Thursday, 16 November 2017

The Life of a Textbook Writer

I've now written two textbooks, one for GCSE and one for Key Stage 3. I've also just completed a revision guide to accompany the GCSE textbook. I honestly don't think there are many things for a classroom teacher that provide better professional affirmation, you quite literally have "written the textbook on it". I am incredibly humbled and grateful to my two fantastic publishers, Oxford University Press and Harper Collins. 

The latest exam reforms have been somewhat different to those in the past. For a start, gone are the hard copies of the of specification - in come the ever changing electronic versions. Secondly, everyone is far more accessible via email and social media: exam boards, Ofsted, publishers... and textbook writers. Thirdly everyone is far FAR more results and exam focused than ever before - stakes are high!

My journey began at the London RE Hub in April 2015, when OUP where one of our two brave sponsors. The LREH team remain ever grateful for OUP and TrueTube for taking a huge risk and sponsoring our brand new grassroots conference. I got to know some of the team, and then by June, we were sat in a hotel in London planning a textbook for the new Edexcel GCSE in Catholic Christianity. This ended up as an amazing, but tough journey. Writing began in the late July 2015, but final accreditation for Edexcel only actually happened in July 2016... when the book was due for publication in September 2016! Somehow we pulled it off. There were some incredible people behind the scenes; thank you all. I wrote over 50% of this book, and helped oversee all the sections I didn't write myself.  

My son was born in October 2015. He here is, aged 18 days, with me writing... 
Since then, I was invited to be part of the Knowing Religion writing team for Harper Collins, using my improved understanding of Judaism to write a Key Stage 3 "knowledge focused" textbook. This allowed a great freedom not experienced while writing the GCSE textbook. This series provides a new approach to Key Stage 3 RE, which seems to be proving popular.

Finally, I have nearly completed my third book, a revision guide to accompany the GCSE textbook. Even with the difficulties of the original books with Edexcel's late approval, this one has probably proved to be the hardest of the lot. The further reduction of material, as well as focusing on exam questions and support has proved challenging. I think Religious Studies, and particularly the Catholic paper makes this even harder. Is my hugely condensed version of complex Catholic teaching accurate? Could the exam board ask a question on this? How can I ensure students are not being pushed into writing heresy? 

It is impossible to not see, or often avoid being tagged into, discussion of GCSE textbooks on social media. It is hard to not get overly defensive when you have been as involved as I have been - and made huge sacrifices to actually get one written. I do get frustrated, and annoyed, at some of the comments made - both the general and specific. I think it's normal, it would be easier to log off Twitter, Save RE on Facebook etc, but I am happy to engage. I want the very best resources for students and colleagues; I also know how frustrating it is when something you want, or feel you need, isn't there.

Aged 5 weeks. Mummy was in bed. Daddy needed to write...
Over the last few weeks, many comments have been focused on 3 things:
  1. Why are there errors in the textbooks?
  2. Why aren't revision guides ready for Year 11 mocks?
  3. Why aren't there more model answers / exam guidance / support in textbooks?
As such, I have tried to put together a 10 Things About Textbook Writing list:
  1. Writing a textbook on top of full time teaching is incredibly hard. However, I still believe teachers who are encountering students on daily basis, who can trial things, who know what students 'get' and what they don't, are best placed to write textbooks. Thankfully my amazing wife has been incredibly supportive, and my son seems proud as he is always stealing copies of the book from my desk and carrying them around the house. There were days when he was not sleeping and I was trying to survive on two hours sleep a night. In the end, however, it is incredibly rewarding and I am really proud of every book.
  2. Awarding Organisations, ie exam boards, are not the same as publishers. Textbooks are accredited and then endorsed by exam boards. Edexcel, for example, does not publish textbooks. OUP and Hodder do. Naturally there are working relationships between the two, but someone wrote "Andy has unrivalled access to the chief examiner at Edexcel"  suggesting my own students are unfairly advantaged - this is simply not true. We do check everything we can, of course, however any teacher can email the exam board in the way I do - Email <here>
  3. The speed of the reforms has been incredible. People wanted textbooks, and revision guides, as soon as the specs were approved. The GCSE textbook took over a year to write - imagine if we had waited until the Edexcel spec was finally approved? (However, this was heartbreaking at times... there was a number of pages written which simply had to be cut as spec changed) We did have a short break, before the planning and writing of revision guide began... ready for publication in the January before the final exams for Year 11. Publishers tried to get things to teachers as quickly as possible, and the result was errors. Thankfully nothing major in ours! 
  4. AOs / exam boards do not have the capacity to support in the way teachers believe they should. This is, in some way expected, due to the relatively small number of staff needed in-between reforms when question writing and examining are the main focus. Many of their senior examiners are also full time teachers. Like with textbook writers, this seems to make sense. I think biggest problems have been with exam boards who made lots of promises, and then failed to deliver, especially when those promises were made as people were selecting their new specs.  
  5. The education world has changed incredibly since the last reforms. Schools are under far more pressure to get results, even in a non-Ebacc subject like Religious Studies stakes are high - for some their risk losing their place on the timetable if results are not good enough. Teachers are far more results driven, and schools more exam focused. With high accountability, comes high levels of stress. For RS, many issues lie with lack of curriculum time, or non-specialists. Textbooks were/are needed, and they weren't there (See point 3).
  6. No-one know what the full range of student answers will look like yet. This makes writing model answers really hard. Most teachers were good at writing them for the old spec, as they knew approximately, what a top level answer was. Pitching model answers in a textbook, without seeing a full range of answers is really hard. I would imagine that some model answers created at this stage, will be 'beyond' full marks. This can't be helped. 
  7. We don't know exam boundaries; we don't know what a 'Grade 9 answer' will look like. Nor do any of the exam boards. They will know August 2018, when we all will. Textbooks may need to be reviewed after this. 
  8. Writing exam questions that are reasonable, answerable, and in keeping with the spec is really, really hard. I have far greater respect for exam writers now; it is much more of a skill than I first realised. Doing these in bulk to try and cover every eventuality has been one of the trickiest parts of the revision guide. Time will only tell if I have succeeded! 
  9. People always point out things you could have added... without suggesting what you could have dropped, or having any appreciation for the strict word/page limits. Everyone knows a good teacher goes beyond the spec, and beyond the textbook. No one wanted a book full of my anecdotes, funny stories and asides did they? It is incredibly easy to criticise books and resources and say "Well I would have done it like this instead..." - I am always looking for helpful and constructive criticism - yet often it is neither of these things! 
  10. The pressure you feel as a writer is incredible; people will literally hang off your every word. Being on social media is great promotion for the book, but it means you are very accessible and people expect you to have all the answers. It is great to work with other teachers, and this has always felt like a vocation, a call to provide a resource to the Catholic community, but at times incredibly tough. 
Hopefully this provides a bit of an insight into the life of a textbook writer. No doubt there will be a follow up to this when I get a barrage of abuse... 

