Thursday, 18 December 2014

Children Should Be Taught... (2014 Edition)

I can take no credit for this list, James Williams has done all the hard work and I urge you to read his original piece of work <here> (it's far better written and entertaining too - it also has all the references if you don't believe them!). James Williams did a Google search for "Children should be taught" over the last 11 months. A substantial amount of these 'ideas' came from ministers... Gove, Law and Morgan.

For me, it highlights the comedy circus that is teaching in 2014, and no doubt 2015. I have been contributing to the new proposal for GCSE and A-Level RS, which will be a lot more content heavy (like all other GCSEs and A-Levels). I am also now a pastoral leader (Head of Y10), am I supposed to fit these 'extras' into our Citizenship and PHSE lessons? I agree that some of these ideas are excellent... I just wish there was time, resources and expertise to do them well. Others are absolutely not the responsibility of schools.

Some people will go mad about this, I just smile. Even in my short 10 years of teaching I have seen things come and go. Most of us literally don't have any more time in our days to teach any more things. It's easy for someone to go to the press and say "Children should be taught..." but the reality is very different; we can't even really listen to the minsters for education and follow their suggestions.

Carry on doing a good job, enjoy your Christmas break and let's wait with anticipation for the new things we'll have to teach in 2015! 

Here is the abbreviated version for those suffering under workload or Christmas exhaustion!

Employment Skills
Online Bully & Sexting

Grit & Determination

Probability & Uncertainty in Maths
Theatre Etiquette
How to Worship & Pray
Meditation, Mindfulness and Buddhist Techniques
Body Image
How To Fail

How to Speak Eloquently

Risk & Survival Skills
How To Ride A Bike

British Values

Cancer Awareness

How To Celebrate Being Gay

Imperial Measurements

Early Warning Signs of Domestic Abuse
First Aid
Nature of Marriage, Family Life & Bringing Up Children
Dangers of Alcohol [Primary]

Finance Management
How to be Rebellious & Break Rules
How to Brush Teeth
Dangers of Gambling

A Visit to the DfE: #REconsult

Image courtesy of The Guardian

Last Friday (12th December 2015), I had my second visit to the Department for Education. Last time was to discuss EBT [Evidence Based Teaching] and this time for the #REconsult, a consultation on the new GCSE and A-Levels in Religious Studies. It has been the only such meeting of the 26 consultations that the DfE have conducted to date; in fact the meeting was held twice, during the day and again in the evening for those unable to get out of school.

During the meeting, I tried to make some notes which will hopefully explain some of the process that have been going on. These are my takes on the day and me sharing the information as best I can; I hope any colleagues that were there on the day can help correct or add to me. Please do this via comments at the bottom or via email

The Aims of the Reform Process (not just RE!):
  • To address size and suitability of content.
  • To ensure appropriate level of challenge.
  • To enable progression to further study.
  • To review number of optional pathways through the qualification.
  • To balance breadth and depth of study.
  • To highlight any equality and diversity issues.
Background to GCSE and A Level Reform:


In 2013, the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove announced the start of the reform process. New qualifications needed to have challenging content with rigorous assessment inline with international expectations. He also highlighted the need to prepare students for further study, and hence the involvement of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). Gove also wanted these qualifications to be reliable and stretching, yet remain universal and about the same size.

He insisted that there needed to be a high standard set as a good pass (indications are that this will be above a current C). GCSEs should also be comparable across the suite of qualifications. Exams would be at the end of the course with no modules and only very limited use of non-exam assessment  (Dance, Drama etc) and tiering.

It was pointed out that Maths and English have set the bar high and we need to match. Many concerns were, and continue to be, raised about the time issue that many schools face with RE. How can the subject be comparable on an hour a week?

A Level

A key focus is that students are better prepared for Higher Education and hence a very heavy involvement from HEIs across all subjects. All courses will all be linear and there is to be a complete decoupling of the AS from the A Level. This will include differences to assessment arrangements so AS marks will not contribute to final A Level grade. It is important that the A-Levels are fit for purpose but will not be harder, as such.

Concerns were raised about timetabling and resources for this. Will AS and A-Level students be in the same class? This was an issue for Awarding Organisations (AOs) to address.


Religious Studies is on track. The content will be published Feburary 2015 and exam specs will be ready by Summer 2015. All GCSEs and A Levels will be fully accredited by Autum 2015 ready for September 2016 teaching. The DfE see this as very important to maintain as they want to launch Religious Studies at the same time as other EBacc subjects.

Some attendees suggested waiting another year to 'get it right', while others seemed to agree that getting parity with other EBacc subjects was better overall. On balance, I think the majority did want 2016. Would you want a student getting all 1 to 9s and then one solitary lettered grade in RS?

Another concern raised, linked to time allocation, was that RS was often studied as a 3 year course. Some mentioned that some schools do ALL GCSEs from Y9. The DfE made it very clear that GCSEs are designed as a 2 year course. They did say that Awarding Organisations (AOs) would be producing Specs from Summer 2015 and so those schools who felt the need, would be able to begin teaching in September 2015, with the rest following in September 2016. Ed Pawson of NATRE pointed out that it was their belief that 30% of schools did early start GCSE RS. Ofqual said there are absolutely no plans for a legacy paper and the last exams of the current GCSE will be in Summer 2017.

Processes for Other Subjects

EBacc subjects were drafted by DfE employed drafters while non-EBacc subjects were divided and lead by the Awarding Organisations. Naturally, all final documents were/are to be approved by ministers. Religious Studies and Citizenship were handed back to the DfE by the AOs due to their diverse stakeholders.

HEIs have played a significant role and a Russell Group Advisory Board have fed heavily into A-Level reform discussion. There is currently a sub-class and super-class of facilitating subjects while the DfE want greater comparability. It was clarified that GCSE RS is in Progress 8.

It was made clear that the DfE have now taken the lead in RS, employing a drafter and engaging with a range of stakeholders. It was noted at the time that Award Organisations should have also been added to this list:

Religious Studies Process

With so many stakeholders, the process obviously took a long time. The DfE worked very closely with the REC in initially to begin informal consultations in February 2014.

