Older readers may remember a film called ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’. Produced in 1961, it was a classic British science fiction disaster movie starring Leo McKern and Janet Munro. It closed with the world on the brink of disaster or recovery. The final screen image is a news print room at night, with two front page headlines prepared by the printers: ‘world saved’ and ‘world doomed’.
RE saved or RE doomed? It may well depend on choices we in the RE community make in the next few months. We have a choice of two ways to go. Here are two histories of what we did, as told by historians in 2025.
The final Commission report in September 2018 galvanised the RE professional community to a surge of common purpose and organisation, emboldening the Department for Education to enact a national strategy for RE backed up with legislation. The purpose and scope of RE was defined in law for the first time. As a result, by September 2019 headteachers in all publicly funded schools were clear about their obligations to teach RE, and made conscientious efforts to support it. The DfE ensured that Ofsted’s inspections checked for a broad and balanced curriculum, including RE. Faith-based inspections became more transparent, so that the public could be reassured that RE was taught with sufficient breadth and impartiality in all schools.
In the 2022 election, all major parties included a manifesto commitment to accept the RE reforms, and to support initial training and continuing professional development for RE as one statutory subject among others. The new energy and refreshed focus released by the reforms led to a renaissance in the subject. GCSE and A level numbers rose. The DfE and some funders collaborated in sharing the costs of professional development, enabling non-specialists to teach RE well and confidently. By 2024, the supply of qualified RE teachers was boosted by those graduates who had come through the new GCSE. State and charities also collaborated in funding local networks of teachers in resourcing RE, challenging and supporting each other’s practice, and engaging in relevant research.
Following the legislation, SACREs flourished with a new mandate to promote respect for religious and cultural difference in their communities. SACREs found that their credibility was significantly enhanced by the new mandate, and by a new, more inclusive membership structure. Freed from the duty and expense of syllabus-writing, they resourced RE in schools, monitored withdrawals from RE, and engaged constructively with other front-line sectors where diversity issues arose. Their partners included schools, the health service, universities, careers services, police, trade unions, and employers. By 2025, Home Office monitoring of hate speech incidents showed healthy patterns of improved tolerance and respect for diversity among young people.
The final Commission report was a fudged, compromised document which failed to inspire and unite the RE teaching profession. It was received by RE associations and faith communities by bickering, cavilling and resistance, some of it based on vested interests. In the face of this, the Department for Education lost its appetite for engagement, and considered any national intervention in RE to be too politically risky. The DfE welcomed the report politely but set no timetable for action.
The ensuing vacuum allowed a growing number of Academies to continue ignoring their obligations on RE. Local authorities lost more schools, and suffered further austerity cuts. Such support as they were able to offer SACREs and RE in 2018 disappeared in most places. Recruitment continued to decline, good RE teachers became a scarcity, and this led to further contraction and closure of RE departments in the non-faith school sector. The decline in timetabled teaching and qualified teachers meant that GCSE and A level entries also decreased year on year. The cycle of decline steepened. By 2020 most headteachers of community schools concluded that RE could not be validly taught and that there were no sanctions for ignoring it altogether, or franchising it out to visiting faith groups. There was a smell of decay around RE as a subject, but as the only voices raised in protest were small in number, nothing was done. In the faith school sector, RE remained strong as an expression of faith school ethos. For some faith communities, getting what they wanted in their own schools blinded them to the wider national decline.
Agencies that could have steered things in a different direction failed to do so. Civil servants ignored the negative indicators and denied there was a crisis. RE professional organisations were slow to work together, unwilling to bury their differences and unite behind common messages. They denied legitimacy to new voices from able teachers who could have led the profession out of the wilderness. Change agents were frustrated, and their credibility suffered as a result. Charitable funders, having propped up RE organisations for many years, saw no progress being made, and took their money elsewhere.
The national census of 2021 revealed a country where levels of tolerance, reasoned responses to diversity, and religious literacy were dangerously low. In 2025, a retired politician and an academic, who had authored an urgent call for change ten years previously, issued another pamphlet titled ‘What have we done to RE’. Too late, policy makers woke up to the realisation that the country had lost something of the profoundest value, and lost it by a habit of neglect and avoidance.
Mark Chater is the Director of Culham St Gabriel’s Trust writing in a personal capacity