Monday, 30 November 2015

Save RE - From Itself? Again?

Yet again, disagreement features on Save RE. Previous arguments such those of 'the crucifixion jelly hand', 'teaching the Illuminati' and 'memes' were recalled as Rebecca Sefton blogged about why she was leaving Save RE (see <here>)

Save RE is a closed Facebook group with nearly 3000 members. It includes a wide variety of members including RE teachers, as well as advisers, faith reps, examiner etc. It was originally set up as a response to RE being left out of the EBacc. However it has grown as a place to share resources and discuss the subject. Neil McKain recently wrote about Save RE for RE Today (see <here>).

Here are some of my reasons why sometimes Save RE 'kicks off':

  1. It is part of the internet. As long as there has been an internet, there has been arguing. It's kind of just what people do.  Misunderstandings, lack of humor, misinterpretation of tone - all part of the internet, and particularly social media. Just because we are RE teachers, does not make us immune.
  2. RE teachers are defensive. People criticise our subject, we are having to defend it's worth to students, parents, SLT, the public, humanist trolls on Twitter (or is that just me?). We bring that 'trench mentality' to Save RE; helmet on, grenades at the ready.
  3. In our request for relevance and engagement (linked to 2), we do 'shock jock', gimmicky, sexy RE. When we share it online, there is great division on this type of teaching. The 'progressive' vs 'neo-traditional' sides can be evident, and are often irreconcilable. 
  4. People often share for praise and affirmation, not critical reflection. This is linked to 2 and 3. If you have spent time on a resource, or have what you consider a great idea, it is important to ask the question, "Do I want constructive criticism? Or do I just want people to say it's great?"
  5. RE teachers work bloody hard. Often in one person departments, supporting non specialists. There is no sounding board, where eyebrows would be raised. You use that idea, teach that idea, perhaps over and over, then share on Save RE. People criticise and it, and perhaps quite legitimately, it feels like a punch in the stomach.
  6. RE varies probably more than any other subject. For example, faith schools very different to community schools often. Budgets, staffing, school perception, approach, aims... Are we even talking about the same subject? Can we have meaningful conversations about what is good and what is not?
  7. Bias plays a BIG part in RE. We have an open forum to discuss religion, politics etc. Whether we realise it or not, whether we care or not, it is quite hard to not project a personal agenda. Catholic schools have no issue with confessionalism, but some posts on Save RE indicate much confessionalism in community schools. 
Perhaps this is also useful from Dawn:

Scepticism belongs to all subjects and all classrooms but it needs to be taught. Teachers need to be pleased to be challenged over an issue with students not defensive. As clich├ęd as it is, I genuinely think is one of the things we can do for students that will equip them for life. [see <here>]

Just perhaps with colleagues and strangers on the internet too!

Image courtesy of Weird Life

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Humanism and RE

Yesterday I had a little rant on Facebook about the high courts decision in regard to the BHA case (see <here>).  Before reading my rant, I want to state something categorical:

I believe that there is a place for non-religious world views in the study of RE and in the current and new GCSE RS specs. I think they are vital in the broad understanding of religion and beliefs for our students. I think it is impossible to teach about religion without giving alternative, non-religious viewpoints, and often students demand to explore them. Of course these are just as valid as religious viewpoints and beliefs.

So here is my rant here, but appreciate it may not be as technically accurate as I first believed. I do remain confident that some of my reasoning for not having a humanism annex / paper is correct.

For some reason, the high court has decided that humanism needs to be studied at GCSE RS and it was against the law to exclude it from new specs.

1) RS is not RI, we don't 'advertise' a range of religions and invite students to 'take their pick'. As such, we don't need humanism as an option for students to 'pick from', nor is it relevant if they are religious or not. Religious studies should be about studying religion, even if there was not one religious person in England.
2) RS is an academic study OF religion. Like history is of history. People don't just study religion because they are religious. Even if you claim all the violence in the world is because people are religious, surely that makes it deeply fascinating? 
3) A humanist option at GCSE could result in students gaining a GCSE in RS with a 75% study of non-religious views. Would you get a Science GCSE for studying 75% non-scientific stuff?
4) Even the BHA can't tell people exactly what should be taught as part of this humanism spec (they attempted something which was a soft / confusing option). I invited them to speak about it at The London RE Hub and they declined. They had a rep in the audience who chose to not answer questions on it.
5) Non-religious views are always part of RS anyway. Why is it an 'either-or' for the BHA? 
6) Taking away the religion from RS would make those without religious knowledge suffer greatly in understanding religion and belief. That's bonkers. The world needs more knowledge and understanding, not less.

