In February, I presented some evidence to initial evidence gathering session for the CoRE (see <here>). In October 2017, they published an interim report, with a call for further evidence. I strongly urge RE teachers to take the time to read, reflect and respond to this (read the report and find the link to the questionnaire <here>). It feels like an opportunity for change, but one that may be missed. This is a personal response.
The first question is about the introduction of a national entitlement statement. While I broadly agree in principle, this may be another name for a National Curriculum, and would certainly strengthen RE in areas of weakness, help alleviate inconsistencies and improve the subject's status, the implementation of this needs careful consideration. Some Free Schools and Academies have already put in place great RE curriculum - perhaps it is worth looking at them (and crucially their content... more of this later) before imposing such a statement? If we don't use good models of RE already in place, we have no hope of driving improvement.
Faith schools are more problematic. The Catholic Church's position is very clear, as outlined in a chapter I wrote for the new book, "We Need to Talk About RE" (see <here>):
If CoRE were to recommend a common baseline entitlement for all schools, including schools with a religious character, then it is very likely that the RE curricula of Catholic schools would already be in compliance with it. But since one of the conditions of the partnership between Church and state is the right of the bishops to set the curriculum in Catholic schools, then any statutory imposition of just such a common baseline is potentially highly problematic. Of course, given what has already be said, this will only be a problem in principle, not in practice. Nonetheless the principle is a fundamental one and a non-negotiable one for the Catholic Church in England. It is hoped that a way forward can be found that ensures outstanding Religious Education for all without backing the Bishops into a corner where they have no other option but to oppose something that, in every detail but one, they would otherwise welcome and support.
Therefore, such a NES, cannot be universally imposed. Some critics of faith-based education will highlight the issue with this and see it as a reason to try and eradicate the 'two-school system', but I feel to do so forgets the positive contribution that faith schools often to make to RE, especially for their students. I urge you read the full chapter, to understand the history, it's complexities and nuances.
The questionnaire then outlines the proposed NES. For me, it remains problematic, open to interpretation, and seeking to please the sociological approach which seems to have become dominant in many RE debates (a focus on 'reality of belief', the 'religious landscape' etc). It also does little to eradicate the influence of PSHE, citizenship or sex education in RE. We cannot plan RE around 'what some people believe, or don't, in 2017'. For example, the Bible has been here for ~2000 years and had huge influence on our culture, history, art, literature etc. I think this needs to be central to any RE curriculum.
The part of the initial response from the CoRE that is missing for me, is any kind of discussion about knowledge - what do students need to know? An attempt at this would be the single most important thing the commission could do.
We actually have a start point with the GCSE Annex (see <here>). It is worth being clear, this is not perfect. Some have claimed the writing was too hurried, others that all faiths had to conform to a Christian-based framework. However I would strongly argue that until it was produced, written down, set out... there was little debate about "What knowledge?"
Curriculum design is not something that all teachers are expert in, nor is assessment. Many teachers have no idea what students should know when. Secondary colleagues often have no idea what students should know about religion when they arrive in Year 7. As such, a comprehensive overview from EYS to KS5 would be of huge benefit. KS4 and 5 is largely done, for the minute.
Yet we (the RE community) often fear making 'over simplified' or 'broad brush' statements - other subjects such as as science seem far more comfortable with this provisional knowledge. Therefore age related expectations, in regard to knowledge, would be helpful to map out this progression. It would ensure the complexity and diversity of religion and belief is accurately built upon.
Knowledge is contested. However, what is clear, many RE teachers have a great deal of it. It allows them to have these very debates, and yet even dismiss the need to focus on knowledge in RE. Our greatest gift to students is the knowledge we have, how can we best ensure that it is passed on as effectively as possible? I am not sure it is this version of a NES.
I would love to see the Commissioners sit down, with all their expertise, experience, knowledge and understanding of religion and belief, and set out a knowledge based curriculum, that teachers then help develop into Key Stage standards of attainment. I honestly think this is the best thing we could do for the students in our care.