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Why the RE teacher recruitment crisis is a problem

In the week that over a quarter of a million young people sit their GCSE Religious Studies exam, Paul Smalley analyses the crisis in religious education -demand for which is rising.

Paul Smalley is a Senior Lecturer in Religious Education at Edge Hill University and a Local Missional Leader in the Diocese of Liverpool. 

Students sit in a classroom.
Credit: Get Teaching

I could have laughed at Nick Gibb, the Minister of State for Education recently – but unfortunately, I don’t think he was trying to be funny.  What caused my outburst of hilarity was a written answer he had given to a parliamentary question.  The question had been asked by Catherine West, a shadow minister, and was enquiring about what steps the government was taking to ensure that recruitment targets for religious education teachers are met.  As the daughter of a headmaster and a practising Quaker, it seems reasonable that she might take an interest in such matters; she is clearly aware of the recruitment crisis that is threatening the teaching of the subject in schools up and down the country.  This awareness seemed to be lacking in the Minister of State’s response.   

The first part of his answer was to report that the number of teachers remains high. And of course, he is correct – the number of Full Time Equivalent Teachers in England has remained fairly steady at around half a million for the last few years. What he didn’t mention is that there are over a quarter of a million more pupils now than there were five years ago. The pupil to teacher ratios in secondary schools has risen each year since 2013. Every teacher needs to teach more pupils.  Last year the recruitment target for teachers was missed by some way and will be only slightly better this year. 

Gibb’s answer was designed to suggest that there was no problem, nothing to worry about – when in fact there is a crisis. 

But the question was about RE teachers specifically. And again, Nick Gibb chose his answer carefully, choosing the one year (2020/21) in the last ten when the recruitment target for RE teachers was exceeded – the year that the target was substantially reduced.  In 2022/23 the recruitment target was missed by 25 per cent.  On average between 10 and 12 per cent of RE teachers who train leave the profession within five years of training.  This is higher than the average across all subjects. 

Gibb’s answer was designed to suggest that there was no problem, nothing to worry about – when in fact there is a crisis.  Teacher recruitment for all subjects is down 22 per cent from last year. However, RE stands out, being down a third of applicants from the last recruitment cycle.

Students often describe it as the one time in school where they can think independently about the people, events and beliefs in the world around them. 

Why does it matter if there aren’t enough RE teachers? 

Religious Education is the only subject which every state school must provide for all of its pupils.  It has been this way since 1944 – but the subject has changed beyond recognition in that time. 

It is a popular and increasingly important subject for our young people to study.  Over the last five years entries to the GCSE have stood at around an average of 250,000 with entries to the full course GCSE rising by 30 per cent over the last decade. It is a subject which helps young people navigate the complex and dynamic nature of our multi religious, multi secular world. It has never been more important, recognised by wider society as vital for preparing students for life in global Britain.  

Students often describe it as the one time in school where they can think independently about the people, events and beliefs in the world around them. It is a space where ultimate questions are discussed.  Big questions such as: ‘Why do people suffer?’, ‘Is death the end?’, and ‘How should we behave in the world?’.  In an increasingly secular world, young people need a space where they can explore these questions, gain insight into how Christians, members of other faiths and non-religious people respond to these issues and develop their own understanding of their place in the universe. 

I wouldn’t go as far as some in saying that RE is an opportunity to de-indoctrinate young people against a prevailing secularising agenda, but RE is a curricular space where pupils can come to realise, that whatever their own personal background, someone’s belief or worldview, shapes and influences how they engage with and interpret the world around them.  For some people these beliefs are fundamental; there is no place of neutrality on such matters – nobody stands nowhere.  Pete Greig reminds us (in the book How to Pray: A Simple Guide for Normal People) that even those who state that they are not religious will often pray: there is a spiritual side to life, even if people fail to explicitly recognise it.  If children are growing up in non-religious households, school may be the only place where spiritual matters are discussed openly and objectively. 

High school pupils are now three times more likely to be taught RE by someone with no qualification in the subject than, for example, in history. 

Teaching young people is a demanding job, and as someone who has been training people to teach RE in high schools since 2006, I know that teaching RE demands a particular skill-set.  RE is multi-disciplinary, so it requires a teacher who understands how to think like a theologian, and a historian, a philosopher and a social scientist.  It requires academic skills such as ethnography and literary analysis, but also the people skills to act impartially, empathetically and sensitively when discussing important and controversial issues.  And all that on top of the skills required of any teacher – to manage behaviour, plan lessons and monitor progress for example.   

However, such is the level of crisis that all too often RE is being taught by non-specialists, simply because there are not enough trained RE teachers.  High school pupils are now three times more likely to be taught RE by someone with no qualification in the subject than, for example, in history.  Of those who teach RE in secondary schools over half spend most of their time teaching another subject (compared to only 13 per cent of those who teach English and 27 per cent of those who teach Geography). These same pressures contribute to many schools’ RE provision simply not being good enough. 

What can be done? 

The first step for the government to take is to acknowledge that there is a problem – with teacher recruitment across the board.  The teaching profession as a whole needs a boost – to show that teaching is an attractive career.  Significant workload reductions and pay increases will help this perception. 

But there is a specific problem with RE recruitment.  Postgraduate teacher training attracts a bursary to teach Geography of £25,000.  RE trainees receive no bursary.  I have heard of well qualified humanities or social science graduates who have chosen Geography over RE simply because of this.  In years when there has been a bursary available to train as an RE teacher, then recruitment has risen significantly.   

But what might really make a difference is a properly funded National Plan for RE to ensure it is properly resourced and taught by professionally trained teachers. 

 

For more information about becoming an RE teacher or supporting the campaign, visit: Teacher Recruitment - Culham St Gabriel's (cstg.org.uk) 

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Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.