Interestingly one of those who took this to court sends her child to a faith school and this ruling won't effect faith schools. Did she just fancy a day out in court? Thankfully the DfE have already said new GCSE specs will now not change. I suspect this will not be enough for the BHA and they will continue to roll their media machine trying to fight for this change. Maybe they will actually come and speak at my next conference to explain what it is they want taught? Apologies for this lunchtime rant. If you have got this far... WELL DONE!

I also cited, Robert Orme's article from earlier in the year, which is feel is vital reading (see <here>). He provides a far more eloquent and articulate set of reasoning as to why humanism should not be in the curriculum as an option like other religions.

What is at the heart of the legal precedent that has now been set is as follows:

While the Government will not be immediately compelled to change the GSCE, religious education syllabuses around the country will now have to include non-religious worldviews such as humanism on an equal footing, and pupils taking a GCSE will also have to learn about non-religious worldviews alongside the course.

Firstly, I am relieved. A DfE spokesperson confirmed:

“Today’s judgment does not directly affect the detailed content of our reformed GCSE and will not affect the current teaching of the RS GCSE in classrooms.” (via <NATRE>)

UPDATE: Full statement <here>

There was a group of teachers who went into panic mode that the GCSE specs which are already running late (see <here>) would be further delayed. Andrew Copson tweeted me pointing that GCSE specs weren't being taught yet (so could still be changed?), which is correct, but specs, syllabuses, textbooks and resources don't appear overnight. Obviously those doing a 3 year GCSE have already started too.

So what does it mean?

It seems to be the law on RE will have to be changed slightly, indicating that non religious world views should now be covered in RE. Now, it's important to remember the current law on RE is already much flouted as we have this complexity between the requirement of RE and the GCSE subject RS. Will there really be supplementary lessons to GCSE RS to cover NRWV? Or will the references to NRWV that are already in many of the new GCSE specs be sufficient? Or will the fact that students always ask about people that don't believe in God be enough? I don't know a teacher who manages to avoid NRWV already.

My concerns remain as below:
  1. The law is already complex when it comes to RE; it is also often ignored. Will this be ignored or will the BHA have an active campaign to challenge schools where they feel it is being ignored? (Although perhaps this will be a good thing in seeking out poor RE? Not always easy to fix though...)
  2. What is this content that we need to teach? The proposed GCSE annex is not really RE but a mixture of science, culture, English literature, etc (See <here>). As Mark points out in his blog, will there be a lot of, "humanists tend to have a range of opinions on this issue which probably revolve around being nice to each other" (see <here>).
  3. The BHA seems to promoting that their 'brand' of Humanism is what now needs to be taught, however this is not the only NRWV and obviously, we may now see other groups pushing to be included in RE, by law. Scientology? The Illuminati? Will the law allow for restriction or determination? I think the DfE need to be really clear on this or we could end up with a mess.
  4. There seems to be, from some, a desire for a new subject that is a mix of culture, morality, reflection, self exploration, review etc. This sounds lovely and would maybe be popular. I don't think it is a direct replacement for RE. Find an extra space in the curriculum for it, and I am sure schools would be interested... the study of religion remains relevant regardless of the religious persuasion of those studying it.
  5. If students are reading Dawkins or Hitchens in their spare time, that is genuinely great. However it means they probably need some teaching of Islam in their RE lessons. We need to overcome this belief that 'my students are not religious so they are not interested'. Do we exist as teachers to simply teach them what they are already know, or to open their horizons?
  6. What is the next step? The BHA seem to want an option paper for Humanism in the GCSE. Maybe this is right and correct. However, with it's current format, it just doesn't work. Maybe the work will happen to make it a comparable study. What worries me is that if this does happen, it will be one version of humanism rather a genuine exploration of a range of NRWV. 
Rob concludes (quite correctly):

There is certainly a place in GCSE RS for studying the nature of atheism and its challenges to, and impact upon religions. Humanism would be included in this – but studied on its own terms as a non-religious world-view, not falsely cast into the mould of a religion.

Non-religious world views should be studied alongside a study of two religions; it should not be an either-or. This would make for an enriching conversation and deepen understanding of religion and belief, rather than withholding this understanding from those who already lack it the most.

Mark Shepstone has also written a good blog highlight his concerns, as a humanist, but lover of academic, good RE. Read it <here>.

We do need to revisit our aims, and maybe our name (read Dawn's excellent blog on this <here>), but RE remains in a bit a of a mess. Maybe this will force the RE community to sharpen up. Maybe there is now political climate for a law change. Just don't expect it to happen over night. 

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Education Inspirations [Work In Progress]

I'm not sure what inspired Tom Bennett to write his blog post his education inspirations last weekend (see <here>), but a friend (not a teacher) send me a message last night asking for edu-blog recommendations. My short answer was "the people I had beers and curry with on Saturday", but realised that actually writing a list on my own blog was probably more useful.  

In no particular order, and I am sure I will update with blogs that I have forgotten, here we go:
  • Scenes from the Battleground - THE education blog? Quoted by ministers, certainly one of the oldest edu-blogs, and always a well-researched read - Andrew Old
  • The Behaviour Guru & TES - Not just behaviour... Tom has gained a reputation for his work with ResearchEd, reviewing "Educating..." TV shows and general entertaining writing about the profession - Tom Bennett
  • The Wing to Heaven - Is there anyone better that Daisy to talk to about assessment? I don't think so, Cricket? West Ham? Same. Make sure you also read her book, 7 Myths - Daisy Christodoulou
  • The Learning Spy - David is happy to admit in the past he has been wrong, and is happy to share (after extensive reading) what is wrong in education. He saves me a lot of reading. Since starting to teach part time, his output has been significant - David Didau
  • Blogs About School -  John's blog has been a repeated source of information and inspiration. One of my real favourites - John Dexter
  • LeadingLearner - Stephen's is exec director of a Catholic MAT in Blackpool. He frequently maps out his vision and steps to getting there in his insightful blog. An amazing demonstration of leadership, useful to all schools - Stephen Tierney 
  • This Much I Know About... - A beautifully human and well written blog about being a headteacher, teacher, father and human being - John Tomsett
  • Zest For Learning - A mixture of teaching and leadership. Tom's blog has given me a number of ideas to try out in the past and continues to reflect upon his journey of headship - Tom Sherrington
  • Outside In - A Catholic teacher and Blue Labour supporter. Insightful reflections on many aspects of education - Michael Merrick
  • Evidence Into Practice - Nick's blog has been really helpful in understanding key elements of the psychology useful in teaching. He has a great ability to make the complex very accessible - Nick Rose
  • To The Real - A really insightful blog which cites Plato as an inspiration: that beautiful mix of philosophy and Maths. Kris always has something interesting to say - Kris Boulton
  • Esse Quam Videri - A blog which covers so many different topics. Having met Heather at one of the early blogger curries, I have only recently started reading this. No idea why it took me so long!? - Heather Fearn
  • Othmar's Trombone - This blog is now even better that we know James actually exists, A must follow on Twitter too - James Theobold
  • The Quirky Teacher - One of the few anonymous bloggers left...
  • Reading All the Books - Jo writes quite a lot about English, yet there is something for everyone here with her excellent blog - Jo Facer 
  • Stack of Marking - Another must follow on Twitter. Teaches in FE. Only person to recommend their own blog, but fully justified - Tom Starkey
  • Surreal Anarchy - It's impossible to not love Martin. Likewise, it is impossible to not love his blog - Martin Robinson
  • Laura McInerney - How Laura still has time to write for this while writing for Schools Week, I have no idea. So much good stuff on here - Laura McInerney
  • Filling The Pail - A lot of evidenced based sense all the way from Australia - Greg Ashman
  • Chronotope - A source of good evidence and reflection linked to Carl's work as Wellington's Director of Research. Follow on Twitter for trolling of Dida and Bennett - Carl Hendrick
  • Pragmatic Education - Joe is excellent on knowledge and it's importance. What else do you need to know? - Joe Kirby
  • MM Learning - Mary is an OFSTED inspector and RE champion. She's ace - Mary Myatt
  • Clio Etcetera - Michael's blog is often history focused by very useful for other humanities - Michael Fordham
  • Bodil's Blog - Sometimes Maths, sometimes not. Always excellent - Bodil Isaksen
  • ICT Magic - Martin knows nearly everything about ICT. His list of recommendations is second to none - Martin Burrett
  • ICT Evangelist - Alongside Martin, Mark also knows nearly everything about ICT too - Mark Anderson
  • Tabula Rasa - Katie writes lots of English related things, but also about education more generally - Katie Ashford
  • New To The Post - Amjad is a generous member of the edu-blogger community, always sharing - Amjad Ali
  • TeacherToolkit - No need to mention really - Ross Morrison McGill
  • Governing Matters - One of the few excellent blogs written by a committed governor. If only they were all like this.. - Naureen Afzal
  • "Splogs": Hey Miss Smith - My favourite primary blog, reminding me (informing me?) what it's like teaching the little ones - Jane Manzone
  • Mr Lock's Weblog - Writing a little less now he is a head, I always enjoy Stuart's in depth posts - Stuart Lock
  • Daily Genius - Another head (where do they find the time?) who takes the time to explain his vision and what he is trying to achieve. It's great to share the journey! - Kev Bartle
  • ChocoTzar - A headteacher who often blogs about pastoral issues with great humility. I love this blog. - ChocoTzar

I also had some recommendations via Twitter that I now need to discover and to my read list:
The RE collection

This deserves it's own special section. I have the privilege of running the The RE and Philosophy Education Chamber. These are some of the blogs I return to again and again:
There are more excellent RE bloggers here


This is a lovely site with a real community feel. People to check out;
Starter For Five

A special mention for this blog project for those new to teaching with lots of 'Top Tips 5': here

Who have I missed?

Monday, 23 November 2015

#Michaela - Debating Education (21/11/15)

Another Saturday, another education event... Am I an edu-geek or an edu-loser? Regardless, it was a chance to meet up with my 'edu-Twitter/blogger friends' and share a day of discussion, debate, reflection, beer and curry. 

The day was held at Michaela, a free school that divides the edu-Twitter world (Read about David Didau's visit <here>). It is a shining example of how schools could be or has Katharine Birbalsingh and her neo-trad collection of Teach First-ers got education totally wrong? Perhaps, thankfully, that wasn't on the days agenda. 

Due to a prior engagement (baptism preparation for my son Tommy' forthcoming initiation into all things Catholic), I could only make 3 of the 5 debates, but the trip to Wembley was still well worth it. We were polled in advance, presumably so Bodil (the data cruncher) could see if we changed our minds. The key questions that were to be discussed were:

1. Was Michael Gove a great Education Secretary?
2. Should Ofsted be abolished?
3. Is Sir Ken right? Does traditional education kill creativity?
4. Does mixed ability work?
5. Should character be in the curriculum?

For me, yes / no answers were tricky:
1. Not great, but had a good vision, just maybe poor execution.
2. Only if it is replaced by a better regulatory body.
3. Not really, as I don't agree with his definition of creativity.
4. Maybe in some subjects, but not all?
5. It has to be, but not in separate lessons.

I think I went with:
1. No
2. No
3. No
4. Yes
5. Yes

My final thoughts were:
1. Still not great, but Jonny had done a fine job of selling him as such. Would I go back to pre-2010 education? No. Did Gove drive up standards and expectations, especially for the poor? I think so.
2. OFSTED is not fit for purpose; it may need a new name, aims and form to have any kind of impact. However. I also don't really trust teachers or schools to be self accountable.
5. If I need character lessons, I am not carrying out my pastoral responsibility properly in the everyday interactions with my students. 

Did I bring anything practical back to my class room for Monday? No. Did I change my mind about any topics? Not really. Do I think the day was useful? Absolutely. So many seeds were sown. The conversations, interactions (both face to face and via Twitter), questions and reflections are still settling. I want to read more about Hirsch and his effect on Gove, I want to consider my contributions to character education as a head of year, I want to consider further the accountability within schools. This was NOT a TeachMeet with a whole series of shiny ideas to magpie (and don't get me wrong, I love those). This was not a panel debate with 5 minute soundbites. This was something a great. A space, and a time to think about some of the most important issues in education.

Big thanks to Katherine for hosting us. Huge gratitude to the speakers for giving up their time and leading us in a really excellent series of debates. Thanks for Bodil for awarding my chocolates. And of course to Andrew for organising the curry - thank goodness Moore Spice delivered! 

Other Blogs

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Catholic Schools & Islam at GCSE

Schools Week (6/11/15) covered a story on P4 of this week's paper by Sophie Scott. It's worth reading it in full in the print edition (a seemingly edited version appears <here>), before reading the rest of my blog which addresses some of the information in the article. At the heart of the article, was a decision by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales to collectively decide Catholic schools should study Judaism as their second religion at GCSE.

On a personal level, I found the tone somewhat inflammatory, but as a practising Catholic, I am used to dealing with criticism of the Church and in particular Catholic schools and education. I absolutely understand some of the issues that people have with the Church and Catholic schools. Yet I am also reminded of the quote by Archbishop Fulton Sheen, "There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”

As such, it is best in such circumstances to focus on the facts:
  • The letter came from the Bishops and was their decision. It was simply communicated by the CES, as is their role; the article does not make this clear. The CES offered advice to the Bishops, but they make their own decisions (Perhaps worth noting that some CES staff worked on the AQA GCSE spec which included options to teach both Islam and Judaism). The CES has certainly not "decreed" or ordered anything. In any Diocese, it is the individual Bishop's responsibility to make his own decision; many go with the decision of the collective conference.
  • The article begins "Catholic schools will no longer teach Islam as part of GCSE RS". It is worth noting that many did not anyway. The majority of schools teach Catholic Christianity. Any that did teach Catholic Christianity and Islam previously would have done so without formal permission of Bishop's Conference BUT presumably with their own Bishop's knowledge and approval (through Diocese / Section 48 inspection). It is possible that if the Bishop allowed it previously, he will do so again.
  • The article says each religion must be "equally weighted". This is absolutely not the requirement of the new GCSE; it requires a minimum of 25% coverage of a second religion. Some specs will provide a 50:50 split, but this is a choice not a requirement.
  • The article says, "regardless of whether they are trained to teach other religions, such as Islam.". I don't know of many RE teachers that are trained so specifically for teaching Islam in any schools, let alone Catholic schools? Teachers in Catholic schools are employed primarily to teach Catholic Christianity; that is their job. It would be reasonable to expect their training and expertise would be in this. Their expertise in other faiths is, however, also vital and would be used as KS3, possibly KS5 (in general RE type lessons) and equally still at GCSE! This is a misleading comment.
  • It is claimed by an anonymous Catholic RE teacher that this decision was made for "purely academic reasons", as if this is a bad thing. What other reasons would there be? A desire to fit the Community Cohesion agenda? To "fight terrorism"? These responsibilities do not belong to RE alone; they are whole school issues, just like SMSC. Surely RE, particularly in the Catholic school, should be an academic subject? It should have its own integrity and its own measures of success irrespective of the context and "current climate". Do other academic subjects "sway with the times"?
  • The choice of studying Islam in Catholic schools previously was not one based on academic rigour, not to help Promote Cohesion arguably.  Schools more likely picked it as they thought they would get higher grades with their particular intake. Is this a reason to be defended and upheld? 
  • Catholic schools do, and will continue to teach Islam; the article implies this is not the case. It will feature in Key Stage 1 to 3, as it always has done.
  • What has a primary school with 90% Muslim pupils got to do with GCSE RS? These pupils will learn about Islam alongside Catholic Christianity just like all pupils in Catholic primary schools.
  • It is not true that pupils in Catholic schools "must be religious" (this 'fact' features in the print edition - no longer online?). This is only the case in over-subscription, and even then, the parents of a student with a statement of SEND could request, and be granted, a place in a Catholic school (as well as other situations such as LA students etc). This reinforces the idea of proselytising and forced religion in Catholic schools; something which I absolutely do not believe to be true.
  • The anonymous teacher claimed "all lesson material would need to be rewritten". I cannot see why this would be the case? The majority of the GCSE remains Catholic Christianty, as has been taught previously. Indeed much lesson material will need reworking, but this is due to the more rigorous GCSE course rather than the inclusion or exclusion of Islam. 
This is my personal response to the article, and the inaccuracies within it. I feel that schools with a religious character and those without should be trying to work closer together, reducing the 'them vs us' mentality, especially within RE. There is common ground. However articles such as this are not helpful. The story could have been reported very differently, and more accurately, but that wouldn't have been as exciting as an 'exclusive' for Schools Week. 

NOTE - Since publishing this, Schools Week editor Laura McInery has been in touch to let me know the online version is a corrected version. She also let me know the CES have been given the opportunity to write their own article for next week. Thanks to Laura for this, a sign of good journalism for me! However my concerns remain that often the media, in general, are very quick to report inaccuracies about Catholic education.

Image courtesy of The Telegraph