Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Edexcel GCSE Spec A - Catholic Christianity (Summer 2019)

Paper 1A caused upset and concern to many RE teachers. They felt that the questions were unfair. As someone who has lived and breathed the spec for the last 3 years, I felt it was important to go through it very carefully to see if there were any issues. I found two things that I wasn't quite sure about, and so contacted the board, who provided a response. I think it is very useful for teachers of this paper, and indeed perhaps all Edexcel RS papers, to read. 

An error?

"Explain two ways the design of the Catholic Church reflects belief."

There is a significant difference between the Catholic Church and a Catholic church. The specification says:
4.1 - The common and divergent forms of architecture, design and decoration of Catholic churches [small 'c']: how they reflect belief, are used in, and contribute to, worship, including reference to the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1179–1181.
This question, especially for more able students could be confusing as they could be trying to consider the 'design' of institution of the Catholic Church (arguably something that has evolved rather than been designed).

The exam board response is this:
We take great care to ensure that our examination papers are error free and accessible to a wide range of learners across the ability range. I can confirm that your concerns have been reviewed and discussed by our senior examining committee who have provided feedback and reassurance. 
In regard to the concern escalated about Q4(c), the question reads "Explain two ways the design of the Catholic Church reflects belief.".  
The senior examining committee responsible for producing the 1RA0 1A question paper have confirmed that ‘Church’ in this question can be referred to in either way you have described. The mark scheme rewards responses approached explaining the ‘design’ of the building and will also reward student responses approached answering ‘design' of the institution of the Catholic Church.
To provide further reassurance as part of our internal processes and procedures, mark schemes are scrutinised against actual student responses and updated prior to marking to ensure that the full range of actual acceptable student responses have been covered. The mark scheme for this paper will be published online on results day 22nd August 2019.
I am pleased that both responses will be accepted, and the process that goes on as part of the marking, but this is clearly a mistake in my mind. I am unaware or anywhere on the exam specification where it could possible ask about the design of the institution of the Church. The closest would be perhaps the magisterium spec point, but the question does not fit - and as I previously mentioned, has the Church been 'designed'?

A clarification?

3 of the 4 Part D questions have just two bullet points - 'refer to Catholic teachings' and 'reach a justified conclusion'. This is what was expected, and due to them being AO2 question a necessity to look at divergent approaches is implied - and has been taught to students. If a third bullet point was included, it would be expected to be to look at different Christian points of view.

Question 2d ("Local churches should be responsible for evangelism.") contained an additional bullet point: 'refer to different Catholic points of view'. This was a surprise, given the above assumptions about divergence, and previous papers.

Does this suggest something fundamentally different about this question? Is it suggesting there is an 'official' divergence in teachings of the Church? (Something that has been problematic since the start of spec writing! Is there real divergence within the Catholic Church?)

I asked for clarity about why some questions included this bullet point, and others do not, when obviously it is implied that ALL questions need different Catholic points of view?
With regards to your concerns relating to Q02d, “Evaluate” type questions, please note that these questions will always include at least two bullet point instructions to aid responses. Depending on the question asked, bullet points are changed accordingly and the mark scheme will only allow credit for responses which are in line with specification content. The specification contains topic areas where there are points that are “divergent” views specifically mentioned for some topic areas. Questions asked on these topic areas where there are “divergent” views include an additional bullet point providing students with support to help them structure their response so that they can access the full range of marks available. The specification indicates, “divergent ways in which this is put into practice by the Church and individual Catholics, locally, national, and globally” (2.8). As such the divergence is whether it’s done on a local or global scale; Church or individual. The bullet point reminds students to ensure that their response includes this specific information. 
 Please note that the additional sample assessment material published online along with the 1RA0 1A paper set in 2018 list three bullet points similar to this series paper.
However on inspection of the SAMs, 1d, 3d and 4d - they do all indeed contain 3 bullet points. The fundamental difference being, they are all:

  • refer to Catholic teachings
  • refer to different Christian points of view
  • reach a justified conclusion.

This is the same as the specimen papers, and last years papers. Paper 1A has had 3 bullet points before, but NEVER a second bullet point saying "refer to different Catholic points of view", always just Christian. This is the first time it has appeared, and it remains confusing in my mind as to why it was included on this question, but never before.


Students will be fine. As we know, the brightest and most hardworking students will get the grades they deserve.