Someone questioned whether the process for Religious Studies reform fulfils the Cabinet Office Guidance [2013] and the DfE assured attendees that it does and that those guidelines refer to the process as a whole and not just the formal discussions we are currently engaged in. They are clear that all consultations have been proportionate and that everyone has had an opportunity to voice their concerns and suggestions. 

Alongside working with the REC, NATRE and ISRSA were also consulted.

NATRE representatives at the meeting highlighted the fact that they wanted the consultation to be as open as possible from the start. They acknowledged that NATRE cannot reflect every teacher of RE and that the proposals that are currently being consulted upon are not necessarily a reflection of NATREs input.

The DfE pointed out that to date, 12th December 2014, that they had received over 1500 responses since the consultation opened on 7th November. This is probably more than all other 26 consultations that have taken place put together. Some subjects have had less than 50 responses. The DfE are delighted and genuinely overwhelmed by the response of the RE community.

The meeting was the only one of its kind, no other subject had had a meeting, let alone two. The final attendance of these two meetings was around 75 people. Again, it was restated that this was an "unbelievably high level of engagement compared to any other subject".

The time frame for this part of the consultation was slightly on the low side compared to other subjects, but this was a direct reflection of the consultations that had already taken place. It was pointed out that will be a window of 7 and a half weeks, including over a week of school holidays for teachers to make their responses.

The question was asked about what departments were consulted within the HEIs and the DfE assured it was a full range including TRS, Philosophy, RPE, Theology, Religious Studies etc.

The role of ministers was highlighted. Obviously it was noted there has been a new Education Secreaty since the process began, but this has had little effect. Minsters have been very interested and very involved in the RE process, but have wanted the best expert advice too. Nicky Morgan met with religious leaders over the summer, some at the DfE and others she visited in their place of work where necessary. This level of involvement is very unusual. However, it was also noted that a lot of the drive for A-Level came from HEIs.

The editorial team from the DfE will analyse the results of the consultation, alongside their drafter, to produce a final document. It will them be put to the ministers for their approval; they are the ultimate decision makers. Ofqual will need to ensure if meets necessary requirements and the AO chief examiners will be involved. It is unlikely that beyond the consultation period that any teachers will be involved. If, and this is a big if, there was an "overwhelming consensus" in the responses that it is nowhere near ready, it could, hypothetically, be delayed, but this is not something the ministers, the DfE or the editorial team want.

RS Content and Assessment Objectives [Ofqual Lead]


We were reminded again that this is a criteria and NOT an exam specification and that final qualifications will look very different. This document sets out the minimum requirements for specifications; these will be set out by AOs including skills for assessment and content. It is also important to remember that this is all taking place in the backdrop of wider reform.

The key concern in RS, and it is also a concern from OFSTED, is focused on the nature of subject and way it is reflected in current form. Currently it is possible to try and engage in debate without knowledge and understanding including that concerned with beliefs and texts. Simply put, there must be more knowledge and understanding of religion [This echo's Alan Brine's 2013 report - see <here>].

There will be a compulsory element (two religions) and an optional element (textual study or RPE). The key is bring together both common and divergent views in religions, enabling more debate about different views, and investigating one or more views in context of modern world. For example, current content at GCSE doesn't reflect the diversity of traditions and now the Islamic Shi’a tradition will now be included.

The current structure will not be how qualifications will look like, the AOs can combine these ideas in any ways they see fit and could be interwoven by the AOs. However it is important to remember the new Ofqual regulations covering GCSEs and these have been an important consideration from the start and will remain to be so for AOs.

This stresses the importance of people concerned with the future of RE and these qualifications to be approaching the AOs and offering their services. Many AOs are already emailing previous markers and advertising through various media to find the right people. Get involved! Now!

It was stressed that as there are so many stakeholders, life is made very complex. This qualification needs to meet the needs of many people in many very different schoools (for example faith schools; 20% of secondaries are Roman Catholic).

AS/A Level

As a primary aim of the reform (in all subjects) was greater progression from school to higher education, the DfE and Ofqual have taken the views of HEIs very seriously.

At A-Level there were originally 8 areas of study [current format] and it will now be reduced to 3 [new proposals], this was key when drafting. The belief is that there will now be enough breadth to focus on any particular route / branch of Religious Studies at university. However there will still be enough depth of content to meet new rigorous demands of A-Levels.

Due to the decoupling, AS content must be specified.

It is vital that students are provided with critical analysis skills and the ability to debate. This has come from HEIs as they see too many students without these key skills.

Content wise, the start point was the GCSE annexes where texts, religion, religions and P&E are to be covered. However the 6 religions [plus one tradition], was not something necessary or desirable to directly reflect at A-Level. It would have also drastically increased the number of routes to qualification.

It was made clear again, the document being consulted upon is NOT an exam spec. The content is not a list of things you will be studying, AOs will be looking at the content to bring things together in an interesting and engaging way for our students.

Routes / Options [Ofqual Lead]

It was clear that there needed to be tightening up of routes and a means to make explict what the intended routes are for any given qualification. We need to be asking, "what does the journey look like?".

In Religious Studies, there are numerous possible routes, with (currently) LOTS of options. This presents many technical challengees; how do we ensure comparibility? The Ofqual requirement is that any B grade is comparable to any other B grade.

The explicit defining of content is part of this. However admittedly, the answer is not always to add things in. We need to consider what the scope and purpose of GCSE RE is. We need to think about how this translate into specifications?

Just because routes are possible in this current document, doesn't mean it will be in specifications as a possible route. Ofqual are pushing for narrower options, this gives greater comparability and fairness as a result.

A question was asked about how GCSE RE is currently marked, is it criteria or norm referenced? It is neither. Using statisitics, judegments are made so that there is a normative distribution of grades, it does depend on how students react to questions. If a question is poorly answered by all, it is unfair to disadvantage that cohort with what has been potentially a badly phrased question. This will be the process for new GCSE so no student, even in first cohort will be disadvantaged. Additional controls will also be brought in; there will be key anchor points whereby roughly the same percentage of students who get C and above, will get 4 and above. We were told the spread will distribute itself correctly and roughly 20% of those who currently get A will get 9.

There is more on this <here>, which suggests, broadly, the same proportion of students will achieve a grade 7 and above as currently achieve an A and above. For each examination, the top 20 per cent of those who get grade 7 or above will get a grade 9, the very highest performers.

