Monday, 16 October 2017

NEW BOOK: We Need To Talk About RE

There is always a great sense of satisfaction when you get a book in your hands - a book with your name on, or in. I remember the excitement when I first got my hands on my GCSE textbook - it was an amazing feeling. 

This one feels like a real professional affirmation, the fact I was invited to be part of the project and then allowed to write, what I consider a really important contribution, on the place of Catholic RE within discussion of reform. My extract is here: 
This chapter begins by briefly exploring the history of RE in Catholic schools as a context
within which its distinctiveness will be defined and is best understood. Then I explore how
the Catholic vision of good RE fits within the broader vision of RE held by the RE 
community as a whole in England, arguing that RE from a religious perspective brings an 
important breadth to what has always been a pluralistic discipline. Following from that, I look at the current contested areas within RE and consider how the Catholic RE community might respond to these threats and challenges, while spelling out those areas which would be non-negotiables beyond which Catholic RE could not pass without losing its authenticity. With all of this in mind, the chapter concludes by considering some possible futures for Catholic RE. In this section I argue for the importance for pupils in all schools of a study of religion which allows a deep theological engagement with at least one tradition, as is exemplified by Catholic RE. Such an engagement is the only one which allows for a proper grasp of historicity, nuance and complexity, all of which are essential skills in navigating a world of simplistic religious extremes.
I must also add that this chapter was co-authored, and I am very grateful to those who helped me put this together. You know who you are.

This book contains the thoughts and writings of many that I respect and admire in the RE world, although I admit, I don't always agree with. Healthy discussion and disagreement is useful for us in trying to improve the standard of RE in all schools. Here is an overview of who is included in the book:


The quotes on the back of the book should be enough for anyone who wants to get clued up on the current state of RE to get reading:

This diverse and accessible series of reflections provides an excellent route map navigating the complex terrain that is contemporary RE. It offers a range of radical solutions guaranteed to prompt debate about the future of the 'RE space' in a post-religious, post-secular contemporary world. (Alan Brine, Former HMI and Ofsted National Adviser for Religious Education)

This book, in the words of two of its authors, does the same as effective RE in classrooms. It offers 'demanding material... a framework for talk, thought, misconceptions and deep engagement' and a discussion of 'unsafe topics'. It is timely and informed and everyone who cares about RE should read it. (Dr Joyce Miller Associate Fellow, WRERU)

This timely book assembles huge amounts of wisdom and experience. It is a valuable addition to a growing literature on the place of RE in our schools. I strongly endorse the message captured in the Postscript : be absolutely clear about the purpose of RE and teach it well. The rest will follow from this. (Grace Davie, Professor emeritus, University of Exeter)

This book may not be for all, but I hope to have been part of something that offers a useful starting point for ensuring all students in the UK get the very best standard of RE teaching. It's too important for us not to get right.

I look forward to your views on my (our) contribution, and the book in general. 
We need to talk about RE.

Monday, 11 September 2017

My Starters For Five

When I first heard about Starter for Five, I was instantly taken by the idea - short, concise, fun... perfect for the busy, new teacher.

"Starter for Five is a UK based advice blog for new teachers. Each post gives 5 quick pieces of advice on a particular topic for new teachers and trainees submitted by experienced teachers. Use  search, tags and categories to look up the topics you want to know about."

As such, I have tried to provide some insight into some of the stuff that I was never told as an NQT. I posted my first 7 contributions under my old handle, @iteachre, so I thought I would collate them here for your reading. Enjoy.
Some of these have had a ridiculous number of views - much more than my usual blog postings. Thank you.

Submit your own advice <here>

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Spinning Plates

When we see colleagues, perhaps via social media or from stories in the staff room, everything can seem to be great for them. They are uploading resources to TES, emailing people their newly written SoWs, offering to help moderate essays via email,... plus they have a few young kids, a partner, they still go on holiday, they knit, they volunteer at the weekend.  While you feel frazzled, unable to plan your next lesson or mark that set of Year 9 books.

Workload is the issue that won't go away, perhaps quite rightly so, it is not sorted.

As teachers, and leaders, we are plate spinners. However, we sometimes need to work out what plates we can afford to drop. This is perhaps the single most important question that all of us should be asking - if I don't do this, what will happen?

Some nuggets of information you don't forget, and David Cameron's quip at Northern Rocks 2015 has stayed with me - How do we sort our IKEA from our Wedgewood? Do you even have a clue which plates you can, and maybe even should, drop?

I began a new role in September 2016, as Assistant Headteacher / Director of RE - part of this was leading the RE department as subject leader. The first few weeks, as a new member of SLT, in a new school, and leading a big department (9 of us taught RE last year), was chaos. There was so many plates I was trying to spin. I was also looking around at some of the plates I was dropping from day one... 

One of the key jobs of leaders in schools is to be 'sh*t umbrella'. SLT need to umbrella, rather than funnel, things from external sources - DfE, Ofsted etc. Middle Leaders need to umbrella things from SLT. As a TLR holder you are expected to deal with certain things, working out what to ask you team to do, and what to shoulder yourself. Any leadership role in school requires expert plate spinning skills.

The DfE and Ofsted are always giving more and more plates to spin - as are the media (apparently they have cited 90+ new things that schools 'should be teaching' so far in 2017). Schools are often already working at capacity - so what gives? If SLT keep giving more plates to spin to their Middle Leaders and other staff, something will give at some point. 

So how do we preempt this? We need to ask honest, sometimes difficult, questions of ourselves, our polices and our expectations.

  • If you just stopped doing it:
    • Who would notice first? Students, colleagues, SLT, parents?  
    • Would they be concerned? For what reasons?
    • What would the consequences be? Primarily, for learning.
    • How do you know? Can you measure time/impact?
    • Could you rationally justify your actions?

This is obviously not a suggestion to just go breaking school policy! These may be small things, historical department policy etc. They may be initiatives (fads?) started years ago, that have just outlived their natural lifespan. 

