Surprisingly, in our apparently secular age, more students take GCSE Religious Studies than took History or Geography. If you combine the GCSE figures with those of AS and A level, there were nearly a third of a million students sitting exams in the great questions of life last year.
Where once ‘RE’ was un-cool and seen as boring, in the last twenty years the GCSE has proved increasingly popular. Against expectations, the number of students taking GCSE Religious Studies has increased dramatically year-on-year, from a base of 98,549 in 1993, up to 263,988 candidates in 2013. An extraordinary growth. Over the same period, numbers taking comparable mainstream arts subjects such as English Literature and History have fluctuated but changed little overall.
The National Curriculum in England does not specify what should be taught as Religious Education in state schools, only that the subject must be covered from Key Stage 3 onward (although parents may remove their children from some or all classes, and students can remove themselves once they are 18).
Curiously, the syllabus in RE is set by local authorities, although faith schools and academies can set their own. Schools must offer the option of at least one recognised qualification in RE at GCSE level. The majority of courses available look at some of the major world religions and their beliefs concerning life, death, creation and evolution, and ask students to explore what the AQA exam board describes as ‘fundamental questions about identity, belonging, meaning, purpose, truth, values and commitments’.
When this continuing growth in candidates was spotted a few years ago, Nick McKemey, the Church of England’s head of school improvement, commented: ‘Young people are clamouring for a deeper understanding of religious perspectives on issues of the day and how moral and ethical questions are considered by the major faiths. […] This is a phenomenon that indicates students’ appreciation that exploring faith and belief helps them to understand the world and become better global citizens.’
He may be biased, but he may be right. The multi-cultural Britain in which our schools operate will undoubtedly have piqued the curiosity of students about the varied beliefs of those who sit beside them, or their parents. Combine this with a post-9-11 world full of wars that are waged in the name of religion, where it is increasingly important to understand what is happening and why, and interest in studying the different religious perspectives and our place in this world has become a lot more relevant.
Views on what it is to be religious or spiritual have also widened beyond the traditional confines of one formal religion or another. Students will have learned about a wide range of religions at Key Stage 3, and now take into their personal belief systems a selection of ideas from different faiths.
Research undertaken at Lancaster University suggests that Britain’s people now believe in the major religions in their ‘own way’. The idea of ‘religion’ may be changing rather than declining. Although only 26% of people in the research believe in a personal God, belief in God as a kind of spirit is now 44%, and 70% embrace the idea that we possess a soul. So this widening belief system also feeds into a desire to explore religion. Let’s hope that this study – taught in a sensitive and unbiased way – reduces prejudice and indeed makes us better global citizens.