Evidence to the Commission on RE

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Today I had the opportunity to present some evidence to the Commission on RE. I submitted the text below in advance- it contains more than I was able to deliver in my verbal submission but reflects the beginnings of my thoughts. I enjoyed the opportunity to share some of my views and listen to the views of others such as Wendy Dossett from TRS-UK, Paul Smalley who is Chair of NASACRE and Professor Brian Gates who, well, is Professor Brian Gates.

I speak to you today with a variety of roles and responsibilities within the world of RE. My day to day role is as the RE PGCE Tutor and RE Subject Leader in the Faculty of Education and Children’s Services at the University of Chester. I am also Chair of Examiners for Religious Studies with one of the major awarding organisations. I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and also the Education Adviser for the Church in the UK. Finally and most importantly I am a parent whose children experience and have experienced RE in state schools in Greater Manchester.

In presenting this evidence I will jump around the various questions raised by the Commission as I explore my experiences and research. As an RE tutor at Chester I see many different expressions of RE in partner schools, and also as Chair of Examiners I am often in contact with RE teachers who discuss their approaches to RE. As such I hope to be able to express my views on what factors lead to high quality learning and teaching in RE, and what the main obstacles to this are. Key to any expression of RE is the attitude, enthusiasm, knowledge and purpose of the teacher. I remember early on in my career reading a passage from Barbara Wintersgill “Religious traditions in the hands of an unsympathetic teacher, even if a certain amount of subject knowledge has been acquired, is likely to have the reverse effect. Too often, inappropriate teaching methods foster ridicule, disinterestedness and early dismissal of the claims of religions to be taken seriously.” (Wintersgill, 1993, p. 44 emphasis added). Although this was over twenty years ago this still seems to resonate, further John Hull has suggested:

…truly educational teaching is directed to all pupils alike, since no distinction is made in divergent education between Christian pupils, Jewish pupils and pupils of no religious affiliation… It does not mean that the teacher does not care but that he cares for them all, accepting them as they are (1984, p. 181).

“Great teachers bring colour, tone, and meaning to that which we read and have experienced. From them we catch something; we sense their commitment, feel their excitement, are lifted by their dedication, refreshed through their insights, encouraged through their struggles, and strengthened by [them]” (McConkie, 1975, p. 51).

I have discussed with some teachers recently that they bore themselves with some of the content that they teach. This is usually a comment levelled when discussing the new GCSEs. I would argue that it is not the content, rather the attitude. As teachers are aware of the purpose of what they are teaching and it is not just a recitation of facts or stuff then compelling learning experiences are developed. One of the main ways to do this is to make RE relevant to the lives and experiences of pupils themselves. In exploring effective ways to teach RE it has been suggested that using bridges is useful to underpin classroom practice (see Holt, 2015). One of these bridges is with pupils’ own experiences and it is here that the culture of pupils can help bridge the gap of understanding and relevancy with pupils. Without exploring in depth Piaget’s constructivist approach to learning it is possible to suggest that using prior knowledge and things within the pupils’ own experience will help deepen and enhance learning. Judith Lowndes (2012) suggests a conceptual pyramid to be used within RE; underpinning progression up the pyramid are concepts within the pupils’ own experience and culture.

At a very minimum this is using every day experiences and drawing parallels with the religious concepts to be studied. This can be done at every age and would include simple questions such as ‘When have you had to share in your life?’ as a prelude to a study of the Langar within Sikhism. Or perhaps a reflection on an important place of meaning before exploring pilgrimage in any religion (see Holt, 2007). Teachers recognise the need to ground these concepts in a pupil’s own experience to help them empathise and also to see the commonalities and relevance of religion.

These experiences can sometimes be limited in nature, and not produce the grounding that is necessary to understand the concepts being taught and explored. It is here that pupils own cultural capital can be used to more fully explore aspects of religion, philosophy and belief.

It is at this point that we can consider what should be included in the scope and content of RE. Sometimes teachers over reach for things that may seem appealing at the expense of deep understanding of religious concepts and beliefs that underpin practice. Too often pupils seem to understand the practices of religions but not the beliefs that inform them. In this way pupils may miss the lived reality of a religion- they may be able to label the features of a synagogue but would struggle to see the centrality of community and the Almighty in Jewish life and identity. This would also enable religiously literate pupils to explore any disconnect between practice and belief, perhaps begin to account for them and be more prepared to understand the impact of beliefs and also the possibility of their interpretation in different cultural, political and ideological contexts.

