Religious Studies GCSE entries fall despite popularity among pupils

The number of pupils in England and Wales taking GCSE Religious Studies full course has fallen for the third year in a row, down 1.6% against 2018 to 237,862.

In addition, the number of pupils in England and Wales taking the short course GCSE in Religious Studies has fallen even more sharply, down 19.7% from last year to 27,384.  Religious Studies remains by far the most commonly taken short course GCSE, accounting for 94.4% of all short course GCSEs taken in England and Wales.

The decline is greater in Wales than in England.  In England the number of entries for GCSE Religious Studies full course has fallen by 0.6% to 227,913.  In Wales the equivalent figures are down by 20.8% to 9,949.

When the entries for the full course and short course GCSE are combined, the picture is of significant decline in the number of pupils taking a qualification in Religious Studies.  Entries for GCSE RS (combined short and full courses) in England and Wales peaked in 2011 at 461,795.  Today’s figures show a decline in entries of 42.6% in eight years with almost 200,000 fewer pupils achieving a qualification in RS at the end of KS4.

The long-term picture is more positive for the full course GCSE where there has been strong growth in the number of entries for most of the last decade.  In 2009 there were 170,303 entries for Religious Studies in England and Wales.  The number of entries increased every year until reaching a peak in 2016.  While there has been a decline since this peak, the number of pupils receiving a full course GCSE in Religious Studies is still 39.7% greater than in 2009.

All schools, including Academies, have a legal requirement to provide Religious Education to all pupils at all key stages, but today’s figures, together with the Government’s own school workforce data, suggest that this is not sufficient to ensure that all pupils in England get to study the subject at Key Stage 4.[1]  A key driver of this behaviour is almost certainly the fact that there are no consequences for those schools that decide to flout their legal obligation, with Religious Education not featuring in measures such as the EBacc that are used to hold them to account. 

At a time when greater religious literacy is even more necessary than ever before, the decline across England and Wales in pupils taking GCSE Religious Studies is troubling. 

The fall in entries comes despite pupils emphasising how much they value and enjoy studying Religious Education (underlined by the overall rise in entries at A-Level and GCSE over the past decade) and despite the fact that the Government is rightly emphasising the importance for young people to have knowledge and understanding of religions and non-religious beliefs.  

In 2018 the independent Commission on Religious Education made a series of recommendations including legal and policy changes that the Government could make to better support the subject.  The report has been endorsed by the RE Council and NATRE among a wide range of other organisations.

The key outcomes for Religious Education in England and Wales at KS4 in 2019 are as follows:

  • There were 237,862 entries for the full course in GCSE RS, a fall of 1.6% from 2018 (241,749)
  • There were 27,384 entries for the short course in GCSE RS, a decline of 19.7% from 2018 (34,087)
  • There were 265,246 entries for GCSE RS (combined short and full courses), a decline of 3.8% from 2018 (275,836).  Entries for GCSE RS (combined short and full courses) peaked in 2011 at 461,795.  Today’s figures show a decline in entries of 42.6% in eight years with almost 200,000 fewer pupils achieving a qualification in RS at the end of KS4.
  • 29.8% of entries for the full course in GCSE RS were awarded at least an A or a 7
  • 23.5% of entries for the short course in GCSE RS were awarded an A or an A*

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

“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.

“As former education secretary and architect of the original GCSE, Lord Kenneth Baker, pointed out earlier this week, the narrowing of the curriculum is a damaging trend that the current Government needs to urgently address before it leads to a generation of young people whose education and prospects are severely weakened.”

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

“Congratulations to those pupils receiving their GCSE RS results today, and to their teachers.  I hope that the hard work, study and revision have paid off for you.

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.  Over half a million young people every year do not take a GCSE in Religious Studies, and 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.

“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.”

[1] The school workforce data shows that a third of schools make no provision for RE in year 11 in analysis cited in the Final Report of the Commission on Religious Education (2018), p22. This means that when fewer pupils study GCSE, fewer receive their entitlement to the subject entirely.

Colin Hallmark


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