There are the same issues at a level which is something for AOs to address. There will be fewer possible routes, and again, Ofqual see as not a bad thing as better comparability. It is important that when you encounter a student with an A Level grade you can ascertain what they know and what they can do.

There is no "magic number" for routes, but 3 seems to work well. To add a 4th, would add a significant number of extra routes.

From an assessment point of view, it was pointed out that the 40/60 split at AS and 50/50 split at A-Level could cause issues for co-teaching. This was something still in review. 

Ultimately they admitted that they won't keep everyone happy at the end of the day.


The morning was incredibly informative and the people leading session were prepared to have the 'big questions' asked, and had information and answers to hand. Some will be forever skeptical of 'Government' and the DfE, but I felt I trusted the people leading us and they took extensive notes during the day about our comments, questions, objections, fears and criticisms. I feel much better informed of the backdrop in which this consultation document has emerged. Ultimately we remain, rightly or wrongly, at the mercy of the ministers and what the government want RE to look like.

As I've said before, I keep the faith. Good RE will remain Good RE, and it's the Bad RE we all need to keep addressing and challenging! 

The rest of the day was spent in smaller groups feeding back on specifics. 

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Purpose of RE: #REconsult

If nothing else the #REconsult process has made us confront some fundamental questions about RE. It has an individual place in our schools being compulsory, but not in the National Curriculum, with syllabuses agreed locally or taken from faith traditions. Perhaps more so than with any subject it’s quality and purpose varies greatly.

Charlotte Vardy has been very actively involved on Twitter and in Blogging about her thoughts on the #REconsult process. I do genuinely share her belief that if something is worth doing, it should be done well. However it is also important to remember that we are at the absolute mercy of the DfE and ministers appointed to Education. Michael Gove has gone, but Nicky Morgan has not made any radical changes to the whole reform process, and who knows what happens if Tristram Hunt takes over in May. Education is not apolitical.

Charlotte has put together an interesting list of 10 purpose of RE. These form the basis for complex discussion about what we are aiming to do:
  1. Religious Studies is where we teach young people about their own religion, which includes reference to other religions and non-religious world views. 
  2. Religious Studies supports young people in their quest for personal meaning. 
  3. Religious Studies supports the school ethos, provides a “hub” for SMSC learning and a good opportunity to tackle many current issues of personal or social concern – from cyber-bullying to charity campaigning. 
  4. Religious Studies is just another academic humanities subject, like History or Geography 
  5. Religious Studies is what we call History of Ideas and/or Theory of Knowledge in the English education system, which otherwise lacks a philosophical core 
  6. Religious Studies provides the best opportunity to teach higher level skills such as critical analysis, evaluation and argument, which all students need for university and which other subjects often fail to deliver 
  7. Religious Studies courses prepare young people to take degrees in Theology and Religious Studies 
  8. Religious Studies is just what we call certificated courses in statutory Religious Education; these courses measure how much young people know and understand about the 6 major world religions and aim to promote religious tolerance and community cohesion. 
  9. Religious Studies is a sociological exploration of the phenomenon of Religion, comparing different traditions and showing them to be essentially similar responses to the human condition. 
  10. Religious Studies is the main opportunity for young people to address ultimate questions and moral issues which affect people of all faiths and none. (C Vardy)
These have been a great source of reflection for me today. 

I think there could be more aims added to this list, and I would have perhaps written a different list (and maybe Charlotte would have on a different day, in different circumstances).  It is certainly a reflection of how Charlotte, and many others, perceive the #REconsult process to have unfolded. I do get their concerns, I really do, yet try to remain positive and optimistic - as those who have seen Charlotte and I exchanging debate on Twitter will testify! 

As pointed out by Charlotte, the new reforms will never be able to reflect all of these 10 aims. She believes that the new GCSEs and A-Levels will focus primarily on Aims 1, 7, 8 and 9. 

I teach confessional RE in a Catholic school; Aim 1 is therefore vital to me. There is part of my job which is that of primary educator of the faith; however despite different content, and with more time, I believe that I deliver good, analytical and critical RE. To claim that Aim 1 is all that goes on in Catholic schools is naive and totally incorrect. I've learnt a lot from RE teachers who work in non-faith schools, and I bring this into my classroom. I'd like to hope the opposite has also happened, and I welcome those teachers into my classroom, any time.

Any decent RE teacher will obviously address Aim 2 in their lessons; the young people we teach wouldn't have it any other way, it's why they often love the subject. I worry about Aim 3... some schools do see RE as their vehicle for box ticking, particularly given the current OFSTED climate. This is where RE teachers need to be strong; there may be some connections, but don't allow your subject to be watered down into a PHSE/Citizenship lesson. Fight the good RE fight, there is help and support out there.

I also don't believe that RE has quite hit such an identify crisis that it is simply a HoI or ToK just yet; nor is it just another humanity subject (Aim 4 and 5). I think this is due to Aim 2 and Aim 10, which is why they are so important. In all those other subject areas, there is not the personal investment and connection; religious or not, everyone faces the 'big questions' and that self examination and reflection. 

I love the fact that we address Aim 6 in our subject, I really do. It is also vital for the world of employment and dealing with everyday ethical and moral dilemmas. Philosophical enquiry (including P4C etc) are powerful tools that should be embedded in good teaching rather than an add on. Ask good questions and you're students will be 'lead out'; Socrates knew what he was doing even 2500 years ago.

I have also confessed to being a TRS boy (Aim 7). Having studied at the Divinity Faculty at Cambridge, I love my biblical studies (as well as my world religions studies!). However I am unsure as to why A-Levels need to be this direct step to degrees? Yet I do want my students to be able to do a TRS degree if they wish, or Biblical Studies, or Philosophy! I coped well as I did John at A-Level and loved it. My current Y9s are working on a Gospel unit that they don't want to finish. I do want any of my students to have as many doors open as possible and I do wonder if my current Philosophy and Ethics (EdExcel) ALevel does this? Although I am not convinced, without some creative work by the exam boards, that the new ALevel will either. I makes me wonder if we are asking the right questions about the purpose of ALevels, and I don't just mean in this subject.

