Falling numbers of Religious Studies GCSE entries suggests schools are struggling to meet their legal obligations.

The number of pupils in England and Wales taking GCSE Religious Studies full course has fallen for the first time in more than a decade, down 4.6% against 2016 to 269,839.

In addition, the number of pupils in England and Wales taking the short course GCSE in Religious Studies has fallen even more sharply, down 24.6% from last year to 53,071.

The decline is driven by a fall in entries in England where the number of entries for GCSE Religious Studies full course has fallen by 5.2% to 256,729.  In contrast, the equivalent figures for Wales are up by 8.5% to 13,110, a record high.

All schools, including Academies, have a legal requirement to offer Religious Education at all key stages, but today’s figures suggest that this is not sufficient to ensure that all pupils in England get to study the subject at Key Stage 4.  In too many cases, there are no consequences for those schools that decide to flout their legal obligation, with Religious Education not featuring in measures such as the EBacc that are used to hold them to account.  This impact is made clear from a comparison of entry patterns between England and Wales.  In contrast to the decline in entries at exam centres in England, in Wales, where the EBacc is not a performance indicator, the number of entries for full course GCSE have reached a record high in 2017.

At a time when greater religious literacy is even more necessary than ever before, the decline across England in pupils taking GCSE Religious Studies is troubling.

The fall in entries comes despite pupils emphasising how much they value and enjoy studying Religious Education (underlined by the overall rise in entries at A-Level and GCSE over the past decade) and despite the fact that the Government is rightly emphasising the importance for young people to have knowledge and understanding of religions and non-religious beliefs.

This year’s drop in entries should not detract from a decade of strong growth for Religious Studies GCSE.  In 2007 there were 158,607 entries for Religious Studies in England and Wales.  The number of entries increased every year until reaching a peak in 2016.  While there has been a decline this year, the number of pupils receiving a full course GCSE in Religious Studies is still 70.1% greater than in 2007.

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 2017 are as follows:

  • There were 269,839 entries for the full course in GCSE RS, a fall of 4.6% from 2016 (282,915)
  • There were 53,071 entries for the short course in GCSE RS, a decline of 24.6% from 2016 (71,299)
  • There were 322,910 entries for GCSE RS (combined short and full courses), a decline of 8.6% from 2016 (353,276)
  • 28.3% of entries for the full course in GCSE RS were awarded an A or an A*
  • 16.3% of entries for the short course in GCSE RS were awarded an A or an A*

GCSE RS entries – England and Wales (2007-2017)

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 GCSE 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 modern 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.  It is difficult to see how these schools are ensuring a suitable degree of religious literacy in their students or indeed meeting their legal responsibilities in terms of Religious Education in Key Stage 4. NATRE are encouraged to see evidence that some OFSTED inspectors are again looking at RE/RS provision and outcomes in schools where there are concerns about the lack of GCSE entries.  NATRE will continue to lobby the Department for Education for accountability measures that value a broad and balanced curriculum that includes the study of religion and belief. 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):

“It is troubling that there is a decline in the number of pupils receiving a solid grounding in Religious Education at Key Stage 4. It would be dangerous should increasing numbers of young people miss the opportunity to develop their understanding of the full diversity of faiths and beliefs.  Where schools and Academies are not offering Religious Studies, GCSE pupils are being denied the opportunity to study an important and valuable subject, and there are serious concerns that the school is struggling to meet its legal obligations.

“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:

Max Hallmark, Harrodian School, South West London

Religious Studies GCSE“I’ve always been interested in the big questions, such as where we came from, ethics, and why people have different beliefs or don’t have a religion at all. I chose RS as one of my GCSE options so I could learn more about those topics and develop my analytical skills. I think the understanding of the world and of different cultures and religions I’ve gained will be useful in later life, will help me broaden my horizons, and will give me the edge in the job market. Next year I’m doing Philosophy, alongside Maths and Physics, at A Level because I particularly liked that aspect of the RS course and I want to explore the deeper meaning of life.”

Nat Haley at Bushey Meads School, Bushey, Hertfordshire

Religious Studies GCSE“I’ve really enjoyed the last two years studying RS, for not only the deeper understanding of life it intends, but the analytical mind it encourages, the classroom debates and the time to look into and try to deeply understand other people’s ways of life.

I cannot wait to delve further into it at AS.”



For media enquiries, contact:

Colin Hallmark, 3:nine Communications:

Tel: 0207 736 1888

Mubina Khan-Daniels, RE Today Services

Tel: 0121 415 3970 / 0121 458 3313

Notes for editors:

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 religion and belief organisations inclusive of the range of faith communities found nationally, including Humanists UK.