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?