Thursday, 2 November 2017

CoRE: Interim Report (2) - Building a Knowledge Curriculum

Recently, I wrote a first response to the Commission on RE Interim Report (see <here>). My final paragraph was this:
I would love to see the Commissioners sit down, with all their expertise, experience, knowledge and understanding of religion and belief, and set out a knowledge based curriculum, that teachers then help develop into Key Stage standards of attainment. I honestly think this is the best thing we could do for the students in our care. 
I have also written about ED Hirsch before in a series of blogs (see <here>), and it seemed like perfect timing when a video appeared online of him discussing how to develop a list of core knowledge. This is what I believe the RE community needs to do.

Hirsch begins by explaining that within society, there exists a cultural, competency and language gap - and that if this is not addressed, it is reinforced through the education system. This is true in RE, evidenced frequently in the media - many people simply do not posses even basic religious knowledge. 

In many of Hirsch's books, he sets out lists of knowledge that need to be learnt at different ages. He explains in these books that an initial list was created, studying current culture and trends - what do students need to know to engage with the culture that surrounds them? These books were created in the 1980's, but have since been reviewed. Hirsch acknowledged that the knowledge required for 'cultural literacy' does change.

In this video, he explains further how a consensus was found. His initial, researched, lists were then taken to conferences of between 150 and 200 teachers and other involved in education. The delegates were then able to allocate knowledge to different age groups, and (perhaps crucially) substitute content if they felt it was appropriate to do so. The delegates needed to feel fully engaged with the process. It was also important to have the antagonists involved in this process, Hirsch makes clear. 

He explains that it was important people realised there was no "political axe to grind", and he said people did so quite quickly. It is natural for people to want to equalise educational opportunity... everyone believes in this, but this was an attempt to actually do something in a concerted way. People bought in.

One interesting thing that he makes clear is that he wanted to focus his knowledge based curriculum in elementary (primary) schools. Students can then arrive in high (secondary) school, with a vast amount of knowledge and 'cultural literacy'. Imagine the possibilities. 

Implications for RE / CoRE

Someone has got to start this job off. Someone, or a group of people, need to come up with a body of knowledge that they believe is useful in RE, matched to different Key Stage or year group expectations.

This may well include provisional knowledge, which we know is an over simplification (but appropriate for certain age groups), it might include contested knowledge, it might not include everything we would ideally want for a 'religiously literate' person. Some religious people may not fully agree with what is included about their faith, those with particular interests such as history, religion and art, sociology, philosophy etc may not get everything they feel should be included. I think that's okay.

I quite like the subject content document that the DfE published for the new Religious Studies GCSEs (see <here>). It was initially published, put out for consultation, and refined. It may not be perfect, but it is the closest we have to a list of core knowledge for RE.

Huge thanks to Laura McInerney‏ for asking the question; I hope the Commission take on board this idea for the RE community.

Watch the video (8 mins) here:

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Work-Life Balance & Email

What did schools do before email? I started teaching in 2006 and already email was widely used. I was familiar with that, as email had been a common form of communication at university. However, it was not used at all when I myself was a student at school (pre-2002). It is not uncommon for teachers to get 30 to 40 emails day, and when I was a head of year, 60 or 70 emails a day was entirely possible.

I remember when I started at my new school (September 2016), that there was a brief discussion in a meeting... "Remember no emails after 6pm, or at the weekend, SLT need to be leading on that.". I recall thinking, that sounds like a good idea, but not fully appreciating how much of a difference it makes.

Teaching is all consuming; you can work every hour in the day, and still not get everything done. Likewise, your email inbox is rarely completely empty. There is a great temptation to sit down in an evening and try and 'clear a few' - although even this acknowledges that it may be impossible to ever conquer. These might be your working hours, but they are not the same for everyone. Some teachers will get up early and be working from 5am, some will stay late in school, others will up until 2am. I'm not suggesting you should work at any of these times, but some people choose to, especially if they want to spend time with their partner or children. There is a certain flexibility with working hours.

One issue is the fact that many teachers have email set up on their phone. This can be hugely advantageous, especially during the working day. I know if I send something urgent to our SLT, someone will respond near on instantly. I can also clear a number of emails on the train to and from work. However, the problem is if you have notifications set up (I don't on my phone - only on my iPad), you will be constantly distracted. If there are no guidelines on when emails can be sent, this can then become part of your evening, weekend and even holidays.

I set up a few Twitter polls recently:

I find it incredibly worrying that 5% of respondents send email over the weekend and expect a response. Also that 56% send, but don't expect a response - but is there a consideration about how those receiving the email feel or react?

Can they really just ignore it? Do they feel they have to 'just quickly reply'? They may do this while they are out for dinner with their partner, sat in the park with their child, or enjoying a hobby with a friend? Regardless of policy, if emails are being sent, some people will feel they need to reply. Having now experienced no emails outside of reasonable working hours for well over a year, I think far more schools should 'ban' email from 6pm to 7am, weekends and school holidays if they are serious about staff well-being.

