Schools’ failure to meet legal requirements on Religious Education continues to impact A-level entries

The growing number of secondary schools in England and Wales that are failing to provide Religious Education to all pupils until the age of 16 is continuing to impact Religious Studies A-level entries.

While the reduction in number of students taking an RS A-level examination in Religious Studies in England and Wales slowed this year, the number of entries has declined significantly since its peak in 2016. Figures show a drop of 5.1% in 2019 and 22.8% in 2018.

The decline comes in the context of a smaller cohort of 18-year-olds this year and an overall reduced number of A-level entries across all subjects. Nonetheless, the number of schools failing to provide Religious Education at Key Stage 4 has been increasing. The latest data from the Department for Education’s School Workforce Census suggest that a third (33.4%) of all schools are failing in their legal duty to offer the subject, which in turn has consequences for A-level entries.*

The figures are an indication that Religious Education remains vulnerable and that the Government should engage further with the recent recommendations for change from the Commission on Religious Education.

The key outcomes of the 2019 A-level results in England and Wales for Religious Education are as follows:

  • 17,490 RS A-level entries were recorded, a small decrease of 5.1% on 2018.  Much of this decrease is explained by a decrease in the number of 18-year-olds in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland of 2.9%.
  • Despite the decrease in entries for RS, there are still 57% more entries than in 2003 (11,132 entries were recorded in 2003).
  • The 5.1% decrease in entries for RS is considerably smaller than equivalent figures for many other subjects such as English Language (down 21.8%), English Literature (down 7.8%), Further Maths (down 10.0%), and Drama (down 9.4%).
  • The increase of 57% in the number of entries for RS A-level since 2003 is greater than equivalent changes over the same period for such as Geography (down 1%), Law (down 6%), and History (up 23%).  Among arts, humanity or social science subjects, only Sociology (up 58%), Economics (up 77%) and Political Studies (up 114%) have seen stronger growth since 2003.
  • Entries for RS A-level have declined since a peak of 24,849 in 2016, although this year’s decline in entries of 5.1% is considerably less than the equivalent figure of 22.8% last year.
  • 21.5% of entries for RS A-level were awarded an A or an A*.
  • There were 3,911 entries for RS at AS-level, a decrease of 35% on 2018, this reflects the decline across all subjects where the number of AS entries fell by 49% across England and Wales. 

The decline in entries for RS A-level adds further evidence to the case for action to secure the future of Religious Education as a subject for all pupils in all schools.  The Commission on Religious Education published its final report in 2018 making recommendations for changes that have so far only been partially taken up by the Government.[1]

The decline in entries comes after warnings in recent years of insufficient action to support the subject. In 2017 the RE Council of England and Wales (REC) and the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE) published analysis based on data from the Department for Education showing that 28% of secondary schools in England report that they are not meeting their statutory obligation to teach religious education (RE).

The reduction in entries is surprising given that Religious Studies at A-level continues to be a favourable gateway to university and jobs. The importance of RS A-level as a subject for Higher Education entry and for graduate recruiters is increasingly recognised by independent bodies. The Russell Group of top universities has made it clear that RS A-level provides ‘suitable preparation for entry to university generally’, and both Oxford and Cambridge University include Religious Studies in the top level list of ‘generally suitable Arts A-levels’.

In fact, almost 21% of students admitted to Oxford University to study English and 13.5% admitted to study History in 2015 had an RS A-level, more than those with Economics, Physics and Business Studies A-levels.1

Employers recognise the value of religious literacy. For example, in February 2017, EY announced the creation of Religious Literacy for Organisations (RLO), a diversity and inclusion training programme designed to help organisations better understand religious inclusion and its positive impact on business process and performance.

Career prospects for those that take Religious Studies/Philosophy at degree level are also very bright due to developing a strong academic skillset with transferable skills attractive to employers. In 2015/16, 16.5% of Philosophy graduates entered the professional sector in the fields of Business, HR and Finance, compared to 10% for all disciplines. With 13% of graduates going on to work in the fields of legal, social and welfare, 6.8% choosing to become educational professionals and 4.6% managers.

The drop in the number of pupils taking A-level and AS-level Religious Studies is all the more concerning at a time when there is a shortfall in recruitment for teacher training in Religious Education in some areas of the country. Evidence collected by the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE) suggests that headteachers are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit RE specialists.

Comment from Rudolf Eliott Lockhart, Chief Executive, Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC):

“Although today’s figures are less alarming than last year, and overall A-level entries are significantly higher than they were there 15 years ago, we are nevertheless witnessing an ongoing decline. This is, in our view, a direct impact of the increasing number of schools – now around a third – that are failing to meet their legal obligation to provide RE to all pupils up to the age of 16.

“This makes the need for a National Entitlement to Religion and Worldviews, as recommended by the Commission on RE in its report last year, even more pressing. With swift Government action, it can make a significant impact and ensure more pupils benefit from important preparation for life in a multicultural Britain and a globalised economy.”

Comment from Ben Wood, Chair, National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE)

“Congratulations to all those students receiving their A-level Religious Studies results today! Those continuing their studies in this area will be ready to take their understanding to the next level, while those going in other directions will be well prepared to succeed in an increasingly complex world.

“However, the continuing problem of schools failing to provide RS at KS4, and thus failing in their statutory duty, is impacting on the number of students taking the option of A-level Religious Studies.  At a time when high levels of religious literacy have never been more important, it is sad to see so many young people are not given the opportunity they deserve, especially when teachers of RS see the many benefits this course offers young people.

“We look forward to seeing the impact of Ofsted’s decision in May this year to place greater emphasis on the provision of quality teaching of worldviews and to hold to account those schools that are not giving pupils the RE to which they are entitled.”

Colin Hallmark

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