We know that the new GCSEs are tough, especially for our less able, or EAL. However, overall, I do think the new exams are better. Examination is always going to be difficult, and we feel a huge emotional attachment to the performance of our students. No one ever really LOVES the questions that come up! There will always be more tricky ones, and these are necessary to sort out the 9s. Yet last year the pass mark for a 1 was suitable so that the majority of hardworking students could achieve a GCSE - for some a 1 is a real achievement.

It is interesting that the Part As, which some spoke of being "qualifying" questions, are clearly not. In some cases the Part B and C questions were more straightforward. I don't have an issue with this as such, as long as my least able students to manage to get the grade they deserve. Interesting when working on my books, it was Part A questions that I found hardest to write - the others were far more simple.

Another issues that has come up in post-exam teacher discussions, is the extent to which teachers, and indeed students, followed the specification. Any textbook is one approach, not the only approach! The wording of many questions matched the spec very closely. It is for this reason, we included the wording of the spec in our student book. Read every word of  it! Get your students to as well...

There has been much talk of swapping exam boards. I have spoken to around 20 teachers in the last week or so - and there has been suggestions of movement in all directions - from and TO Edexcel. I think my best advice would be to wait until you get your results - the exact wording of the exam questions is quickly forgotten if you get the grade that you deserve or need to! It is also worth considering the financial cost (replacement textbooks) and teacher time (re-planning, re-learning exam style) - is it worth it?

Finally, I am going to use this as a plug... our new workbooks are ready! Book 1 is already available, and Book 2 will arrive in September. I believe these could be real game changers, and despite being openly biased, I think for Catholic students, the Edexcel option could be the best due to the resources OUP have commissioned - especially for those students that find the GCSE tough. Check out this review of Book 1:

If you like what you read, order via your OUP rep (best for bulk) or see info here on my site:

I hope this has been helpful, informative and reassuring.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Saturday, 2 March 2019

CoRE Report: The Recommendations (Part 2)

Following on my overview blog, here, this is focused on the 11 recommendations with my thoughts on each. It's vital that you read at least the executive summary, found here.

