Thursday, 19 January 2017

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.

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, and that in fact, the meaning of the story: 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:,_Odessa.jpg 

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Exam Questions (Or Lack Of)

For me, the greatest challenge of a new specification is the lack of examination questions. Currently our GCSE (Edexcel) goes back to 2010 and our A-Level (also Edexcel) goes back to 2009 [There were January exams until 2014 doubling papers available].

Obviously you shouldn't be just teaching to the exam (and I don't), but getting technique right is vital. 

As such, I am looking for RE teachers to help work collaboratively to share their attempts at question writing, given the limited SAMs available so we have a collection to share and assess students with.

The access is set so you can comment on the documents - if you add a question via a comment, I will add to the main document - but also feel free to offer improvement to the questions that I have already attempted. I do not profess to being an expert on these!

[NB these are only Edexcel A-Level questions, as we are not doing the AS]

If teachers are interested in setting up a more comprehensive document for different specs, A-Level and AS, get in touch.

Social media, and the internet more widely, has provided us with potential solutions to problems that teachers and departments would have had to face individually in the past. Google Drive provides a tool to make it work successfully.

Image courtesy of: 

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

My Desert Island Discs

On Sunday, it was a treat to listen to Bruce Springsteen on an extended Desert Island Discs (You missed it?! Find it <here>). His choices absolutely summed up the man: nothing obscure, pretentious or showy. With one eye on the holidays, trying to forget I still had school on Monday morning, I set about writing my own eight tracks to take to a desert island.  

After much deliberation, these are my picks:
  1. The Day We Caught The Train - Ocean Colour Scene
    • The day I started to discover my own musical taste after flirting with the Top 40 and odd songs I thought I liked (my first single that I owned was none other than Chesney Hawkes). This was the start of my love of all things BritPop and a 20 year plus love of Ocean Colour Scene. Still a great tune to sing along to with your mates after a few beers. Well worth going to see live still too.
  2. Last Stop: This Town - Eels
    • I owned Beautiful Freak, but it was this track that begun my 20 year plus obsession with all things Eels. We had "I Like The Way This Is Going" as our first dance. It backed up my theory that E has written a song for every possible eventuality in life. Rarely does an artist transform the band / setlist / theme of each tour as much as E. His autobiography is worth a read.
  3. Like A Rolling Stone - Bob Dylan
    • One of my picks that Bruce had on his list, "the first time I really heard him with this song, it just instantly started to change my life". I bought as many Dylan albums as I could when I was in my second hand CD buying stage; every time I found a new one in Golden Discs there was great excitement.
  4. Madame George - Van Morrison
    • Another of Bruce's choices. Astral Weeks is one of the best albums out there, and I agree with the spiritual nature that is identified on Desert Island Discs, "It made me trust in beauty, it gave me a sense of the divine. The divine just seems to run through the veins of that entire album."
  5. Thunder Road - Bruce Springsteen
    • If you don't 'get' Thunder Road, I'd highly recommend reading Nick Hornby's joyful chapter in 31 songs. There is no other song that I have come close to listening to as much as this one. We also walked down the aisle to this after getting married. 
  6. A New England - Billy Bragg
    • The 'Bard of Barking' has written some of the best British political songs of the last twenty years, as well as some of the best love songs. This was one of the first songs of Billy's that I got to know. His gigs are part political rally, part music, but often all the better for that.   
  7. End of the World News - Tom McRae
    • "The son of two vicars.." as most write ups begin. I have made some great friends from going to Tom's gigs, beginning in the old days of 'the forum'. Tom deserves far more recognition that he gets, I'm sure you can buy his back catalogue cheaply - do it. This song was from the early days when we headed off to obscure venues around the country, drank lots of beer and JD and sang along. Actually I still try and do that as often as I can!
  8. Ennio Morricone - Gabriel's Oboe
    • Morricone's western scores are some of the best pieces of music ever composed. The theme to Once Upon A Time in the West is perhaps the greatest film music ever (Coincidentally, there Springsteen cover <here>). This choice is also wedding related... I had suggested Emily listen to some Morricone tracks for her arrival music, she dismissed it, but then came back a few weeks later with Gabriel's Oboe - a truly stunning piece of music, absolutely fitting for the moment.
As part of the Desert Island Discs format, you can take a book and a luxury item. My book has to be The Grapes of Wrath... Steinbeck is my favourite author, who somehow seems to see inside the human soul and condition in a way few other authors can. My item would probably be a guitar, so I can 'learn how to make it talk' to keep me busy.

