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)

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Lifespan of a Textbook

I may be somewhat biased as a textbook writer myself, but I believe a good textbook is an invaluable resource in the classroom. There has been a tendency to put everything on a PowerPoint, which while cost saving, does mean students can spend all day staring at the whiteboard. I love to get students reading, and love those moments of silent reading within the classroom.  

See our available list here: <St Bon's Textbook Clear Out>

One of the jobs I have been strangely looking forward to in my (not so) new school was having a good old clear out. As you can see from the table above, we have collected a huge number of textbooks over the years. Some of the GCSE ones go back to 2000...

But the question remains, what do you do with them?

Some teachers are very good at changing between textbooks, remembering where the 'good bits' are for each section. I have never been very good at this. I also feel students have become accustomed to GCSE books that, in one volume, contain every thing needed. Also I wrote the latest GCSE book, and so I feel that it covers the spec well and is all a student will need for exam success! 

There was a time when many missionary religious orders would be keen on taking them and shipping them to their schools in Africa. However this is costly, and many countries have tightened up on import taxes. For those interested, I have been made away of this organisation. I have not contacted them yet about their interest in RE textbooks:

Textbooks take up a huge amount of space, and I am conscious the older they get, the less likely they are to be of use to anyone. Therefore, we are offering them to a good home: other schools, charities, missionaries. Please see our list of available books: <here>

There is no price list, but schools may hopefully be able to offer us a donation. This will go back into our RE Dept to help provide our boys with the best education we can. I do not have a large quantity of packing materials, and doing this is very time consuming so I would prefer for people to come and pick them up. 

Hopefully you will be able to help us from simply recycling these books... particularly as I am very aware one day it will be my textbook that people are trying to find a home for! 

There is no easy solution to this, textbooks have a life span. They get replaced. I am not convinced education is purely circular, especially not in RE. I think we are often moving forward, this is a good thing, but a costly thing.

Please share out list:  <here>

Monday, 10 July 2017

KS2/3 Transition Knowledge Organiser: Religious Education

Each year, a new cohort of Year 7 students arrive. Some subjects have a National Curriculum, others are tested by SATs; there is some consensus about what students will know, and what they will not. However RE is very, very different.

Our Catholic feeder schools will have followed Come and See, a Catholic programme of study used by the majority of Catholic primary schools. We also have the Curriculum Directory which forms the basis of all that should be taught in Catholic schools. This should, or could, make it pretty straightforward to pick up where they left of.

It is important that I stress that primary colleagues do do a great job, and the knowledge and understanding of many Year 7 students is great. This is not designed as a criticism. It is also worth remembering the difference between: "they have been taught this" and "they know this".

However, we have a number of students that come from non-Catholic primary schools, who find RE in a Catholic school a really steep learning curve. Things that are taken for granted, like the Sacraments and the Mass, are totally alien to them. Even with a class set by ability, there is a phenomenal range in the first term (and beyond). Like many schools, we also have students from a range of other faiths: Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs - and of course some students of no faith at all.

ED Hirsch began his work by identifying key weaknesses in the students in his care; they were not succeeding as they had not been taught certain knowledge. It was the fact he cared about this, and believed he could address it, that lead to his work on 'cultural literacy' and identifying the key facts a child should know.

As such, I began thinking about how I could help new Year 7s to adapt and thrive in Term 1 of Year 7 RE (and beyond!). Catholic RE is different to 'other' RE, and we make few apologies for that. However it is also academic, critical and knowledge rich.

My solution was to produce a Knowledge Organiser linked to The Way, our Year 7 syllabus. I also wanted to include some of the key information that we often (dangerously) assume that students in a Catholic school will know. We are historically the 'option for the poor' and the poor has an ever changing definition. Those who are struggling or missing out need our help. Someone once suggested putting all the non-Catholic, or non-Catholic educated, students in one class to help them - I genuinely can't think of anything more horrific, or against the ethos of our schools.

This Knowledge Organiser is in draft format, and the first place I shared was in a Facebook group called Primary Catholic RE to get feedback - I want to work collaboratively on this with primary colleagues. It is not top down, from secondary. It is on a GoogleDoc that has comments open to all to offer suggestion, alternatives, criticisms. I feel it will be a better document if people do this.

Already I have faced some criticism, and I will begin to answer it:
  • My intention was never to be "condescending" or "arrogant" to primary colleagues. KS2/3 transition is hard to get right. I want to work collaboratively, hence I am not doing something without sharing as widely as I can. 
  • This may not be appropriate in other contexts. This document has been labelled as "OTT", "Ridiculous" and "Far, far, FAR too much". I've asked what knowledge on here is not worth knowing, no-one has answered that so far.
  • I do not believe that RE is about rote learning facts. However I do believe knowing certain key information (and knowing it well), will help students understand, analyse and evaluate material in the classroom.
  • Proselytising is not the aim of Catholic RE. Knowing the parts of the Mass is not forcing anyone to believe it is true. However, I have seen huge ignorance of the Catholic Church, and ignorance is never a positive thing in life. I've also never known teaching students about the Mystery of the Trinity, or the Mystery of Eucharist remove key questions of faith - quite the opposite! 
  • This is not 'another test' for primary school children, I do not believe our feeder schools will take this document and start testing students on it in a high-stakes fashion, like their SATs - of course they won't! However it can be shared with parents and students new to Catholic education to help them 'close the gap'. 
  • Yes, it is a bit Hirsch-ian. No, he is not evil. Yes, Gove did cite him on occasion.
  • Naturally these 'facts' will be given context, significance and meaning in the classroom.  
  • This knowledge cannot be simply labelled as "meaningless" and dismissed. It means something to someone - quite a lot actually. At the very least, it helps to understand the Catholic influence on art, culture, literature and so on. Criticism of Catholic schools via this document is not really that helpful.
  • My vision of RE is not just knowledge-based, but imagine what you could do in the classroom if all (or most) students already knew key information? You could do far more deep thinking, meaningful debate and discussion, and extended writing.  
I'm left with a few key questions:
  • Can we expect new Year 7s to know certain things? And by this I mean facts, definitions, names, places, dates, stories - is this reasonable?
  • How can we ensure it remains low-stakes, but also seen as important? We do not want a Catholic SAT in RE.
  • What is the best way to share? Via primary schools, at Year 7 induction, in September of Year 7?
  • Will we test it in Year 7? Should this provide the outline of our baseline test (much of it does!)?
  • Is there a best way to work with primary colleagues on this?
Next steps
  • Is there a way of creating a more knowledge-rich curriculum in Catholic schools?
  • How do we reconcile the demands of the Curriculum Directory with such a curriculum model?
  • Is a simple Knowledge Organiser for each unit at Key Stage 3 the next best step?
  • Do we need an adapted version for Year 12 students who join our school and study A Level RS? The New Testament element of the course provides a real difficulty for some students.

Image courtesy of Blue Diamond