  • Recommendation 1: Has this ‘name change’ caused unnecessary and distracting debate? It almost seems to be a feature of any report into RE - put a name change at number 1 of the recommendations to grab the newspaper headlines! Some feel that this change opens the door for a purely sociological teaching of ‘religion’ (yet the NE states a variety of approaches), others are wary of a secular humanist agenda (while the NE could potentially be covered with very little NRWV), while some question a seeming parity of religious and non-religious views in curriculum content. There are always the "somes", it is impossible to say if any of these concerns are valid before we actually see any curriculum models. Maybe it is important to show the law on NRWV is being covered? Or has it simply been a device that has opened up much needed discussion on the curriculum content? What hasn’t been helpful for teachers is the many headlines suggesting atheism, agnosticism and secularism will be taught for the first time in schools. It does nothing for the public perception of the subject who often think it is still RI anyway!
  • Recommendation 2: This will be problematic for some schools with a religious character. If this is the battle that some want to insist on, it will delay helping those schools who need urgent RE help the most. It is likely that many curricula would be compliant, but to force it upon Catholic schools would be unwise. If they freely chose to use, that is a totally different matter. As I stated in Part 1 (here), it is not the practicalities of this, it is the principle and precedent. 
  • Recommendation 3: A complex one... the tensions between ensuring something is good and robust (needing ‘gatekeepers’?) and allowing the very best of practice and existing excellent RE to form part of this. “Whose knowledge?” is always contested - does this do enough to ensure we get it right? The key question is always going to be - who are the 9? How many will be teachers
  • Recommendation 4: I do find it hard to justify hard work being replicated unnecessarily around the country. London particularly exacerbates the problem. How different is good RE in Norwich compared to Liverpool or to Brighton? How different is good RE in Newham compared to Hackney or Tower Hamlets?
  • Recommendation 5: Worth including - I’d like to hope that would not be an issue. I also hope the next exam reform is a good way off!
  • Recommendation 6: More training, bursaries and funding is always welcome. It is great to see the current support for this already including SKE funding from DfE. Subject knowledge can be real issue in RE with willing and keen non specialists teaching - and we know it is so important for effective teaching.
  • Recommendation 7: Again, more money is good... however it does return to the question as to who the national body are, and what are their interests. I am reminded of CPD providers being involved in government funded organisations who would be accrediting CPD... (see here)
  • Recommendation 8: This does recognise the good will, time and dedication of those working locally for RE. I do feel now may be the time to review their roles. Some RE teachers do not have access to local faith representatives - let’s train them up and get them working with schools, teachers and students!
  • Recommendation 9: Section 48 again is problematic - for example an inspector of a Catholic school, judging RE provision, perhaps should not be judging the RE in accordance with the governments criteria? There is a quite a shift in purpose in this scenario - some could claim it is small, technical, trivial almost and 'no big deal' - but inspectors employed by the Bishop, are then judging based on state criteria rather than just the Bishops criteria. The relationship between faith school providers, particularly the CoE and RC and the state has been long and worked well. It is important to consider the implications of pushing for this change, especially knowing it would be strongly resisted (and be potentially damaging to the whole process). However a greater focus from Ofsted to ensure good RE would be helpful. There is no point Nick Gibb making comments about its compulsory nature in the Houses of Parliament without that being monitored through inspection.
  • Recommendation 10: RE can be counted in the Progress 8 despite not being an EBacc subject (I think for 97% of our students it was in the third bucket), and as much as I want the profile of RE raised, obviously consideration needs to be given to the impact of change. Imagine if schools had to legally study RE, which meant some students didn’t do History or Geography - would that be an acceptable compromise? Many schools did use the Short Course to facilitate their legal duty for RE, and now can’t (a bigger issue than EBacc?). Potentially less students are now doing RE - but those who are, are doing better RE? Do we build our subjects reputation on being a desirable option rather than compulsory? As always, there are strong arguments for both.
  • Recommendation 11: The right of withdrawal is something that needs review, and clarification. It is important to respect parental rights, and "the state knows best" remains a dangerous rhetoric. Yet it seems sensible to work towards an RE is sufficiently academic to eradicate the need for withdrawal - a subject where students do not want to be withdrawn, and nor do their parents want to ask for withdrawal! I think it is likely to stay - to avoid complex legal cases - but the ideal is surely less withdrawal in the short to mid term future. 
Overall: For me, this is definitely the best of the reports that have been published on RE, as you would expect. I think the primary aim must be ensure at least adequate - if not good - RE, according to the current law, in all schools. I would like to see an 'Entitlement Lite' - a 3 to 5 short bullet point summary of the most important aims that could easily be placed in front of headteachers where needed. 

I do fear that if members of the RE community decide they are going to focus on ensuring schools that currently control their own RE curriculum and are inspected via Section 48 are legally bound by this entitlement, it will be problematic and distracting to the primary aim. As I've stated before, the best case scenario is that the religious groups that run schools freely agree to conform and ensure their curricula are compliant, as many will be, rather than have it forced upon them. To do this could drive further divide in the RE community rather than unite it as this report has the potential to do. The period of further reflection indicate by Damian Hinds is my preference, as we begin to understand what this will look like in reality. As always, I am a champion for RE in all schools, but I cannot wholeheartedly endorse all the the Commission proposes, because I do not believe that the state should be in control of the RE in Catholic schools. We have given much to the education system of this country, and worked well with the government of the UK for long enough to retain this right. 

A huge thanks must go to the Commissioners for their hard work on this report. 

CoRE Report: Where Next? (Part 1)

RE Online has been posting many blogs by various RE experts about the Commission on RE report which are worth a read (see here). They currently cover mainly recommendations 1 to 3, but perhaps may continue to cover all in time. Here are some of my own thoughts formulated over the last few months... 

Damian Hinds' response to the Commission on RE (here) was that now is not the time for curriculum change, as he actively tries to reduce teacher workload. A noble aim, and one RE teachers still struggling with new GCSEs and A Levels presumably appreciate in many ways.

Yet this is clearly and quite starkly contrasted by the regular stories of RE dropping off the curriculum unchallenged in many schools - for those who care deeply about RE, even one child being deprived of the subject is unacceptable. There is a clear moral imperative to do something, as many including Mark Chater have stated, we cannot stand by and just do nothing. The report explains a number of reasons why this is urgent.

Some have been quite critical of people like myself commenting on the CoRE report, saying that as someone who works in the Catholic sector, these wider challenges are not something you have to contend with ("With your big budgets and protected curriculum time..."). Yet I think they perhaps do not realise the commitment that people like myself are willing to dedicate to wider RE issues. As someone who has supported a number of non-Catholic schools and worked with organisations such as Teach First, Westminster Briefings and indeed Culham St Gabriel's, this seems quickly forgotten - I even organised the two London RE Hub conferences! I share in the wider desire for better RE, whether students are in a Catholic school or not. 

Many of the Catholic responses so far, official or not, have focused on the concern of Bishops authority over the RE curriculum. It is worth considering why this is so important - and what it means. I reshare  the Catholic Church's position, as outlined in a chapter I wrote for the new book, "We Need to Talk About RE" (see <here>). This was written before the National Entitlement was published, but the last line is a pertinent one:
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. 
Why are the Bishops willing to stand their ground on this? It is important to consider what makes a school Catholic. This my own view - there are 3 key things, but they are not equal: Catholic leaders, distinct RE and Catholic students - these then lead to the ethos and community. Admissions policies have been actively challenged for many years, and now potentially RE is now being focused on. One suggestion is that Catholic schools simply have "RE" and then additional "Catholic RE" - yet RE is the enterprise of the whole Catholic school and not just a timetabled lesson; quite simply it is impossible to separate the two. It is also worth remembering the history of the Catholic Church and the state in this country, plus the contribution of the Church to education in this country - do we retain anything distinct if we can no longer ensure these 3 things? 

To force schools of religious character to conform to the NE would create unnecessary difficulty - it is clear that they would look to this curriculum and use it - but we have to ask whether our primary aim is a correctional one or is it the urgent need to raise standards where they are needed the most? I'd like to hope the latter (despite some wanting to do battle with the CES and Board of Deputies!).

So what next? For me, as I have suggested previously (here), the time is now - we need to start looking at the next step. The Commission proposed a 3 year timetable, but it may be more like 5. Yet with the resources and finances available, we should be able to utilise the expertise in the world of RE to create a truly exceptional RE curriculum - with enough flexibility to work in different contexts and to aim for some consensus. I was doing some work at the DfE recently, and when discussing this, some said, "Surely there is enough of a consensus to establish what a KS3 student needs to know about Islam? Is it as controversial as you seem to make it?"

However, it is worth noting the caution of such a project. Why were the 2013 frameworks not a success? Have the general aims and purposes of RE found some common ground and consensus in the National Entitlement, but would the curriculum content debate result in irreconcilable difference of opinion? Will the ideas of a 'knowledge-rich' curriculum be reviewed in the future as the fad of 2018/9? What would a curriculum look like, and to what extent would it be resourced - to the level of schemes of work, PowerPoints and textbooks?
"With teachers at peak workload, SACREs losing touch with their local area, widespread fragmentation caused by new school types and the sharp decline in local RE advisers able to pull various strings together, this does seem like a timely innovation. All over the country advisers, SACREs and Trusts are reinventing the wheel; a colossal expenditure of energy that could surely be put to a better, or more streamlined, use." Kate Christopher
In her blog, Kate goes on to give two examples - the RE Today model syllabuses and Understanding Christianity. These do give excellent, coherent curriculum that is well thought out by experts - but at a cost. For me the real hope of the National Entitlement is to quite literally 'Save RE' in the places where it most needs saving; we need some kind of safety net when schools are claiming their 'skills day' is their RE. The proposed statement of entitlement while noble and very useful on a theoretical and perhaps legalistic level, is not going to land on the desk of a headteacher who doesn't value you RE and grab the attention of him or her.

I do add a caveat that expertise should be financially rewarded - and as a textbook writer people often feel the need to point out that I am "profiteering" from schools (check out the life of a textbook writer here). If people are putting in their time and effort, especially as full time teachers, they should receive remuneration. The culture of free things can hinder the very best ideas coming to fruition. Let's hope the DfE or one of the charitable foundations in the RE world can help.

It's hopeful that if pitched correctly, the DfE will be open to this type of proposal after their approval of a Music model curriculum (here), which is still to be finalised, but presumably under development as a workload reducing time-saver for schools and music teachers.

It would be prudent to look at what is different about this, in contrast to the Commission report. Music is certainly a contested subject with the various different organisations involved trying to pitch their particular area: composing, performance, music tech etc. Although obviously it is arguably not as political!  To me, the difference is that for Music there is not an entitlement statement, but a ready to go curriculum that schools can utilise where they are struggling for resources and expertise. Obviously, as an RE community we would not have a successful proposed curriculum without the excellent research conducted by the Commissioners in trying to find some acceptable middle ground and consensus.