What would your Desert Island Discs be and why?

I realised when I had finished that there were so many tracks missing. These are some that have also been pivotal in my life: Ben Folds Five - Best Imitation of Myself, Pulp - A Little Soul, Counting Crows - Mr Jones, Country Feedback - R.E.M., Neil Diamond - America, Amy McDonald - This Is The Life, The Avett Brothers - Murder in the City, Gaslight Anthem - '59 Sound, Joe Purdy - I Love the Rain Most, Dire Straits - Brothers in Arms, Crowded House - Private Universe, Taylor Swift - Teardrops on my Guitar, David Ford - State of the Union... 

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Imago Dei - The Foundation of Everything

Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam is situated in the Sistine Chapel. It documents the very moment of man's creation as found in the book of Genesis. It was only human kind that was created in the expressed image of God and the Latin phrase Imago Dei is used several times in the Bible: Genesis 1:26–27, 5:1, 9:6; 1 Corinthians 11:7; Colossians 3:10 and James 3:9.

This week I was leading a day of inset for teachers new to working in Catholic schools. We looked at what it means to be Catholic, the history and politics of Catholic schools, the Mass, some of the challenges as well as the joys of working in a Catholic school. Towards the end of the day, I explained the concept of Imago Dei and how for those working in Catholic schools it is essentially the foundation of everything.

There can be theological discussion about Imago Dei and exactly what the term means: similarity? Counterpart? Dominion? Representative? Indeed the meaning is implicit and has been debated by theologians and scholars since the earliest of Jewish times. However the simplicity of a belief that all human beings are created in the image of God can help those new to, or outside of, the Catholic school understand what they will hopefully witness, experience and share in.

We believe that every member of our school community is created in the image of God, always.

This is incredibly powerful. Each child, each teacher, each member of support staff, each cleaner, each caretaker, each visitor. Every single one is created in the image of God and is a gift to the world. Each has a purpose, each has a role to play that no other has. Each has God given talents and skills that need to be discovered and developed. Every single person, all the time.

Many claim that it was the Puritan's that first developed the notion of human rights based upon Imago Dei some 50 years before John Locke, as during this time, some Christians were favoured over others by Charles I of England. Richard Overton, a founding Leveller, argued for human rights for all human persons, based on the idea of all men being created in the image of God: "We are delivered of God by the hand of nature into this world, every one with a natural, innate freedom and propriety — as it were writ in the table of every man's heart, never to be obliterated."

Many would argue the same basic principles exist in many schools; the Golden Rule is hardly unique to Catholics (see this great poster <here>). Indeed many secular humanists come to the same conclusions as Christians, that all are equal, but claim a basis of reason and belief in humanity. 

Therefore, does it matter if we base our rational on the belief in Imago Dei or simply equality and basic human rights? 

I think it makes a significant contribution to the ethos of a Catholic school. We treat people properly because it is the law, because it is right thing to do but also because we see the face of Christ within them as a child of God. This can often make you stop and reevaluate your position, I believe, in a positive way. When you stop and remind yourself that the student, colleague, parent, governor, member of the public, inspector, et cetera in front of you is created in the image of God, you speak a little differently. You might still come to the same conclusion, but you do it with love, compassion and mercy - that may well be a tough love though! 

Nevertheless, this is far from being easy, and can create real challenges: admissions policies, discipline (particularly exclusions), staff capability procedures, results/league tables, SEND etc. If all are created in the image of God, how can we reject or exclude anyone? How can we select? How can we stop offering opportunities for reconciliation? When we do we decide there is no more opportunities for improvement?