A few suggestions I got from colleagues via Twitter that may be worth asking:

  • Is our marking cycle making best use of time?
    • 2 week marking cycle - each set of books marked approx 15 times per year - if you teach 200 pupils like many RE teachers... 3000 books marked per academic year - if you spend 3 mins on each book that's 150 hours a year - 5 hours per week minimum
    • 3 week - 10 times per year, 200 pupils, 3 mins - 100 hours - 3.5 hours per week minimum
    • 4 week - 7 times per year, 200 pupils, 3 mins - 70 hours - 2.5 hours per week minimum
    • If you had an extra 2.5 hours a week to plan - would this be more or less beneficial to learning in your classroom? [Worth reading Tom Bennett's stats on marking <here>]
  • How many formal observations per year?
    • Preparation, planning, stress...
    • What is the consistency? How many people get 2 similar and 1 vastly different? Or do most people get 3 within a similar threshold (grading or otherwise)? If so, why 3? 
  • What is the best way to deliver CPD?
    • Does anyone know if there has actually been any improvement after attending a session?
    • Is it used to genuinely improve, or to 'get my hours up'? If it is the latter, are we simply wasting everyone's time?
    • Does it look good on paper, or in reality?
  • Do we need that meeting?
    • Are meetings the best spent time in schools? 
    • However, are typing up long documents of information effective?
    • Key question is about effective communication - are we using our time wisely? 
  • Is that paperwork really necessary?
    • Who is it for? Will anyone every read it? What will come from it? How will it improve the learning of the students in my class?

Asking ourselves about best use of time is hard, and sometimes awkward. Teachers can be a strange breed. They can have strong beliefs on things, and can be quite immovable. Can we have an honest conversation about our time, our plates?

What is most effective use of my time?

What is not an effective use of my time? 

  • What can I stop doing?
  • What is using a disproportionate amount of my time?
  • What could I be doing instead?

Some plates will get dropped by colleagues this year, you will drop a plate or too! Which ones will they be? Ones that you picked to drop? Or ones that you had no control over dropping? If you don't spend time identifying what is IKEA and what is Wedgwood, things may end up out of control.

It is hard when we see a colleague burn out or break down - when all their plates drop. Start thinking about it in September before it's too late.

In the meantime, watch Colin. He will teach you how to spin a plate FOR REAL:

Image courtesy of Movie Muse

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Assumption is the mother of all...

Penn: Ryback's gone, Dane. 
Travis Dane: Did you see the body? Assumption is the mother of all F*&% UPS!
Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995)

It can be easy to assume many things. Doing this in schools, like for those up against Steven Seagal, find out that it generally ends up badly. 

This is one of the reasons I am working towards a more knowledge focused curriculum. Students need to be acutely aware of what they need to know... I firmly believe much of the rest will then come. I want to get Knowledge Organisers published for Year 7s arriving, and then for each KS3 unit. This will then benefit students in KS4. I don't want to just assume they know the right things, I want to identify these things and then ensure that they do know.

It is commonplace to reference something in a lesson and enquire, "You studied this last year?" "No we didn't"

Often they did, and just don't remember (a whole other issue...). However sometimes they have not for a variety of reasons: staff absence, student absence, teacher deviation etc. Gaps end up existing for many students, we have to then try fill them... annoying, time consuming, but vital if we decide that particular knowledge is important. The more we can empower students to fill these gaps, the better.

The more dangerous assumption of knowledge, is that students have certain information already, without us - or indeed anyone else - teaching them. This is part of the rationale behind my Year 6/start of Year 7 Knowledge Organiser (see <here>)

In my GCSE textbook, for one particular spec point, students need to know two pieces of Catholic artwork. I thought long and hard about what to include: 'classics', personal favourites, something a 'bit different'? I settled with the 'classics': the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo and Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son. 

I have since had one or two teachers moan that 'other books' (including those for other specs, not just our direct rivals!) pick more contemporary art and artwork more "off the beaten track". This is apparently "more interesting" as they have studied those 'classics' so many times before. To one, I said, "That's a shame as I still think these two have so much to offer..." - the conversation went on and it transpired that actually my critic knew very little about either, particularly The Return of the Prodigal Son. 

Firstly, it's vital to remember we are teachers, and by necessity, we have 'done it all before'. I will teach these two pieces of artwork every year, perhaps to two classes. This is totally unconnected to their religious or cultural value or significance. It is also unconnected to my students knowledge and familiarity of the artworks.

If I had picked two more obscure, but perhaps interesting pieces, would I have been denying students knowledge about two key pieces artwork? These are the kind of questions we don't like - what knowledge do I prioritise? After all, as a teacher, that's what you do. You are not neutral, you are not without bias. 

Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper was my third choice (after all, we don't need to teach to the spec, and teaching 3 pieces may be beneficial if time allows... or more if you don't like my textbook choices!). Despite being hugely well known, actually it is more commonly seen in jokes or modified form. How can you understand these if you don't know the original? 

I have to admit, I do have personal investment in these two artworks. The Sistine Chapel is at the heart of the Catholic faith; it is the very room where conclave takes place, and popes are elected. This for me, is a valid reason for it's inclusion. It's also breathtaking, and relatively unusual - my parish church certainly doesn't have a ceiling like it! When I visited the Vatican, this was not even up for discussion on the visiting list.

I have also been fortunate enough to see The Return of the Prodigal Son. When visiting the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, I was walking down one of the the main rooms when I saw this huge painting (2.5m by 2m). I didn't know it was kept there (my ignorance!), nor did I know it was so big - every copy I've seen is A3/A4 in school halls, parish halls etc. I stopped in my tracks. It was also possible to get close enough to study the father's hands for myself!

So what do we do? How dangerous is it to assume students have knowledge of the 'classics'? Does it matter if they don't? There is a typical argument for not studying classic literature - does it really matter? Dickens, Shakespeare, Austin, Bronte.... 

When I have to decide, as I do, what knowledge to impart, I need to be confident I am sharing the best of the best. I can't take risks. I can't assume students know these things already. That's why we picked the Sistine Chapel and Rembrandt's masterpiece.