There is a part of me that likes the idea of the Annex that was produced for GCSE (see here). It gave an overview of what needed to be covered in exam specs. Yet I do not like the way that everything is framed around Christianity, and as a result is artificial in some structures for other religions. Would it be useful to have such a document for KS1-3?

A further interesting development on this idea of curriculum is the Ofsted focus groups (here) which have not gone via subject organisations. They have invited largely full time teachers very much living out curriculum and curriculum change, many of which have demonstrated their expertise via blogs, Twitter and speaking at conferences. I feel there is some real value in this. It is not the Govian "we have had enough of experts", but actually those in the classroom do have a real expertise, just maybe a different one to those working as consultants, advisers, commercial enterprises and at universities. Everyone has something to offer. 

The recommendation (3b) suggests a "maximum of nine professionals, including serving teachers" to devise the curriculum. However, as previously discussed, ED Hirsch has used 150-200 people to some of his events, representing all stakeholders (see here). Would it help reach consensus using new and different voices in the RE world?

I am excited about what this is going to look like. It's got huge potential.

Read my overview of the 11 Recommendations here.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Top 5 Tips for Exam Success

Ever since reading High Fidelity, I've found Top 5s to be a useful way of navigating life. 

I recently held some tutorials with some groups of 6th form students and thought I would share my Top 5 tips for A Level success. I constructed it around a Top 5 Problems and then a Top 5 Solutions:

Top 5 Problems:
1) Procrastination & Distraction
2) Forgetting Stuff
3) Time Management
4) Insufficient Notes & Resources
5) Cognitive Overload

Rob, Dick and Barry would definitely argue over this list - is it a true list of 5?

Top 5 Solutions
1) Pomodoro Technique
2) Cornell Note Taking
3) Keep a Record
4) Knowledge Organisers
5) Practice in Part

So, let's go through the tutorial and explain my rationale. I'm not going to link to everything but I will try give a summary of what I shared with the Year 13 students:

1) Pomodoro Technique
Inspired by hearing Barb Oakley recently, I started the session with my real life tomato timer on the desk. I set it 25 minutes and said that was all we had. I then spoke about how this was devised in the world of work when days run from 9am to 5pm with little structure unlike the school day. I pointed out their weekends, evenings and holidays could be like this. I shared this PDF. After 25 minutes work, you have a 5 minute break. After a few sessions, have a 10 minute break. Obviously phones go in the other room. Always. 20 mins to get back to full focus after a distraction?!

2) Cornell Note Taking
I explained about Ebbinghaus's Forgetting Curve (see PDF). I said that forgetting stuff is good - because we then remember it quicker when we review... but we need to be systematic and regular in that process. They know my advocacy of the CNT method, and how I urge student do have a weekly summary session, and a separate weekly cue column session (and then putting paper over their main notes and testing from summaries and cues). I gave them a reasonably detailed PDF on CNT. I then explained my greatest revision tool... a blank sheet of paper! I asked what they would do when they had written down everything they knew for a particular topic - and every time the answer was look it up! We talked about struggling and practising retrieval. Eventually they would need to add to it (when our 25 minutes was up?) - in a different colour - and then repeat the same task the following week.

3) Keep a Record
I gave them a revision timetable (PDF) but then asked why it has never worked for them. Universally it was because it had gone adrift and then they gave up quickly. I emphasised the need to put to fun stuff on first - Saturday evening Nandos - but also that every day is a new day and if it doesn't work on Tuesday, don't wait until Monday to restart. Yet I offered an alternative - a "work diary" when they needed to record every thing they actually did in a day - like a food diary - and how eye opening it would be. One student came back to me later in the week and said it had been a revelation and upped her productivity overnight. This is also useful so revision can be systematic and all topics covered.

4) Knowledge Organisers
Some teachers make them, and provide them at the start of a unit. At A Level, I use as summaries and students produce themselves. It is always a useful took to work out what is missing - "Why do I have no scholars to put in this box?" "What are the weaknesses of this theory?". I then explained the idea of "Unknown Unknowns":

I encouraged them to get a copy of the exam spec and then highlight only when they had actually found notes in their exercise book on the topic - and do it word by word, not by big statement / topic. I also suggested dating it every time they revised a topic.