The RE and RS debate is, I guess, one I am less involved in (Aim 8). I've not taught in a school where they are separate. I often talk about RE when I mean RS and it infuriates some! GCSE is compulsory for all, so there is no distinction for me. We do have General RE in 6th form for all students (1 hour per fortnight), but my ALevel classes call my lessons RE too. This distinct position of RE makes things tough for colleagues in other schools... do we abandon compulsory RE for all (and risk the potential implications of ignorance and prejudice in society)? Do we put all our efforts into an attractive academic GCSE that more people want to take? Do we continue to try and balance the two? There is a whole other discussion to have here.

Phenomenology is a word that divides the RE world (Aim 9). Some claim it leads to simple sociological or anthropological study of RE where we do a lot of compare and contrasting. This isn't enough for me and leads to 'Bad RE', often in thematic style. Phenomenology can be good, but it's hard to get right, and I'm not sure many teachers have the skill set to get it right. The need for better RE training and support is well documented.

I presume Charlotte left Aim 10 until last as she, like me, loves this aspect of RE. It's what makes it special, it's why I love my job and it's why I have got myself so involved in the whole #REconsult process. 

Charlotte has raised some excellent questions in this post, and finishes with this final remark: "It is not just a matter of deciding which visions of Religious Studies to go with, but also of ensuring that those chosen cohere and do not leave the subject as confused, or more confused than it ever was!". This is why I urge as many people (and I mean good RE teachers!), to offer their services to the exam boards to help get it right. You know what works, what engages and what interests.

I do not think RE will find a consensus.; it will never have fully shared aims. This presents many, many challenges, not least for the army of committed, dedicated, excellent RE teachers out there. If nothing else, these people have begun to emerge; Save RE, #REchatUK, #REconsult have started to bring us together. The revolution may not be won or lost in this consultation process, but perhaps we can still build a better world of RE together regardless. Our exam specs will guide us, but not define us, nor limit our lessons.

There may come a time where we may have to accept what the DfE and ministers put in front of us. We may not be happy, but at least I can say I put my suggestions forward, I shared my ideas and worked, and thought, very hard about my responses. I have tried to be constructive throughout, and remain hopeful and optimistic. I still beleive that the exam boards, for monetary reasons, or for love of RE, will produce engaging and interesting routes of study. We won't loose student numbers, because we are good teachers and we can engage our students regardless.

Read Charlotte's post in full, plus loads of other stuff about RE <here>

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Teaching The Nativity

Image courtesy of UKEdMag

I had the privilege of being asked to write something on the Nativity for the Christmas special of UKEdMag. This came during 'busy season' with Y11 Mocks looming, various reports needing writing, short, dark days... 

However, it was a joy to revisit the story of the Nativity that has so much to it, it really is the 'greatest story ever told' (coined by the 1965 film, see <here>). I love the cultural, political, historical aspects alongside the miraculous and joyful. I could teach a whole unit it on, and have indeed moved some of my Nativity work to January so we can study with freshness rather than tired, end of term eyes.

I asked for teaching ideas from Save RE (FB group) and via #REchatUK and have collated them in the article. Thanks to all who contributed.

Read the article <here>
Order a FREE printed copy of the magazine (just pay postage) <here>

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Bad RE: Own Up!

Image courtesy of Deadline

"Religious studies teaching is pathetic – either improve it, or ditch it" reads the headline from Giles Fraser's Guardian column (see <here>) . He describes the subject his children study where "religion is transformed into a calendar of funny festivals, lighting candles and distinctive headgear". RE teachers either recoiled in horror at the sensationalist attack on their profession, or quietly admitted that actually we could, and need to, be better.

"Bad RE" fascinates me. I've seen it too many times, it makes me laugh, but it also makes me want to cry. A subject that could be so exciting, interesting,  relevant and topical can too often become boring, dull, superficial and, as Fraser suggests, 'glorified colouring in'. I regularly worry about the opportunity cost of teaching ideas I see on Twitter, Save RE (on Facebook), TES and even in published resources. If you only have an hour a week, can you really afford to be doing 'that'? What exactly is your intended lesson outcome?

However, it is vital that we make it clear that there are plenty of excellent, passionate, interesting, dynamic RE teachers. I have the good fortune to work with them both in my school and with the numerous RE projects I am involved in. It would have been nice of Fraser to better recognise these (but that wouldn't have achieved 400+ comments on the Guardian and such debate on Facebook and Twitter!). Great work has been done and in many schools RE/RS has become high profile, academic and popular. Sometimes this is to the credit of the teachers in spite of GCSE syllabi (and it's why I have got myself so involved in the RE consultation, to make RE better!). 

Yet are we really naive enough to claim that RE is all great and has no room for improvement? Who are we protecting and defending to take this stance? I very much hope that for every outraged RE teacher there is a classroom over flowing with the great RE I have highlighted above. However, it is also entirely possible that Fraser hit a nerve because deep down, we know that the examples he highlighted are possibly still happening in classrooms. Maybe the most outraged felt guilty as they knew they are selling their students short? Controversial claims I am fully aware.

The GCSE and A-Level need to be improved because RE needs to be improved, Ofqual are trying to ensure this. It was with a saddened (but accepting) heart that I read Andrew Smith's tweet:

Maybe it's too easy due to circumstances? If teachers need to deliver a GCSE in 1 hour a week compared to 4/5 for other subjects, of course something needs to give. Maybe it's because we have gone down a route where we end up doing too much PHSE / sociology / anthropology / community cohesion / 'British Values' type stuff? Remember this is not my view that GCSE RS is too easy. Read away at the #REconsult blog <here>, many seem to make the claim.

In 2013, RE Today published a APPG report indicating a lack of subject specialist knowledge, training, timetable time (see <here>). There have been further reports and articles widely published indicating too many poor activities and not enough rigour and challenge. Is what Fraser is saying anything really new to the RE community?

After the outrage discussed in the Save RE group on Facebook, Giles Fraser posted this:

He is clear that Bad RE needs to be challenged. Why is that so hard for some in the RE community to accept? We must have the confidence to admit our subject is not as great as it could be, but we have the potential to change that, we really do.

Fraser concludes, "RS lessons could be a tool for helping children to do precisely that: to think, to question, to argue. It could be a place where the adolescent philosophy of “that’s just my personal opinion” is challenged and moved on. It could be a place where children begin to discover why it is that some will live and die for their belief."

