Thursday, 23 February 2017

CoRE: Evidence Presentation


On Thursday 23rd February 2017, I was able to speak at an evidence gathering session for the Commission on Religious Education (see <here>). This is not the view of the Commission; it is my own personal view. Here is a copy of my script:

2017 sees an unprecedented moment of change for secondary RE teachers: 
  • New GCSE
  • New A-Level
  • Life After Levels
  • Potential revamp of KS3
It is also worth asking the question - What will this mean for Primary RE?

I believe a fundamental problem in RE is the fact our aims and purpose are not clear.

Some see RE as a 'special' part of the curriculum, others a ‘safe space’, or a place where there is time for lots of personal opinion, somewhere there is no right or wrong answers . 

However - we are not the only subject that looks at 'big questions' and it should not be the only place for SMSC, Community Cohesion, PHSE, Citizenship and British Values - this colonisation has been allowed and even encouraged in the search for legitimacy, higher profile and curriculum time.

The decision to not include RS in the Ebacc has been damaging - but when teachers were able to deliver the previous GCSE in half the time of other GCSEs, is it any wonder? However, there have then been many complaints that new specs are too academic - and contain too much religion! Perhaps our subject has seen one of the biggest shifts in the new reforms? This undoubtedly requires support for RE teachers.

For me, the subject may well provide the 'other' development (personal, spiritual, moral, ethical, philosophical etc), yet at its core, needs to be an academic, rigorous, critical subject that teaches about religion and NRWVs. It should be more knowledge focused, enabling students to develop skills that will be useful for a lifetime. The ‘other’ development is important, and something I believe all teachers in all subjects have a part to play in ensuring students receive.

If there is to be legal change, it first and foremost needs to be the right to remove. The current situation indicates that what we are delivering is still RI, not RS. This may necessarily lead to a further change in the law regarding the compulsion to study it. This law has served RE well, but for the long term future of the subject, do we want to survive by being forced upon students? Can we survive by own merits?

I honestly believe RE is one of the subjects that has changed the most since the parents of our students were at school. Many schools have thriving RE departments with large numbers, even where it is an option. They lead on T&L and are well supported by SLT. I believe this is something for all to strive towards. 

Too much time is wasted on the ‘name of RE’ debate, again another search for legitimacy. My favourite is still Culture, Religion and Philosophy - it was only when the head of CRaP had his name badge printed that he realised an error had been made! We can call the subject what we like, but actually it is defined by what happens on a daily basis in the classroom. 

The great diversity of RE syllabuses is still celebrated by some, I’ve always found it impossible to find out exact numbers, but potentially anything up to 150 LASs. It’s hard to continue to argue the case for local determination - surely if something is good enough for students in one area, it is good enough for the next area, which in London might be another school just 100m down the road. Some argue there is a financial interest in keeping LASs - people are employed to do the writing every 5 years. It is worth noting some have had new LASs this year on top of new GCSE and A-Level - avoidable? At the heart of this, could this time, money and effort be better spent supporting RE teachers in the classroom towards a more universal RE curriculum?

If RE teachers were working towards something more centralised it would be far easier to share resources; an opportunity that the internet has offered in an incredible way. It would also allow RE teachers to move from one school to another and not have to learn and resource a whole new KS3 syllabus! Primary specialists could continue to be specialists, even in a different local authority. Currently RE teachers can get away with teaching what they want, how they want and then assessing how they want. Is there any real comparability before GCSE?

Save RE is a Facebook group that sums up what I frequently refer to as 'the Good, the Bad and the Ugly' of RE and it may be worth the Commission spending time looking at some of the threads on there. Some frequent issues that come up:
  • Lack of parental support - including parents wanting to withdraw, refusal to go on schools trips to Mosques etc
  • Lack of curriculum time - especially for the demands of the new GCSEs, some trying to deliver in an hour a week still
  • Lack of specialists - sometimes including the head of RE, linked to lack of subject specific provision of CPD, INSET etc (especially in school hours)
  • Lack of clear department teams - sometimes there is a head of RE with 8 or 9 non-specialist teachers doing 1 or 2 lessons each (and the workload this creates)
  • Lack of resources - especially for certain GCSE and A-Levels options, timescales imposed by DfE made resource publication for the start of courses impossible
  • Lack of guidance and advice - especially in 1 person departments
  • School refusal to follow statutory guidance - also confusion about law given academies, free schools etc
  • Burden of Citizenship, PHSE, British Values etc
However this group also highlights the huge inconsistency of what goes on in classrooms. Again there is some great stuff - and I would direct you to the blog of Dawn Cox (https://missdcoxblog.wordpress.com/) for some of the best thinking on curriculum design and assessment in RE, often shared on Save RE - but there are ideas that have divided the 5000+ members: studying the Illuminati, holocaust cake baking, churches made of biscuits and “the crucifixion jelly hand” being some of the most controversial examples in my own personal memory. 

