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5 key findings from Ofsted’s critical RE subject report

Ofsted said a “notable” number of schools are still not meeting the legal requirement to teach religious education to all pupils, and has told government to “urgently” update guidance.

The watchdog today published its latest subject report, looking at the strengths and weakness of how RE is taught in schools in England.

It found the RE curriculum in schools is often “superficially broad”, but lacking in depth. “Problems and challenges facing RE persist” 10 years on from Ofsted’s last such report, they added.

Sir Martin Oliver

Sir Martyn Oliver, Ofsted’s chief inspector, said a “strong RE curriculum is not only important for pupils’ cultural development, it is a requirement of law and too many schools are not meeting that obligation”.

“I hope that the examples of good RE curriculum in our report help schools develop their own practice and support the development of a strong RE curriculum for all,” he added.

The report is based on Ofsted’s findings from visits to 50 schools in England between September 2021 and April 2023.

Here is your trusty Schools Week speed read of the key findings…

1. DfE should ‘urgently’ update guidance

Ofsted found a “notable proportion of schools did not meet the statutory requirement to teach RE to pupils at all stages of their schooling”.

In secondary schools, it said “most statutory non-examined RE was limited and of a poor quality”.

It recommended ministers “urgently” update guidance for schools about its statutory expectations for RE, to ensure “appropriate clarity” about what is taught and when and where this happens. It said this would help school leaders and teachers of RE.

Schools should ensure the curriculum for statutory non-examined RE at key stages 4 and five is “ambitiously and consistently implemented”.

They should also make sure there is a “a distinct curriculum in place for teaching RE at all key stages” which is “rigorous and challenging”.

The DfE has been approached for comment.

2. ‘Curriculum substance insufficient for complex world’

The RE curriculum “often lacked sufficient substance to prepare pupils to live in a complex world” and the “superficially broad curriculum” often lacked depth, Ofsted said.

It noted that, in most cases, “where the curriculum tried to cover many religions, like equal slices of a pie, pupils generally remembered very little”. Whereas “where the curriculum prioritised depth of study, pupils learned much more”.

Schools should carefully select the knowledge they expect pupils to gain to make sense of the world, such as by ensuring “balance the breadth and depth of study of religious and non-religious traditions “.

Ofsted found the RE curriculum “rarely enabled pupils to systematically” build knowledge. It said they should have opportunities to review and build on important knowledge over time.

3. Pupils taught exam skills ‘too prematurely’

The content of some secondary curriculums was “restricted” by what teachers thought pupils needed to know for exams at the end of key stage 4, Ofsted said.

In a “significant number of cases” teachers taught exams skills “too prematurely”, which “significantly limited the range and types of RE content taught”, it added.

Secondary school leaders should make sure the curriculum is “designed to meet or exceed exam board specifications (rather than being driven by them)”.

Schools should also “develop manageable assessment methods that move beyond the simple recall of factual information”.

4. Long gaps between lessons hindered recall

Ofsted also said “long gaps between lessons hindered pupils’ recall” and that pupils remembered more when they had regular lessons.

Schools should organise the timetable for RE so that gaps between teaching are minimised, it said.

5. Teachers need professional development

The “overwhelming majority” of teachers had not received subject-based professional development in RE, Ofsted said.

“Given the complexity of the subject and the kind of misconceptions that pupils were left with, this is a significant concern,” it added.

Schools should ensure all teachers have the subject and pedagogical knowledge that they need to teach RE well, and ensure the time allocated is used effectively, it urged.

Ofsted said those commissioning and organising professional development should “increase access to, and the range of, training available to all leaders and teachers”.

It comes after the inspectorate published its subject report for English last month.

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