Let's be the ones to ensure that happens.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

No Time, Too Busy...

Image courtesy of Nomindsvision

I really do love to blog, especially about recent CPD I've attended, ideas I've had and read and generally my life as teacher. It helps to take stock, to reflect, to see who agrees and who will do battle with me via Twtiter.

However, I am really struggling for time at the moment and I suspect I am not alone. I write this reluctantly knowing I should still be powering on with my Y11 mock marking. I've decided to treat myself as I am half way through... yet my classes return on Monday after two weeks and really my 'half way' point should have been last weekend. Ah there's the guilt.

A few things I've done and not really had time to write about:

  • SLT Camp - A really, fun inspiring weekend in the middle of Cambridgeshire. Amazing hosts, great food, excellent company, interesting content... I am not SLT and I think it may be a few years off yet, but I'm learning and getting ready for when the day comes. I've always said that "I'll walk before I run" and if/when I make the transition, I want to do it well.
  • NATRE: Improving RE through coaching and mentoring course - A fantastic day in Canary Wharf with some exceptional RE teachers learning the basics of coaching and mentoring. Plus discussing the merits of 'Save RE' Facebook group and eating amazing cake.
  • TM Havering 3 - Me and Martin (ICT Magic) pulled this off in an afternoon after Andy (aknill) was sadly taken ill. It was a brilliant evening; thanks so much to all who came and made it happen. Any takers for TM Havering 4? I really can't do a 4th...
  • CatholicREsource - This site feels like a strange thorn in my side. I passionately believe in it and the feedback I have had has been truly humbling. However, it seems to be hard to get off the ground without the time and resources. I really believe in teachers helping teachers, yet it's hard to get the word out, and hard to get people to contribute. I guess everyone is just as busy as me... A slow burner maybe.
  • The London RE Hub - This project is going to be amazing. Even without publishing any speakers, we have sold nearly 20% of the tickets for the March conference. It's going to be focussed on subject knowledge and improving RE in the London area. It has to be good, and the RE people I am getting to work with are truly brilliant.
  • Staffrm - I have finally blogged! This site is a really nice addition to the blog circuit and I think that it will compliment, my sometimes long, sometimes project promoting, sometimes 'not really contributing anything to the blogging community' posts on here. Stephen (MrLockyer) says he can post during a break time?
  • #REconsult - The new GCSE and A-Level RE consultation has been crazy and I set up a blog to try and share views. Plus try and keep up on Twitter. RE teachers care a LOT.
  • UKEdMag - I've written an article on teaching the Nativity. The December Issue will be published very soon... 

I have also frequently struggled in my role as Head of Year 10. There has been laughter, tears, impossible situations and yet so much joy and reward. I'm also a busy 2nd in RE, and the charity initiatives and events in this term are never ending. I have realised that my time in school is not my own, and my marking and planning is hard to fit in. I get in to school at 7am and leave (when kicked out) at 5.45pm and I am now doing more work than ever at home.

Would I change any of this?

I don't think so. In all the projects I work on outside of school, I am fortunate to be working with amazing people. They keep me going and make me a better teacher. Could I do with a bit more sleep? Sure! A little less stress? Naturally.

You just may have to wait a little longer between blog posts.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

GCSE RE: Two Faiths

Image courtesy of

Since the initial "two faiths" revelations from Nicky Morgan (see <here>), many RE teachers have been waiting with expectation as to what exactly the new GCSE RE structures would include. The promise of early information ready for September 2016 teaching lead to a mixture of excitement and trepidation. People hoped they would be enthused rather than face palming at this opportunity to improve the popular RE GCSE qualifications.

The alleged 'leak' of information that all schools would be required to study two religions is no surprise in light of the Trojan Horse scandal which is effecting schools in all manner of ways. It fits with the idea that "British Values" need promotion extremism needs combating and that there needs to be more careful monitoring of what happens in RE, particularly in faith schools (see previous blog <here>). 

It has been widely reported in the Jewish press (see <here>), that Rabbis are not happy with this and they will continue to fight the expected GCSE structure. Various sources confirm that the Catholic Bishops are "concerned". This is understandable in many ways, as faith communities have long had a strong hold over what is taught in their schools. This change sees a shift in their control.

Despite my firm belief in the right and the reality of Catholic Education, I am not adverse to teaching two religions at GCSE. I love the comparative study of religions (I opted to study modules in Judaism and Islam at university) and we extend this part of the syllabus at Key Stage 3 already; beyond the Curriculum Directory. This was praised in our recent Section 48 inspection by our lead inspector, a Catholic priest, who made it very clear that Catholic schools have a vital responsibility to teach other faiths in sufficient detail.

There are important considerations to be made, such as ensuring a genuine, authentic and respectful teaching of the second faith. Subject knowledge is obviously key to this, as is resource sharing. These things I also believe in passionately and have lead to my leading involvement in and I hope that both these projects will be useful in light of the new GCSE requirements for two faiths to be studied.  

A variety of sources have also suggested that if this proposal goes ahead, Judaism will be the preferred option in Catholic schools, I can fully understand this given "Our Fathers in Faith" and the notion of the People of God in the Old Testament... after all Jesus was a Jew [This fact still surprises many a student]. However, it must be considered that to study Islam may be more appropriate to student intake or local demographic. I think schools may also base their decision on potential examination results.  

We await, with continued baited breath for the announcement...

Monday, 3 November 2014

Inspecting RE in Faith Schools

The Guardian reports that Tristram Hunt has said, "there is a case for Ofsted to be allowed to inspect religious education in faith schools, saying schools may be exacerbating religious and ethnic segregation in English cities." (see <here> for full article)

This seems like a logical and natural reaction to the Trojan Horse scandal. However to look at Hunt's comments appears to show an accusation against faith schools:

"We have particular concerns that Ofsted is not allowed to inspect religious teaching in faith schools – that seems to me to be a slightly curious situation. It is a worrying trend in terms of cultural and ethnic identification through schooling."

OFSTED can currently go into RE lessons in faith schools to observe teaching and learning, and they do! I got observed during our last visit in November 2013 (see <here>). I don't see how there is a great need to inspect the content of religious teaching, especially given a sometimes limited understanding of the topics; I only got a Good rating as I gave Y7 students a theologically sound definition of the Messiah instead of letting students "work it out for themselves in pairs". This was a new topic to them, and none of them speak Hebrew.