Oh and of course Casey Ryback wasn't dead - he is Ryback!

Image courtesy of Grantland

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Voice of Islam: Interviews about RE and Faith Schools

"Voice of Islam Radio is a new Digital DAB 24hr radio station which offers news, views, discussion and insight on Islam’s Perspectives on the world today." It is run by members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (<About>).

One of the opportunities that I have been given as RE teacher who blogs/tweets/writes/speaks about the subject is to speak to wider audiences about RE. I was contacted last March about speaking on Voice of Islam Radio and finally got on air in April. I was approached to speak again in July. Here is a draft of what I said, plus podcasts of the actual interviews. 

To give an idea of the calibre and range of people VoI get to speak on a show, in July I was on with Andrew Copson (Humanists UK), Stephen Evans (National Secular Society), Rev Mike Hayes (CoE), Dr Andrew Davies (Birmingham University). Thanks to the good people at VoI Radio, keep up the good work. 

April 27th 2017 Interview

1) Why should religious education be part of the school curriculum? Isn't religion something that should be learnt at home?

Yes - I believe RE is vital - academically, socially, culturally… I think it is impossible to navigate modern Britain without an understanding of religion and religions. To claim it is something to be learnt at home implies a strictly ‘faith nurture’ approach. In a Catholic school we take our responsibility to educate our students in other faiths and beliefs very seriously.

Richard Dawkins provides 129 biblical phrases in the God Delusion that English speakers may use and not realise their provenance: the salt of the earth; go the extra mile; I wash my hands of it; filthy lucre; through a glass darkly; wolf in sheep’s clothing; hide your light under a bushel; no peace for the wicked; how the mighty have fallen.

The study of literature, history and many other subjects depends on an understanding of religion. To neglect it as an academic subjects makes students less knowledgeable about the world around them. "What RE?" obviously is quite another question...

2) In your opinion do faith based schools help or hinder community cohesion? 

I think it is easy to see them as divisive - I mean they can be mono faith - however this ignores the fact that, for example, actually many Catholic schools are in fact religiously diverse with students from a range of faiths, and indeed none. I think it also ignores the way that many schools work within their local community. It can also be argued that a secure grounding in faith, leads to greater cohesion when encountering people of other faith. Our students know faith is important, regardless of whether you are Catholic, Muslim or Hindu.

3) You are also the head of religious education in Catholic school, is it important for pupils​ to learn about the beliefs and practices of religions other than their own?

Vital - my school is in Newham - one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse parts of London, and therefore the UK. It would be irresponsible to send our students out into the world without having at least a basic grasp of other religions. We have additional curriculum time and resources, and I believe we offer a good, academic presentation of other faiths.

4) There are reports that many Muslim parents prefer to send their children to church schools to help them learn about life in Britain. How would a church school help inculcate modern British values in a Muslim student?

It is important to recognise there is a wide range of ‘church’ schools. In some there would be prominent aspects of Christian lifestyle, others less so. I have met many Muslim families who have wanted their children to attend Catholic schools. Sometimes this is solely for the single sex education that is provided, however more often than not, it is down to the shared values, prominence of faithful living, similar moral and ethical outlooks etc. Many Muslims students that I have taught and encountered in Catholic schools have found the experience very positive.

5) Should secular schools or church schools make any accommodations for the religious practices of their non Christian students. Such as providing halal kosher meals, time off for Eid, Diwali etc?

I think 'where possible'.

6) Can you tell us a bit about the RE text book you've written?

After writing a GCSE textbook for the new Catholic Christianity spec - with Islam and Judaism, I have now written a Judaism Key Stage 3 book. It is academically rigorous, with increased content and difficulty, that will help better prepare students for the demands of GCSE. We will be using the Hinduism, Islam and Judaism books which should enable our students to have a more in depth knowledge and understanding

Listen <here> (from 11 mins)
July 20th Interview

1) With the rise of atheism, do you think that there is a need for religious education? 

I feel this is such a poor argument for not having RE. Students need to be given what they don't have… and if they don't know anything about religion, they need to be taught about it. How can you fully understand Shakespeare, or a newspaper headline referring to an 'Exodus', or why there is conflict in the Middle East without studying religion? Back in June this year Richard Dawkins was saying how vital it was for students to study RE in order to understand their history and culture.

2) Why should religious education be part of the school curriculum? Isn't religion something that should be learnt at home?

Why do we even have free education in this country? Because the Church recognised it’s importance to society and began providing it - a long time before the state. This contribution should not be underestimated, nor forgotten. I am yet to find to a single convincing answer why religion should not be taught in schools. Faith may well be taught at home, but the academic study of religion and religions is often not. It's vital to make that distinction - RE is not Religious Instruction anymore - we do not teach students to be religious in RE.

3) Some children might think that RE is not as important a subject as science and maths but as a Religious Education teacher, what importance do you place on RE in helping forge better communities?

I’m a bit wary of any subject having community cohesion as it's main aim. However I believe that by students having a greater knowledge and understanding of religion, they will become better functioning citizens, benefiting their communities. If they understand the difficulties faced by Muslims fasting during Ramadan, recognise the outward signs of a Khalsa Sikh and accept the practices of Orthodox Jews they will be doing very well. This knowledge does not happen by accident - it is complex, and diverse. If students get good RE, they may well become better members of their local communities, it just shouldn't be a primary aim.

4) In your opinion, do you think that religious values and teaching children about religion is good for Britain? [This question was cut from the live interview]

Teaching about religion, as opposed to religions, implies the sociological dimension - what is a religion? How do people practice in reality? Does saying you are Christian mean you are actually a Christian? This is all very interesting and part of the broad nature of RE. It's vital in understanding the landscape of religion and belief in the UK in 2017. As part of this, it is important to teach children what is important to others - and why. As a Catholic, we believe in the sanctity of life - we don't oppose euthanasia, abortion, the death penalty etc because we are simply old fashioned and traditional - we do it as we believe we are created in the image of God. Understanding, as best we can, the values that different members of society have can only be a good thing. Britain has freedom of religion, everyone of us is free to practice and change our religion. Why should we keep knowledge of religion as a privilege?

