GCSE Religious Studies numbers plummeting outside the faith school sector, new report finds
Fears that Religious Studies (RS) at GCSE and A-Level may become a niche interest have been raised this week by a report into the sizeable drop in student numbers in the last school year.
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 2011, 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).
Fiona Moss, Chief Executive Officer of the National Association for Teachers of Religious Education (RE), 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.”
Dr David Lundie is Senior Lecturer in Education at Liverpool Hope University, and the co-director of the Centre for Education and Policy Analysis.
The research reported here was made possible by a grant from the Culham St Gabriel’s Trust to research Religious Education and Social Disadvantage. Statistics quoted here compare data from the Department for Education’s school census in 2018 and 2017.