According to a new report conducted by academics at Liverpool Hope University and backed by Culham St Gabriel's, a trust that supports excellence in religious education, the numbers of schools participating in GCSE Religious Studies declined overall across all categories from 2017 to 2018, though Catholic schools had proportionately the smallest decline at 3.1 per cent.
Among schools without a religious character, the decline was 18.1 per cent.
The report, "GCSE Religious Studies: At a Crossroads", by Dr David Lundie, senior lecturer in education at Liverpool Hope University, and Dr Mi Young Ahn, postdoctoral research associate, says: "While the percentage of pupils in all state-funded schools that took part in GCSE RS in 2018 is 39 per cent, for Catholic schools the levels are significantly higher at 95 per cent, 68 per cent for Church of England schools, but is now as low as 30 per cent in schools with no religious character. These findings are troubling for the future of the subject outside of schools with a religious character."
At the same time, the number of pupils in England and Wales taking GCSE religious studies fell for the third year in a row, down 1.6 per cent against 2018 to 237,862. The number of pupils in England and Wales taking the short course GCSE in religious studies fell even more sharply, by 19.7 per cent to 27,384, although religious Studies remains he most commonly taken short course GCSE.
Entries for GCSE religious studies combined short and full courses in England and Wales peaked in 2011 at 461,795 and the latest results show a decline in entries of 42.6 per cent in eight years.
Rudolf Eliott Lockhart, chief executive of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, said: "Today’s figures show the long-term impact in England of reforms introduced when Michael Gove was Secretary of State for Education. The exclusion of short course GCSEs from the performance indicators by which schools are monitored, coupled with religious studies not being included in the EBacc, has had a disastrous impact on RS at GCSE.
"There are now almost 200,000 fewer key stage 4 pupils studying for a qualification in Religious Studies than there were in 2011. This is particularly distressing given how popular the subject is with pupils and how relevant it is in today’s world. Last year the independent Commission on Religious Education offered proposals for how to secure the future of religious education that had widespread support from stakeholders across education. It is time that the Government engages fully with the recommendations and for it to take action to support high quality religious education for all pupils in all schools."
Ben Wood, chair of the National Association of Teachers of RE, said: "For thousands of young people, GCSE Religious Studies provides an invaluable opportunity to learn about, consider and debate many important and pertinent questions, preparing them for adult life in a diverse and complex world. In this respect, it is pleasing to see that GCSE RS remains one of the most popular GCSE subjects.
“However, too many pupils do not receive the teaching they need and deserve." While some schools do offer alternative provision, too many schools simply fail to meet their statutory duty to provide their students with RE. "Research indicates that over half of secondary schools without a religious character fail to provide RE at KS4, and that this lack of provision is more pronounced in schools with higher numbers of disadvantaged students," he said. “It is not fair that so many young people are not given the full breadth of education they require, and we call on the government to take stronger action in ensuring that all schools provide high quality RE for all of their students.”