The number of pupils in England and Wales taking GCSE Religious Studies full course is at its highest since 2002.  There were 284,057 entries, up 0.1% on figures for 2015. This increase is particularly impressive given an overall fall in full course GCSE entries across all subjects of 0.5%. This shows that the full course in Religious Studies is bucking the trend.

The increase in entries for Religious Studies has been achieved despite the subject having been excluded from the EBacc performance measure.  This means that the increase in entries has been due to the popularity of the subject with pupils and the desirability of the qualification, rather than as the response to incentives created by government policy.

The increase in entries for the full course GCSE parallels the increase in A level entries, released last week, which are up by 6.8% this year compared with 2015.

However, there has been a drop in the number of entries for the short course GCSE in Religious Studies.  There were 22.9% fewer entries in England for the short course GCSE in RS than there were in 2015.  This represents a continuation of a steep decline in entries for the short course, down from 254,698 in 2010 to just 53,093 in 2016.  This drop is due to DfE performance tables no longer taking account of results in short courses.  The short course is delivered at GCSE standard but covers half the content of a full course and is therefore worth half a GCSE.  Changes in entries for short courses have a disproportionately significant impact on RS than on other subjects: almost two thirds of all short course GCSEs taken in England and Wales are in RS.
The impact of the exclusion of short course GCSEs from performance tables in England can be seen by the stark contrast with figures for Wales where performance tables are calculated according to a different formula.  In Wales there were 18,206 entries for the GCSE short course this year, up 2.3% on last year, and only slightly down on the 19,683 entries in 2010.

The decline in entries for the short course GCSE in RS means that despite the positive news of increasing numbers of pupils taking the full course GCSE, there are now more than 100,000 fewer pupils in England taking a GCSE (either full or short) in RS than there were in 2010.  This represents a decline of 23.6% over six years.  The REC and NATRE are concerned that there appears to have been such an increase in pupils who are not being given the opportunity to study Religious Education at key stage 4.  The findings of the RE for Real report (2015) showed that young people think that learning about religion and belief is becoming increasingly relevant, and yet a growing number of schools seem to be failing in their duty to provide this entitlement to their students.

It has been encouraging to hear that Ofsted intend to pay closer attention to whether schools are meeting their requirements to teach Religious Education. Today’s figures show how important it will be for Ofsted to do this.

The key outcomes for Religious Education in England and Wales at KS4 in 2016 are as follows:

  • There were 284,057 entries for the full course in GCSE RS, a rise of 0.1% from 2015 (283,756)
  • There were 71,299 entries for the short course in GCSE RS, a decline of 17.7% from 2015 (86,679)
  • There were 355,356 entries for GCSE RS (combined short and full courses), a decline of 4.1% from 2015 (370,435)
  • In 2014 there were 1,197 schools making no entries for any RS qualification; a rise from 268 in 2010.   This echoes research by the National Association of Teachers of RE (published in January 2016) that found that 30% of community schools and 40% of academies without a religious character are still failing to meet their legal or contractual agreements to provide religious education for this key age group.
  • 29.2% of entries for the full course in GCSE RS were awarded an A or an A*
  • 19.2% of entries for the short course in GCSE RS were awarded an A or an A*

GCSE RS entries – England and Wales (2010-2016)



Comment from Daniel Hugill, Chair, National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE)

“I wish to extend my congratulations to the many students receiving their Religious Studies results today.  It is encouraging to see the number of students taking full course GCSE.  We must also celebrate the work of their teachers who have worked tirelessly to ensure that their students can reach their full potential.  Teachers, parents, employers, and students themselves, all recognise that GCSE study in Religious Studies makes a key contribution to preparing young people for adult life in our pluralistic society and global community.

It is clear though that not all students receiving their results today were offered the chance to study this important subject, which is reflected in the decline in entries for the short course.  It is hard to see how these schools are ensuring a suitable degree of religious literacy in their students. NATRE have received assurances that OFSTED inspectors will check on RE/RS provision in schools where there are concerns about the lack of GCSE entries. NATRE will also continue to support individual teachers in schools where encouragement is needed to ensure that students receive their statutory entitlement to RE/RS.”

Comment from Rudolf Eliott Lockhart, Chief Executive, Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC):

“While it is fantastic to see increasing numbers of students opting to take the full course GCSE in Religious Studies, a reflection of the attraction of an academically rigorous subject that helps prepare students to understand an increasingly diverse modern world, we should not ignore the troubling news that declining entries for the short course mean that more than 100,000 fewer young people have studied the subject at GCSE level this year than in 2010.  It is dangerous for there to be increasing numbers of young people missing the opportunity to develop their understanding of the full diversity of faiths and beliefs.  More than ever, as our society becomes increasingly multicultural and religious extremism continues to dominate the news agenda, we need young people to be religiously literate.  We need them to become skilled intercultural navigators, and good Religious Education is a key part of that.”

Religious Studies GCSE students explain why they chose the subject:

Bethan Moss, Leicestershire

small-thumbnailBethan has just completed her Religious Studies GCSE.  She initially chose the subject at the recommendation of her parents, who might now be regretting it as Bethan says RS has“greatly enhanced my ability to argue my own viewpoints, clearly and concisely!” 

She does, however, readily acknowledge that she has had an exposure to a plethora of different ideas and belief systems, and has been nurtured and supported in developing her own thinking, and taught to recognise that there can be many ways to approach any issue, that different people can believe the same things for completely different reasons (with or without, or even despite, evidence), and that even within religions or religious denominations there can be contrasting points of view:  “I have learned to understand others better, and also the importance of tolerance within the community.  To quote Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’”

Bethan believes that critical to this is contact with other religions, with people of faith, and people of no faith – and being taught to not take situations at face value, especially stories in the media where difference is too often deliberately misrepresented and can go unchallenged.

Emma Wilkinson, Hertfordshire

small-thumbnailEmma took the short course Religious Studies GCSE, and believes that she has greatly matured her thinking on some issues because of the topics covered in the classroom:  “I chose RS for GCSE because I had enjoyed the bits I’d done before.  So I thought exploring it in more detail would be interesting.  At the start I didn’t really have any views on controversial subjects like euthanasia, but over time I have had to think about a whole load of issues and develop my views.  I now get that life isn’t always black and white.”
Beyond the big philosophical and ethical issues, Emma has in particular enjoyed learning about the different religions and cultures they grew out of, and how culture and religion are still inextricably linked despite the increasingly globalised world we inhabit.  RS has helped Emma understand why people do what they do, or believe certain things.  It has exposed her to views different to her own and given her the tools to argue her own point and respect alternative ones at the same time.  They are not mutually exclusive!


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National Association of Teachers of RE

NATRE is the subject teacher association for RE professionals in primary and secondary schools and higher education, providing a representative voice at national level and publications and courses to promote professional development. NATRE’s Executive consists of a majority of serving teachers from primary and secondary schools who are elected for a three-year term of service.

Religious Education Council of England and Wales

Established in 1973, the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC) brings together over 60 national organisations. These comprise academic and professional associations specialising in religions and religious education, as well as individual religions and belief organisations inclusive of the range of faith communities found nationally, including the British Humanist Association.