Faith Schools have a separate Section 48 which checks their RE content. Ours was far more intense for the RE department than the Section 5! I had three full lesson observations (see <here>). There was thorough book checking, schemes of works were read, a whole separate SEF. Now, if Hunt is claiming we need to have examined exactly how the Qu'ran is being interpreted, or if Catholic teaching is being promoted in a liberal or conservative way, we may well need experts on the topics; that won't be OFSTED. 

Hunt went on to say, "Our answer is making sure Ofsted inspects schools on the basis of a broad and balanced curriculum.”.

For me this is a clear suggestion that he does not believe that faith schools provide this. St Benedict's in Suffolk was a RC faith school which suffered from this agenda which has already begun. It's initial OFSTED report said:

“It is not made clear how all students are prepared for life and work in modern Britain... Leadership and management could be made more effective by “making clearer the contribution to students’ preparation for life and work in modern Britain and the dangers of extremism

A statement from Ofsted said inspectors were now paying greater attention to ensuring that schools provided a broad and balanced curriculum. This faith school seemingly didn't fit the bill.

It is interesting, and a fact seemingly forgotten, is that the Trojan Horse schools in Birmingham were not indeed faith schools. They were community schools, who OFSTED had inspected and failed to notice things going wrong as they focused purely on numeracy and literacy. Why then are faith schools now being targeted?

The feel from many, especially those working in faith schools, is that all of a sudden, to be Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish or even maybe CoE is to not hold British Values. And we're going to be targeted and made an example of by politicians on both sides who do not understand the unique and special place that faith schools hold in our British society.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Dying for Half Term?

First I was dying to finish high school and start college.
And then I was dying to finish college and start working.
And then I was dying to marry and have children.
And then I was dying for my children to grow old enough
 for school so I could return to work.
And then I was dying to retire.
And now, I am dying... and suddenly I realise I forgot to live.

This powerful reflection reminds me of the John Lennon quote, "Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.". I am one of countless teachers desperate for that bell to go at 3.30pm today. We're low on energy, patience and enthusiasm.

I love my job, I really do and I can't imagine doing any thing else. The young people I work with are incredible, wonderful and amazing. However, like many other teachers, I find myself wishing away the term; when's the next holiday?

The last ten years of teaching have gone past very quickly. I remember graduating in 2005 and starting my great teaching adventure with a PGCE and my first job in July 2006. I remember exactly how badly I did some things, and the horrific mistakes I made with classes I taught and colleagues I worked with. If I am honest, I still do some things badly now, and I still make plenty of mistakes... I just can't hide behind my NQT folder!

However, is it really possible to live for the moment in schools? I'm pretty sure we do at times. Sometimes I stand back in my classroom and remind myself how lucky I am and what a great job it is. I even allow a smug smile and an imaginary self pat on the back.

Yet too often we don't. We are rushing, missing deadlines, wishing we had more time, thinking 'if only?'. Then all of a sudden the next half term holiday comes, the summer arrives and it's another year of teaching chalked up. I used to keep all my old planners and diaries as a stark reminder of how many years had passed. Then I got my pension slip and saw SIXTY SEVEN; that'd be 45 planners. I'm sure those years will still go surprisingly quickly.

Finding time to live as a teacher is hard. However the classroom does still makes me feel alive (apart from maybe p6 on a Friday) in a  way that I struggle to see how an office would; I know I would find it hard to give up.

It seems workload is going to be the new teacher vote winner (the irony of spending time filling in more paperwork to air your views on this does not escape me) as Morgan, Hunt and Clegg announce they will reduce it if elected.

Some stuff we do is crap, but a lot of the extra stuff we do does make us better teachers. Maybe I'm lucky in my school and its not as bad as in others? I'm pretty sure some of my teachers at school didn't have clue what grades I was supposed to get, and it didn't make a blind bit of difference what my final results were. They cared, but did they get the best out of everyone? Do we get the best out of more students now? I really hope so, or it really is in vain.

So how to live and not spend our lives counting down to the next holidays? I'm not sure. I'm just glad that there always is another holiday as that means in the not too distant future there will be another new term and we can start afresh again with renewed energy, enthusiasm and patience for the weeks ahead.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Science Teachers & RE Teachers

Science and Religion are portrayed to be in harmony in the Tiffany window 'Education' (1890) - courtesy of Wikipedia

I absolutely love teaching and studying science and religion. I regularly do battle with students who claim it has to be either just science or just religion. The look of surprise on their face is often as dramatic as it is concerning for me personally. A faith never questioned, investigated or tested is no faith at all.

I am Catholic and I teach in a Catholic school. This obviously shapes some of my thoughts and ideas on this topic.

Some would claim that God can only be eschatologically verified; could proved true (at some future point) but could never be proved false. See John Hick's allegory of a quest to a Celestial City for more on this:

In this parable, a theist and an atheist are both walking down the same road. The theist believes there is a destination, the atheist believes there is not. If they reach the destination, the theist will have been proven right, however if there is no destination on an endless road, this can never be verified. This is an attempt to explain how a theist expects some form of life or existence after death and an atheist does not. They both have separate belief systems and live life accordingly, but logically one is right and the other is not. If the theist is right, he will be proven so when he arrives in the afterlife. However, if the atheist is right, they will simply both be dead and nothing will be verified. (From Wikipedia)

I disagree that Maths and Science are the same at school. Maths doesn't change, but Science can and does. However I obviously wouldn't go as far as one of my school teachers who claimed, "Pah! Science, all just based on assumption.". I do love (A-Level standard and not beyond!) logic and it's use in philosophy. 

It could be argued that Science teachers don't want to be troubled by the inconvenience of religion. It could cause, I'd imagine, a lot of distraction and potential confusion. However religion exists (that much is verifiable), and can be of great significance to students and their families. Is it right to say, "No place for that, go ask your RE teacher."?

The Research Review in Academies Weekly has highlighted some of the findings of a project looking at "Secondary school teachers’ perspectives on teaching about topics that bridge science and religion". It begins by stating a universally held view:

"We know some students dislike science because they perceive it as hostile to their religious views. We know that some dismiss religious studies, believing that science and religion are inherently in competition, and that science has emphatically won."