Some RE teachers spent June last year covering the murder of Jo Cox and the shooting at the Orlando nightclub. Both interesting topics, but when you only have an hour a week, is the 'teach what you like’ culture not damaging to the subject? Would these not be better covered in form time? Our search for relevance and engagement can be deeply damaging - and confusing - for students

(The above was shared with Commissioners as what I consider a good example of engagement and relevance)

The online community of RE teachers shows exactly what a “broad church” we are. There is great value in this, but also notes of concern. I strongly urge the Commission to get into as many schools as possible - and not just those who are vocal on social media and in existing RE circles. Perhaps find schools that wouldn’t normally extend an invite because they are under pressure and struggling? Find out why.

The GCSE Annex has provided a clear benchmark for RE. All specs needed to ensure this content was covered. As this has been put together by faith communities and curriculum experts, does it not make sense to transpose this document down to KS3 and primary? Even for faith schools with their own RE curriculum, this could provide a useful bench-marking tool.

RE has the potential to be a key and important part of every school’s curriculum. RE teachers are often up against it for a variety of reasons. How can we all work together to best use our time, money, effort, energy and resources to ensure every child in this country receives the best possible education in RE?


Friday, 17 February 2017

Does religion have a place in the modern curriculum?



This was my unsuccessful application for TEDxNorwichEd 2017. Obviously if it ever got anywhere close to being an actual TEDx talk, it would be a lot more refined and polished. Just thought it was still an "idea worth sharing", even in it's current application form state:

The Quick Pitch (50 words):

Many claim we live in a largely secular society, many claim their students are no longer religious - and as a result - some suggest surely it is time to remove religion from schools? 

However, I'd argue exactly  the opposite.

More than ever, current and future generations need to know more about religion rather than less. They need to be inspired to discover more about the driving force which has influenced, and continues to influence, billions worldwide. Neglecting this would be catastrophic.

A Brief Outline (400 words):

What other subject comes under as much scrutiny as RE? Why did the GCSE content 'annex' have to be approved by the Prime Minister himself? How does it sit as such a peculiarity: a legal compulsion, but locally determined? Part of the 1988 Education Act, but not part of the National Curriculum?

It is often a subject that polarises students, parents and teachers... love it or hate it?

I'd argue that the fact that we may be an increasingly secular society is irrelevant. I'd argue that the fact that less students in our classes are clearly defined as religious is irrelevant. 

The study of religion needs to be reclaimed from PHSE, Citizenship, British Values, the Community Cohesion agenda etc and return to a subject that can inspire future generations by helping them better understand the past, present and most likely (and perhaps most crucially), the future.

There is history, politics, philosophy, geography, poetry, music, literature and much more involved, but the study of religion and beliefs remains fundamental in understanding all of the above, and more. Omission from the Ebacc has done damage to the study of religion, but how else can students comprehend the complex world that surrounds them. People still live and die for their faith.

  • How can they understand why some Muslim women wear the burqa (and why this is can be a problem)?
  • How can they understand why Jews don't eat pork?
  • How can they understand that a knowledge of the bible is fundamental to understanding the English language and culture? [And why Richard Dawkins agrees on this in the God Delusion]
  • How can they understand why Sikhs are allowed to carry a sword?
  • How can they understand why Hindus believe in reincarnation (and what this means for the way they live their life)?

Oddly those who argue for the removal of religion from the classroom, are often experts in the field. We cannot allow future generations to be deprived of this privilege. To be a truly great future generation, we need to enable students to understand more, rather than less - and I firmly
believe the study of religion plays a really important role in this wider education. We need to inspire the future generation to be more peaceful, respectful, understanding and tolerant - yet challenging when necessary... we  should not respect or tolerate all beliefs. This will not coming by removing religion from the curriculum.

Is study of religion really as dangerous and indoctrinating as some claim, or is it simply a vital tool to help inspire a generation to better understand the world going on around them?

Maybe I'll try for TEDxNorwichEd 2019 with something a little less controversial...  "You should never speak about religion or politics."

Image courtesy: https://popefrancisnyc.org/fun-facts 

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

When do we start the GCSE in RS?


