Karin Oster writes...
Tired after a long but productive day yesterday, when I met up with other RS practitioners at Trinity School in Croydon discussing the DfE reconsult, so many thoughts are running through my head. This is intended to be a clarification of some of those thoughts. Others have written at length about the problems regarding the content of the proposal, questioning the agenda behind these changes and the rushed timescale of the whole consultation process. Yesterday Charlotte and Peter Vardy’s alternative Alevel proposal was debated, criticised and improved on: I would encourage all to read this carefully. My department and I will be writing our own response to the DfE consultation and send it to our MP and head teacher as well.
This morning I keep thinking about a question that was put forward yesterday, which suggested RS as a subject and we as practitioners are in a state of identity crisis. I think this is the heart of the matter. As I see it is an identity crisis on three levels:
1. The content of what we teach: World religions or Philosophy and Ethics?
2. The place of the subject in the secondary curriculum: Compulsory RE or academic RS?
3. The purpose of our teaching: Teaching about religion, from religion or promoting a political agenda?
The first aspect of the identity crisis has become very obvious in the debates surrounding the DfE consultation. It seems that RS teachers are either of the “we should teach world religions in a phenomenological way” or “we should teach Philosophy and Ethics” camp. This divide has been further exasperated by the first group being supported by organisations / interest groups and others, while the second one has no similar organisation. Without organisation, the views of P&E teachers seem to have been overlooked by the DfE, as is evident in the content proposed for GCSE and A-level. I am not sure there needs to be such a divide. I think we are all passionate about teaching good RS and let us be honest, there is some bad RE teaching out there.
Where the disagreement lies is more about what constitutes good RS. If we for a moment put aside our own personal preferences and take a holistic approach to good RS across the whole school curriculum, it seems that both world religions and P&E needs to be taught, and to be taught well. By using Bloom’s taxonomy as a model, it is obvious that when RS is taught using higher order skills such as evaluation, analysis and synthesis it is good RS. When reduced to the lower order skills of knowledge and comprehension, it becomes bad RS, regardless of what the content is. Using philosophical enquiry as a method for exploring different world religions at KS3, as my school currently does, enables to students to learn about and from different world religions in a manner that makes it interesting, relevant and challenging for them. Similarly, examining different ethical issues at KS4 allows students to understand as well as question their own views alongside a range of religious and non-religious views, thereby appreciating the complexities of current debates about ethics. If learning is seen as a spiral rather than linear process, A-levels can offer students an opportunity to either revisit RS content studied at a lower level or delve into new content in an academically rigorous manner, thus preparing them for further study at university in general or RS/Theology specifically. While it seems clear that the DfE wants to narrow down the choices of content at A-level, schools must have enough of a choice to select courses that are relevant and appealing for their students. I’m afraid I find it naïve that if we teachers were only passionate about our subjects, students would study anything at A-level, as someone suggested yesterday. The state sector in which I teach is very much driven by economics: if we don’t get enough numbers, we don’t run A-level courses. The numbers are dependent on more than teachers’ passion: it is dependent on what students (and parents) see as interesting and relevant. This will obviously differ from school to school and too narrow an A-level will not enable schools to make choices that are right for them.
It seems as if part of the problem we are facing is also to do with the contention between fulfilling the legal requirement of compulsory RE and finding a place for RS as a serious, academic subject alongside History for example. Due to the time restraints of the DfE consultation, the immediate focus must be on the content of the subject but in the long term the community of RS teachers do need to address this. How do we do justice to both? Is it even possible? If RS has to be compulsory would not an examined National Curriculum ensure both quality and status of the subject? I understand the historical reasoning behind allowing LEAs to develop their own syllabi but surely in today’s society, a consistency of content and quality will only enhance the importance and relevance of RS? While we can try to argue the case for said importance and relevance, what I really fear is that as long as we cannot come together as a community to agree on what we should teach and why we should teach, then RS will continue to be hijacked by political agenda’s to promote certain values, whether the benefits of multiculturalism, producing co-existence or enforcing so called “British values”. Our students deserve better than that.