As the review states, "the study is exploratory; illustrating issues rather than describing large-scale patterns." however it gives an interesting first point of reflection for our own school experiences.

Many of the science teachers didn't want to discuss science and religion as they saw it as too controversial and didn't want parental complaint. I guess this is in some ways the opposite of RE teachers who will go out of their way to address controversial topics... I've no idea if there are stats on parental complaints, but I am pretty sure one way or another RE would come pretty high up. I love that fact.

However two of the teachers did not actively shut down such conversations, one seeing it as compatible, the other realising that "it was such an important part of his students’ lives".

The author of the review said that she believed 'respect' for religion in science lessons would manifest in a variety of different ways (with naturally everything in between):
  • “this is nonsense, but I don’t want a dozen parents complaining”
  • “this is nonsense, but my students have the right to diverse views”
  • “I’m personally not religious, but my students are and I think that’s very valuable”

The RE teachers had a different view, and like me, actively tried to develop and challenge students views, especially the polar ones. The study (unlike my own experience, perhaps due to my faith school experience, where some students verge on the creationist) found many students taking the view that "religion was no longer credible or that science trumped religious explanations". We do also have this commonly in a Catholic school too, for the record.

For good RE, it is vital that we can move beyond one or the other, there are a lot of views in between.; not least the Vatican's and my own! Like other teachers in the study, and despite my best intentions and degree level Science and Religion study, sometimes I know enough science to respond well to student questions.

The study highlighted the issues of guidance: "Science teachers have little guidance or help on how to address science and religion, and so are negotiating their own way through this difficult territory. Similarly, where can RE teachers go for help on answering the science questions relevant to religion?"

For me, one of the great sources of guidance is the Faraday Institute (see <here>) and I'd particularly recommend their really really excellent resource Test of Faith (see <here>). It gives a great introduction and is useful for KS4 and 5. However I have used a few bits with Y8 too.

Interestingly no science teachers in the study had considered inviting a scientist of faith to speak to students (I often use Francis Collins videos in lesson, see <here>). I am tempted to try and find one to bring to a General RE session with 6th form.

As the review concludes, this research "offers a description of the status quo, but also a challenge to break the “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture surrounding religion in science lessons."

I am looking forward to reading the article in full, and finding out more about this complex relationship that exists within our schools between the science and RE departments. To be continued...

Read the review in Academies Weekly: <here>
Read the full research article: <here> 

Thursday, 16 October 2014

No Tech Day? When PCs Go Wrong.

Image courtesy of Phaidon Club

Today the school network went down. This has happened a few times recently as we install various upgrades to software and hardware, but today was a little different. Usually by Lesson 2 latest they are back on. Signs weren't good when the engineer was scratching his head and requesting backup support. 

Normally I like this excitement injected into the usual routine. Staff glance around at one another, who will be able to cope? Older staff remind younger ones, "This is how it used to be". Some scrabble around in their pencil case, "Do I actually own a white board pen?"

You realise that teachers don't have it the worst as the lady who arranges the cover via SIMS goes into panic mode and the other office admin staff begin to wonder exactly how they will cope with a day filled only with sick children and no emails, letters or any of the other endlessly amazing things they manage to produce in ridiculously small time scales.

"Ah-ha! The photcopier is still working! Although with a long queue. Oh, but the sheet I need is on the PC..."

It does mean the days lesson plans need to go slightly 'off-piste', but that can be fun. Sometimes my best lessons come from such 'emergencies'.

Y9, first up. We're about to start a unit on the Gospels. I wanted to refresh their Bible skills... I know I have a great fun animal quiz (of course featuring the Talking Donkey) that my Y7 class have already done. Grab one of their exercise books, grab some prizes... here goes!

The result is a great fun lesson that involves an activity filled, high energy lesson with students getting themselves genuinely excited about refreshing their Bible skills. We have some great discussion about various parts of the Bible. We look up some of the students names that come from the Old Testament. We learn the story of Balaam and the Talking Donkey. We agree to check out the RE blog when we get home and follow the Twitter account. The students leave saying how great it was and I smile. 

Y11. Ah textbooks. The saviour. Glad we didn't bin them all like some schools did years ago. Everything on a tablet? That would have been useless.

It was possibly one of the most tranquil and peaceful lessons in a long time as students discovered what we mean by 'The Church': priests, bishops, deacons ("My mum likes them!" "I think that's Deacon Blue...") and the laity. Brilliantly detailed A3 spider-diagrams produced as I sat in the middle of the room, on a spare students chair, answering questions and discussing the work. The discussion lead to the Synod in Rome, something I was pleasantly surprised about their knowledge about. Ironically on a non-tech day, they had seen my tweets.

Why am I usually at the front or simply patrolling? This works. [Note: I do sit down amoung the students quite a bit, but not enough]

Head of Y10 hat on. Guest speaker? With a PowerPoint. Will he understand? 

Thankfully I came up with a solution as we got a standalone laptop connected to the projector. If you are a pastoral leader, I urge you to get Paul Hannaford in to speak to your students. He gives a hard-hitting, graphic account of his life of drugs and gangs. He tells his audience about the dangers of these and about the decisions young people need to make; he is also the dad to a girl who was in my form last year, their reconciliation bringing a tear to even the hardened eye.. He is based in Romford but travels all over the UK, find him <here>.

The afternoon. Still no PCs. Lots of little jobs to follow up on. I need to see these people, about these issues... time for a walk.

I can see how email has saved us so much time. I get around 40 emails a day with around 60-70% being pastoral-role related. I am forever emailing around with some information about a student, or requesting information. Today I realised that to deal with incidents in person, face to face, takes far longer. However, in each conversation I had today, I found out far more information than I would have done via email, most of it positive about the girls in my year group. Maybe this is how it used to be? Yet sadly, there is physically not time to do it. Something has been lost.

I was then sat in a department meeting and my school email came through to my iPhone. Phew. Maybe.

I then sat waiting in the barber's sending and receiving all my emails, ready for tomorrow when we go back to normal. 