I followed this up after half term:

It is clear that emails slowed down... but didn't stop. Nearly a quarter of teachers were getting 11 or more emails over their week "off". There is obviously complexity behind this data - some emails don't need responding to, some are from students, some might be from mailing lists.

Since tweeting these out, I received a number of DMs from colleagues on Twitter. These are some of the examples of emails sent in schools:
  • Information requests for students sent out at 2am in the morning
  • Staff meeting agendas sent out at 10pm on a Saturday night
  • SLT requests for information send out at 9am on a Sunday morning
  • Department data requests sent out during the holidays
  • Deadlines of 24 hours on emails sent at 8pm on a Friday
This is on top of all the 'general information' and 'all staff' (when they don't need to be 'all staff'!) emails sent during the evenings and weekends. 

How can anyone justify this?

This has a huge detrimental effect on work life balance. Teachers can never switch off, and even if they don't have their email direct to their phone or iPad - if they know these emails are being sent - and it seems part of their school culture -  they feel they need to check. When and why did we become this kind of profession? Instant replies are wanted for things which really could wait...

This can have a huge affect on the stress and anxiety levels of staff; it can make them feel guilty or inadequate when they spend time with family, friends, or on holiday. It also seems to be a competitive 'who is working the hardest?' culture - a dangerous feature of modern teaching.  

There is another way.

Your working hours may be late at night, or at weekends. That's fine; there is an element of flexible working in teaching in this respect. I also think it is not enough for SLT to just say "well don't check it". Most staff want to do their job well; they want to be efficient.

Delay Delivery

My old school used to have email setup through Outlook; it was very easy to 'Delay Delivery'. I used to frequently do this and set up for 8am arrival in inboxes, as I knew many staff checked their email around this time before going off to briefing or to register their form.


For Gmail, this is the ideal solution. It is a simple  add in for Chrome that allows you to send delayed messages (it does have a limit). This also has another new great function of pausing your email while you work on something important - see below for more on this. There is also now a new Boomerang app for your phone, so you can simply write emails in this to send later - even if you don't use as your main email app. 

Other options

Write it, leave it in your Draft folder, and then send when you get in in the morning (after 7am!).

This is important.

I did some reading around email, well being and work life balance while writing this blog. The first shocking statistic is that can take 20 minutes on average to refocus after being disrupted by an email. If you are marking and hear a 'ping', it may take you a considerable length of time to get back to concentration level you had before. If that email is received outside of school and triggers stress or anxiety, then it's impact may last a lot longer than 20 minutes.

It has been proven to be far more efficient to 'cluster' tasks, and so setting aside 2 or 3 occasions during the day to check and respond to emails is a much better work habit. However, the nature of schools doesn't always work this way - but perhaps the trial of slightly better habits may work? It doesn't help when you are stopped in the corridor and someone says, "I've just sent you an email..." - if you send it by email, it can obviously be replied to later in the day when I am not trying to prepare to teach my next lesson, discipline this student, mark this book, or just make a cup of tea!

Would you write better / politer / more useful responses if you were sat at a PC with time dedicated to emails, rather than rushing between a Year 9 and a Year 11 lesson on your phone? You may also not need to send that 'all staff' email about a lost mug, the whereabouts of a child who missed your lunchtime detention or the jammed photocopier if you wait until later in the day - those issues may have all resolved themselves! 

Another key bit of research is that people, even those with busy working lives, who checked their emails less (regardless of volume of email), were less stressed. Flipping between tasks (teaching and email responding) makes you less efficient at both, and naturally more stressed doing both - this has got to be a concern. Teachers, or other staff, who bombard colleagues with emails during the day are potentially effecting their performance in the classroom.

Finally, an incredible statistic from the NY Times found 6% of workers (not teacher specifically), checked their work email while they, or their partner, was in labour! 

  • Don't email after 6pm, before 7am, at weekends or holidays - it can wait. Even if it is not school policy, you may produce a butterfly effect. If your working hours mean you catch up on emails during this time, use technology to delay it's arrival.
  • Try small changes to your email habits - turn off notifications on your device, close your email browser window when marking, deactivate during holidays, 'cluster' your time.
  • Consider the implications of your email on the recipient - you don't always know the interruption, stress, guilt or anxiety your 'quick email' may be having.
  • Always think before you hit send - Do I need to make it an 'all staff' email? Do I need to send that email at all? What happens if someone forwards this email on? Have I conveyed my tone? Have I used the CC correctly? 
  • Would it just be better if I went to see the person face to face instead? 

Further reading:

Thursday, 26 October 2017

6th Form Study Skills: Learning & Note Taking

"A man maie well bring a horse to the water, But he can not make him drinke without he will." wrote John Heywood in A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue. It was true in the 12th Century, and it remains so today. We cannot always get our students to do what we know is best for them, despite telling them over and over.

However, we must continue try, and do it from multiple approaches. I am looking forward to leading some CPD for staff on key principles of 'learning science', I introduce students to the Learning Scientists , I build the principles into lessons through my planning, I write MCQs for our department website and so on. 

I also offered to lead some 6th form assemblies, as I have seen in my own classes that there is a great needed to help students with the demands on the new A Levels. As I made clear to students:

  • You do not start with ‘easy’ material and work towards progressively harder material by the end of Year 13
  • You begin with challenging material, and work with more and more challenging material.
    • You will need to store a vast amount of knowledge in your Long Term Memory.
    • Your Working Memory is relatively small (5 to 7 things), while your Long Term Memory is vast.
    • You need to organise the information into schema in order to access or recall it.
    • You need to adopt a systematic approach to learning, rather leaving it chance.

I then took them on a brief overview of what we know about learning, and how our brains work. I left them with some practical suggestions, including adopting the Cornell Note Taking system. I wished someone had suggested it to me at university or 6th form. It fits with all the other knowledge we have now about effective learning. Why would you not use it? 

