Deep and meaningful? The Ofsted religious education subject report, April 2024

24 April 2024

The Religious Education Network welcomes this Ofsted Report, and we hope that its Recommendations can now form the basis for positive action by Government ministers. Some 50 schools agreed to be surveyed from 2021 – 2023, half primary and half secondary (of which 15 had sixth forms). This might be considered unrepresentative granted the 25,000+ schools and colleges in the country, but readers will find the Report’s conclusions do reflect the wider picture well.

The Ofsted research and analysis reports have, over the years, painted a worrying picture for RE, and this one is no exception, especially each of its Main Findings contains significant weaknesses, and it notes that ten years on from the 2013 Report very little has changed. There is an implicit call for a more centralised curriculum provision which might help the subject achieve more conformity and raise standards: ‘the lack of a coherent approach to the subject has negatively affected leaders and specialist and non-specialist teachers’. Local Standing Advisory Councils for RE and the Agreed Syllabus Conferences may not share this view, arguing that local determination is a strength for local communities, but this Report is clear that something needs to be done quickly especially as  ‘statutory guidance has not kept pace with national changes, including the growth of multi-academy trusts’. 

The Report notes, pleasingly for those in the REN: Although various subject organisations and stakeholders share a common pursuit for excellence in RE, they do not always agree about the best way forward. However, there is plenty in the Report we would all agree on: the call for proper and thorough training for RE teachers and curriculum leaders in syllabus construction, teaching and assessment, subject knowledge, and remedying the wide divergence of systems, culture, policies and prioritisation of the subject in schools. We might add teacher recruitment, uptake of GCSE and A Level, and INSET funding and opportunities. A national plan for these inadequacies is surely more important than shifting the whole subject onto the untested Religion and Worldviews initiative (or ‘suggestion’, as this Report calls it).

The Report finds positives in each of its main categories: substantive knowledge, ways of knowing, personal knowledge and ‘collectively enough’ quantity and quality of learning expectation, at all stages. Some readers may find little difference here between ‘ways of knowing’ and the better grasped ‘understanding’, and may struggle to explain why ‘personal knowledge’ now has achieved headline status – in particular schools are found to be confused, or to be ignoring, this new goal. Perhaps as ‘ways of knowing’ and ‘personal knowledge’ are very new categories embedded in very few syllabuses, this is not surprising. The Report is clear that where an RE syllabus spreads its substantive knowledge too thinly, or tries to undertake too many religions at one time, or fails to sequence properly learning through the key stages, there is no chance of deep learning, and pupils become very confused.

It is time surely that Government ministers are willing to open the debate on the way forward for this subject, in particular addressing the basic inadequacies in the Main Findings of this Report, and construct a plan for implementing the recommendations, lest in ten years’ time we again read a similar summary of research analysis on the subject. We are all grateful to Dr Richard Kueh and his team for all the work that has gone into the construction of such a worthy, though worrying, undertaking.