5) Is it important for pupils​ to learn about the beliefs and practices of religions other than their own? Can better understanding of other religions help prevent terrorism in UK?

Yes. I work in a Catholic school and studying other faiths is really important to us. Our students know that faith is important, and have a genuine desire to know how other people who consider faith important live their lives. We can't deny religion continues to shape our world. I think it is unhealthy for the individual and individual communities to be cut off from the world that surrounds them.

I think it is important that people learn the difference between fundamentalism and extremism. I heard of a Bishop who told his congregation that he would be disappointed if they weren't considered fundamentalists and extremists! Catholicism is, in many ways, counter-cultural.

However we know that conservatism, orthodoxy etc are not intrinsically bad. It is recognising and tackling extremism that can be assisted by a good knowledge and understanding of religions. For example, if you have a good knowledge of Islam, you may be better positioned to notice the signs of radicalisation. Sadly ignorance is still high, many adults in today's world did not get a good RE and as such they are filled with prejudice and hate. 

It’s not our primary aim as RE teachers, but we know if we do the job well we will help our students be critical thinkers, engaged in the world around them, and hopefully making it a better place.

Listen <here> (from 58 mins)

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Lifespan of a Textbook

I may be somewhat biased as a textbook writer myself, but I believe a good textbook is an invaluable resource in the classroom. There has been a tendency to put everything on a PowerPoint, which while cost saving, does mean students can spend all day staring at the whiteboard. I love to get students reading, and love those moments of silent reading within the classroom.  

See our available list here: <St Bon's Textbook Clear Out>

One of the jobs I have been strangely looking forward to in my (not so) new school was having a good old clear out. As you can see from the table above, we have collected a huge number of textbooks over the years. Some of the GCSE ones go back to 2000...

But the question remains, what do you do with them?

Some teachers are very good at changing between textbooks, remembering where the 'good bits' are for each section. I have never been very good at this. I also feel students have become accustomed to GCSE books that, in one volume, contain every thing needed. Also I wrote the latest GCSE book, and so I feel that it covers the spec well and is all a student will need for exam success! 

There was a time when many missionary religious orders would be keen on taking them and shipping them to their schools in Africa. However this is costly, and many countries have tightened up on import taxes. For those interested, I have been made away of this organisation. I have not contacted them yet about their interest in RE textbooks:

Textbooks take up a huge amount of space, and I am conscious the older they get, the less likely they are to be of use to anyone. Therefore, we are offering them to a good home: other schools, charities, missionaries. Please see our list of available books: <here>

There is no price list, but schools may hopefully be able to offer us a donation. This will go back into our RE Dept to help provide our boys with the best education we can. I do not have a large quantity of packing materials, and doing this is very time consuming so I would prefer for people to come and pick them up. 

Hopefully you will be able to help us from simply recycling these books... particularly as I am very aware one day it will be my textbook that people are trying to find a home for! 

There is no easy solution to this, textbooks have a life span. They get replaced. I am not convinced education is purely circular, especially not in RE. I think we are often moving forward, this is a good thing, but a costly thing.

Please share out list:  <here>

Monday, 10 July 2017

KS2/3 Transition Knowledge Organiser: Religious Education

Each year, a new cohort of Year 7 students arrive. Some subjects have a National Curriculum, others are tested by SATs; there is some consensus about what students will know, and what they will not. However RE is very, very different.

Our Catholic feeder schools will have followed Come and See, a Catholic programme of study used by the majority of Catholic primary schools. We also have the Curriculum Directory which forms the basis of all that should be taught in Catholic schools. This should, or could, make it pretty straightforward to pick up where they left of.

It is important that I stress that primary colleagues do do a great job, and the knowledge and understanding of many Year 7 students is great. This is not designed as a criticism. It is also worth remembering the difference between: "they have been taught this" and "they know this".

However, we have a number of students that come from non-Catholic primary schools, who find RE in a Catholic school a really steep learning curve. Things that are taken for granted, like the Sacraments and the Mass, are totally alien to them. Even with a class set by ability, there is a phenomenal range in the first term (and beyond). Like many schools, we also have students from a range of other faiths: Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs - and of course some students of no faith at all.

ED Hirsch began his work by identifying key weaknesses in the students in his care; they were not succeeding as they had not been taught certain knowledge. It was the fact he cared about this, and believed he could address it, that lead to his work on 'cultural literacy' and identifying the key facts a child should know.

As such, I began thinking about how I could help new Year 7s to adapt and thrive in Term 1 of Year 7 RE (and beyond!). Catholic RE is different to 'other' RE, and we make few apologies for that. However it is also academic, critical and knowledge rich.

My solution was to produce a Knowledge Organiser linked to The Way, our Year 7 syllabus. I also wanted to include some of the key information that we often (dangerously) assume that students in a Catholic school will know. We are historically the 'option for the poor' and the poor has an ever changing definition. Those who are struggling or missing out need our help. Someone once suggested putting all the non-Catholic, or non-Catholic educated, students in one class to help them - I genuinely can't think of anything more horrific, or against the ethos of our schools.

This Knowledge Organiser is in draft format, and the first place I shared was in a Facebook group called Primary Catholic RE to get feedback - I want to work collaboratively on this with primary colleagues. It is not top down, from secondary. It is on a GoogleDoc that has comments open to all to offer suggestion, alternatives, criticisms. I feel it will be a better document if people do this.

