Tue 05th Aug 2014

Moving on

Welcome to my last blog as chair of the RE Council. I should like to comment on RE, the REC and make some concluding comments.

RE continues a vital subject for children and young people, indeed for adults. For them to understand and thrive in the modern world, both locally and globally, they need levels of a kind of religious literacy not required before. Michael Gove, the previous Secretary of State, did not seem realise this until July last year with his admission at Lambeth Palace that he had not done enough for RE. He plunged RE into crisis in 2010 by omitting it from the English Baccalaureate and the review of the school curriculum; and it was side-lined further in his academisation programme. Ofsted also took its eye of the ball, as far as RE was concerned, and GCSE entries began to fall in 2013. It remains to be seen what approach Nicky Morgan, the new Secretary of State, and Nick Gibb brought back to the DfE, will take to RE, but it is unlikely to be worse than before. In any case, to his credit Gove did sign the RE Council's parallel Review of RE, and has now included GCSE RS in the new performance 8 measure. Relationships with the DfE have improved, so that the revision of GCSE and A Level RS criteria is now being undertaken alongside those of History and Geography for first teaching in 2016. RE also now has its own expert group alongside the NC subjects. As a result of the Birmingham Trojan Horse episode, Ofsted is strengthening its inspection requirements for RE. Despite the fact that GCSE entries will almost certainly drop again this year, the good ship RE has weathered one of the worst storms for a generation, and not only remains intact but its importance is being increasingly realised. 

That does not mean the good ship RE is pristine condition. A serious hole below the waterline continues to threaten its future stability, and that is the dire situation regarding training and support for RE teachers. New specialist teachers of RE are at an all-time low as a result of the cuts to university department of education, and good courses and trainers have disappeared. There has been no corresponding increase in RE teacher recruitment through School Direct; and local CPD is only a shadow of its former self. The rigging has been damaged too - SACREs have become quite ineffective in many places, and local support for RE greatly weakened. This dreadful situation continues despite the RE APPG report warning of it in March 2013, to which the government has not responded.

The whole question of the nature of religion and education has been opened up by the Birmingham situation in a way not seen before, and many questions remain, concerning the governance and nature of schools in certain kinds of communities, the role of schools in promoting particular values, the nature and purpose of RE in all schools, and the place of collective worship. How government, faith and belief communities, and the RE community will handle these remains to be seen, but there is a clear agenda before us which asks fundamental questions about the way in which we organise RE in England.

What is clear is that there also remains a future for the RE Council. As an umbrella organisation that provides a forum for all stakeholders in RE, the RE Council has championed the cause of RE in these difficult times, and gone a long way to filling the gap left by the abolition of the QCDA and its national RE adviser. The RE Review of October 2013, whilst not uncontroversial or perfect, has kept RE up with NC curriculum changes as well as providing a policy framework for the subject for some time to come. The RE Council's continued support for the RE APPG and PR activity, conducted jointly with some of its member bodies, are vital for the health of the subject nationally; its work in Curriculum, Qualifications and Professional Development provides the foundation for future growth and improvement, and there will be some interesting debates about GCSE and A Level Religious Studies before long. 

The Council continues to face other challenges too, as many charities do. Finding secure and sustainable income, office space and staffing is one fundamental one. Related to that is another challenge of getting some of its professional bodies to work together more effectively. Holding the ring between varying philosophies of RE whilst representing the subject nationally in a convincing way remains a challenge whilst there are those who are intent on a different way forward. The fact that the RE Council has grown and is now securing a higher core income from its subscriptions shows how well valued and supported it is by its member organisations. Its partnership with the DfE is also intact and productive. It is important to remember that the RE Council works with and through its member organisations, and is only as strong as those organisations allow it to be. The Council is not a national SACRE nor does it replace or compete with local SACREs, but it is the place where the different elements of the RE community can come together, and work together, for the good of the subject and the good of young people and society. 

I feel privileged to have been able to chair the RE Council for the past three years, and regard it as the culmination of my work and involvement in RE nationally which started when I joined the QCA 1996. I have equally privileged to work with many wonderful people in that time, whom I count as friends not just colleagues. There are too many to name here, and I would be bound to miss some out, so I will mention only one: Sarah Smalley, who retires as the RE Council Executive officer at the end of December. Her hard work beyond the call of duty or expectation, her unfailing humour and courtesy, her sheer efficient professionalism, her knowledge and wisdom, all this and more has been vital to me, and to the Council. 

The support I have received as Chair from Sarah, the Board, the member organisations and so many others has been so extensive and fulsome that it makes me feel humbled just to think of it. Now I hand over to Joyce Miller, with the assurance that the Council is in good hands. I wish her, the Council and the good ship RE well in the future.