Sunday, 11 January 2015

SACRE: Time to move on to drive improvement?

Image courtesy of Carfelo

NATRE have reported upon a letter sent by Lord Nash to all SACREs. He is Minister responsible for faith schools and has sent a letter to all SACRE Chairs, Clerks and Directors of Children’s Services which has been published <here>. In it, he emphasises the importance of good teaching of religious education and the central role of SACREs and the duty of local authorities.

This raised discussion on social networks about the role of SACREs in general. RE is so oddly positioned within the 1944 Education Act, it is compulsory but it's content decided locally. Teachers from other disciplines can't begin to understand this; would you have a Geography syllabus that focused on the South Downs when studied in Sussex and lakes when studied in Cumbria? (A perhaps, factious example I admit!).

There is an increased call for greater consistency to help drive improvement in RE and one way would surely be to establish a core curriculum that is used nationally? As part of the #REconsult process it has been clear that ministers, the DfE, Ofqual etc are all keen to be more explicit in what needs to be taught at GCSE  (to ensure comparability), why not Key Stages 1 to 3? 

The trouble with not having a 'National Curriculum' is there is no attempt to tackle regional inequality or local bias. The world is a far smaller place than it once was with many people moving around the country for education, employment or relationships. For example, the Nottinghamshire Agreed Syllabus may well be excellent for students living in Nottinghamshire, but will it be good enough to equip the student who then goes to Southampton Uni, meets their partner from Newcastle and eventually ends up living in Bristol? If it is good enough to do this, why is the whole country not following that Agreed Syllabus?

There are a lot of really good people involved in SACREs who often give a lot of their time voluntarily. In some areas there are great things going on and advisers employed by SACREs do amazing things to support schools to improve RE. I don't see this as the problem though. We all want to make RE better and any way that can happen and be supported is only obviously a good thing, I would hope the role of advisers can continue especially with less and less LEA assistance. 

I teach in a Catholic school and we have a core curriculum document called: The Religious Education Curriculum Directory (3-19) for Catholic Schools and Colleges in England and Wales [2012] published by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales Department of Catholic Education and Formation. This is from the documents introduction:

The purpose of this new edition of the Religious Education Curriculum Directory (3-19) is to provide guidance for the Religious Education classroom curriculum in Catholic schools. Following the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), the Bishops of England and Wales published the Religious Education Curriculum Directory for Catholic Schools (1996) to ensure that teaching and learning in our schools truly reflected the vision and breadth of the teaching of the Church outlined in the Catechism. This revised Directory is published so that religious educators can continue to meet the needs of the pupils of our time. (<link>)

There is freedom to teach this in a variety of ways and different Dioceses normally recommend a syllabus that covers the Curriculum Directory. I have used ICONS (now quite dated but still recommended by my Diocese) and have now moved to The Way, The Truth and The Life for Key Stage 3; there are others too, a new one is apparently in the pipeline from a group called The Catholic Project of England and Wales. In Primary, many schools have moved from Here I Am to Come and See

I'm not suggesting the Curriculum Directory is perfect (I don't think anyone covers all the content... it's too vast!), but it is a good starting point to ensuring some consistency and accountability. When inspected under the Section 48 framework, a key concern of the inspectors is the delivery of the Curriculum Directory. It provides Levels for assessment and a very detailed core curriculum and knowledge set. 

I think part of the problem comes from our sometimes confused purpose in RE. There are too many differing views on what and how things should be taught and SACREs give opportunity for that diversity; I personally don't think that in this case, that it is a great advantage for our students. Given the number of non-specialists teaching RE, plus the isolated one person departments, and the 'Bad RE' out there, diversity will often mean more bad than good.

In the GCSE proposals, there was a core knowledge set out for new syllabi to cover. There were some problems with this in some areas, but once it has been finalised, would it not make sense for this core knowledge to be adapted for Key Stages 1 to 3? Not only will this provide some consistency, but will enable greater religious literacy as students progress through the education system. 

Unlike some colleagues, I do think it is important that people of faith backgrounds are involved in RE curriculum. I think it is good that the DfE extensively consulted with faith groups, if only to verify the knowledge is accurate... if I am learning about Islam, I want to know what I am teaching has been agreed by both academics and believers. It is why we are working with people of faith for The London RE Hub conference; faith is something genuine and lived out, and it is important to use this expertise. 

The ultimate problem is who takes on this task of setting out the core knowledge? The REC produced a National Framework in 2013, <here>, but unlike the GCSE consultation documents produced by the DfE excluded appendices containing a knowledge set. Ultimately while RE stays outside of the National Curriculum, it will always stay out of the same controls that other subjects have, ie the DfE. Some would say that this is a great benefit, but when promoting and raising the profile of our subject, it is not always helpful.

I agree with Lord Nash that we need to develop the academic rigour of our subject, bringing RE in-line with the rest of the National Curriculum may just help this. I think it could follow a similar structure to GCSEs where school pick the papers / strands / options that best fit their cohort. This would allow a Catholic school such as mine to still participate instead of simply opting out and teaching our own syllabus.

I do not feel there needs to be a review into SACREs, just perhaps have their terms redefined; they can remain to support RE in their local area, but it is wrong that they spend time, effort, energy and crucially money in devising Agreed Syllabuses individually when a national curriculum would be better. Academies and Free Schools can also opt out of Agreed Syllabuses (although they need to be following a syllabus). This naturally effects the reach of SACREs and must be a consideration for future funding. I work in Havering and it is seen as relatively 'revolutionary' that the SACRE is working Barking and Dagenham to produce a joint Agreed Syllabus; will it be that radically different from the one produced in Waltham Forest? This genuinely seems like madness to me. 

Perhaps it is just the old problem in RE, perhaps more so than in other subjects, that person X thinks they teach RE better than person Y and if given the opportunity they will naturally reinvent the wheel to make it fit their own agenda. I personally don't think makes RE better.

Further Reading
Mark Shepstone's response to Lord Nash <here>
Neil McKain's response <here>


  1. There was a time when it all seemed to be going well, but with the number of academies, free schools and so on, there will be less power in the SACREs. The idea of different people from the community working together on a syllabus is a wonderful idea when it works well and when development is funded properly, but we are losing the original vision. The Redbridge RE syllabus, which didn't have AT1 and 2, but 'exploring and responding to religion and human experience' sparked lots of brilliant RE in the borough and still does.

  2. I think there is a sort of a vision here about what goes on in the deciding on an Agreed Sylalbus that doesn't reflect the reality on the ground. It is rare for an Agreed Syllabus Conference to work in any detail on the text. The majority of ASCs rely on professionals or teachers (or both) to write the syllabus. The majority use a succession model because when you ask teachers what they want as part of the review they don't want change. Hence, you have 'traditions' of syllabuses in areas which are irrerations of previous syllabuses. The notable exceptions to this are Birmingham, Cornwall and Hampshire in recent years.

    There is another issue too. I am sure that you remember the 1996 Ofsted report on the impact of Agreed Syllabuses on teaching and learning in RE. This HMI report clearly noted that Agreed Syllabuses were being effectively ignored by secondary schools. Where primary schools had followed the locally agreed syllabus RE had improved but the crisis was especially acute at KS3. This has not changed - althrough the reasons for this may have.

    In terms of a NCO for RE the issue is not really about whether it would be good or not, or whether it would gain consensus, but whether it would make things better. I would suggest not on the basis of Citizenship. The NCO Citizenship has been a failure since it was introduced, Yet PSHEe is having something of a boom without a NCO. What matters is how the SLT, especially, view the subject, that is quite different from the issue of a NCO for a subject. Interestingly, research in Catholic secodnary schools indicates that the Directory is not necessarily having the impact it is in your context - I haven't published that yet though.

    Joyce Miller has produced some really interesting research on the impact of locally agreed syllabuses in light of the Bradford riots which should not be overlooked in discussions. You might also be interested in: which I published some time ago.