RE being 'squeezed out' in schools
More than half of England's schools are failing to give pupils good religious education lessons, inspectors have warned.
In a damning new report, Ofsted said RE is being "squeezed out" by other subjects, leaving youngsters with little knowledge and understanding of different faiths.
Schools are confused about the reasons for studying RE, the watchdog said, adding its inspectors had also found low standards in the subject, poor teaching and problems with the way it is tested.
It criticised the Government and England's primary and secondary schools for failing to pay proper attention to RE.
John Keast, chairman of the Religious Education Council for England and Wales, said the council was "disappointed but not surprised" by the findings.
The study, based on inspections of 185 schools, concluded that while there have been some improvements in the last decade, many RE lessons are still failing to help pupils "explore fundamental questions about human life, religion and belief".
It said there were eight areas of serious concern: low standards, weak teaching, problems in developing an RE curriculum, confusion about the purpose of the subject, weak leadership, weaknesses in exams at GCSE level, gaps in training and the impact of recent changes to education policy.
Overall, more than half of schools were found to be failing pupils on religious education, Ofsted said.
Six out of 10 schools were not realising the subject's full potential, according to the inspectorate, with many youngsters leaving school with "scant subject knowledge and understanding".
A previous Ofsted report on RE had warned that too many teenagers left school with a very limited understanding of Christianity. The new study looked specifically at the issue in 30 primary schools and found that this was still a major concern.
The new report also found that many teachers were confused about what they were trying to teach, with primary teachers finding it difficult to separate the subject from general spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, and a lot of secondary school work focusing on studying philosophical, moral and social issues.
It went on to say that there was some evidence of a "significant reduction" of RE in some schools, with the headteachers citing the Government's new English Baccalaureate measure and short-course GCSEs as reasons for the changes they were making to the subject.
Teenagers achieve the EBacc if they score at least a C at GCSE in English, maths, science, a foreign language and history or geography. RE is not included in the list.
Ofsted said it was too early to come to a firm conclusion about the impact of the decisions to exclude RE from the EBacc and cut short courses from headline school performance measures.
The watchdog said there was an urgent need for the Government to clarify the purpose and aims of the subject for teachers and provide clear guidance.
Ofsted's director of schools, Michael Cladingbowl, said: "Religious education in schools matters. It develops children's understanding of belief and the world in which we live.
"At its best, it encourages children and young people to extend their natural curiosity and prepares them for life in modern society. We saw some great examples of this during the survey, but too often we found religious education lessons being squeezed out by other subjects and children and young people leaving school with little knowledge or understanding of different religions.
"This just isn't good enough when religion and belief are playing such a profound part in today's world. Pupils deserve much better."
Mr Keast said: "We have been warning the Department for Education for some time about the poor state of religious education in many schools."
The council is launching a report of its own review of RE later this month, which includes a new curriculum for the subject and how it can be improved in schools.
He said: "It is now vital that the Department for Education works with the Religious Education Council on putting things right. We can do better than this."
Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA), said: "It is vital that young people learn about religious and non-religious beliefs and values in an enquiring and critical way and a subject that enables this deserves its place in the curriculum.
"We share Ofsted's concerns about the inadequate quality of some teaching in RE today. In particular, while this report is to be commended for its emphasising throughout that schools should teach about non-religious as well as religious beliefs, many locally agreed syllabuses and schools still fail to cover beliefs such as humanist ones, and many fail to critically scrutinise the claims made by different religions and beliefs - just as Ofsted has found."
Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said: "Religious education is an important part of our national fabric.
"Michael Gove needs to improve the standards of teaching in all subjects - instead he is allowing unqualified teachers into our classrooms, damaging standards."