Sisyphus on the Rise?

The CoRE proposal of a National Entitlement for RE, supported by newly constituted Local Area Networks for Religion and Worldviews, seems to me to be far and away the best way forward – indeed the only way forward – for our subject. Why?


1. Its comprehensive evidence-taking from all sectors with an interest in the subject

2. Its authoritative panel membership

3. Its grasp of the manifold inter-related issues needing addressing (for example, in ITE)

4. Its ethos for the subject, on which more below


One has a sense of déjà vu in the current national scene, as clearly set out in the Report: falling exam numbers, loss of status, poor Governmental support, divided approaches to the subject, shortage of teachers, low quality training, and so on. I entered RE teaching in 1976 in a London comprehensive, just out of my PGCE, the only RE teacher in the school, with a blackboard, no books and the West Riding Syllabus.


Wind forward to 1988. Colleagues on the RE world had worked very hard to improve the situation and we looked forward to the new GCSE exams to end the social distinction of CSE or O Level, and to having up-to-date specifications and resources….but the new National Curriculum omitted us (we were already, apparently, compulsory as part of that well-kept secret, the Basic Curriculum) and dedicated subject committees for all the other subjects produced massive specifications which all required enormous slices of curriculum time, the sciences especially with its new double or triple award approach. By the early 1990s we were again on the ropes.


Light dawned then through a number of initiatives – the independent sector formed its own RS association and launched a model specification with just two attainment targets – learning about and learning from – just as the Schools Examinations and Assessment Council was developing specifications with similar targets. All non-statutory of course, but expressions of hope. At the same time Philosophy was making inroads at A Level and boosting numbers with the ‘long, thin’ AS Levels. The 1990s was an era of growth for the subject as we fought back, supported later by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (replaced by OfQual), the introduction of short-course GCSEs, and the Curriculum 2000 initiative of the expanded A Level curriculum (new AS Levels alongside/part of A Levels).


Unparalleled growth in the early 2000s brought a flood of money for publications, courses and resources, and a growing respectability for the subject across all institutions, even surviving the 2009 reforms. NATRE became an influential body and, despite persistent divisions over Phenomenology vs Critical Realism, there was a real sense of success. And then 2015 happened, the Gove reforms. Leading up to this we had been kicked in the teeth, as the CoRE report makes clear, by the EBac and the Russell Group’s ‘Informed Choices’ (a little unfair here, this was not their intention), and then by a lack of interest by OfSted, as also documented in the Report. And now we are back to a pre-1988 situation, Sisyphus must push that boulder back up the hill.


This is why we must embrace this Report, we must wave it in the air, we must push it up the hill. The APPG report The Truth Unmasked in 2013 was quite rightly full of sound and fury, but arguably has signified nothing as it has fallen on deaf ears. Even the frantic last-minute consultations in late 2014 and early 2015 on the new orders for exam specifications in RS held by the DfE in response to overwhelming correspondence (2000+ responses over against 50 for the average for other subjects), failed to convince ministers of the damaging impact of their subject revisions: it was made clear by the civil servants that their ears were deaf to all but the loudest noises.


We must also promote the report because it presents the subject and its ethos as the majority of its practitioners want it: an objective, critical, informed study of worldviews and their many implications. It tacitly rejects a phenomenological approach for the realism of the classroom and school situation; it calls the children ‘pupils’, not ‘learners’; it uses the verb ‘teach’ regularly rather than ‘explore’ or ‘discover’; and the outcomes from such courses would undoubtedly command wide support. And it is right that there will be few outcomes unless there is far more support in every way, from grants for training through funded CPD to sound resourcing (including online, still below the standard of others).


Does it miss anything? Arguably so: it’s an ugly name; it curiously rejects teaching anything about Communism as a world view; it omits the critical impact of the drop in funding for resources caused by the alarming decline of exam numbers; it omits Progress 8, which has brought a little comfort; and perhaps secondary teachers faced with the chaos of prior learning by new Y7 pupils might also have merited a reference as deserving of much more coherence in the primary sector, but then this is the purpose of the Entitlement. Some will lament its proposal for the effective abolition of SACREs and their replacement with LANfR&W (Local Area Networks for Religion and Worldviews), though perhaps not many, because, as the Report indicates, with the changing nature of schools their role is significantly diminished already.


Read the report, or at least its summary findings; support the RE Council in its ambition. It’s now or, perhaps, never.



Richard Coupe has taught Religious Education in eight schools since the 1970s in both state and private sectors. He has risen through the ranks to Principal level, completing his career as Academic Director of a large public school. He has a breadth of grasp across the curriculum and educational world as well as subject specific knowledge – he holds a Masters Degree in Theology. He has served in numerous capacities with exam boards, other educational bodies, jointly founded the Independent Schools Religious Studies Association and later chaired it; he has been a member of the RE Council, advised the DfE, SEAC and QCA and has organised conferences, led courses and, occasionally, published articles.