The dilution of RE is also a worry. This is not to denigrate the importance of PSHE or ethical approaches. On occasion it would seem that these subjects become the focus and the vehicle of RE within schools. So much so that religions and worldviews are marginalised and only become relevant as they relate to broader PSHE/ethical themes.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the inclusion or recognition of religions beyond the mainstream expressions of the Big Six. Perhaps as a result of my own background as a member of a minority expression of Christianity (or not depending in who is defining Christianity), I have conducted research about the inclusion of these faiths. I concluded, after exploring various arguments for and against their inclusion:

It is possible that the study of RE could continue without a mention of [these faiths]. However, this study would be greatly diversified and enhanced if these faiths were given an appropriate place within the classroom. At some point in our lives we will all encounter (or teach) a member of a [minority faith]. Surely it is better to do so prepared with (even a basic) knowledge and understanding of what they believe. This would not only augment teachers’ subject knowledge, but also further empower them in their pedagogical practice, engaging pupils, embracing and addressing their increasingly diverse needs, backgrounds and experiences and also promoting community cohesion with more breadth and depth. The responsibility for taking up this opportunity lies as much with the [faith] communities as with those responsible for the RE curriculum content and delivery.

Time is impossible to do include everything about smaller faiths, but where faiths have a significant local presence in the community or school this would be desirable. From my own children’s experiences a recognition that there is a Christianity outside of the mainstream Trinitarian traditions would help them feel as though they are not other. As such the localness or adaptability of curricula is a strength of RE. Whether this needs to continue to exist through the Agreed Syllabus is a debate that has many positive points on either side of the argument. I would argue that a national curriculum for RE while some would see as desirable would not suit the needs of the local communities and the flexibility that is often a part of the RE offering. That said, there seems to have been a growing homogenisation of curricula across the country which may make this point moot. Also, the freedom of Academies also may demand the implementation of national guidance. Whatever is suggested should be treated with caution, especially in the voices that are heard in its construction. It sometimes seems that those who shout the loudest have their ideas adopted even though they may not be the best approach for the subject.

Changes that could be made to the current legal framework for RE include the anachronistic withdrawal clause. If RE is taught properly and it is no longer Religious Instruction there should not be the need for pupils to be withdrawn. I always come back to the writings of John Hull in Mishmash: “I am holy… and you are holy, but the ground between us is unholy and we will contaminate each other through a harmful mingling of blood if we should meet” (Hull, 1984. p181). Engaging in RE recognises that it is not harmful but potentially transformative. This does not mean that a person should be willing to sacrifice any of their beliefs in this dialogue. In RE there is a possibility that a transformative third space opens up between the pupil and the worldview they are exploring. Teece argues that “it is the space between us that constitutes holy ground, holiness being discovered through encounter” (Teece, 1993: 8).

If RE is this important, and I would argue that it is then a basic entitlement of 5% curriculum time would not be unreasonable. Too often RE is diluted or ignored in a school curriculum. Consider the school that has KS4 Ethical debate for 5-10 weeks per year, one hour per week; many primary schools that maybe have 5 hours over an entire year. The inconsistency beggars belief. This is often at the whim of the head teacher. My own experience is of a Head teacher who decided to cut RE to once fortnight for Year 10s. Why? It became evident when he observed one of my lessons and at the end said: “Well, James I didn’t know RE could be taught well until today!”- he saw no value in the subject, only following the lesson and outcry from parents and pupils did he back down. It would seem that only with statutory entitlement would all Head teachers be motivated to have a reasonable RE offering.

One further concern that I have is about the organisation of RE standards, curricula, or syllabuses. With the removal of levels there seems to have been a vacuum left with regards to assessment. The RE Review and others such as RE Today have sought to provide End of Key Stage Statements or steps of learning. As I have spent time in schools over the last twenty years it is always the pitch and assessment of RE that has been of primary concern. There seemed to be the widespread view that learning new things was the way that progress was made. Over the years there had been good work done to help us understand progress that seems to have disappeared with life after levels. I am not arguing for life after levels but perhaps a more robust way of enabling assessment across the country. This seems rather at odds with my arguments against a national offering earlier but perhaps having national guidance with local interpretation might help.

