Initial Teacher Education: Time to move RE forward

October 11, 2017
RE News, Think Pieces,

Last month saw the publication of the much awaited Interim report, Religious Education for All, by the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE). The tentative report might prove to be another milestone in the history of Religious Education (RE).


The Commission, though set up by the Religious Education Council for England and Wales (REC) was totally independent. It had members from a variety of backgrounds and expertise, including the law, academia and teaching. The aim of the Commission was to improve the quality and rigour of the subject and its capacity to prepare pupils for life in modern Britain.
The report has brought to attention some key issues, debates and controversies which have persisted since 1944. In this article, issues related to training teachers and RE are considered. Thereafter the proposals made by the CoRE to address the issues are presented to highlight the key role that ITT should play in moving RE forward.


A national entitlement for RE
The Commissioners have made initial recommendations in four areas. One of which is that there should be a national entitlement statement for RE which sets out clearly the aims and purpose of RE and what pupils should experience in the course of their study of the subject. It proposes that the entitlement should become normative through non-statutory guidance as early as possible, and should ultimately become statutory, either to supplement or to replace current legislation on agreed syllabuses. Importantly, it says that the national entitlement should apply to all state-funded schools including academies, free schools and schools of a religious character. On the other hand, independent schools should consider adopting the entitlement as an undertaking of good practice (CoRe 2017:7).


Lack of confidence
The Commission highlights the lack of confidence among teachers, especially at primary level. It relies on the APPG report RE: The Truth Unmasked, to note that half of all primary teachers did not feel confident in teaching RE. Similarly, the NATRE 2016 primary survey also found that a quarter of teachers that it surveyed did not feel confident to teach RE, but their sample was predominantly subject leaders, who, the report says, would be expected to feel more confident. Interestingly, the Commission adds that many teachers in Church of England primary schools also lacked confidence in teaching RE, and that, as a result, pupils’ learning was superficial (ACED 2014). It reiterates the findings of a survey of over 800 primary teacher trainees conducted by Bishop Grosseteste University in 2013 which revealed that 50% of teachers said they lacked confidence to teach RE.


Decline in subject-specific training
The main causes of lack of confidence were inadequate training and lack of subject knowledge. The Commission highlighted that many RE teachers receive little or no training. Based on the 2016 NATRE survey, it records that more than 1 in 4 respondents received no CPD in RE. 60% received less than one day in the previous year. Over 60% of recently qualified primary teachers who responded to the NATRE survey had 0-3 hours of training at ITE (over a 1-year PGCE or Schools Direct programme), compared to 20% of those who trained more than 11 years ago. The trend in relation to subject-specific training is also reported to be in decline. More recently qualified teachers have received, on average, fewer hours of training than those trained five or more years ago, according to the most recent NATRE primary survey. Furthermore, the oral and written evidence submitted to the Commission also expressed this concern which has led the Commission to state that the lack of subject knowledge leads to a lack of confidence to tackle the contentious issues that are the lifeblood of the subject, and can also reinforce misconceptions about religion.


Relevant qualifications
Another area of concern was that many RE teachers do not have relevant qualifications. In 50% of primary schools that responded to the 2016 primary NATRE survey, some RE was being delivered by a higher level teaching assistant. In 1 in 10 schools, between 25% and 50% of RE is delivered in this way.


Experience in school
The exposure to good quality RE in schools has also been identified as an area which requires addressing. Primary trainees, it reports, are unlikely to see good RE in their school placements, given that RE was less than good in six out of ten schools visited by Ofsted in 2013. Moreover, with so few schools offering good RE, it was difficult to find school placements with high quality RE teaching for all primary trainee teachers.


Disparity in training
There is disparity in the access to training and CPD across the different school types. Teachers and subject leaders in schools without a religious character are far less likely to have received any CPD in the past year than those in schools with a religious character, as shown in research conducted by the APPG in 2013. The NATRE primary and secondary surveys in 2015 and 2016 corroborated this evidence.


The way forward and the role of universities
From the above, it seems that one of the key findings of the Commission is that over the years there has been diminishing access to adequate training and support for teachers and that this was particularly acute at primary level.


In making the case for change, the Commission highlights the impact of training on the quality of teaching and learning. It notes that there was a clear link between access to training – both ITE and CPD – and the overall effectiveness of the subject.


To address some of these issues and to enhance the quality of the provision, their renewed vision for RE states that all teachers should have access to good initial training and CPD. They should engage with research on religions and worldviews in order to keep their subject knowledge up to date.


To improve teaching and learning in RE, the Commission is considering developing a National Plan along the lines of the National Plan for Music Education. Of the nine recommendations, the following are pertinent to teacher training:


• A minimum of 12 hours should be devoted to RE in all primary ITE courses.
• Leading primary schools for RE should be identified and all primary trainees should be given the opportunity to observe RE teaching in such a school.
• Include under the Teachers’ Standards, part 1, section 3 (Demonstrate good subject and curriculum knowledge), the requirement that teachers ‘demonstrate a good understanding of and take responsibility for the sensitive handling of controversial issues, including thoughtful discussion of religious and non-religious worldviews where necessary.’
• Restore funded Subject Knowledge Enhancement (SKE) courses for those applying to teach RE and for serving teachers of RE without a relevant post A-level qualification in the subject.
• Restore parity of bursaries for RE with those for other shortage subjects.
• University performance measures should be updated to credit universities for their engagement with schools, including the provision of continuing professional development (CPD) and resource materials.
• University staff conducting research in areas related to RE should be encouraged to contribute to grassroots networks, lead teacher development days, develop resource materials or become SACRE members. This may provide opportunities for them to demonstrate the impact of their research or increase student recruitment.


The report also notes that there are increasing expectations of teachers to be engaged with research by keeping up to date with published research at minimum, and where possible, by engaging in action research, lesson study and other forms of practitioner research. Indeed it found that teachers valued being able to access university lecturers and researchers in areas relevant to RE. In addition to the above recommendations, the Commission is seeking views on the kinds of research which would be most helpful for RE teachers to engage with, and what mechanisms would support this.


In the context where all schools become academies, the Commission sees universities as possible contributors for the development of programmes of study, should the requirement for local authorities to hold Agreed Syllabus Conferences be removed.


The above representation of RE should not be a distraction from the excellent standard and high quality examples of RE in existence in a large number of schools across the nation. Passionate and committed teachers, within different school types, are at the heart of this provision. Having said this, the RE community in particular is acutely aware of the challenges at various levels that the subject faces, some of which have been highlighted above.


The Commission clearly sees ITE providers as having an important role to play in improving the quality of RE provision. It realises that ITE providers can make positive contributions as conduits between researchers, practitioners and others. There are clear implications for ITE providers in terms of how they operate and with whom. Importantly, there are suggestions to enhance the overall makeup of the models for training future teachers to secure the future of the subject.


An online consultation process will run from mid-October to mid-December 2017 available here.


Imran Mogra SFHEA is a Senior Lecturer in religious education and professional studies at Birmingham City University