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>

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