Government accused of discriminating against Religious Education
The Government's failure to provide bursaries for those wishing to teach Religious Education amounts to "rank discrimination", says a leading RE body.
While the government offers £20,000 bursaries to cover the living costs of postgraduates studying to teach many other subjects, like languages, maths or the sciences, the same is not true of students looking to teach RE.
Childcare minister Elizabeth Truss MP confirmed this month that no bursaries would be offered for RE teachers in training this year, despite representation from the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education, and the Bishop of Oxford, the Right Reverend John Pritchard.
John Keast, chairman of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, said in a statement that it was "hard to avoid the conclusion that the refusal to give bursaries to RE trainees whilst providing them for nearly every other subject is pure discrimination by this Government against RE".
These comments come after four charitable organisations, Culham St Gabriel's, Keswick Hall Trust, St Luke's Foundation, and the Jerusalem Trust, established a common fund of £220,000 to support any postgraduates looking to train in teaching RE.
However this will only be enough to support 11 potential teachers to the same extent as the Government supports other subjects, despite the fact that RE remains a compulsory GCSE subject.
Mark Chater, director of the charity Culham St Gabriel's Trust, one of the organisations paying into the fund, said: "We remain unconvinced by the Government's arguments for withholding RE bursaries and we interpret the Department for Education's refusal to provide them as rank discrimination against RE."
Speaking about the decision to pay into the new fund, Mr Chater said: "We are offering help because the Government refuses to do so. But we cannot help all the students affected. Ultimately responsibility for ensuring the supply of trained specialist teachers rests with the Department for Education, not the charitable sector."
A Department for Education spokeswoman was quoted in the Telegraph as saying: "Our new curriculum ensures RE will remain a compulsory subject for every pupil until they leave school.
"We are attracting more high quality graduates to teach RE, with the proportion of trainee teachers gaining a 2:1 or higher increasing year on year.
"We believe it is right to focus incentives such as bursaries on those subjects where they are needed most - such as maths and physics where there has been historic under-recruitment."
However this argument is not accepted by the RE Council, which points to data suggesting that the situation for RE is far worse than other subjects.
Only 46.3 per cent of RE teachers have an A-level qualification specifically relevant to the field they are teaching, the lowest percentage of all subjects. Also, recruitment for RE teachers in 2013/14 is currently 20 per cent below target.
Mr Keast said: "Recruitment of RE trainees did not meet targets last year, and the number of non-specialists teaching RE is already higher than other subjects.
"It is the Government's role to ensure a sufficient supply of trained and qualified teachers, but it is clear that it is failing to do so in RE. There is no rationale for this refusal."
Last July, Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove admitted on the BBC that Religious Education has "suffered as a result of my belief that the protection that it had in the curriculum was sufficient".
"I don't think that I've done enough [to protect it]," he said.
But Ed Pawson, chair of the National Association of Teachers of RE said Gove's admission "rings hollow given ministerial refusal to grant bursaries for trainee RE teachers".
"There is a long-standing shortage of qualified RE teachers in our schools. We must reintroduce bursaries for trainee RE teachers and bring more talented graduates into our classrooms," he said.
As a result of the cut in bursaries, many studying to teach RE have reported increased levels of hardship through grant application processes.
Stephanie Rothwell, 21, is studying for a Post Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) in RE at Liverpool Hope University.
She said: "With money worries, studying becomes a practical juggling act, rather than an academic one. I can't afford to buy any books on teaching practice or child development."
Carl Fisher, 25, is studying for an RE PGCE at St Mary's University. He said: "If it wasn't for very supportive friends and family, it would be impossible. I have to lean on their hospitality. I am very dependent on them."
Gayle Impey from Liverpool Hope University agreed that those opting for RE were disadvantaged: "Turning down an invitation to an evening out with other staff or a special extra-curricular trip because you can't afford it is risky when there are so many other teacher trainees out there with bursaries who can."
Carl Fisher added: "You don't feel equal, you feel let down by the system."
Barbara Lane, Trustee of Culham St Gabriel's, said: "This should not be about charity. This should be about justice. We are hearing of trainee RE teachers who cannot afford to travel to their placement, and cannot afford to eat properly."