Key Stage 3 Religious Education is largely unregulated, just like most other Key Stage 3 subjects. I obviously don't mean internally, or by SLT, or by Ofsted, but since the removal of Year 9 SATs (which only concerned a small number of subjects), the first external examination of a child's achievement in secondary school comes 5 years in, as a GCSE.

The new GCSE specs, across the board, are more rigorous, academic, challenging and content filled. I think this, in the main, is a good thing. However it poses some serious questions for teachers and schools. When do we start the GCSE course?

Some of the options:
  1. Keep the status quo - GCSEs are designed as a two year course, therefore they should be teachable in the given time frame, as long as you are given sufficent hours in the week (and some RE teachers have not in the past).
  2. Erase Year 9 - Start the GCSE a year early, giving over 50% more time. This caused problems with new specs as they were not finalised until late in the 2015-2016 academic year when some had been teaching since September 2015.
  3. Shorten Year 9 - Start the GCSE at some definable point such as January or after the Easter holidays. 
  4. Start in Year 7?

Now some subjects lend themselves to less definable start points - some have suggested the Maths GCSE starts in pre-school and just builds and builds... likewise with English. Academies with the freedom to not teach the National Curriculum have tweaked current schemes of work and assessments to work towards the new GCSE with little issue.

As always RE is more complex with it's local determination, Locally Agreed Syllabuses, faith school curriculum option etc. However my aim as a Subject Leader is to try balance our offering to students. I feel there is much to be achieved in Key Stage 3, building a strong foundation for the GCSE by covering a range of topics - and crucially for us - covering other religions. 

The choices I have made are as follows:
  • To modify assessments to ensure students focus on knowing key information from their units of study.
  • To modify assessments to ensure greater literacy and essay writing skills with longer answer questions, aligned with the structure of GCSE questions.
  • To introduce terminology such as SoWA (Sources of Wisdom and Authority) into lessons and tasks. 
I feel this is a compromise. It feels like you are doing students disservice by either getting rid of Key Stage 3... yet also a disservice by ignoring the demands of the GCSE which (as a Catholic school) they will all sit.


What are you doing?

Year 7 Assessment SAMPLE [You can view only via GoogleDrive]
SoWA (Sources of Wisdom and Authority) Poster [You can view only via GoogleDrive]



Image courtesy of Pixabay

Monday, 6 February 2017

Battle for Ideas 2016: Religious Education in a Secular Age [Video]


Back in October, I was invited to speak at the Institute of Idea's 'Battle of Ideas' at the Barbican. At the time, I posted some of my notes (see <here>) which were kindly listed in Schools Week's blogs of the week by Andrew Old (see <here>). It has finally made it to YouTube!

Watch the entire debate here [57mins]:


Alternatively just watch my contributions here:

It was a fantastic experience and I look forward to working again with the team at the Institute of Ideas, particularly those in the Education Forum. 

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Knowledge: The place of a core knowledge curriculum in RE [Series]


I will be publishing a series of blog posts which were initially to feature in a book about RE. This is the part two on Knowledge.
  1. Abstract
  2. Hirsch
  3. Knowledge [This blog]

Why focus on knowledge in RE?

Too often in education, well-educated people have argued that others need less education, or namely, less knowledge. Those in favour of a knowledge based curriculum, have pointed out that people who don’t know things will be excluded and marginalised, and division will be created. This is a social and cultural reason, which is at the heart of Hirsch’s idea of cultural literacy. 

People in positions of power and influence rarely reach such office without being supremely knowledgeable. The groups on the fringes of society are generally those who are lacking in knowledge. Those who claim success despite a lack of conventional academic education are in the minority when compared to all those who have not been successful; for every Alan Sugar there are hundreds struggling to survive on the minimum wage. or handouts from the state. 

If all students are given equal access to a powerful cultural curriculum, then they are less likely to continue to be excluded. Otherwise, a status quo will continue: the elite will continue to educate their children in such a way that they become the new generation of elite. Power and influence will produce more power and influence; divisions will simply be perpetuated. If we want students on the margins to gain access to the opportunities and possibilities that their parents didn’t have, they need access to the knowledge that makes others successful. 

It seems logical to try and identify the knowledge with the most cultural capital, as Hirsch believes he has done, and ensure this is the minimum taught to all students. Once students have a wide body of knowledge, they will be able to learn to critique. Ignorance and unawareness have never helped anyone.

