New baccalaureate's threat to Religious Education GCSEs

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Buckler's Mead pupils during RE lesson
Image caption,
All pupils at Buckler's Mead are taught short course GCSE-level RE

As the new Religious Education syllabus is launched for schools in Somerset, there are fears the subject at GCSE level could be undermined by the new English Baccalaureate.

It is because RE has not been included in the list of humanities subjects in the new qualification.

Headteacher Mike Featherstone, at Buckler's Mead Community School in Yeovil, said: "This is something schools are grappling with at the moment."

His fears over its future when it comes to funding and value as a subject worth studying have been shared by education experts in the county.

'Learn to respect'

There are 30 secondary schools in Somerset and only three do not offer it as a short course GCSE, while nine do not offer it as a full GCSE course.

All schools, though, do have a statutory requirement to teach RE even though it is not part of the national curriculum.

Despite the government's decision to exclude it from the list of humanities subjects in the English Baccalaureate, some in the county believe it is worthwhile.

This is due to the level of interest among pupils who see it as a way of teaching them about the wider world.

One of those schools is Buckler's Mead Community School in Yeovil.

"It's important because then you can learn to respect other people and what they believe," said Lily, a 13-year-old pupil at the school.

For the past three years all of its pupils have taken a short course in the subject, achieving a pass rate of 32% A*-C in 2007 to 59% A*-C in 2010.

"It gives schools a really difficult choice - if you are going to make the baccalaureate open to children then you have to have children doing a modern language," said Mr Featherstone.

"When children do a modern language you have to increase staffing in those areas but with budgets declining, it is difficult."

Despite these pressures, the headteacher said he hoped to introduce a full course GCSE in the subject in the future.

'Devalues the status'

Jon Mayled is an education consultant and former chief examiner in RE based in Chard, Somerset.

"I think there are a number of concerns, RE is a compulsory subject in schools. Students have to study it from the time they are five.

"To include History and Geography but to exclude RE from the baccalaureate inevitably devalues the status of the subject both in the eyes of pupils and, I suspect, in the eyes of senior management."

As RE teachers await the government's response to the recent debate, one school in Somerset has addressed interest in the subject by offering it as a short course GCSE outside of school hours.

Alison Jacobson, an RE teacher at King Alfred's School in Highbridge, said: "I've got 27 students who come after school once a week for an hour.

"They also do extra things. They were at Burnham Philosophy Group last week and held their own in debates with the adults, some of whom were five or six times their age."

The new syllabus for RE will begin in Somerset in the next academic year which is the first complete overhaul in 10 years.

Faiths and beliefs will be extended to included non-religious beliefs such as humanism, and they will be put into a local context by using well-known figures and landmarks in Somerset's landscape and history to make it more tangible for students.

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