I love technology and I fully embrace it. I couldn't live without my devices. If it can be done by tech, I often do. Yet there is a slightly mischievous, playful part of me that loves it when it all goes wrong. I had some amazing, lovely lessons today... students learnt just as much too. I had fun; perhaps the adrenalin/fear?  

Dear computer network,
Next time you are going to fail, please give me at least 1 hours notice? I can then get myself psyched and ready. Plus print off that worksheet.

Although one of Assistant Heads (who incidentally doesn't teach) joked to me today, "You've heard of no pens day, this is it, no computers day!". I think he was on to something...

Maybe the ICT department will veto.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Rewards & Sanctions: Starting Points

Image courtesy of SSF

Behaviour is perhaps the single most important item on any teachers' agenda; poor behaviour leads to an incredibly stressful working day, with a big impact on learning. It should also be high on the agenda of any middle or senior leader; it may not be a big priority for you, but no doubt it is for someone on your team. Tom Bennett and Andrew Old have written extensively on the topic and Tom Sherrington has recently added his vision of 'Impeccable Behaviour'.

I did my MA dissertation on rewards and sanctions, Rewards and Sanctions: A Positive Behaviour Model Based on Gospel Values, which came to the clear conclusion that "creating an environment based on reward and praise" was desirable. However this this does present many challenges for leadership. My focus was particular to Catholic schools which often prided themselves on excellent behaviour enforced by many rules, many of which are not written down. Often praise systems do not match sanctions.

In any school, there should be "a shared ownership and commitment to the common beliefs and goals of a community, and these should be made clear in policy and lived out by the stakeholders as they will hopefully reap the benefits.". Perhaps the two most key stakeholders are students, who need to feel safe and able to learn, and staff who need to teach without the distraction and stress of poor beahviour. 

In a school utopia, a set of simple rules would be sufficient, however that is rarely the case. Many students feel disengaged with systems in schools,"whereby they feel they miss out on all rewards and receive disproportionate sanctions, or feel they work hard with little recognition. Additionally due to the way in which they often receive both the rewards and sanctions, they feel detached from their actual work and behaviour. A student may be pleased with a certificate received at the end of term, but maybe unaware exactly what they are being rewarded for. In a similar fashion, to receive a detention a week after an event has taken place, or due to a number of smaller indiscretions that build up, unbeknownst over the week."

The key thing with any rewards and sanction systems is the shared responsibility involved;"Teachers need to be empowered as leaders, recognising their individual responsibility within the classroom. If this is not taking place, senior leaders need to offer support, but also challenge so that this does take place. 

The classrooms are the 'battleground' [cf Andrew Old] between teacher and student: "If rewards are happening regularly in written, visual and aural forms, an environment of praise can be created engaging students and enabling them to work to their best of their ability and fulfilling their potential as individuals and images of God [RC context]. Likewise if lower-level sanctioning takes place in this often intimate and more immediate environment, students can be offered greater guidance as to how to seek reconciliation and improve their behaviour in future."

However, lower-level sanctions are not always enough, and to believe that exclusion (from a lesson, from lunchtime, permanently) is not required is both naive and dangerous: "The question of exclusion is a recurring problem for school leaders. Sometimes it can be essential for the greater good of the school community. The open and welcoming gestures modelled by Jesus need to be evident in the Catholic school. There must be a demonstration of forgiveness and reconciliation evident; no student must leave feeling excluded as a member of the Kingdom of God. Even if excluded, the student should have felt the love of the community and be given opportunities to repent. However, if these are rejected by the student, then the school is given little opportunity, like the Rich Young Man who walked away from Jesus and the opportunity offered to him."

Crucially the balance of rewards and sanctions is vital; they must be varied in scope, awarded frequently, but not too frequently and affect as greater number as possible of the students. This is potentially hard to achieve: "Leaders should be suggesting targets to staff if there is to be a culture of reward rather than sanction. It can be easier to focus on punishing students in order to create academic excellence and high standards of behaviour, yet as seen in this study students can end up feeling excluded and disengaged. They want rewards, and even those students regularly in detention appreciated and felt guided by rewards offered to them for their good behaviour. Additionally recognising that students are not ‘all bad’ and that even students who are often poorly behaved do do praiseworthy work and actions on occasion."

There were several recommendations made to the case study school (not my current employer), and these still effect my thoughts on rewards and sanctions:
  • The School Discipline and Pupil Behaviour Policy must reflect the distinctive Catholic ethos of the school. It is important that this policy, like all within the Catholic school, is a direct reflection of the schools’ Mission Statement. As such these policy documents will reflect a vision for all leaders in the school; one which must be focused on Gospel-values and the model of Christ.
  • All staff must take their responsibility for leadership seriously with the support and challenge from senior school leaders. Rewards can create an environment of praise in the classroom and lower-level, immediate sanctions can be more appropriate and useful to the students. 
  • Reviewing the number and frequency of rewards and sanctions awarded needs to continue, as does the recording and reporting structure. The current system does not work for students, parents or staff.
  • Leaders need to ensure students are provided with enough guidance to ensure that high standards are maintained in all areas of school life. Greater consistency and fairness must be strived for, and leaders must do their uttermost best to ensure this.
  • Constant opportunities for students to make amends for their indiscretions must be offered, both in a sacramental and practical sense. These opportunities must be provided, promoted and monitored by school leaders. A true spirit of reconciliation must be evident and explicit to students in order to feel a meaningful connection to their school community.

And it is with revisiting all of these, I return to my task of reviewing our current school sanction policy with the rest of our Heads of Year team. We currently have several documents in circulation and we need one, concise clear point of reference for students, staff and parents. This is where we are at the moment (see below), but there is more work to do. Any suggestions always gratefully received. If you want a copy of my MA dissertation, drop me an email.

Click to enlarge

Further Reading:

Tom Sherrington: Towards Impeccable Behaviour

Andrew Old
What Makes A School Discipline System Work?: 
Seven Signs of a “Good Enough” Discipline System: 
The Behaviour Delusion (or “Why do Kids Kick Off?”): 
Why Most Behaviour Management Advice Doesn’t Work: 

Tom Bennett
Shoot the elephant: The Ofsted report into low-level disruption: 
Bennett's tenets: My behaviour guides for going back to school: 

Two schools bad, one school good: Ideas for improving school behaviour: