Sunday, 7 December 2014

Thoughts on the proposed changes to RE

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 na├»ve 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.


  1. Surely the unique bonus of our subject is its multi-faceted nature? There should be no crisis. Would a crisis be declared amongst history colleagues if some preferred to focus on political history options, whereas others preferred social and economic? Surely if we embraced each other's enthusiasms, there would be no crisis. The crisis arises from colleagues who think there is only one valid, relevant path to enthuse about. We should all be enthusing about both the paths you mention, and about others you don't that are also relevant. We should be able to make pupils see the relevance of every permutation; not just those we have opted to teach. The crisis is that clearly, we can't - or we are loathe to try to - and that is probably also unique to us and will probably cause our subject's downfall.

  2. To play devil's advocate: why is our subject unique in its "multi faceted nature" - because all the other subjects on the curriculum are distinct and coherent facets of the multifaceted whole of learning, while ours seems to have been created to encompass what is left over when the other facets have been taken off! In geographical terms, we could be seen as the Iraq of subjects, having suspiciously straight borders that are eternally porous and get us into trouble, containing the cradle of civilization, suffering poverty, tribalism and corruption while sitting on vast resources and being subject to regular bouts of regime change.

    The crisis is not of our making, it is the result of chronic under-investment in training which leaves many colleagues in the classroom with no idea what they are supposed to be doing, let alone the expertise to draw on to do it effectively. Teachers should not be left to work out the nature and purpose of their subject for themselves as they mark Year 9 work, they should be directed properly according to a fully researched and worked out rationale which they have had the opportunity to explore and come to understand BEFORE they enter the classroom, start writing schemes of work or policies.

    Are teachers of any other subject free to rename their department in the ad hoc way that many RS colleagues do? No. This is symptomatic of the confusion and lack of direction which affects our subject.

    The fact that there is no real academic tradition of Religious Education in the UK or anywhere else, that the tradition of Religious Studies is relatively new and that neither the ancient tradition of Theology nor that of Philosophy fits the bill in terms of what governments and schools want students to be engaged in cannot be unrelated to the crisis. Where subjects like History or Physics rely on university departments to provide a rationale, our subject cannot really do this. This is why the present "reforms" are so problematic for RS, given that the DfE has determined to change the content of courses to train up would-be applicants for TRS courses only, when in practice RS has a broader application and appeal and leads to a broader range of HE options.

    When teachers do try to use the rationale from their own academic training for their departments we end up with departments morphing into Philosophy, Christian Theology or Sociology... or Drama or Media Studies for that matter, when non-specialists are called upon to teach or even lead the subject.

    Please, let us not try to deny the problem which exists. Doing so just moves us further away from an effective solution. It is obvious that under the mess, there is a hugely important job to do. If we can stop bickering and blaming, we could engage in some clear thinking and move towards the rationale we need.

    1. This suggests a 'blank canvas' for RS is available. I very much doubt it is and I wonder what the involvement of Ofqual and DfE has been? We are told about how it needs comparability to other GCSE and A-Level subjects. Do you think this is part of the perceived problem and do you think it will be possible to escape this? I wonder how we compare to other subjects getting the reform treatment? There has at least been some teachers involved in our process.

      There will always need to be compromise. I doubt there is radical change possible, as the initial draft has factored in a huge number of constraints/requirements - probably well beyond most of our knowledge and understanding. There are some areas that I feel need some tweaking / refining and my response to the DfE has highlighted these.

      Will RS ever satisfy all our needs / personal requirements?