Their half term task was to go away and read this... but I will email it to them again next week as a reminder. And I have emailed to all staff to refer to in their lessons. I am going to spend 10 minutes of my first lesson back with 6th form writing CUE at the top of every margin, and drawing a line 5cm above the bottom of their page for summaries. 

There are bits I simplified, this was a 10 minute assembly, not an hour long lecture. However the affirmation I got from a colleague is when he pointed out to the students that it took him 28 years of classroom teaching to work out these principles of effective learning, and now they are pretty much contained in a 6 slide, 10 minute assembly. 

I'm not sure our students realise how lucky they are with what we now know about learning and try to share with them. 

Big thanks to Kim aka The Hectic Teacher and Steve D'Arcy for their help with this presentation

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

REVIEW: Exploring the Mass (TERE)

Exploring the Mass is a brand new resource, authored by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, published by the Teacher's Enterprise in Religious Education. It has been published in the Autumn 2017 and provides a high quality, versatile DVD and textbook for the study of the Mass. Here I offer some of my own thoughts on the two products. 

Firstly, I think it is vital that Catholic schools do not leave knowledge and understanding of the Mass to chance. As Saint John Vianney said, "If we really understood the Mass, we would die of joy.". We must aim for this! Catholic schools will often celebrate Mass - start of term, end of term, holy days of obligation... but to what extent do their students really know what is going on? Even for non-Catholic students, to know what is happening, will make it more interesting, even if they do not see it as an act of faith. I will be ensuring that my students will be watching this DVD before our next school Mass. 


The role of bishop is one of teacher, and Cardinal Nichols takes on this role for these two resources. He is relaxed, and the film juxtapositions the Cardinal celebrating Mass, alongside a Q&A sessions with students. While these questions are clearly 'set up', they do not feel overly contrived - indeed this is the view of the cynical adult, not the target audience! It's a format that work's very well, and keeps interest throughout. 

The explanations are perfect for students for whom this is targeted (KS2-3); the Cardinal uses clear, understandable language that is easily accessible to all. His answers are clearly planned out; thoughtfully and personally so. It is not all technical, we get a real insight into the faith of Cardinal Nichols. It's engaging and interesting. Even for an experienced RE teacher, and lifelong Catholic, I got new insights into the Mass; I enjoyed it!

As well as the straightforward language used, and additional explanations in the chapter transitions (for example,  Liturgy of the Word - God speaks to us), the setting helps ensure clarity and focus. Mass takes place in a simple chapel, with a small congregation. I have seen other resources that use the beauty of the Cathedral, with a large congregation. The focus on teaching is best set in this intimate setting. 

I really enjoyed the final section that includes some insightful and wise reflections on the importance and significance of the Mass for Catholics. This DVD is not just the 'what', but the 'why' and also beyond.

The DVD is accompanied by some helpful questions in a leaflet inside the box. These focus on recall of the key knowledge. It recommends watching the DVD in it's entirety before returning to each section, using the questions to guide note taking. I would use this approach in class without hesitation. 

Technically, the DVD is well shot, and the menu, graphics and transitions are of very high quality. I watched on a large 4K TV and the image quality was excellent. Subtitles would have been a nice additional feature for some EAL students, but there are ways around this for students that have a particular need. I realised that at the end, whether deliberate or not, a real variety of music had been used in the DVD reflecting different styles of Catholic worship, a nice touch. The DVD runs to 37 minutes; ideal for classroom use.


This was also written by Cardinal Nichols. Here is the comprehensive contents - it fits a lot into just 40 pages:

As with all TERE textbooks, the book is set out clearly and logically. It uses subheadings to break up the material into manageable chunks. It links very well to the DVD, and it would make sense to use the two together - for example the Gospel in the textbook matches that of the DVD.

It includes lots of helpful features, helpful to teachers: quick quizzes, clear and straightforward tasks, a few discussion points (or extension writing in my lessons!) as well as scripture based tasks and key summaries. The summary at the end of the book, the FAQ and glossary are particularly useful - especially for teachers who like key word tests!

It has a good mix of photos and artwork, that help link the story of Jesus to the celebration of the Mass. The DVD does not focus on this aspect, but the textbook helps to do this well, ensuring that important scripture is referenced.

How to use

For schools already studying the Way, Truth and Life:
  • This will perfectly compliment The Truth in Year 8 "The Mystery of the Eucharist".
  • This will be ideal to use before the first school Mass with Year 7, and perhaps again in The Way "The Sacraments"
  • It may be worth revisiting in Year 9 with The Life on "God's Call"
  • GCSE students may also find this useful when studying the Mass / formal worship, if time permits. [See note at the start about not leaving understanding of the Mass to chance - make time!]
  • Once you get familiar with DVD, you may use sections, rather than the whole film.
  • The textbook may be useful supplementary material, or useful for staff induction. If staff do not know what is going on, or why the Mass is so important, how can they convey this to the students? 
For other schools:
  • This could be used as at least half a term's work. The DVD and textbook work in such a way that even a non-specialist would be able to easily use. Is the Mass adequately covered in your Key Stage 3? If not, this will help hugely.
  • Non-Catholic schools could use as a resource to better understand the Catholic faith. Essentially, the Eucharist is the "source and summit" (CCC 1324), and so to understand the Mass, is to understand many of the fundamental beliefs of the Catholic Church. 
For parishes:
  • Catechises - for parents or young people, Confirmation, youth groups, RCIA...
  • The DVD is fantastic value for £35. It will get used over and over again in classrooms from KS2, even to KS5. Every Catholic school should have a copy. It is a privilege to intimately share the Mass with Cardinal Nichols. ***** (5/5)
  • The accompanying textbook provides a perfect, accessible companion. The activities and tasks enable the inexperienced teacher to help students digest and learn it's contents. A real bargain at £7. ***** (5/5)
  • I am unaware of any other resource, published recently, that comes anywhere close to presenting the Mass as clearly as this. 
DVD Preview & Ordering

Fine out more <here>

This new DVD offers a beautifully clear presentation of Catholic belief in the Eucharist. It will really engage the interest of young people as well as those who are helping them to deepen their faith in Jesus Christ. The Cardinal’s conversation with a group of students reveals their own understanding as well as their commitment to the Lord as they draw some profound insights from Cardinal Vincent. We see the young people’s participation in the Mass as the Cardinal leads them in worship and we see him explaining the Mass to them as a teacher of the faith. This high-quality film, with its accompanying textbook, will be a welcome resource to teachers and catechists and it could also be fruitfully used by parish groups or in the home setting.
Rt Rev Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham

Monday, 23 October 2017

CoRE Interim Report: My Response

In February, I presented some evidence to initial evidence gathering session for the CoRE (see <here>). In October 2017, they published an interim report, with a call for further evidence. I strongly urge RE teachers to take the time to read, reflect and respond to this (read the report and find the link to the questionnaire <here>). It feels like an opportunity for change, but one that may be missed. This is a personal response. 