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. - Matt. 18:21-22
Sometimes, the leader needs to decide when '77' is up. In the gospels, Jesus suggested some, such as scribes and Pharisees, would be excluded from the Kingdom of God. They were given opportunities to be reconciled, and Jesus did not cut off the relationship, yet there was an expectation that they change their ways and conform. Jesus' inclusivity was neither simplistic nor generic. However, it was shaped by a clear vision of the kingdom of God and the priorities of his ministry as Messiah.

The inclusiveness of Jesus was exceptional (women, lepers, tax collectors, sinners). Yet, it wasn’t absolute. He reached out widely to sinners, but didn’t simply accept them as they were. He invited them to be transformed; they were forgiven and shown how to turn around their lives as they responded to the good news of the kingdom of God.

Therefore as we consider the belief of Imago Dei, and the impact it must have on our Catholic schools and Catholic leaders, this must be done in light of the Gospels. It's not straightforward, nor easy. It is the everyday challenge for all those working in Catholic schools.

If you do believe each and every person is created in the image of God, let it influence you daily: 
  • Smile and ask the cleaner about her day
  • Ask the caretaker if he needs a hand with those boxes
  • Pop into the school office and offer to man the phones so the receptionist can go to the loo
  • Hold the door open for students
  • Bring in biscuits to share, just because!
  • Ask your colleague how their family is doing
Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Friday, 18 November 2016

ARC Launch 2016

Aquinas Resources and Conferences, or ARC, is the work, or ‘work in progress’ of myself, Ant and Philip.

Our venture has been, in part, born out of necessity - the last two years have seen an unprecedented period of change in schools. New GCSEs, new A-Levels, new KS3 assessment systems, Progress 8, the EBacc...  is it any wonder teachers on the ground were reaching out for more help and support?

It has also grown from what I term, “the new democracy” of the internet and social media. As Catholics, working in Catholic schools, we know we are answerable to our own Bishops and must work with our Diocese education teams. However support can variable, and sometimes it only linked to Heads of RE and not every teacher in the classroom. 

We want to be a resource for all those in need, and all those who are willing to share. We want to be a hub of good practice sharing the very best of what is out there already, and what will be produced over the next few years.

There is a spirit of collaboration in existence at the moment which seems unprecedented. The Catholic HEIs, the CES, NBRIA, teachers, schools working together. Surely only good can come of this? There is also more work than ever before with organisations such as NATRE and Culham St Gabriel’s.

We already we have nearly 500 followers on Twitter, over 200 likes on Facebook, there are nearly 450 members of the Catholic RE Facebook group - and posts are often shared on a group of nearly 5000 RE teachers called Save RE. Already this is a significant project.

Ultimately, we want to engage with all those working in Catholic RE, and beyond, to ensure the students get the best possible religious education. The best lessons, the best supported teachers, best resourced departments. RE is the core of the core and our provision must reflect that. 

I began the London RE Hub conference quoting Rabbi Hillel the Elder, “If not you, then who? If not now, then when?” - I think this mantra has inspired all of us. It’s why we have got involved in spec writing, textbook writing, hosting INSET, investigating the possibility of running student conferences, making videos, PowerPoints (Philip is the master). If this isn’t a vocation, I don’t know what is!

However we can’t do it all on our own - despite some people thinking we can! The more who come on board, the more we can achieve. 

Please visit the website, there are flyers about. Ask yourself, what can my contribution be? What can I offer? Ant always reminds us, the Holy Spirit is at work in all his. We do hope this project can bear much fruit.

Listen to the launch <here>

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

A Textbook FAQ: Catholic Christianity for Edexcel [OUP]

I had a book launch at Westminster Cathedral Hall on Wednesday 16th November 2016. Here was my short talk about the book:

I’d like to do a little FAQ before I head into my thank yous..

How did you end up writing a textbook?

I organised something called The London RE Hub in 2015 and lead a session on the Catholic Eucharist with a Norbertine called Brother Pius. Ant Towey then pops up… “I’ve got a PhD in this and…”. During the day he then must have been chatting to our main sponsor, Oxford University Press as a few weeks later we all had dinner and agreed to write a textbook.