5) Cognitive Overload
Are you trying to practice retrieval or are you trying to write a great essay? For students that are struggling, doing both can be tough. Obviously they need to do this in the exam, but we used a 'big game' analogy and discussed David Beckham practising his free kicks for hours the day before the Greece game. Practice the skills separately and build up to the final 'big game' exam.

I added two further documents to their pack:
The last thing I did was urge them to change the narrative. I'm as guilty as most in saying, "It's only 4 months until the exams!". However, the other way is "We have 4 months, that's lots of time to do lots of learning!" - Get that Pomodoro timer set back ready for another 25...

Image courtesy of BBC

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Books Not Blogs [Edexcel RS Update]

There has been very few blogs from me this academic year. I have been busy at work covering a second role within our Teaching School Alliance, our family grew to four last April, we've had building work going on, plus I have been busy writing books. 2019 is looking like an exciting year... please find a brief update to the OUP Edexcel GCSE series for Catholic Christianity papers on Spec A.

UPDATE: Download OUP's Updated Revision Guide pages here - focused on Part D/12 marker questions - we are now confident they are all Level 4 responses in accordance with last summers marking.
UPDATE 2: Download a DRAFT / INSPECTION copy of Workbook 1 (Catholic Christianity) - Get your orders in now for delivery very soon!
Work Books

One of the main concerns that many teachers have had about the new GCSEs is that they are not accessible for all students. Alongside the revision guide, which many teachers and students have found helpful, we wanted to work on something more.

As such, I have been working with the brilliant Ann Clucas (author of How To Teach Everybody: Strategies for Effective Differentiation) to find ways to break down and build up the content so that all students will be able to access and succeed with the new GCSE. We are hoping to publish ASAP, with Book 1 hopefully coming in March / April - just before the 2019 exams!

To reserve a copy, email your local OUP education consultant. Find yours  <here> 


From the January 2019 OUP update flyer

Revision Guide

When students required just 67% to get a Grade 9 on last summers paper, it was clear teachers hadn't been fully prepared for how the exam board were going to mark the RS exam. Many of the (d) evaluation questions got 25-40% nationally. Teachers were advised by the exam board that strengths/weaknesses/conclusion approach "should be sufficient." - yet this was sufficient for just L2 and 6/12 marks.

The OUP team looked carefully at our books, and while confident that our guidance was helpful to students, we felt a few tweaks would be beneficial to help further emphasise the need for careful analysis and evaluation and reflect the latest exam board guidance.

The updated pages of sample responses for the (d) question will also be available for free on the OUP website from 6th February - so if you have already purchased this book, or purchase before February you can still access the most up-to-date advice.

This new updated book will be available from 6th February 2019 and can be ordered here:

Huge thanks to all that helped with this, including various examiners from the 2018 summer series.

More Books

There are few more exciting projects in the pipeline which may mean the blog remains quiet... watch this space!

Thursday, 13 September 2018

WWJD - Rewards & Sanctions (inc. Exclusion)

7 years ago, I submitted my MA dissertation. 

I completed a Masters in Catholic School Leadership at St Mary's early in my career, in part due to my school offering to pay in full. However, despite being relatively inexperienced, and before I had even secured a middle management leadership position, I learnt a lot, and I still refer to my findings years later. 

After tweeting a 'memory' of handing it in, I had a number of requests to read it. Somewhat hesitantly, I also went back to reread my conclusions to see how they had held up - I don't like reading my early blogs for a couple of years back, let alone seven! It also seemed topical, with exclusions one of the 'hot debates' with education at the moment. 

The challenge for Catholic school leaders in developing and implementing a system of rewards and sanctions is that of promoting Gospel-driven and Christ-led values. Thus, there is a need to balance the need for reconciliation alongside the need for sanctioning students while, at the same time, finding enough time and space to fully reward those students making a wide range of achievements.

Cole’s suggestion of creating an environment based on reward and praise was echoed by the responses of all students (Section 2.3; Daniels et al; 1998; 83 in Cole; 2005: 162). The creation of such an environment is a challenge to school leaders particularly in a school which has traditionally had a large number of rules and a far greater number of sanctions than it has rewards.