The first question is about the introduction of a national entitlement statement. While I broadly agree in principle, this may be another name for a National Curriculum, and would certainly strengthen RE in areas of weakness, help alleviate inconsistencies and improve the subject's status, the implementation of this needs careful consideration. Some Free Schools and Academies have already put in place great RE curriculum - perhaps it is worth looking at them (and crucially their content... more of this later) before imposing such a statement? If we don't use good models of RE already in place, we have no hope of driving improvement.

Faith schools are more problematic. The Catholic Church's position is very clear, as outlined in a chapter I wrote for the new book, "We Need to Talk About RE" (see <here>):
If CoRE were to recommend a common baseline entitlement for all schools, including schools with a religious character, then it is very likely that the RE curricula of Catholic schools would already be in compliance with it. But since one of the conditions of the partnership between Church and state is the right of the bishops to set the curriculum in Catholic schools, then any statutory imposition of just such a common baseline is potentially highly problematic. Of course, given what has already be said, this will only be a problem in principle, not in practice. Nonetheless the principle is a fundamental one and a non-negotiable one for the Catholic Church in England. It is hoped that a way forward can be found that ensures outstanding Religious Education for all without backing the Bishops into a corner where they have no other option but to oppose something that, in every detail but one, they would otherwise welcome and support.
Therefore, such a NES, cannot be universally imposed. Some critics of faith-based education will highlight the issue with this and see it as a reason to try and eradicate the 'two-school system', but I feel to do so forgets the positive contribution that faith schools often to make to RE, especially for their students. I urge you read the full chapter, to understand the history, it's complexities and nuances.  

The questionnaire then outlines the proposed NES. For me, it remains problematic, open to interpretation, and seeking to please the sociological approach which seems to have become dominant in many RE debates (a focus on 'reality of belief', the 'religious landscape' etc). It also does little to eradicate the influence of PSHE, citizenship or sex education in RE. We cannot plan RE around 'what some people believe, or don't, in 2017'. For example, the Bible has been here for ~2000 years and had huge influence on our culture, history, art, literature etc. I think this needs to be central to any RE curriculum. 

The part of the initial response from the CoRE that is missing for me, is any kind of discussion about knowledge - what do students need to know? An attempt at this would be the single most important thing the commission could do. 

We actually have a start point with the GCSE Annex (see <here>).  It is worth being clear, this is not perfect. Some have claimed the writing was too hurried, others that all faiths had to conform to a Christian-based framework. However I would strongly argue that until it was produced, written down, set out... there was little debate about "What knowledge?" 

Curriculum design is not something that all teachers are expert in, nor is assessment. Many teachers have no idea what students should know when. Secondary colleagues often have no idea what students should know about religion when they arrive in Year 7. As such, a comprehensive overview from EYS to KS5 would be of huge benefit. KS4 and 5 is largely done, for the minute.

Yet we (the RE community) often fear making 'over simplified' or 'broad brush' statements - other subjects such as as science seem far more comfortable with this provisional knowledge. Therefore age related expectations, in regard to knowledge, would be helpful to map out this progression. It would ensure the complexity and diversity of religion and belief is accurately built upon. 

Knowledge is contested. However, what is clear, many RE teachers have a great deal of it. It allows them to have these very debates, and yet even dismiss the need to focus on knowledge in RE. Our greatest gift to students is the knowledge we have, how can we best ensure that it is passed on as effectively as possible? I am not sure it is this version of a NES. 

I would love to see the Commissioners sit down, with all their expertise, experience, knowledge and understanding of religion and belief, and set out a knowledge based curriculum, that teachers then help develop into Key Stage standards of attainment. I honestly think this is the best thing we could do for the students in our care. 

Monday, 16 October 2017

NEW BOOK: We Need To Talk About RE

There is always a great sense of satisfaction when you get a book in your hands - a book with your name on, or in. I remember the excitement when I first got my hands on my GCSE textbook - it was an amazing feeling. 

This one feels like a real professional affirmation, the fact I was invited to be part of the project and then allowed to write, what I consider a really important contribution, on the place of Catholic RE within discussion of reform. My extract is here: 
This chapter begins by briefly exploring the history of RE in Catholic schools as a context
within which its distinctiveness will be defined and is best understood. Then I explore how
the Catholic vision of good RE fits within the broader vision of RE held by the RE 
community as a whole in England, arguing that RE from a religious perspective brings an 
important breadth to what has always been a pluralistic discipline. Following from that, I look at the current contested areas within RE and consider how the Catholic RE community might respond to these threats and challenges, while spelling out those areas which would be non-negotiables beyond which Catholic RE could not pass without losing its authenticity. With all of this in mind, the chapter concludes by considering some possible futures for Catholic RE. In this section I argue for the importance for pupils in all schools of a study of religion which allows a deep theological engagement with at least one tradition, as is exemplified by Catholic RE. Such an engagement is the only one which allows for a proper grasp of historicity, nuance and complexity, all of which are essential skills in navigating a world of simplistic religious extremes.
I must also add that this chapter was co-authored, and I am very grateful to those who helped me put this together. You know who you are.