Teachers can often be uncomfortable with economic terms being used in education, however the idea of ‘opportunity cost’ has crept into education in recent years. We have limited time with our students, and we need to carefully consider how we best use this time. For example, Personal Learning and Thinking Skills (PLTS) are generic skills that some have claimed are essential to life, learning and work. Yet, is time not better spent on developing a real depth of academic subjects? Other ‘21st century skills’ are really things we’ve always known and have learnt naturally over time. Do we know that spending time doing group work in Key Stage 3 ensures students are able to work collaboratively in a career that is still many years away?

Some have claimed that the progressive education provided in the late 20th century, and into the 21st has lead to teachers focusing too heavily on these skills and not on an academic education (see Progressively worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools by Robert Peal for more on this). This lesson time could instead be dedicated to providing students with more to think about, and lots of practice thinking about these things. With this knowledge, it can be argued that students will be able to contribute more to collaborative working and solve problems which are both complex and difficult. 

Arguably the most important reason for teaching a knowledge based curriculum is the effect is has on cognition. As Hirsch points out, the difference between students is often the quantity and quality of their prior knowledge; quite simply, the more you know, the better you are able to think. Without knowledge, it is virtually impossible to meaningfully engage with a given topic. An opinion without any knowledge to back it up is of little value in any context.

Critics have argued that teaching knowledge in the 21st century is unnecessary, indeed a pilot was trialled in Denmark where students would have access to the internet during exams in 2009. As Hirsch points out, “Google is not an equal opportunity fact-finder, it favours those with knowledge, it exacerbates knowledge inequality.” (2015 Policy exchange lecture)

We are not always aware of the background knowledge which is subconsciously influencing our thinking processes. However it is clear that our brains are full of many types of knowledge, which are useful in different situations. Our ability to engage with what are often labelled as ‘Higher Order Thinking Skills’ in schools is totally dependent on what we know. We can not create, analyse or create without a wide knowledge base. Hirsch has said that in order to become good readers, children need to develop a large vocabulary and a lot of knowledge about the world; these are “plants of slow growth” (2015 Policy exchange lecture).

Many suggest the 'knowledge versus skills' debate is a false dichotomy, which is of course true. However in RE, there has been a real focus on skills and personal exploration at the cost of knowing deep and complicated things about religion in some schools. This was exacerbated by GCSE questions that simply wanted personal response. However considering a knowledge basis for an RE curriculum forces the RE teacher to consider many things, namely what knowledge to teach, who decides? 

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Hirsch: The place of a core knowledge curriculum in RE [Series]


I will be publishing a series of blog posts which were initially to feature in a book about RE. This is the part one on Hirsch.
  1. Abstract
  2. Hirsch [This blog]
  3. Knowledge

Who is Hirsch? 

Eric Donald Hirsch, Jr. is an American educator, academic literary critic and author of a series of books about Cultural Literacy and Core Knowledge. He is currently professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia in the United States of America.

He could not understand why many of this undergraduate students could not read and accurately interpret information about the American revolution. Hirsch realised this was because they simply did not have the background information to do so. He also noticed that this was predominantly among black student who could interpret other passages on different topics, such as those about their own lives. The conclusion that Hirsh made, was that his students were receiving an inconsistent schooling, often based on race, and this lack of knowledge was stopping their further learning.

As a result, from the 1990’s onwards, Hirsch began writing and publishing a series entitled the Core Knowledge Grader Series which detailed Core Knowledge Sequence (CKS) for each grade. Each book contains detailed information as well as related readings and resources, and have been updated over the years. These have lead to the formation of Core Knowledge schools of which there are approximately 1,260 schools (2013-2014) in 46 states.

It is important to remember that the USA does not have any national leaving exams, like GCSEs or A-Levels. It does not have any form of national curriculum, and there is little national education policy. Even major Acts of Congress such as No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) did not provide a national achievement standard; crucially, education is not mentioned in the constitution. Each state has different education policy, and each state is split into separate school districts which have varying degrees of freedom and/or control. It is estimated that there is around 14,000 school districts, each of which can create their own curriculum. As such is it is difficult to monitor, measure and regulate.

Some saw Hirsch’s CKS as a way of bringing in some consistency to such a fragmented system.

His overall belief is well summed up in the introduction to his latest work, Why Knowledge Matters (2016; p2): "The achievement gap is chiefly a knowledge gap and a language gap. It can be greatly ameliorated by knowledge-based schooling."

Hirsch in the UK

The schools Minister Nick Gibb and former Education Secretary Michael Gove have both stated on numerous occasion that Hirsch has inspired the government’s recent work on schools and in particular the new National Curriculum, as well as GCSE and A-Level reforms. The think-tank Civitas has even developed an English version of the Core Knowledge Programme.

