The report draws evidence from visits to a sample of primary and secondary schools last year. It says RE in most schools is superficially broad, and where it tries to cover many religions, pupils generally remember very little.

The report says evidence shows that there has been little progress since Ofsted's last subject report in 2013.

Fiona Moss, chief executive of NATRE, told Premier Christian News that while there are some positives in the report, the responsibility for improvement lies with the government. 

She said: "It's a difficult read, but a clear message to the government is that they need to support this subject. Ten years ago, the Ofsted report clearly identified that the government had to give guidance on what was needed to be taught in RE, which is arranged differently in different areas of the country. It said the government needed to take action and give guidance—and now, ten years later, it's telling us to do it again.

"The government needs to do something about this. We, as the RE community, have stepped into that void of neglect over the years, funding research and resources to help schools advance that subject. But the government needs to work with us."

The report found that there still needs to be more clarity on the curriculum and recommends that the government should provide better guidance about what should be taught and when.

While the report notes some examples of more vigorous practice, it also shows that the content of some secondary curriculums is restricted by what teachers decide pupils need to know for their Key Stage 4 exams. Sometimes, pupils practice GCSE-style assessments before they have mastered enough substantive knowledge.

Ofsted also found that a significant proportion of schools do not meet the statutory requirement to teach Religious Education at all stages of a pupil's journey through school.

Fiona Moss continued: "There's not enough space in the timetable for RE. If you dig into this report, particularly in secondary schools, it talks about how school leaders are conflating RE with Personal Social and Health Education (PSHE) and other subjects because they don't have enough space in the timetable. Another problem is we don't have enough trained specialist RE teachers."

The report contains several recommendations for schools, including that a distinct curriculum is in place for teaching RE at all key stages and that all teachers have the subject and knowledge needed to teach RE well.

Ofsted's chief inspector, Sir Martyn Oliver, said: "A strong RE curriculum is not only important for pupils' cultural development, it is a requirement of law and too many schools are not meeting that obligation.

"I hope that the examples of good RE curriculum in our report help schools develop their own practice and support the development of a strong RE curriculum for all."

Deborah Weston OBE, chair of the Religious Education Policy Unit, also expressed her view. She said: "We are pleased to see the Ofsted subject report, which recognises the need for high-quality RE for every young person in every school... It rightly highlights that in far too many schools across the country, RE does not fulfil the subject's potential. Fortunately, many of the factors it identified as enabling high-quality RE can be easily addressed. These include strong teacher subject knowledge, access to professional development, regular time for RE lessons, and a well-organised curriculum.

"The REPU is working with schools, teachers and the government to support these needs. This May, the REC will launch a curriculum toolkit, which will help schools develop their RE curriculum based on research and good practice."

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