Religious education subjected to 'rank discrimination'

Religious education is under threat in schools because of “rank discrimination” against the subject by the Government, ministers have been told.

Rising numbers of children are facing poor quality lessons following a decision to scrap grants for students training to become RE teachers, it is claimed.

Subject experts warned that RE was already less likely to be taught by fully qualified teachers than any other secondary school discipline and the failure to properly fund training would lead to further declines.

John Keast, chairman of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, said it was “hard to avoid the conclusion that the refusal to give bursaries to RE trainees whilst providing them for nearly every other subject is pure discrimination by this Government against RE”.

The comments were made after a coalition of four charities combined to set up a £220,000 cash pot to help provide their own funding for trainee RE teachers.

It is the latest in a series of flashpoints between religious education experts and the Government. Ministers have already been accused of discriminating against the subject by failing to include it in the English Baccalaureate – a league table measure that rewards schools for good performance in a series of academic GCSEs.

Currently, the Government awards postgraduates up to £20,000 to complete one-year training courses, with those teaching chemistry, maths, physics and languages receiving the most money to cover living costs.

Previously, RE teachers could claim up to £12,000 in state bursaries but the grant has now been cut altogether. Other subjects such as art, business studies and citizenship also failed to attract any grant this academic year, while cash for would-be PE teachers will be removed from September 2014.

But it is claimed that religious education is already suffering teaching shortages, with 20 per cent of training places unfilled last year and almost half of lessons in secondary schools delivered by those who do not have expertise in the subject.

Mark Chater, director of the charity Culham St Gabriel’s Trust, which is one of the four organisations providing the £220,000 fund, said: “We remain unconvinced by the Government’s arguments for withholding RE bursaries and we interpret the Department for Education’s refusal to provide them as rank discrimination against RE.”

RE is a compulsory subject at all ages in English state schools.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Our new curriculum ensures RE will remain a compulsory subject for every pupil until they leave school.

“We are attracting more high quality graduates to teach RE, with the proportion of trainee teachers gaining a 2:1 or higher increasing year on year.

“We believe it is right to focus incentives such as bursaries on those subjects where they are needed most - such as maths and physics where there has been historic under-recruitment."

Groups including the RE Council have pressed the Government to restore training bursaries for would-be religious education teachers but received a letter from Elizabeth Truss, the Education Minister, this month confirming that cash would not be made available for the coming academic year.

The Common Fund has been established by four organisations: Culham St Gabriels, Keswick Hall Trust, St Luke’s Foundation and the Jerusalem Trust. It will support students starting courses this September and applications can be made via the Keswick Hall website.