However there are some key differences between the USA and UK which need to be noted:
  • The UK has less variation in pre-university education as students complete external exams that have an element of comparability, even pre 2015 reform. This is nationally monitored by Ofsted and ISI.
  • There is a National Curriculum (NC) which has been used for many years. Some academies now opt out of this, but much of the content and skills built into the NC remain.
  • The Department for Education (DfE) and OFQUAL do provide national achievement standards.

Key Issues with Hirsch

There are three main issues cited by Hirsch’s critics:

The first is that by introducing a knowledge focused curriculum, rote learning is encouraged. This is potentially detrimental to a lifelong love of learning. Progressive educators have criticised Hirsch as they did not agree with the prioritisation of knowledge and facts. However, even some pro-knowledge educators have criticised Hirsch as his approach is superficial and not conducive to grasping the deep and complex concepts.

Secondly, students forget things. Despite learning bodies of knowledge at different points in their academic life, there is no guarantee that a student will remember it for any length of time.

Thirdly, and this is perhaps the most fundamental, who decides the body of knowledge? In the context of Hirsch, who is responsible for deciding what is ‘common’? In the UK the understanding of Hirsch is that a prescribed list is produced by an expert to ensure all children are equal, yet Hirsch has made it clear that he means students should be equally able to understand what is commonly understood by people in universities.

Is it easy to identify the information that will enable students to be more successful in later life? Hirsch’s central argument is that there is an identifiable body of core knowledge which students need to know to contribute effectively to society. Schools must undertake a primary responsibility for this, as parents may or may not be able to provide and contribute towards it.

Context for RE

There is an element of the fragmentation seen in the USA in the Locally Agreed Syllabus system, alongside the academy / free school opt out, plus curricula for schools with a religious character. Some have estimated there are around 150 different RE curricula followed in England.

The DfE annex (see <here>) now sets out the knowledge, in essence, that a GCSE in Religious Studies needs to cover. This has arguably been inspired by Hirsch.

There are key questions we need to be answered about any RE curriculum (feel free to add more in the comments section):
  • Which religions are studied?
  • Is the information from insider or outsider perspective?
  • How are 'big questions' / complex concepts addressed?
  • What, if any, prior knowledge can be assumed at any given stage?



Image courtesy of Politico

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Abstract: The place of a core knowledge curriculum in RE [Series]


I will be publishing a series of blog posts which were initially to feature in a book about RE. This is the introduction: 
  1. Abstract [This blog]
  2. Hirsch
  3. Knowledge


The Matthew Effect  - For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. - (Matthew 25:29)

ED Hirsch Jnr has cited The Matthew Effect in his writing and lectures. Quite simply there is a great danger in our current education systems that the ‘rich get richer, while the poor get poorer’. He maintains that in order to avoid The Matthew Effect we need to cumulatively and systematically build up the background knowledge and vocabulary that students need to understand classroom discourse; long range preparation is key to avoid this undesirable effect on achievement and future prospects.

The RE teacher understands the context of The Matthew Effect within the Parable of the Talents; despite not being created entirely equally, God rewards the effort of those who work for his will. Students in the classroom are limited by the level of effort that they put in, but they are potentially equally limited in their achievements by the education provided. Hirsch calls this cultural literacy: educated, middle-class families may provide this at home, but for some students it is imperative that it comes from schools and teachers.

Critics of Hirsh’s approach of setting out systematic and cumulative core knowledge that should be learnt at each stage of a child's education, point out that in the UK we do not have the fragmentation of education like in the US. We have state exams, we have a National Curriculum. However in RE we have around 150 Locally Agreed Syllabuses, a growing number of free schools and academies (who can opt out of their LAS), plus schools with a religious character who can opt to study their own syllabus. The quality is variable, and the work (and expense) of writing and reviewing syllabuses immense.

It seems that this may be the moment to consider if RE would benefit from a core curriculum that sets out the knowledge that students should have at each key stage. This knowledge should not be seen as a limiting fence, but more an open gateway to importing their knowledge and understanding of religion and beliefs, as well as developing critical thinking skills. Such a system would provide a minimum standard for all syllabuses, improve the rigour and academic nature of the subject and even provide a benchmarking tool for schools with a religious character.

This series of blog posts aims to explore the possibilities, advantages and criticisms of such an approach to RE.



Image courtesy: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frans_Hals_-_St_Matthew_-_Museum_of_Western_European_and_Oriental_Art,_Odessa.jpg