By Rosie Dawson
Religious studies specialists have welcomed today’s publication of A-level results showing an increase in the number of students taking the subject to A-level in England and Wales with 45.3 per cent achieving A or A* and 92.6 per cent achieving a grade C or higher.
A total of 16,645 pupils took the A-level this year, an increase of 6.1 per cent from 2020. Nearly three-quarters of those taking religious studies at A-level were female.
Overall, the number of A-level entries was up by 5.1 per cent. The 6.1 per cent rise in religious studies is significantly higher than in some other subjects such as history (up 1.5 per cent) and political studies (up 5.1 per cent).
Professionals hope a steep decline over the past decade is now being reversed. The decision in 2014 not to include religious studies as part of the English Baccalaureate at GCSE was one reason why fewer candidates opted to take the A-level. Another contributory factor came in 2018 when most schools changed their policies, recommending that pupils take three rather than four A-levels.
University theology and religious studies departments do not require religious studies at A-level as a condition for entry. Nevertheless, specialists will be hoping that the rise in students taking the subject at A-level will be reflected in a higher number taking up university places to read the subject.
The number of students applying to study theology or religious studies at university has halved since the introduction of tuition fees in 2012, leading to the closure of some departments and cuts at others. The government’s removal of the cap on the number of students universities are allowed to admit has left some departments struggling to recruit enough undergraduates while other higher-status universities find themselves over-subscribed.
Katie Freeman, chairwoman, National Association of Teachers of RE: “Many congratulations to all those students receiving their A-level religious studies results today. Although once again the method of grade assessments has been affected by the unusual circumstances, the true value of today’s results will be reflected in the knowledge, understanding, and skills that pupils take with them in future life.
“Everyone has a unique, personal view of the world, whether it is religious or non-religious and the enormous variety and complexity of worldviews that exist today need skilful navigation. Religious studies help young people understand those worldviews and make sense of their own, giving them the valuable ability to succeed and thrive in social and professional situations.
“Future government and school policy must reflect the vital nature of the subject. We must afford RE greater protection and ensure that it remains a staple element of the school curriculum.”
Ed Pawson, deputy chairman of the Religious Education Council: “Over the past 18 years numbers of students entering for A-level religious studies have grown by well over 50 per cent. This shows that students view this subject as a vibrant and connective area of study, equipping them for the complex and diverse world in which they are growing up.
“There’s a need for religious studies to be understood as a powerful A-level that reaches into many areas. Some people assume that it is rather niche but the experience of students taking it is that it’s a valuable area that takes them into philosophy, ethics and other humanities. A religious studies A-level gives them a grounding in critical thinking which can, for example, help medics understand the ethics that underpin what they are doing rather than the day-to-day practice.”
Marion Bowman, vice-president of the Universities Theology and Religious Studies, UK: “[We have] has put a lot of energy and resources into commissioning videos showing how theology and religious studies graduates enter a wide variety of occupations —not only religious professionals or teachers! — and in liaising with teachers to help bridge the understanding gap between what students encounter at A-level and the range of subjects and approaches they will encounter in higher education.”
Professor Trevor Cooling, chairman, Religious Education Council of England and Wales: “Religious studies has maintained its popularity over the past two decades at A-level, where students have a greater say in their subject choice compared with GCSE when religious studies may not be offered as an examination course. Young people clearly value the importance of extending their knowledge and understanding of religious and non-religious worldviews at A-level and continue to vote with their feet.
“The government should recognise the essential role that religious studies play in ensuring young people receive a balanced education, helping to create a more cohesive society, and supporting a vibrant economy by preparing employees and future business leaders for the globalised workplace. We urge it to fund a national plan for RE to ensure it is properly resourced and taught by professionally trained teachers, and to enact a statement of entitlement to a high-quality education in religion and worldviews for all pupils.”