Thanks to a grant from the Culham St Gabriel’s Trust, and the work of my colleague Mi Young Ahn, now a research fellow at UCL Institute of Education, I have been able this week to publish figures on the dramatic drop in GCSE Religious Studies entries which accompanied the roll-out of the new GCSE syllabus in 2018. The report raises serious questions about the future of Religious Studies at Key Stage 4 outside of the faith school sector, which make for worrying reading when combined with figures released this week showing a further 5% reduction in A-Level RS entries.
From 2017 to 2018 the total number of students taking GCSE Religious Studies fell from 253,712 to 229,189. Equally seriously, 701 schools stopped entering students in GCSE RS altogether.
The vast majority of this drop (87.9%) is made up by non-faith schools. In Roman Catholic schools, 95% of students still take the GCSE in Religious Studies and 68% in Church of England schools, but only 30% of students in schools without a religious character took GCSE RS in 2018.
These figures represent a dramatic drop, but there has been a downward trend in GCSE RS entries since 2016, and there is a real worry that the subject is disappearing outside the faith sector. Religious Studies helps young people understand a range of beliefs and values, and the 2018 GCSE reforms ensure that all students study at least two religions, so the subject has relevance far beyond faith schools.
The study also revealed a social class gap in which students have access to GCSE RS. Schools which participated in the RS GCSE on average had lower levels of students on Free School Meals, compared to schools which did not (17.4% against 11.1%). Schools which entered pupils in GCSE RS also had higher levels of pupil attainment for students from disadvantaged backgrounds (39.7 against 31.5 in the school census “Attainment 8” measure). This gap remains even when the demographics of church schools are taken out of the equation – non-faith schools offering GCSE RS are likely to have fewer disadvantaged students; they are also likely to have better attainment and progress across all of the measures in the schools census.
Importantly, among schools which have dropped GCSE RS, Progress8 measures for the EBacc component were lower than among schools still offering the subject. This suggests any attempt to narrow the curriculum to focus on EBacc results may be counter-productive.
Fiona Moss, Chief Executive Officer of the National Association for Teachers of Religious Education, commented: “NATRE have been lobbying for some years on the ‘unintended consequences’ for RE of government policy in several areas. This includes the significant reduction in the number of pupils studying GCSE and the increasing number of schools failing to provide pupils their statutory entitlement to RE, especially at Key Stage 4. This study shines the spotlight on the current system for holding schools to account, especially the English Baccalaureate. Questions must surely now be asked, not only about the declining levels of provision for Religious Education, but also about whether or not this data supports the view that government systems often work against the interests of the very students they claim to be trying to support.”
Speaking for the National Association of local Standing Advisory Councils on RE, Paul Smalley welcomed the report, stating: “The perception that ceasing to provide high quality Religious Education will enable pupils to succeed in other subjects has been shown by this report to be false. This report, and the new Ofsted inspection framework which highlights the need for a broad and balanced curriculum, shows the importance of ensuring that all state schools carry out their obligations to provide high quality, rigorous Religious Education for all pupils in all years.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Education declined to comment.
David Lundie is Senior Lecturer in Education at Liverpool Hope University and is a member of the Centre for Education and Policy Analysis.