Catholic distinctiveness needs to pervade all areas of school community life from the School Discipline and Pupil Behaviour policy down to the individual interactions which take place in every classroom, corridor and playground. It needs to be led from the top, and be explicit in words, actions and spirit. Ensuring that this takes place creates varying difficulties, but if it is missing, the school can lose its distinguishing features as a Catholic community. There is 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. The students are the most important stakeholders in such policy decision making as they are the ones that need to feel comfortable and safe every day in school. As a Catholic community, this gains even greater importance over and above our legal obligations as set out in documents such as Every Child Matters (2003) and its successor Help Children Achieve More (2011).

Disengaged students must be a priority, as the outcasts were for Jesus. Those who are already disillusioned with the system currently in place 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.

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. 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. 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.

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.

The number of rewards and sanctions on offer within a school community are vital, as are the numbers of each awarded. 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.

Do I agree with all of this now?

I don't think behaviour targets are a great idea as such. I do think it is important to encourage staff to think carefully about how they can try to send positive emails and make positive calls, as well as the negative ones. However I freely admit, with limited time, this just doesn't often happen.

At this point, I was a little naive to some of the worst behaviour and disruption which happens in some schools. I was a little too kind in places, and for serious issues exclusion should not even be up for debate. I think Jesus would agree though; punishment (eternal) was a reality for those who wilfully and deliberately turned their back on God.

Rereading the whole dissertation, I still agree that often detentions can be ineffective. I do also agree the an 'internal exclusion' or isolation can be very effective. Some of the students with poor behaviour needed this deterrent and claimed it was the only thing that stopped them misbehaving at times. However I do now see how problematic it can become with reintegration, and how students end up in cycles due to getting behind in work. This can be overcome with good management. 

I still don't know how to do rewards well (without a huge budget!). The reward of the Gospel is in the next life... and I wonder if our students don't truly get the reward of good, disciplined schooling until the leave?  

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Core Knowledge: The Catholic 100

Until I sit down with a few of my fellow Catholic educators and write the Canon of Catholic RE (or even a whole school curriculum), we are working hard in my school to right wrongs about what our students do and don’t know. 

For a year, with a lot of debate and discussion, I have worked on a list of 100 words that I wanted all of Year 7 to know. There are 75 essentials, and 25 advanced words. 

With a little hesitation about how people would perceive the task (“How does this get them excited about RE in secondary school?”), I included my task in the transition booklet alongside English, Maths and Science. Actually most people seemed to think it was a great idea!

For each word, students had to self evaluate:
  • I recognise this word
  • I understand this word
  • I can accurately use this word in a sentence
They then had to write, 'My own definition'. This was just one sentence, of original material, that needed to fit in a concise box. 

The expectation was that each student would have at least 75 definitions at the start of Year 7 that they could refer to, learn and be tested on. They would feel more confident about RE, and we'd be able to move faster in lessons.

However, the main aim was to close the gap that exists in Year 7 in a Catholic school. We have some devout families who would be fluent in this vocabulary (and therefore knowledge), while others will join from non-Catholic schools, and be from non-Catholic, perhaps non-Christian families. It is important to recognise the bewilderment a young Hindu, Muslim or Skih has when the teacher starts talking about the Creed, praying the Rosary, attending Mass and celebrating the Sacraments.

Additionally, the religious vocabulary (religious literacy some would suggest) does not link to other data. Scaled scores and SATS results mean little; a student in our higher sets could be struggling in RE, while one in a set with less able students may excel in RE. It’s why our department data sometimes looks odd. 

We then decided that actually, we have put a lot of work into this, and we do need to ensure all students in Key Stage 3 have this vocabulary. As such, all students in Key Stage 3 now have their booklet and Year 8 and 9 will be completing over the next few weeks.

The students seem to really like it. We’ve had a lot of positive comments, and they really see the value of it. Many are excited about it - especially about mastering the advanced words! 

We will be testing these words at least weekly. 5 a week... and I’ve agreed 4/5 as the pass mark for Year 9. This can't just be a task, it has to end up as a long term learning exercise. 

Students really do enjoy knowing things and learning things, and improving their vocabulary, regardless of their  own faith position or background, is vital. It may be we look at having different lists / booklets for them to work on in different year groups. GCSE already have their own... 

The list is always up for review, even after a year of reviewing, so keep suggestions for improvements and modifications coming in... 

Image courtesy of Spokane Favs