The development of curricula is always an ‘interesting’ question within RE- there are many people with different views. In my experiences with the DfE in the development of GCSE criteria and also in the writing of GCSE and A Level specification I am aware of the act that tight-rope walking that it is. Faith communities, rightly, have an interest in how their religion is expressed. But religions are not monoliths, rather they are multi-faceted with numerous expressions. In some cases RE teachers and faiths present a chocolate box view of a particular religion. A presentation that is sanitised, static and one size fits all. This is the approach that describes all Christians as believing in the Trinity; all Orthodox Jewish people wearing Hasidic style clothing; all Muslims wearing the burkha or the shalwar khameez. This approach provides a univocal view of religion that can serve to reinforce stereotypes, be out of step with pupils’ experiences of religion; most crucially this presentation may be at odds with the beliefs and practices of the pupil themselves (see Moulin, 2011). Interestingly my own experiences with one particular faith community highlighted this. This group had taken issue with the representation of certain beliefs and practices in a discussion I was having- these were, in my experience, accurate representations of the beliefs of adherents I had met. They were not, however, according to the ‘official’ tenets of the faith according to this group- as such they should not be taught as expressions of the religion. This raises the question of who gets to speak for the religion. In the ethnographic approach to RE are the voices of the individual lost and everything becomes purely phenomenological? This seems to lose the lived reality of religion where beliefs and practices are navigated in a UK context. I think the views of religions are a starting point but in the development of curricula they need to be balanced and not the reflection of one very loud voice. I recognise that this is rather idealistic and perhaps, difficult to implement because beliefs are so deeply held. In all I do I consider the words of Yeats: “I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams” (2010, p. 26).

My final discussion will focus on my primary role within RE, and consider the question about changes to primary and secondary teacher education improving the delivery of high quality RE. I work at the University of Chester and am responsible for the RE input for all people on Initial Teacher Education programmes. In our BA QTS students receive approximately 16-20 hours of RE input, in the PGCE Primary Core programme they receive 8 hours. Although I always consider that this is not enough, in discussion with colleagues from other HEIs I recognise that we do incredibly well for time and input at my institution. With the demands of all of the other subjects and placements it is difficult to see how more could be included. Within School Direct programmes, partner schools have this responsibility and it is variously implemented. This raises an interesting question about what we are preparing students with. I have a colleague who has done some research across HEIs that indicates that the main worry of students is subject knowledge. Her research was not focussed on RE but aspects of the subject came through in her interviews. She outlined:

  • Experience of teaching RE in primary schools was very patchy. Limited opportunities to observe subject experts and engage in professional discussion. RE lessons rarely observed.
  • RE is one of the subjects that primary trainees felt very ‘wobbly’ about in relation to subject knowledge. This was often underpinned by a belief that you had to subscribe to a particular faith yourself in order to understand enough about it to be able to teach it effectively.
  • There were some major misunderstandings in relation to subject knowledge for teaching primary RE, e.g. there is no subject knowledge; it’s just about feelings/opinions; it’s not an academic subject; it’s just like PSHE.

This, if extrapolated across the country it is worrying. I often spend the first couple of sessions with Primary ATs talking about purpose and pedagogy as I would rather students understand that, and then build on it with subject knowledge that they can take responsibility for if there is not enough. This colleague further found that

  • Pedagogical content knowledge was very limited for RE but one individual showed excellent awareness  – attributed to specialist teaching in university. The research involved two HEIs. The other HEI had no RE specialist as it was a very small department. Student teachers there felt totally unprepared to teach the subject and could describe their failed attempts with some embarrassment.

I always support my students with the offers of support for teaching RE outside of the modules but this relies on students to take this up. Within Primary ITE there needs to be a focus on both pedagogy and subject knowledge, combined with experience of RE teaching. This obviously needs to be facilitated with the time to do it.

With Secondary ITE the major problem at the moment seems to be recruitment. I have been at Chester for ten years and after the reduction in numbers and bursaries under the coalition Government, I and colleagues at other institutions have noted an increasing difficulty in filling places. The ignoring of RE seemed to send a message that it wasn’t valuable, the removal of bursaries was devastating from which we have not recovered, even though they’re now in place at a low level.

This is combined with the introduction of School Direct routes. At the University of Chester our school direct routes seem to work very well- almost all of our partner schools with RE students send their students to University for the same RE experience as the Core students. This is not the same across the country, and in concert with Primary provision this can sometimes be sketchy. Although my experience at Chester shows that both routes work very well, this does not seem to be the national picture. As I have visited other HEIs and spoken with colleagues the RE input can be negligible. As such it would seem sensible for guidelines and requirements for time spent in ITE- this can never ensure the quality but it can ensure that it happens.

Thank you for this opportunity to provide evidence about this subject that I love so much.

 

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