The number of pupils taking GCSE Religious Studies in England and Wales has fallen slightly in 2021, despite previously remaining stable since 2017. To safeguard the subject, the Religious Education Council of England and Wales and the National Association of Teachers of RE are calling for a National Plan, as recommended by the Commission on RE in 2018, to be funded by Government.

In England, RS GCSE entries for the full course fell by 2.4 percent to 221,419 compared with 226,767 in 2020. In Wales, entries rose by 3.6 percent from 9,997 in 2020 to 10,358 in 2021. Overall entries in England, including both full and short courses, fell by 3.4 percent to 237,091, compared with 245,544 in 2020. In Wales, combined entries fell by 5.4 percent from 15,436 in 2020 to 14,583 in 2021.

By comparison, GCSE entries to other humanities increased this year, with Geography entries up 4.1 percent to 274,715 and History up 0.8 percent to 286,706.

The key outcomes for Religious Education in England and Wales at Key Stage 4 in 2020 are as follows:

  • There were 221,419 entries in England and 10,358 in Wales for the full course in GCSE RS, a fall of 2.1 percent from 2020 (226,767 England and 9,997 in Wales).
  • There were 15,672 entries in England and 4,225 in Wales for the short course in GCSE RS, a decline of 16.5 percent in England and 22.3 percent in Wales from 2020 (18,777 and 5,439 respectively).
  • There were 237,091 entries for GCSE RS (combined short and full courses) in England, a decline of 3.4 percent from 2020 (245,544). In Wales combined entry figures were 14,583 a fall of 5.5 percent from 2020 (15,436).
  • Despite a decline since the peak in entries in 2016, the number of pupils receiving a full course GCSE in Religious Studies in England in 2021 (221,419) is still 29.7 percent greater than in 2010 (170,767). In Wales entries for the full course are 70 percent higher in 2021 (10,358) than in 2010 (6,100).
  • RS was one of the most popular subjects for early entry (18,323 entries, 15.9 percent of total early entries, the second highest subject after English Literature.

Professor Trevor Cooling, Chair, Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC), said:

“Over the past four years we have seen RS entries level out following the decline from the 2016 peak and we took some encouragement from that, however this year’s figures sound an alarm bell. Performance measures decimated short course entries. Now, with a third of secondary schools struggling to provide RS at Key Stage 4, we are concerned that these measures are having a further detrimental effect, this time on the full course.

“The Government should take note of these results and act to firmly embed an education in religion and worldviews in the school curriculum. It should fund a National Plan for RE to ensure the subject is properly resourced and taught by professionally trained teachers and enact a statement of entitlement to a high-quality education in religion and worldviews for all pupils.”

Katie Freeman, Chair, National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE), said:

“Many congratulations to all those pupils receiving their GCSE RS results today. This has been another challenging year for pupils and teachers, but the understanding and knowledge of religious and non-religious worldviews that they have gained over the course of their studies will serve them for the rest of their lives.

“Good religious education plays a vital role in equipping young people with the knowledge they need to interact with others who may have different perspectives, both in the workplace and in everyday life. It ensures young people receive a balanced education, helps create a more cohesive society, and supports a vibrant economy by preparing employees and future business leaders for the globalised workplace.

“The decline in entries should serve as a call to action to Governors and Headteachers, who should make the teaching of RE a celebrated part of the curriculum to ensure that pupils make progress, and to regularly monitor the quality of provision.”

The high number of early entries in RS was referenced in the Ofsted Research Review in May:

““Research from the DfE found that religious studies was one of the most popular subjects (alongside statistics and English literature) for early entry, such as in the summer of Year 10. However, the analysis revealed that those pupils taking religious studies early performed worse than their non-early-entrant peers […]. Those pupils with lower prior attainment who were early entrants, which may include many disadvantaged pupils and pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, performed considerably worse than their peers with low prior attainment who were not early entrants. Early entry to GCSE religious studies therefore appears to be bad for pupils’ attainment, especially for those who can least afford it (pupils with low prior attainment).”

Case studies: why pupils recommend choosing GCSE RS

Year 11 pupils from Kings Norton Girls’ School were asked why they would encourage others to consider religious education when picking GCSE options.

Gracie Brandon Oddy, a Year 11 pupil at the Birmingham school, said: “I would recommend GCSE RS because it makes you more knowledgeable and understanding of society and the world as a whole. I have found GCSE RS very inspiring, and it has encouraged me to be an optimistic and independent learner, as I question many beliefs that have been taught, as well as my own beliefs. It is an enriching course to take.

“I believe the most interesting part of the course would be family and relations because it has taught me the significance of family and the role it plays in religions.”

Pupils also consider how religious education can be incorporated into their professional life as they look to enter a globalised workplace. Mathilda Cannon, a Year 11 pupil, added: “I also think this is a great GCSE to have when applying to jobs as it demonstrates your understanding of religion and culture, both of which we will come into with the workplace.”