In a rebuke to critics of the subject, the number of students sitting religious studies A-levels has declined at a lower rate than other humanities in 2020.
Despite a long-term trend of declining interest in the humanities at A-level, religious studies compared favourably with other subjects. 15,692 RS A-level entries were recorded in England and Wales this year, compared with 17,490 in 2019.
Although this represents a decline of 11.5 per cent, religious studies outperforms other subjects like Geography (down 16.2 per cent ) and History (down 15.1 per cent). With the current number of entries at 41 per cent higher than 2003, the subject is maintaining a relatively buoyant recent history: subjects such as Geography and Law – down 14.9 per cent and 5.4 per cent respectively – have decreased in popularity over the same time period.
Religious studies has been criticised in the past by groups such as the National Secular Society, who in 2014 called for the subject to be replaced by philosophy and ethics and have reiterated their demand for reform in recent years. Their case has been bolstered by opinion polls on the importance of different school subjects, with Religious Studies coming 15th out of 18 subjects in one 2018 poll by YouGov.
Professor Trevor Cooling, Chair, Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC), called the new figures “encouraging” and said that “the subject is proving its popularity”. Cooling added that the figures are a “testimony to the value that young people, higher education institutions, and employers, place on religious studies.”
The decline of interest in the humanities reflects both a smaller cohort of 18-year-olds – 599,393 in 2020 compared with 618,873 in 2019 – and changes in how schools approach A-levels, as well as the popularity of individual subjects. A majority of schools changed their policies to recommending three A-levels last year, versus four in previous years.
Ben Wood, Chair, National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE) sees the results as having a significant bearing on the future of the subject. The popularity of Religious studies “must be reflected in future Government policy”, Wood said, and “much more must be done to protect the subject’s vital role”.
Wood, whose organisation represents RE and RS teachers across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, urged policymakers to “carefully consider the Commission on RE’s important recommendations” in light of the continuing popularity of the subject. The Commission on RE called in 2018 for a higher degree of investment in the subject in order to ensure a uniform teaching standard across the UK.