This book contains the thoughts and writings of many that I respect and admire in the RE world, although I admit, I don't always agree with. Healthy discussion and disagreement is useful for us in trying to improve the standard of RE in all schools. Here is an overview of who is included in the book:


The quotes on the back of the book should be enough for anyone who wants to get clued up on the current state of RE to get reading:

This diverse and accessible series of reflections provides an excellent route map navigating the complex terrain that is contemporary RE. It offers a range of radical solutions guaranteed to prompt debate about the future of the 'RE space' in a post-religious, post-secular contemporary world. (Alan Brine, Former HMI and Ofsted National Adviser for Religious Education)

This book, in the words of two of its authors, does the same as effective RE in classrooms. It offers 'demanding material... a framework for talk, thought, misconceptions and deep engagement' and a discussion of 'unsafe topics'. It is timely and informed and everyone who cares about RE should read it. (Dr Joyce Miller Associate Fellow, WRERU)

This timely book assembles huge amounts of wisdom and experience. It is a valuable addition to a growing literature on the place of RE in our schools. I strongly endorse the message captured in the Postscript : be absolutely clear about the purpose of RE and teach it well. The rest will follow from this. (Grace Davie, Professor emeritus, University of Exeter)

This book may not be for all, but I hope to have been part of something that offers a useful starting point for ensuring all students in the UK get the very best standard of RE teaching. It's too important for us not to get right.

I look forward to your views on my (our) contribution, and the book in general. 
We need to talk about RE.

Monday, 11 September 2017

My Starters For Five

When I first heard about Starter for Five, I was instantly taken by the idea - short, concise, fun... perfect for the busy, new teacher.

"Starter for Five is a UK based advice blog for new teachers. Each post gives 5 quick pieces of advice on a particular topic for new teachers and trainees submitted by experienced teachers. Use  search, tags and categories to look up the topics you want to know about."

As such, I have tried to provide some insight into some of the stuff that I was never told as an NQT. I posted my first 7 contributions under my old handle, @iteachre, so I thought I would collate them here for your reading. Enjoy.
Some of these have had a ridiculous number of views - much more than my usual blog postings. Thank you.

Submit your own advice <here>

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Spinning Plates

When we see colleagues, perhaps via social media or from stories in the staff room, everything can seem to be great for them. They are uploading resources to TES, emailing people their newly written SoWs, offering to help moderate essays via email,... plus they have a few young kids, a partner, they still go on holiday, they knit, they volunteer at the weekend.  While you feel frazzled, unable to plan your next lesson or mark that set of Year 9 books.

Workload is the issue that won't go away, perhaps quite rightly so, it is not sorted.

As teachers, and leaders, we are plate spinners. However, we sometimes need to work out what plates we can afford to drop. This is perhaps the single most important question that all of us should be asking - if I don't do this, what will happen?

Some nuggets of information you don't forget, and David Cameron's quip at Northern Rocks 2015 has stayed with me - How do we sort our IKEA from our Wedgewood? Do you even have a clue which plates you can, and maybe even should, drop?

I began a new role in September 2016, as Assistant Headteacher / Director of RE - part of this was leading the RE department as subject leader. The first few weeks, as a new member of SLT, in a new school, and leading a big department (9 of us taught RE last year), was chaos. There was so many plates I was trying to spin. I was also looking around at some of the plates I was dropping from day one... 

One of the key jobs of leaders in schools is to be 'sh*t umbrella'. SLT need to umbrella, rather than funnel, things from external sources - DfE, Ofsted etc. Middle Leaders need to umbrella things from SLT. As a TLR holder you are expected to deal with certain things, working out what to ask you team to do, and what to shoulder yourself. Any leadership role in school requires expert plate spinning skills.

The DfE and Ofsted are always giving more and more plates to spin - as are the media (apparently they have cited 90+ new things that schools 'should be teaching' so far in 2017). Schools are often already working at capacity - so what gives? If SLT keep giving more plates to spin to their Middle Leaders and other staff, something will give at some point. 

So how do we preempt this? We need to ask honest, sometimes difficult, questions of ourselves, our polices and our expectations.

  • If you just stopped doing it:
    • Who would notice first? Students, colleagues, SLT, parents?  
    • Would they be concerned? For what reasons?
    • What would the consequences be? Primarily, for learning.
    • How do you know? Can you measure time/impact?
    • Could you rationally justify your actions?

This is obviously not a suggestion to just go breaking school policy! These may be small things, historical department policy etc. They may be initiatives (fads?) started years ago, that have just outlived their natural lifespan. 

A few suggestions I got from colleagues via Twitter that may be worth asking:

  • Is our marking cycle making best use of time?
    • 2 week marking cycle - each set of books marked approx 15 times per year - if you teach 200 pupils like many RE teachers... 3000 books marked per academic year - if you spend 3 mins on each book that's 150 hours a year - 5 hours per week minimum
    • 3 week - 10 times per year, 200 pupils, 3 mins - 100 hours - 3.5 hours per week minimum
    • 4 week - 7 times per year, 200 pupils, 3 mins - 70 hours - 2.5 hours per week minimum
    • If you had an extra 2.5 hours a week to plan - would this be more or less beneficial to learning in your classroom? [Worth reading Tom Bennett's stats on marking <here>]
  • How many formal observations per year?
    • Preparation, planning, stress...
    • What is the consistency? How many people get 2 similar and 1 vastly different? Or do most people get 3 within a similar threshold (grading or otherwise)? If so, why 3? 
  • What is the best way to deliver CPD?
    • Does anyone know if there has actually been any improvement after attending a session?
    • Is it used to genuinely improve, or to 'get my hours up'? If it is the latter, are we simply wasting everyone's time?
    • Does it look good on paper, or in reality?
  • Do we need that meeting?
    • Are meetings the best spent time in schools? 
    • However, are typing up long documents of information effective?
    • Key question is about effective communication - are we using our time wisely? 
  • Is that paperwork really necessary?
    • Who is it for? Will anyone every read it? What will come from it? How will it improve the learning of the students in my class?