Already I have faced some criticism, and I will begin to answer it:
  • My intention was never to be "condescending" or "arrogant" to primary colleagues. KS2/3 transition is hard to get right. I want to work collaboratively, hence I am not doing something without sharing as widely as I can. 
  • This may not be appropriate in other contexts. This document has been labelled as "OTT", "Ridiculous" and "Far, far, FAR too much". I've asked what knowledge on here is not worth knowing, no-one has answered that so far.
  • I do not believe that RE is about rote learning facts. However I do believe knowing certain key information (and knowing it well), will help students understand, analyse and evaluate material in the classroom.
  • Proselytising is not the aim of Catholic RE. Knowing the parts of the Mass is not forcing anyone to believe it is true. However, I have seen huge ignorance of the Catholic Church, and ignorance is never a positive thing in life. I've also never known teaching students about the Mystery of the Trinity, or the Mystery of Eucharist remove key questions of faith - quite the opposite! 
  • This is not 'another test' for primary school children, I do not believe our feeder schools will take this document and start testing students on it in a high-stakes fashion, like their SATs - of course they won't! However it can be shared with parents and students new to Catholic education to help them 'close the gap'. 
  • Yes, it is a bit Hirsch-ian. No, he is not evil. Yes, Gove did cite him on occasion.
  • Naturally these 'facts' will be given context, significance and meaning in the classroom.  
  • This knowledge cannot be simply labelled as "meaningless" and dismissed. It means something to someone - quite a lot actually. At the very least, it helps to understand the Catholic influence on art, culture, literature and so on. Criticism of Catholic schools via this document is not really that helpful.
  • My vision of RE is not just knowledge-based, but imagine what you could do in the classroom if all (or most) students already knew key information? You could do far more deep thinking, meaningful debate and discussion, and extended writing.  
I'm left with a few key questions:
  • Can we expect new Year 7s to know certain things? And by this I mean facts, definitions, names, places, dates, stories - is this reasonable?
  • How can we ensure it remains low-stakes, but also seen as important? We do not want a Catholic SAT in RE.
  • What is the best way to share? Via primary schools, at Year 7 induction, in September of Year 7?
  • Will we test it in Year 7? Should this provide the outline of our baseline test (much of it does!)?
  • Is there a best way to work with primary colleagues on this?
Next steps
  • Is there a way of creating a more knowledge-rich curriculum in Catholic schools?
  • How do we reconcile the demands of the Curriculum Directory with such a curriculum model?
  • Is a simple Knowledge Organiser for each unit at Key Stage 3 the next best step?
  • Do we need an adapted version for Year 12 students who join our school and study A Level RS? The New Testament element of the course provides a real difficulty for some students.

Image courtesy of Blue Diamond

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Shootout: GCSE History vs GCSE RS

For those who don't know, I love Westerns. I really don't know why anyone makes any other kind of film to be honest. As my Twitter bio states, if I wasn't a teacher, I'd be a cowboy. However, I am pretty rubbish at horse riding and have fallen off a few times, so I don't think I am really all that cut out for it... 

I decided that actually, instead of just watching Westerns, that I should actually try to learn something about the period so I understood the context of the films a little better... as well as working out fact from fiction. I put out a tweet:

There were a few responses, but I learnt that Alex Ford had written a GCSE textbook for the OCR specification. I thought this was an ideal place to start - surely if a 16 year old can master this content, I could!?

I was going to skip all the blurb at the start as I felt I didn't really need any of the exam info stuff. However something caught my eye, this book represented 20% of the GCSE course. Now, it is worth noting that the book is 108 pages long, of this, page 8 to 95 are filled with content. There are some pictures and images, but there is a lot of text - I would estimate at least 800 words per double page spread. To cut a long story short, there is a lot to learn here for just 20% of your grade. 

It got me thinking about some of the criticism made about the new GCSE in Religious Studies:
  • "There is too much content." - History seems to have as much, if not more.
  • "It is not relevant enough." - This is relevant to me, as a Western lover, but this unit only takes the student as far as 1900 - not far enough to fully embrace modern American culture. A 6th former the other day asked me, "Did cowboys even actually exist?" 
  • "The interesting bits are no longer there [abortion/euthanasia]" - This is certainly not all gunfights and shootouts! 
I know the aim of OFQUAL was to try and make GCSEs, as close as possible, comparatively hard. RS GCSE has had a steep, step up. I believe History has got harder, and to ensure RS matched up, it has perhaps had to get much harder. There is much more content. there are far more tougher theological concepts, there are Sources of Wisdom and Authority (SoWA) to learn. We can certainly not teach it in an hour a week any more.

I guess we need to think smart, preempt difficulties and take action with the new spec (like Blondie). Otherwise we will be left running around after a lost cause (like Tuco) or completely out of the [GCSE] equation (like Angel Eyes). No-one wants to lose the shootout...

X Years of Expertise - GCSE and A-Level RS Working Parties

The new GCSE and A-Levels have caused great anxiety to many staff. The climate has changed since the last changes (2009 and 2008 respectively) whereby there is greater accountability, greater focus on exams (and technique), greater use of data, the introduction of performance related pay, more in depth exam analysis, ALPS, RAISE... all of these things necessitate changes to the class room teachers approach to Key Stage 4 and 5 teaching. Teachers are demanding more SAMs - but so are the students! A few comments / emails that I've had from my own students, with no prompting I hasten to add:
  • "Sir, how can there only be one SAMs? We need a bank of possible questions to practice." [GCSE Student]
  • "Will there be an examiner reports produced for us on the SAMs to read before the final exams?" [A Level]

Exam boards have been under pressure given the speed of exam reforms, but there are few and far opportunities for teachers to get together and use their collective expertise. So I thought I would organise some, thankfully backed by my school who lead a Teaching Alliance.

The affirmation I needed, was sending a colleague on a course for A-Level preparation (not exam board, and not the best), where one of the key recommendations was joining the respective Facebook groups, the A-Level one I admin myself! [GCSE Edexcel and A-Level Edexcel].

My rationale was this:
  1. Most examiners are experienced classroom teachers.
  2. All examiners are human beings, who need to interpret a mark scheme.
  3. Teachers can do the same - in fact they do exactly this on a regular basis!

I did some Maths.... If I could get 10 teachers in the room (sums done using GCSE figures)
  • 10 teachers X average 5 years teaching = 50 years total
  • 4 unit tests + 1 mock marked per student per year = 8 exam questions marked per student per year (the reality may well be far higher!)
  • 40 students taught on average per year (some schools only having an option group, some schools teachers having 2 classes in full cohort entry)

50 x 8 x 40 - Approx 16,000 GCSE questions marked by those in the room

That has  to count for something. Those teachers have sat with an exam board mark scheme, interpreting student answers time and time again. I'd also recon they have done that with a reasonable degree of accuracy - how often do you get your students grades to within one?

We know, from the desperate adverts, that some of our students' marking will be done by NQTs in the real thing. We know the exam boards will put in place fail-safes with their marking teams to ensure marking is as accurate as possible. We know some students will need to challenge their result and to have their marking checked. We know we will be pleasantly surprised with some students, and bitterly disappointed with others. We have to keep faith that the system works, reasonably well. 

However, I thought it was important to create an opportunity to sit around the table and discuss with other experienced colleagues. Therefore:
The Agnus Dei Teaching School Alliance are hosting two events where teachers of the new Edexcel A-Level and GCSE qualifications in Religious Studies can meet to work collaboratively, discuss current issues and support one another. The sessions will include:
  • “What we know” - exam board published resources, including updates
  • Discussion of mark schemes / assessment objectives
  • Discussion of current marking - teachers to bring samples of work / marking
  • Sharing our resources
  • Writing our own exam questions
  • Final conclusions - including compiling a list of questions for the chief examiner
The A-Level event would cover all study options
The GCSE event would primarily be for schools studying Spec A: Catholic Christianity
The sessions will be run at St Bonaventure's School in Forest Gate, East London (E7 9QD) at a cost of just £10 to cover refreshments.

HOWEVER a number of colleagues from around the country have said they can't come due to distance. Why not arrange your own? There are companies charged hundreds of pounds to provide what is freely available from exam board websites. Is it possible to have enough confidence in our own professionalism? Yes there are things that will need clarification, but talking it through with other experienced colleagues will hopefully help regain some of our confidence. We are able to deliver these new specs, and we are currently doing a bloody good job given the circumstances!

Edexcel are now offering some online and face-to-face training for next academic year. These are £240 (or £118.80 online). The fact you pay to enter students for the exam is not enough to expect free training to mark! Book via <here>

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Pope Francis on TED: Lessons for Schools

Today the first Papal TED talk was published. Recorded in the Vatican rather than with the instantly recognisable black backdrop, Pope Francis shared his "idea worth spreading". He touched upon ideas of solidarity, hope and tenderness. Some have suggested our world leaders were at the forefront of Francis' thinking when he wrote this, however, I think there is genuinely something for everyone in the talk; my focus is looking at a message for schools and school leaders.

"None of us is an island"

The first point is a reminder of how we all need one another. As someone who has lead teams within schools, it's been made evident that you need to be working together, always. To be a year team, a department, an SLT, you need to stand together. Francis points out, we need to "restore our connections to a healthy state" - connection and interaction makes us happy; this is in our human nature.

I enjoy our short weekly morning briefings as an RE Dept, and as an SLT we meet on the other four mornings. At first it seemed like lots of meetings, yet it drastically cuts down on many emails over smaller matters. It also means we get a catch up, know everything that's going on - and share personal news too... we even have a laugh and share a joke on occasion! It means issues are dealt with quickly.

As a department, it can help with 'buy-in' and ensure a shared experience. I try to speak in person to every member of my department every day, but it doesn't always happen - that's the life of a teacher - it's always busy! However, if I don't talk to them, I won't know if they are happy. And this is important. Anyone who feels like a island in a school is unlikely to be working as the best teacher they could be.


"How wonderful would it be if solidarity, this beautiful and, at times, inconvenient word, were not simply reduced to social work, and became, instead, the default attitude in political, economic and scientific choices, as well as in the relationships among individuals, peoples and countries."

I believe that, in general, schools do have the 'default attitude' of solidarity - we fight for equality and social inclusion on a daily basis. Yet Francis goes on to say that each person is "not a statistic or a number." - and this is something we do need to fight in schools. A culture has been created (Ofsted? DfE?) where we have little choice but to focus of getting students to a 4 - or a 5? It is vital we don't lose sight of the individual human being..."a person to take care of."

Pope Francis then retells the story of the Good Samaritan; familiar but often overlooked despite it's richness. The paths of our students are riddled with suffering - anxiety, bereavement, housing issues, self harm, divorce. As are our colleagues too. School leaders need to ensure they are not like the "respectable" people in the parable; we cannot 'walk on by' ignoring the suffering, we cannot leave anyone on the side of the road. School leaders need to be constantly looking to the 'side of the road' - who is there? Students? Staff?

Thankfully, I think schools are genuinely places where we do we do not let the system "nullify our desire to open up to the good". Schools do show compassion, every day.

This leads to hope:

"Feeling hopeful does not mean to be optimistically naïve and ignore the tragedy humanity is facing. Hope is the virtue of a heart that doesn't lock itself into darkness, that doesn't dwell on the past, does not simply get by in the present, but is able to see a tomorrow. Hope is the door that opens onto the future. Hope is a humble, hidden seed of life that, with time, will develop into a large tree. It is like some invisible yeast that allows the whole dough to grow, that brings flavor to all aspects of life. And it can do so much, because a tiny flicker of light that feeds on hope is enough to shatter the shield of darkness. A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you. And then there will be another "you," and another "you," and it turns into an "us." And so, does hope begin when we have an "us?" No. Hope began with one "you." When there is an "us," there begins a revolution."

Schools are places of revolution; it happens every day in classrooms everywhere.

The Revolution of Tenderness

The third and final point from Pope Francis is one of listening. One of the most important things for school leaders to do. Listen: intently, carefully, attentively, relentlessly. 

One group that stuck out to me was, "listen.. to those who are afraid of the future". This is our students - do they need a 4 or a 5? What will it mean having a mixture of grades and numbers? What do universities want? Employers? Will I be able to afford a house? This is also our teachers - what do budget cuts mean? Will there be redundancies? Will I have a heavier workload? These worries are real. 

Francis points out the language of tenderness is one of shared communication. How do we speak to the students? How do we speak to those in our team? How do we explain complex concepts? How do we share difficulties without over burdening? 

This particularly resonated for me, as a relatively new school senior leader, "the more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly". There is a real importance to ensure you connect your power with humility and tenderness. Power may seem like an over-exaggerated term within the school context, but in every moment we have the power to make or break a students day, and likewise with colleagues. Francis hints at the model of servant leadership, evident in Jesus' ministry (see more on this in a previous blog post  <here>).

He concludes with more hope: "the future is, most of all, in the hands of those people who recognize the other as a "you" and themselves as part of an "us."" - this is our job; as teachers, leaders and human beings. 

Read the script in full <here>

Watch the video in full here:

Image courtesy of TED

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Jesus Was An Only Son

"One of the first things that is shocking when you have a kid is that suddenly there is this thing inside you... that says there is nothing, nothing you wouldn't do to keep them safe and protect them from what the world is going to deliver, which of course you can't do... the choices that we make are given a value by the things that we give up for them, the parts of life we pass by..."

Bruce Springsteen may not be a practising Catholic, yet in his own words, "he is still on the team" and "once a Catholic, always a Catholic". His songs present a relentless optimism, hope, redemption and resurrection. Bible imagery often features heavily. If you are interested in reading a little more on this, try these: Catholic Herald or Christian Today .

The Holy Family, Mary, Joseph and Jesus are introduced to us in the Nativity narratives. They present a model, an ideal - God could have picked any woman, and any man - in the whole of history - to bring up his Son; He picked these. By Jesus' Passion, Joseph seems to have died and is no longer there to support his son, and his wife, through the pain and torment. Mary was there, and this is her story, according to Springsteen:

A mother prays, "Sleep tight, my child, sleep well
For I'll be at your side
That no shadow, no darkness, no tolling bell,
Shall pierce your dreams this night." (Full lyrics)

This song is not just about Mary and about Jesus. It is about fatherhood, motherhood and all that goes with that. My life changed on 8th October 2015, when my son was born. I underwent the transformation Springsteen describes in the introduction to playing 'Jesus was an only son' live. A friend of mine had his daughter just a few months before us, and when I asked how it felt, he simply said, "ontological" - a phrase that has stuck with me. In his Confessions, St Augustine describes ontological feelings as being beyond conception, without condition... and connected to the heart.

Naturally fatherhood changes your working outlook and practices.

Instead of getting into work at 6.30am each day, when I can I like to stay at home and spend a bit of time with T in the morning. I try to get home as early as I can too, especially one or two nights a week. This usually means a few late nights catching up on work at home, something I never used to do when I did 6.30/7am to 6pm in school each day. Yet the trade off is worth it - getting home and giving T a bath, putting him to bed is a highlight of my day. 

I'd only ever left school once in the middle of the day in 12 years teaching, the day my grandmother died, but I've already had to do it once this year when T had been sick at nursery. The students at school remain important in my life, but they are not my own son. The needs of my wife are also greater than ever before, I need to be there to help and support her too. 

There are many reasons your colleagues may be finding life tough outside of school (bereavement, illness, divorce to name but a few). Although I never fully appreciated what colleagues who were parents may be going through. When you son is ill or teething, you may have got one or two hours sleep. You may have been woken on the hour, every hour. You may have been sat in the nursery at 3am. These things naturally have an impact on your ability to function on a given day! Especially as it so often happens when you have that 5 period day.

Your evenings and weekends become far more precious. I am reluctant to give up my Saturday morning to do a revision session, as this is when I take T swimming. I will be very selective on which Saturday conferences I will attend, as that is one of my full days with T. I try to avoid too many evenings out as I don't get to see T and put him to bed, plus it makes a very long day for my wife.

Importantly, it has changed my outlook to dealing with students at school too. You look at the students differently knowing how you care and protect your own child. I think I speak to fellow parents a little differently. I am not softer, if anything tougher, as I would want my son to be treated - I wouldn't want his teachers to tolerate mediocrity or have low aspirations for him. I would want him to be loved, cared for and treated fairly. I now always try to make it even clearer to parents that this is why I am trying to help, this is where I am coming from - even if it means the use of sanctions. 

Working in schools is a great privilege because you know exactly how great kids are already. The other day I read this by Matt Coyne who blogs on Facebook as the brilliant Man vs Baby:

When my son Charlie turned one we took him to a wildlife park. While we were there we taught him the noise that a lion makes... and he hasn't stopped "rraaahhhhrrring" ever since. And every time he roars, it occurs to me that we could just as easily have taught him that a lion "moos" or "quacks" and he would have accepted that as truth. And it further occurs to me that there is real power in that and a responsibility that comes with it. (BREXIT! TRUMP! ISIS! TERROR! HOW FATHERHOOD WILL FIX THE IMPENDING APOCALYPSE)

This is the power and responsibility that we share in as teachers. We are already in loco parentis for a significant part of the day - maybe we even feel we do more parenting than the actual parents! Certainly our pastoral responsibility can often go beyond the basic teaching of our lessons. This can be a rewarding and really worthwhile part of our jobs. Those with pastoral leadership roles will (hopefully) real feel this - we do make a difference. We also get to share in the many of the joys, laughs and happy moments.

Does becoming a parent mean you should be treated differently at work? Not really, but you can hopefully expect a little compassion and understanding on occasion. Does it mean you are a better teacher? Not necessarily, but I feel it has helped me be even better. Is it great fun? Absolutely. Is it for everyone? Not at all. 

I do now know that although my job is important, and that it still feels like a form of vocation, that my own family is my highest priority. I have undergone that 'ontological transformation' whereby there is nothing, nothing, you wouldn't do for them. I'm a husband, dad... and then teacher.

Image courtesy: Intensity Advisors

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

GCSE RS: Extended Writings Questions

"We are all teachers of literacy"
(Every English teacher / literacy coordinator, ever!)

Many RE teachers have been panicking about content and delivery time with the new GCSE in RS, quite understandably. However I have come to the conclusion that actually we also need to explicitly focus on literacy, namely writing good 'argument' essays. There is a potential situation where we allow only our students with good knowledge and understanding of RS AND good literacy to succeed in our subject. 

I teach the new Edexcel RS GCSE and I realised in my first few assessments a number of students were not even attempting the D style essay questions. These carry 12 marks (or potentially 15 with SPaG) and this meant losing 12 out of 24 marks. On questioning, they shrugged and said they were too hard. Upon further probing, it was clear that they knew some key bits of knowledge; this was not the fundamental problem in their lack of response. 

Firstly, it is vital to get away from the 'old part D' mentality. For Edexcel, that meant "3 points for, 3 points against". We can't just tack a conclusion on it this and hope for the best. Yet I understand why this may be a reasonable start point for less able students. They can pick up some marks for this, which is better than achieving nothing.

Secondly, I admit that my thinking has moved on from when we were under pressure to complete my textbook and devise strategies to help students write Part D questions. I am looking forward to working in future publications to provide more help and guidance to students and teachers with this. We initially looked to a approach similar to above (with developed, rather simple points), as more information trickles out of Edexcel, I am sure we will review for future editions.

Thirdly, we need different teaching techniques to our marking techniques. We cannot use the old Edexcel system of "simple point = 1 mark, developed point = 2 marks". The exam board keep repeating the fact that we need to be looking at the level descriptors. If I am honest, I as an A-Level teacher, I am finding this an easier adaptation from a marking point of view. However, I feel that are not particularly accessible for GCSE age students. As such, I have produced a resource in a format that I have used for A-Level before:

(Please comment on the document if you can see ways to improve)

One Size Fits All?

Different questions may require different approaches. Edexcel published some timing guidelines and suggested that "2 minutes thinking time" was built into each question. I'd suggest this is thinking and planning time, considering what the multiple views are, or what the different religious perspectives are. A simple template, especially "FOR, AGAINST, CONCLUSION" just won't work for some. Sadly, a one size fits all writing frame also will not always work.

Some activities I have completed in class to help students:
  • Providing a list of statements from Part D questions and getting them to identify what the multiple viewpoints may be - and linking to various religious views.
  • "Walking Talking" (PiXL) practice - talking the students through answering it, before getting them to write themselves.
  • Drafting questions as a class / in pairs / with textbook and then redoing in timed conditions.
  • Providing the content, and getting students to focus on literacy skills (see below).
I am conscious of the cognitive load placed on students while completing these questions. If we are asking them to recall information that is not secure (in their long term memory), given we are completing the question in the lesson where content has been delivered, plus asking them to do some relatively advanced essay writing, it is likely to overload their working memory. Therefore, for many D questions in class, I give the students the basic content and ask them to construct a good answer, focusing on their literacy skills. (Read more on CLT <here>)

Edexcel Spec Language
  • Deconstruction: Putting in your own words as to show a full understanding, including the separation/identification of key ideas
  • Logical Chains of Reasoning: Accurately using key connectives such as: therefore / as a result / in contrast / however / this shows that / this means that / this demonstrates that
New Info
Edexcel have released an 'update' with some further guidance; download <here>. A few things are apparent:
  • Unless all bullet points in the question are referenced, it is limited to Level 3 (which is what mark scheme does suggest)
  • A lack of clear conclusion does not mean an award of zero marks (thankfully!)
The "Double Advantage / Double Disadvantage" of SPaG has always annoyed me. The way I see it, the student who can write well (a generally good proxy for intelligence and exam success in humanities) can get an extra 12 marks across the paper, which is more than likely an additional grade. Additionally, the level criteria in D already factor in elements of SPaG with "coherent and logical chains of reasoning".

Less able, SEND and EAL students therefore are put at a disadvantage I believe. Additionally, I have no idea how such a subjective criteria will be consistently applied. What is the difference between reasonable, considerable and consistent accuracy? The only one I'd be confident on is awarding 0 if nothing was written.

We are not using on unit tests, ie 24 mark questions; 3 mark SPaG is too significant. We will have to use on the mock no doubt. I am aware of some teachers who totally ignore throughout, therefore any marks they pick up for SPaG are a bonus.

I believe the inclusion of SPaG was a DfE requirement, not the choice of Edexcel.

Arguing: A 'New' Approach?
It was helpful that Charlotte Vardy shared this video from her GCSE training course detailing her suggestions for attempting AO2 questions. It is worth watching for yourself, and it is generic, but most exam boards share a similar structure:

She points out that these extended questions are not just looking for two views, that is simply information (and therefore presumably just AO1). This would be the mistake of using techniques from old Edexcel spec.

She argues that the best approach is to see questions as looking for a view (thesis) backed up with various reasons. Students should work out their position before starting to write (remember the 'thinking time'!). This allows responses to begin with a view; this fulfil the Level 1 requirements for a conclusion. It is not simply a personal response, but a confident belief in the right answer. It is necessary to have counter arguments, and it is vital to link to particular religious beliefs. 

The structure suggested is therefore:
  • View
  • Reason 1
  • Reason 2
  • Reason 3
  • Religious groups / Denominations who would agree
  • Religious groups / Denominations who would not agree
  • HOWEVER / BUT...  - this is the evaluation, allowing a counter claim, but dismissing it
  • SO in conclusion, repeat initial view (backed up by most significant reason)
This avoids a simple description of different points of view.

I'd recommend watching the video rather than relying on my notes / interpretation.

I used to often use exam questions as consolidation at the end of one lesson, or a starter of the next. I more frequently use them now as a teaching tool. We don't write notes and then use them answering a question. The exam question is often their 'notes'. This may help them actually remember the material better if Dan Willingham is correct in his belief that students remember what they think about (read an overview <here>). They need to think far more deeply answering a Part D than just copying notes down. 

I also think this is excellent preparation for A-Level RS study. It is not easy, and certainly a challenge for less able students, but if we reduce the cognitive load in the first instance, we can be teachers of literacy, getting them to write well, in the context of our subject. For me, there is a great joy in this. A joy that was not there in the previous Edexcel spec. Even now, some of my most able students are writing essays that are enjoyable to read! 

Images courtesy of TimeSlip Blog