The government has been accused of discrimination against Religious Education by abolishing the bursaries given to trainee teachers specialising in the subject.
Bursaries had been worth up to £9,000 a year yet dropped to zero for the academic year 2013/14. The move has prompted a group of four independent charitable trusts to set up their own Common Fund for non-salaried secondary RE trainees, with an initial combined donation of £220,000.
The bursary freeze is regarded as another blow to RE, already under pressure because of its omission from the English Baccalaureate syllabus. A report from schools watchdog Ofsted last year said that more than half of England’s schools were failing pupils on religious education and that six in ten were not ‘realising the subject’s full potential’.
The cut in bursaries comes despite a 20% shortfall in the target number of RE recruits in 2013/14. At 46.3%, RE also has the lowest number of teachers with a relevant post A-level qualification compared with any other subject.
The chair of the Religious Education Council, John Keast, said: ‘It is 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. 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.’
Campaigners say that since the cut in bursaries, evidence of hardship among RE PGCE students has been emerging. Barbara Lane, a trustee of Culham St Gabriel’s Trust which is one of the supporters of the Common Fund, said: ‘We are hearing of trainee RE teachers who cannot afford to travel to their placement, and cannot afford to eat properly.’
Stephanie Rothwell, 21, is doing a 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.’
The government defended the cuts on the grounds that it needs to safeguard Maths and Science teacher bursaries.