Did you write it all yourself?

No - thankfully not! We had a wonderful author team, some of whom are here tonight. Paul Rowan, Cathy Hobday and Cavan Wood. I did write just over half of it though!

How did you find the time as a full-time teacher?

I don’t know. Essentially writing it as my first child was born and all that went with it was tough at times. Thankfully I was not alone as Ant became a dad to Bethany in the July, Tommy came long in the October. Our conversations were about both babies and textbooks. 

Did you already know all this stuff?

No - and thank you to Philip Robinson for making corrections and not pointing out my heresys too often. If you want your subject knowledge and ability to share that subject knowledge in an accessible and student friendly way pushed to the limits, write a text book. I have learnt so much over the last 18 months.

What was it like?

Incredibly tough. For those who didn’t know, Edexcel was not accredited until the middle of June. Somehow, in no small thanks to Julia Naughton, and the team at OUP, the book went to the printers at the start of August. This meant I had been writing a textbook for an unaccredited spec for nearly a year. I’d like to thank Ant, Philip and Peter Ward for their words of counsel during this period. I also totally underestimated the technical side of writing a GCSE textbook with focus on exam criteria.

The wider RE community who have been under incredible stress and pressure with the exam reforms came to me for help and advice. There was a great expectation that as a textbook writer you had all the inside info from the exam boards - I wish! It has been great working with so many RE teachers and I hope the spirit of collaboration will continue going forward.

Would I write another?

I have actually completed a Judaism Key Stage 3 textbook which was a real joy as I had complete freedom on the content - available May 2017 for those interested!

There was a great sense of accomplishment when I held the textbook in my hands for the first time, and it has been a real privilege delivering inset and helping other teachers prepare for teaching the GCSE. At a time when lots of teachers are writing books about pedagogy, planning, leadership and so on, I can’t imagine better professional affirmation than taking out a set of textbooks with your class thinking, “I wrote that” - on top of the fact, thousands of other students are also using it on daily basis.

Do schools even use textbooks anymore?

Michael Gove, for all his failures, has ensured far greater academic rigour into the new GCSEs. This, I believe, is a positive challenge for teachers. A PowerPoint with a few pictures and bullet points is no longer enough, students need to be reading. Our OUP book also has an online version which our students love. There is a great need for high quality textbooks - and am I proud to have been able to be part of the team who have delivered one such book.

My Thank Yous

Lois and Minh-Ha from OUP have been real pleasure to work with. The whole team from OUP have been amazing and I really think our book looks stunning. Julie Naughton who worked so hard bringing the project together, and all those who helped with the editing, reading, suggestions… including Andy McMilan, and Ant and Philip. You may have worked out, they can’t say no to anyone! 

Thanks to Pauline my inspirational head of department at Sacred Heart of Mary in Upminster and all the team from the school who supported my writing. Thanks to my new team at St Bonaventure’s in Forest Gate who have welcomed “the bloke who wrote the textbook” into the school community.

Thank to my family and friends, many who have come along here tonight to join the celebrations. It my mum who kept me informed of the delays to the book as she kept getting her updates from her Amazon pre-order!

Last, but certainly not least, I have to thank my wife Emily and my son Tommy. There were lots of late nights, and sitting Tommy on the table in his bouncer chair, as I was writing. Hopefully they both think it’s been worth it.

Thanks for coming, thanks for listening.

Listen to all the presentations <here>
Forward to 9min 30secs to hear mine

Thursday, 3 November 2016

TMNewham: Lessons from Frank Skinner

I only realised in retrospect that I got my first nugget in meta-cognition from Frank Skinner. A few years ago he spoke about getting old and one of the ways he keeps his brain as active as possible is by imposing a rule of only Googling things he doesn't know, and not what he doesn't remember. This is essentially the practice of memory retrieval, a vital skill for our students. I spoke about this at TM Newham hosted by Jonny Walker at Elmhurst Primary on Thursday 3rd November 2016. 

Here is my presentation: