RE & the KNOWLEDGE problem…

I started teaching in 1999.  Since then I have lost a lot of sleep over the direction my subject is heading in.  To summarize…

  1. First we had Curriculum 2000 forcing the most linear and synoptic subject – Religious Studies – into a modular structure and imposing meaningless AS.  This was when the effects of making boards commercially competitive really started to be felt – with boards competing to make their spec most likely to yield top grades.
  2. Then, to reduce the predictably ridiculous and counter-productive exam-burden, revised specs left most of the content on the cutting-room floor and drove us towards superficial, over-focused courses that were dominated by (popular and so commercially attractive) Philosophy. Exam-boards pumped “endorsed” textbooks and examiner-led training into the mix, making success less about ability and more about money.
  3. Then we had the “helpful” suggestion that RS see this threat to standards and as an opportunity and offer early exams and/or reduced time courses.  Our subject-association peddled “do RS in an hour a week” courses and talked up “shoving all year 9 into short-course”, normalizing professional suicide. This at the same time as teacher-training was opened up to people with irrelevant degrees, who understandably shaped the feather-light content to suit their own Sociology, Philosophy or Psychology backgrounds.  Almost no subject-knowledge CPD was available, especially for 14-19. Popular yes – sustainable no.
  4. Then we had the widespread – and justified – perception that RS was the softest of “soft subjects” to deal with alongside mounting criticism that RS wasn’t RE by any measure, and wasn’t philosophy or relevant to university either, and that teaching was often substandard…  we responded by attempting to re-brand our own departments and write our own courses to re-introduce rigour and coherence, either in relation to RE or Philosophy.  This led to balkanisation and reduced the already-low levels of professional communication and collaboration, exacerbating the problems and making it hard to respond when the English Baccalaureate, #REConsult and then real-terms education cuts came along…
  5. Then a few influential people and groups – each with their own agendas and ambitions – claimed to represent us all and proposed a radical revision of the aims, identity and future of the subject under the guise of a long-overdue stiffening of the exam specs.  The “consultation” on dense, nearly-complete documents was launched quietly in November and closed on New Year’s Day to minimize responses.  Anybody who drew attention to the obvious issues was subject to personal and professional attack and their input largely ignored.
  6. The opportunity to come together and devise a sustainable future for the subject missed, when the new specs came out the same influential people battered down critical comments – mostly on social media – and made teachers feel unable to express their difficulties and concerns.  The exam boards, publishers, associations, consultants, textbook-authors and trainers chose to ignore the cliff we are all heading towards in the pursuit of £££, influence, honours and perhaps a way out of RE for themselves.  Those in faith-schools contributed to the discussions safe in the knowledge that they would carry on doing what they had always done regardless of the outcome.
  7. Predictably, the Commission on RE has focused its evidence-taking on the same influential people as dominated #REConsult and seems to be as divided within itself over the aims and identity of the subject as the rest of us.  Its interim report evidences what we knew already about the desperate state of the subject, but offers little hope of progress.  If the best that we can do is re-opening the re-branding discussions and pinning our hopes on a minority government prioritizing, let alone passing or resourcing, deeply controversial legislation at a time of political and economic chaos… then we might as well re-train as Maths or Computing teachers now.

So, where are we now?

It seems to me that my subject – RE, RS, RMPS or CRaP, whatever you choose to call it – is close to being wrecked.  We have been blown against the cliffs by political and economic winds beyond out control (and beyond many peoples’ understanding), but it is important to  be aware of the specific rocks we are being broken against.

  1. As teachers we lack any meaningful opportunity to discuss and contribute as a professional body.
    • Our subject association is far from being neutral or effective.
    • Most people no money to attend day-long meetings in London, not least because most academies insist training is all “in-chain”.
    • Most people haven’t the time to pussy-foot around the issues… those of use who actually teach are having to resource entirely new courses in at least five out of seven year groups this year.
    • Social media is dominated by people sharing fatuous memes, taking out their frustrations and asking other people to do their jobs for them.
  2. Understandably, RE teachers lack skill and awareness in political maneuvering.  Many are intensely naive and unrealistic.
  3. Related to that, people actually think that developing and publishing a new dense National Curriculum, Entitlement, Core Content or Framework document will change things.  It won’t!  This ship is a juggernaut that won’t turn quickly, easily… or at all when the same document is unlikely to be backed with significant training, time and resources for implementation.
  4. Our subject is deeply controversial and many people who have little idea of what actually happens in classrooms have passionate concerns and ideas about how it should move forward.
  5. Even experienced teachers seem to have little understanding of the difficulties inherent in curriculum design, let alone National Curriculum design.

A National Curriculum would be a disaster!

I would like to ask teachers younger than 35 (i.e. too young to have any memory at all of the debates surrounding the introduction of the National Curriculum in other subjects in 1988) to think more deeply about the challenge… perhaps by trying an activity that I do with my Year 7 classes as part of their “Welcome to RE” module.

Activity

Imagine you are the Head of Subject at XYZ School.  You have to decide what children will study, when and how, across the seven year groups at our school. 

There are a few rules, which mean that most of the creative input you will have is in Years 7, 8 and 9… where all students have an hour per week of RE, which works out at 39 hours per year (including exams & assessments):

  1. You have to spend significant time studying Christianity, because this is a Christian school (you could delete that) and because Britain is a Christian country.
  2. You have to give children the opportunity to study other religions, especially Judaism, Islam and Hinduism but also Sikhism and Buddhism. 
  3. Many children and parents want the opportunity to study non-religious world-views like Humanism, as well as contemporary issues like Capital Punishment and “big questions” about the existence of God or suffering.
  4. The Government ask us to cover topics in British Values and PSHCE, including bullying, internet safety and the importance of consent.
  5. The GCSE course in Years 10-11 is set by the exam-boards and must include Christianity, one other religion (any one) and four ethical themes.  The A Level course in Years 12-13 is set by the exam-boards and is all Christianity, Philosophy and Ethics.

It might also be useful to know that – as well as our Chaplain – the department has one teacher experts in teaching Islam, one who is very interested in Hinduism and one who was trained in Philosophy.  We also have a lot of exciting resources for Hinduism because we used to teach it for GCSE – and none for Buddhism or Sikhism.  We can run one optional local trip or visit per year in Years 7, 8 and 9.

Work together to decide what we should teach when and how, using the A3 curriculum overview grid on your table.  When you have decided, develop a 3 minute presentation explaining what you have decided and explaining your reasons.  We will hear the presentations next lesson.  

Of course, they all come up with different plans (as we would) and justify them for different reasons.  Most of the plans are reasonable, many of the justifications are sensible.  The point of the activity is to help them understand what we, as a department, offer and show that the subject is complex and diverse.  Further, it introduces them to having discussions with people who have different views, considering and evaluating the reasons behind those views.

It is clear – to me at least – that unlike Maths or Science, there is no “right” way to teach our subject.  There are no topics or concepts that are “easy” or “challenging” in themselves. The Book of Ruth can be taught in KS1 or can be the subject of a PhD dissertation…  Hinduism is “accessible” through Ramayana puppet-shows at KS2 and incredibly challenging when exploring the nature of truth in myth at A Level.

I tried a discussion with Peter on this point… “what would you specify for KS1, KS2 and KS3 in relation to Christianity” I asked.  “Which concepts and content should children know at 7, 11 and 14?”  It took us precisely 30 seconds to be arguing over the creation stories.  With so much to cover, it seems a luxury to specify them for study at KS1,2,3,4 and 5… but that is what we wanted to do.  You can’t reduce “content” like that to the “knowledge organizer” treatment.  Learning isn’t all about ticking boxes next to topics that have been “covered” or spelling key-terms correctly.

I have concluded that there is nothing to be gained by opening up the can of worms that will be trying to relegate some topics to KS2 and keeping others for late KS3 on a national level.  It is hard enough for individuals to justify decisions to themselves!

Perhaps we are more like History in that respect – studying the Crusades can happen at age 9 or age 39 with equal validity. Yet perhaps it follows that, like History, the decision over which topics to teach when becomes a loaded one.  Do we, like History, submit to teaching an implicit narrative i.e. “Our Island Story”… or do we follow Geography in being led by skills and themes – such as “migration” or “erosion” and leaving the specific case-studies largely up to schools or teachers?

How can we move forward/survive?

Having thought long and hard, I have come to think that adopting the Geography model and developing a non-statutory framework driven by big ideas” rather than inflexible and specific lists of content is by far the best for RE.

This model is not perfect, but it is better than trying to design an RE curriculum as if it were French or Latin (centered on memorizing and using a vocabulary-list) and better than the extreme thematic approach that seems inspired by Art (creative stimulus > discussion > reflection > creative response).

It is certainly true that Geography’s “themes” and “skills” become lenses which have the potential to distort how a case-study is presented, so care must be taken to offer students the invitation to extend their knowledge and understanding around the particular question that is the focus of the course.

Nevertheless, with subject matter as dense and diverse as ours, “Big Ideas” are a necessary way into the material which offer a more coherent and engaging approach than alternatives.

Recommendations for the Commission

If the Commission on RE wants to make recommendations which would yield positive change I would suggest…

  1. Stay out of the GCSE and A Level controversy and out of the Faith Schools and Withdrawal debates as much as you can… these will consume time & energy and will get nowhere.
  2. Focus on determining the aims for the subject and keep them modest and achievable. No sense in aiming to do something that nobody can do given time and budget restraints.
  3. Slim down the entitlement statement for the same reasons – but press for the slimmed down statement to become law to replace existing laws.  Recommend that Ofsted / ISI assess whether schools are outstanding, good, satisfactory or requires improvement in relation to meeting the RE entitlement at each inspection carried out from 2020, which should include a questionnaire question, policy on website, watching RE lessons and meeting with RE teachers & students.
  4. Eliminate all mention of re-naming the subject from the final report.  It will be the only think anybody takes notice of and it will get us nowhere.
  5. Recommend a new national framework for RE, non-statutory in the first instance, which would remove the need for standing SACREs, fulfill the national entitlement and show best-practice.  Avoid getting into details of content; focus on what ideas at what level & give examples of what this might look like rather than being prescriptive.  Give teachers a meaningful opportunity to discuss, consider and have input into the “Big Ideas” that will be specified.
  6. Encourage publishers, associations, diocese etc. to develop their own courses and resources which follow the framework as a structure.  Many schools will choose to follow these, but it allows for diversity within parameters.
  7. Recommend the funding of a properly independent subject association (with aims that are the same as the subject’s aims).  It cannot be funded by a faith-group or commercial organisation and its activities should be mostly online and free to facilitate access.  Perhaps SACRE money could be re-purposed for this.

 

 

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