Asking ourselves about best use of time is hard, and sometimes awkward. Teachers can be a strange breed. They can have strong beliefs on things, and can be quite immovable. Can we have an honest conversation about our time, our plates?

What is most effective use of my time?

What is not an effective use of my time? 

  • What can I stop doing?
  • What is using a disproportionate amount of my time?
  • What could I be doing instead?

Some plates will get dropped by colleagues this year, you will drop a plate or too! Which ones will they be? Ones that you picked to drop? Or ones that you had no control over dropping? If you don't spend time identifying what is IKEA and what is Wedgwood, things may end up out of control.

It is hard when we see a colleague burn out or break down - when all their plates drop. Start thinking about it in September before it's too late.

In the meantime, watch Colin. He will teach you how to spin a plate FOR REAL:

Image courtesy of Movie Muse

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Assumption is the mother of all...

Penn: Ryback's gone, Dane. 
Travis Dane: Did you see the body? Assumption is the mother of all F*&% UPS!
Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995)

It can be easy to assume many things. Doing this in schools, like for those up against Steven Seagal, find out that it generally ends up badly. 

This is one of the reasons I am working towards a more knowledge focused curriculum. Students need to be acutely aware of what they need to know... I firmly believe much of the rest will then come. I want to get Knowledge Organisers published for Year 7s arriving, and then for each KS3 unit. This will then benefit students in KS4. I don't want to just assume they know the right things, I want to identify these things and then ensure that they do know.

It is commonplace to reference something in a lesson and enquire, "You studied this last year?" "No we didn't"

Often they did, and just don't remember (a whole other issue...). However sometimes they have not for a variety of reasons: staff absence, student absence, teacher deviation etc. Gaps end up existing for many students, we have to then try fill them... annoying, time consuming, but vital if we decide that particular knowledge is important. The more we can empower students to fill these gaps, the better.

The more dangerous assumption of knowledge, is that students have certain information already, without us - or indeed anyone else - teaching them. This is part of the rationale behind my Year 6/start of Year 7 Knowledge Organiser (see <here>)

In my GCSE textbook, for one particular spec point, students need to know two pieces of Catholic artwork. I thought long and hard about what to include: 'classics', personal favourites, something a 'bit different'? I settled with the 'classics': the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo and Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son. 

I have since had one or two teachers moan that 'other books' (including those for other specs, not just our direct rivals!) pick more contemporary art and artwork more "off the beaten track". This is apparently "more interesting" as they have studied those 'classics' so many times before. To one, I said, "That's a shame as I still think these two have so much to offer..." - the conversation went on and it transpired that actually my critic knew very little about either, particularly The Return of the Prodigal Son. 

Firstly, it's vital to remember we are teachers, and by necessity, we have 'done it all before'. I will teach these two pieces of artwork every year, perhaps to two classes. This is totally unconnected to their religious or cultural value or significance. It is also unconnected to my students knowledge and familiarity of the artworks.

If I had picked two more obscure, but perhaps interesting pieces, would I have been denying students knowledge about two key pieces artwork? These are the kind of questions we don't like - what knowledge do I prioritise? After all, as a teacher, that's what you do. You are not neutral, you are not without bias. 

Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper was my third choice (after all, we don't need to teach to the spec, and teaching 3 pieces may be beneficial if time allows... or more if you don't like my textbook choices!). Despite being hugely well known, actually it is more commonly seen in jokes or modified form. How can you understand these if you don't know the original? 

I have to admit, I do have personal investment in these two artworks. The Sistine Chapel is at the heart of the Catholic faith; it is the very room where conclave takes place, and popes are elected. This for me, is a valid reason for it's inclusion. It's also breathtaking, and relatively unusual - my parish church certainly doesn't have a ceiling like it! When I visited the Vatican, this was not even up for discussion on the visiting list.

I have also been fortunate enough to see The Return of the Prodigal Son. When visiting the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, I was walking down one of the the main rooms when I saw this huge painting (2.5m by 2m). I didn't know it was kept there (my ignorance!), nor did I know it was so big - every copy I've seen is A3/A4 in school halls, parish halls etc. I stopped in my tracks. It was also possible to get close enough to study the father's hands for myself!

So what do we do? How dangerous is it to assume students have knowledge of the 'classics'? Does it matter if they don't? There is a typical argument for not studying classic literature - does it really matter? Dickens, Shakespeare, Austin, Bronte.... 

When I have to decide, as I do, what knowledge to impart, I need to be confident I am sharing the best of the best. I can't take risks. I can't assume students know these things already. That's why we picked the Sistine Chapel and Rembrandt's masterpiece.

Oh and of course Casey Ryback wasn't dead - he is Ryback!

Image courtesy of Grantland

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Voice of Islam: Interviews about RE and Faith Schools

"Voice of Islam Radio is a new Digital DAB 24hr radio station which offers news, views, discussion and insight on Islam’s Perspectives on the world today." It is run by members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (<About>).

One of the opportunities that I have been given as RE teacher who blogs/tweets/writes/speaks about the subject is to speak to wider audiences about RE. I was contacted last March about speaking on Voice of Islam Radio and finally got on air in April. I was approached to speak again in July. Here is a draft of what I said, plus podcasts of the actual interviews. 

To give an idea of the calibre and range of people VoI get to speak on a show, in July I was on with Andrew Copson (Humanists UK), Stephen Evans (National Secular Society), Rev Mike Hayes (CoE), Dr Andrew Davies (Birmingham University). Thanks to the good people at VoI Radio, keep up the good work. 

April 27th 2017 Interview

1) Why should religious education be part of the school curriculum? Isn't religion something that should be learnt at home?

Yes - I believe RE is vital - academically, socially, culturally… I think it is impossible to navigate modern Britain without an understanding of religion and religions. To claim it is something to be learnt at home implies a strictly ‘faith nurture’ approach. In a Catholic school we take our responsibility to educate our students in other faiths and beliefs very seriously.

