The truth behind the upsurge in GCSEs in Religious Studies

Editorial by Terry Sanderson

The Church is cock-a-hoop over the news that there has been a “4.7% increase in the number of students taking Religious Education GCSEs”.

The Church of England’s Head of School Improvement, Nick McKemey, believes the rise is a sign that students “appreciate the important role that religion plays in modern society”.

“This further increase is evidence that more and more young people are fascinated by what they and others believe, and that they can see that the world is more fully understood by seeing past the various secularist claims that religion is mad, bad or extinct,” he said. “Overall this year’s GCSE results strongly suggest that schools – particularly church schools – that work hard to raise the attainment of pupils of all abilities and backgrounds are achieving the greatest success at GCSE.”

The Church of England announced last week that the number of A-level RE students has also risen each year for the last five years. In 2007-2008, 20,100 students took the A-level RE full course. “These figures present a significant challenge to those who would present modern society as wholly secular,” said McKemey.

On the face of it, yes they do. But let’s take a look beyond the propaganda and see what’s really happening. In the Church of England Newspaper, the statistician Peter Brierley, who records all kinds of religious trends for the CofE, was trying to work out why this apparent explosion of interest in taking religious examinations didn’t result in an upsurge in church membership among young people.

Mr Brierley tells us that the numbers of students taking religious studies has “risen substantially over the last 15 years, from 99,000 in the UK in 1993 to 170,000 in 2007”.

He writes: “It might be thought that the increase simply comes from the greater number of GCSEs being taken, but this is not so. The percentage of pupils taking RS has risen from 2.0% in 1993 to 2.9% in 2007.” (Only a tenth of that for A-levels).

He asks: “Is the increase because pupils feel this is a softer option rather than the more demanding academic subjects? 31% of those taking RS at GCSE in 2007 obtained an A* or A grade, against only 19% across all subjects, so perhaps it does seem an easier option.” (At A-level, where the exam is difficult, only the average numbers get an A. Consequently only 0.3% take Religious Studies at A-level).

Of course, students are not slow to latch on to an easy opportunity to add another GCSE pass to their CV. But that does not stop Mr Brierley wondering why such large numbers of people taking RE exams (actually, 2.9% doesn’t seem that many) aren’t also interested in following it up with any kind of church involvement.

“If we estimate the number of children aged 16 who attend church in England (32,000), add on the estimated number who attend church-run youth clubs mid-week but who don’t attend on Sunday (another 10,000), then adjust for the fact that these numbers reflect England not just the UK (multiply by 1.2), also adjust for the fact that churchgoing among young people is higher in Scotland and N Ireland (multiply by another 1.2), and also adjust for the fact that some people attend mosques etc in other faiths (perhaps another 3,000), then one can estimate that perhaps some 63,000 16 year olds are actively involved with church or religion in the UK. The number taking RS at GCSE is almost 3 times that number (170,000), and increasing, while church-involved numbers are decreasing!”

At the very end of the article Mr Brierley has to admit: “because of the broad nature of the RS syllabus, in addition to other factors, the growing number of candidates does not necessarily indicate an interest in the Christian faith as such”. But it still does not stop him also asking: "How can we channel this interest into a real search for personal faith?...How can this interest in religion, even if it is due to RS being seen as a softer option, be turned into some kind of active participation?"

And here we are back again at the question of what schools are for. Peter Brierley’s comment gives a clear indication that the Church of England sees its schools not principally as places of learning, but as agencies for proselytising and recruitment.

29 August 2008