Roy Galley is former MP for Halifax, and currently a County Councillor and member of the executive of NASACRE (National Association of Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education).
Applications for teacher training across all subjects are plummeting. Unfortunately, despite good intentions, the reforms of the education system have concerned many of the teaching profession and had a knock-on effect on the image of teaching as a rewarding, stimulating career.
I’ve no doubt that this situation will improve, teachers will adapt to the changes, and the perception of teaching as a career will gradually turn the corner. More concerning in the short term though is the drastic fall in the number of applications by students to teach religious education.
Last year, 405 initial teacher training places were filled for RE, against a target of 643. This 37 per cent shortfall looks unlikely to be reversed soon; in fact, by January this year applications were down over 30 per cent year on year.
You could argue that this fall is broadly in line with other subjects, so why should we worry about RE over any other discipline? The answer is simple: without good RE young people are at risk of forming views and understanding based on ill-informed, inaccurate or even prejudiced sources of information. Worse still, they could develop opinions which are bigoted and hostile.
This presents a serious risk for our society. In an increasingly global, post-Brexit world, we need to understand and embrace different cultures and worldviews. We need to develop a generation of open-minded, outward-looking individuals who appreciate the variety of cultures they are increasingly likely to encounter.
Without religious understanding, we cannot relate to our modern world, which is in many countries becoming more religious. And without understanding religion, we cannot understand our heritage, world and British history, literature, music and art.
Good religious education plays a vital role in guarding against prejudice and discrimination. The subject has changed significantly over the past few decades. Unlike the religious instruction that many people over a certain age remember, religious education now teaches young people about a broad range of religious and non-religious worldviews, helps them appreciate cultural practices, and question a variety of everyday issues from an ethical perspective.
Far from being about indoctrination, RE builds a knowledge of the world around us, of humanity, and helps students understand where our society has come from and where it is going. Without RE, the next generation of leaders, businesspeople, and politicians will base their understanding of religion and belief on social media and hearsay from family members and friends, which may at best be incorrect, at worst slanted and intolerant.
Specialist RE teachers are trained to deal with falsehoods and misleading stereotypes, challenge pupils’ inaccurate perceptions, and guide them towards forming their own views based on the truth, rather than fallacy.
So, if the career gives budding young teachers the fantastic opportunity to tackle some of the biggest questions facing humanity, and help shape society and the future of our country for the better, why are we failing to attract as many new recruits to RE teaching as we were a few years ago?
There are a number of reasons. Firstly, the focus of the high-profile Train to Teach campaign has been on recruiting teachers into EBacc and particularly STEM subjects. A laudable goal, but we need to ensure that other subjects such as RE and the art are not downgraded.
Secondly, this recruitment drive has been supported by generous bursaries for initial teaching training of up to £26,000 a year. Why then, are we offering just £9,000 for trainee RE teachers with a PhD or a first-class degree, and a mere £4,000 for those with a 2.1 or lower? That’s not even enough to cover the course fees, let alone living expenses.
Even other under-recruiting subjects, like Geography and Classics, offer the highest level of funding. When you consider that many trainee RE teachers have degrees other than in religious studies and theology, who therefore have more lucrative options available, it’s clear that an increase in bursaries for trainee RE teachers is needed urgently.
We also need to support awareness of the joys and rewards of teaching the subject. In 2015, the RE community, led by the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, launched a campaign called Beyond the Ordinary, to highlight the reintroduction of bursaries after they had been removed in 2014 and to tell prospective candidates what RE teaching involves, mainly through RE teachers themselves telling their own stories.
The cornerstone of the campaign was a powerful video featuring teacher Lynsey Wilkinson from Redhill Academy in Nottinghamshire which has been viewed thousands of times.
The impact of the campaign was dramatic. By January 2016, applications were up 30 per cent year on year; meanwhile those across all other secondary subjects were on the slide. However, since then, without ongoing sustained advertising budgets, the numbers have fallen.
In response to the problem, the campaign has been relaunched – albeit on a smaller scale – thanks to support from education charity Sarum St Michael. These efforts require support and the Government should consider channelling funding to those who truly understand how to sell the profession to prospective candidates.
Action is needed now. More than one-in-four state secondary schools are failing to meet their statutory requirement to deliver RE and over half of RE teachers do not hold a post-A Level qualification in the subject. It takes time to recruit and train RE teachers who have the skills and knowledge to turn the next generation into skilled cultural navigators, prepared for life in modern Britain. A failure to invest now will cost us all much more in the long term.