Richard Dawkins provides 129 biblical phrases in the God Delusion that English speakers may use and not realise their provenance: the salt of the earth; go the extra mile; I wash my hands of it; filthy lucre; through a glass darkly; wolf in sheep’s clothing; hide your light under a bushel; no peace for the wicked; how the mighty have fallen.

The study of literature, history and many other subjects depends on an understanding of religion. To neglect it as an academic subjects makes students less knowledgeable about the world around them. "What RE?" obviously is quite another question...

2) In your opinion do faith based schools help or hinder community cohesion? 

I think it is easy to see them as divisive - I mean they can be mono faith - however this ignores the fact that, for example, actually many Catholic schools are in fact religiously diverse with students from a range of faiths, and indeed none. I think it also ignores the way that many schools work within their local community. It can also be argued that a secure grounding in faith, leads to greater cohesion when encountering people of other faith. Our students know faith is important, regardless of whether you are Catholic, Muslim or Hindu.

3) You are also the head of religious education in Catholic school, is it important for pupils​ to learn about the beliefs and practices of religions other than their own?

Vital - my school is in Newham - one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse parts of London, and therefore the UK. It would be irresponsible to send our students out into the world without having at least a basic grasp of other religions. We have additional curriculum time and resources, and I believe we offer a good, academic presentation of other faiths.

4) There are reports that many Muslim parents prefer to send their children to church schools to help them learn about life in Britain. How would a church school help inculcate modern British values in a Muslim student?

It is important to recognise there is a wide range of ‘church’ schools. In some there would be prominent aspects of Christian lifestyle, others less so. I have met many Muslim families who have wanted their children to attend Catholic schools. Sometimes this is solely for the single sex education that is provided, however more often than not, it is down to the shared values, prominence of faithful living, similar moral and ethical outlooks etc. Many Muslims students that I have taught and encountered in Catholic schools have found the experience very positive.

5) Should secular schools or church schools make any accommodations for the religious practices of their non Christian students. Such as providing halal kosher meals, time off for Eid, Diwali etc?

I think 'where possible'.

6) Can you tell us a bit about the RE text book you've written?

After writing a GCSE textbook for the new Catholic Christianity spec - with Islam and Judaism, I have now written a Judaism Key Stage 3 book. It is academically rigorous, with increased content and difficulty, that will help better prepare students for the demands of GCSE. We will be using the Hinduism, Islam and Judaism books which should enable our students to have a more in depth knowledge and understanding

Listen <here> (from 11 mins)
July 20th Interview

1) With the rise of atheism, do you think that there is a need for religious education? 

I feel this is such a poor argument for not having RE. Students need to be given what they don't have… and if they don't know anything about religion, they need to be taught about it. How can you fully understand Shakespeare, or a newspaper headline referring to an 'Exodus', or why there is conflict in the Middle East without studying religion? Back in June this year Richard Dawkins was saying how vital it was for students to study RE in order to understand their history and culture.

2) Why should religious education be part of the school curriculum? Isn't religion something that should be learnt at home?

Why do we even have free education in this country? Because the Church recognised it’s importance to society and began providing it - a long time before the state. This contribution should not be underestimated, nor forgotten. I am yet to find to a single convincing answer why religion should not be taught in schools. Faith may well be taught at home, but the academic study of religion and religions is often not. It's vital to make that distinction - RE is not Religious Instruction anymore - we do not teach students to be religious in RE.

3) Some children might think that RE is not as important a subject as science and maths but as a Religious Education teacher, what importance do you place on RE in helping forge better communities?

I’m a bit wary of any subject having community cohesion as it's main aim. However I believe that by students having a greater knowledge and understanding of religion, they will become better functioning citizens, benefiting their communities. If they understand the difficulties faced by Muslims fasting during Ramadan, recognise the outward signs of a Khalsa Sikh and accept the practices of Orthodox Jews they will be doing very well. This knowledge does not happen by accident - it is complex, and diverse. If students get good RE, they may well become better members of their local communities, it just shouldn't be a primary aim.

4) In your opinion, do you think that religious values and teaching children about religion is good for Britain? [This question was cut from the live interview]

Teaching about religion, as opposed to religions, implies the sociological dimension - what is a religion? How do people practice in reality? Does saying you are Christian mean you are actually a Christian? This is all very interesting and part of the broad nature of RE. It's vital in understanding the landscape of religion and belief in the UK in 2017. As part of this, it is important to teach children what is important to others - and why. As a Catholic, we believe in the sanctity of life - we don't oppose euthanasia, abortion, the death penalty etc because we are simply old fashioned and traditional - we do it as we believe we are created in the image of God. Understanding, as best we can, the values that different members of society have can only be a good thing. Britain has freedom of religion, everyone of us is free to practice and change our religion. Why should we keep knowledge of religion as a privilege?

5) Is it important for pupils​ to learn about the beliefs and practices of religions other than their own? Can better understanding of other religions help prevent terrorism in UK?

Yes. I work in a Catholic school and studying other faiths is really important to us. Our students know that faith is important, and have a genuine desire to know how other people who consider faith important live their lives. We can't deny religion continues to shape our world. I think it is unhealthy for the individual and individual communities to be cut off from the world that surrounds them.

I think it is important that people learn the difference between fundamentalism and extremism. I heard of a Bishop who told his congregation that he would be disappointed if they weren't considered fundamentalists and extremists! Catholicism is, in many ways, counter-cultural.

However we know that conservatism, orthodoxy etc are not intrinsically bad. It is recognising and tackling extremism that can be assisted by a good knowledge and understanding of religions. For example, if you have a good knowledge of Islam, you may be better positioned to notice the signs of radicalisation. Sadly ignorance is still high, many adults in today's world did not get a good RE and as such they are filled with prejudice and hate. 

It’s not our primary aim as RE teachers, but we know if we do the job well we will help our students be critical thinkers, engaged in the world around them, and hopefully making it a better place.

Listen <here> (from 58 mins)