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RE and the EBacc

As a brief follow-on from the previous post, a few words on Michael Gove’s decision not to include RE on the list of humanities subjects that students wishing to gain the EBacc accreditation will have to  study.

Now, the issue of RE is a vexed one, and as I have blogged before, and as I hope to blog again in future, there are very real tensions concerning what RE is for and what it should look like. Expectations and demands surrounding RE can differ hugely, affected as much by educational philosophy as by demands of particular establishments (faith schools tend to take a rather different approach from community schools, for example). Whilst it is excessive to call this an identity crisis, which would presume that the lack of uniformity is a bad thing, it is nonetheless true to say that views differ to a degree significant enough to lead some to think that RE is not, and cannot be, a ‘proper’ humanities subject like, say, History. I, of course, would beg to differ, and in the strongest possible terms, agreeing with the CES that (when delivered well) RE “…has a strong claim to be the humanity, par excellence as it demands knowledge and skills in history, textual criticism, anthropology, ethics, philosophy and theology.”

Interestingly, however, this question of academic rigour is not one that Gove seeks to present when addressing the concerns of those who question its expulsion from the EBacc system. Gove states that, firstly, RE is a compulsory subject, and has been ever since 1944, meaning that it does not warrant inclusion in a system which requires students to choose a particular humanities subject to study in greater depth. This (somewhat curious) defence leads directly on to the second, that since the aim of the EBacc is to increase dwindling participation in humanities subjects, therefore RE is not, for this reason, a candidate for inclusion in the EBacc.

Which strikes me as a complete sack of not-particularly-sweet-smelling-substance. If Gove’s vision is to supply students with a thorough and wide-ranging liberal education then quite how many students have ever taken any particular subject, and its current compulsory status on the curriculum or otherwise, is wholly beside the point. The question is simply this: can RE provide an element of that well-rounded and rigorous education? If it can, which is the real debate to be had, then its inclusion in the system is beyond debate.

Gove’s defence is a curious one, and to further the debate some point to the undesirable consequences such a decision might have on, for example, those very faith schools that the government have long made a song and dance about supporting. To quote from the document:

There is, however, concern that faith schools—to which the Government has said it is “committed” are indirectly discriminated against by the EBac’s exclusion of religious studies. The Church of England Board of Education explained the dilemma to us:

Church of England schools, many of which maintain a commitment to full course GCSE RS for all students, are now faced with an impossible choice. Keeping RE as part of the core for all students may well be seen as too risky. At the very least there will be extreme pressure on the timetable if RE is to be maintained alongside the acceptable English Baccalaureate subjects.

A survey of nearly 800 schools, conducted by the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE), recently found that almost one in three secondary schools plans cuts to RE teaching. [my emphasis]

This is a key issue, since it will force the hand of Heads in faith schools, who have a commitment to their own founding ethos as well as one eye on the league tables that have the ability to make or break a career, not to mention a school. And beyond faith schools too, since if one essentially incentivises against RE then schools will increasingly choose not to offer it in the same depth and detail as they may have historically chosen to do. Quite apart from the question of whether this is an acceptable preparation for our children as they enter into a world that continues to be so hugely influenced by religion (on the level of sociology as well as philosophy and ethics), the question also remains of whether this allows students to explore and engage with seams of thought that might assist their own development, both personally and as conscientious citizens. As Ben Thomas, a Headmaster from Battersea, put it (drawing upon similar sentiments to those I explored yesterday),

Tolerance will surely come only through understanding of each other’s religions, and understanding through education

Non-faith schools, without the downward pressure of diocesan commitments and governors to protect RE in their schools, could quite easily shelve RE as any sort of mainstream subject, and in so doing create blindspots in the intellectual and moral development of our children that no amount of Citizenship lessons are ever likely to fill, and this in precisely those schools where commitment to explorations of faith and religion might already be weakest*. Again, from the report:

Others have argued that the absence of religious education in the EBac will encourage schools — despite its standing as a compulsory subject — to treat the subject less seriously, which could have a detrimental effect on students’ wider education. Headteacher Hugh O’Neill predicted that “for a non-faith school” religious education will become “an extremely rare choice, if the EBac stays as it is”, despite being—in the words of another Headteacher — “as rigorous academically at GCSE as history and geography.”

And that last comment is key, since it seems to me that, for all that he is doing his level best to avoid saying it, the real reason why Gove has chosen to exlcude RE from the EBacc is because he doubts its academic rigour and would prefer the emphasis to fall on History and/or Geography instead. The clue comes with Gove’s suggestion that some poorly performing schools (it is not worded thus, but the implication is clear) might use RE as a ‘tick-box’ for the humanities subject in order for their students to achieve the EBacc – the language heavily implying that, for Gove, RE can be seen as an easy option.

Which is perfectly fine and, in truth, is a sentiment that I myself once signed up to. But if this is so then Gove should just come out and say it and let the debate be had on those terms.  However, by refusing to engage with the discussion on these terms, Gove denies RE the space to improve its standing in the curriculum and develop (where needed) its academic credentials, and in so doing denies children the opportunity to gain their EBacc accreditation through a route that can combine intellectual challenge with opportunities for social, spiritual and moral development – opportunities that might simply not be available in quite the same manner throughout the rest of the curriculum.

Quite apart from being ill-suited to the EBacc vision, RE, it seems to me, ought to be the very foundation of a broad-based, wide-ranging, and academically challenging classical liberal education. Quite why Michael Gove does not think so remains, even now, far from clear.

*I’m not saying this is necessarily the case, more that the conditions have been created for it to be so.

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