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Education: How Mitch got a B

by
25 September 2015

Greater clarity is needed, argues Dennis Richards, over subject content as well as its title

HOW are schools coping with the changing face of RE? In most faith secondary schools, RE continues to thrive, because it is valued by the senior leadership team and the governing body. That is also true in many community schools, but the “Polyfilla” model of RE — where there are no exam entries, and RE is squeezed into a form period, or a PSCHE (Personal, Social, Citizenship, and Health Education) course — seems to be back in vogue.

A third pathway is to use RE as a kind of “banker” for the five A*-C grade pass-rate so crucial to the public perception of all schools. Students falling short of the holy grail of five A*-C grades including English and Maths, are given “extra support” — the buzz word is “intervention” — to enable them to reach the target. If a pass can be achieved, anything goes: cut down the number of GCSEs, give one-to-one support, employ a battery of teaching assistants. Cajoling, persuading, and, whisper it, even bribery are all in play. But, if the emphasis is on English and Maths at the expense of three more pass grades, it is seen as a spectacular own goal. This is where RE comes in.

 

MITCH is 15 years old. His heroes are Wayne Rooney and Jeremy Clarkson. He has never heard of Jeremy Corbyn. He is bright but disaffected. I am his intervention worker in French. Mitch cannot see the point. After half a dozen lessons, neither can I.

He quickly loses patience with the pronunciation. How come “il regarde” and “ils regardent” are pronounced in exactly the same way? Why is “un car” a bus and “une librairie” a bookshop? We search for words that he can recognise and use safely. “Détester” fits the bill perfectly. “Je déteste le Français,” he announces. I point out that this is hardly the right strategy to get the examiner on his side. It’s hopeless.

My Dunkirk moment arrives when the deputy head rescues me from the wreckage. I express my gratitude. “No problem. Glad to oblige. You are now his intervention worker for RE.” Thanks a lot.

In schools where RE is a valued option, there is a continuing debate about the most appropriate RE syllabus: Philosophy and Ethics, or Biblical Studies with Ethics? It is widely thought to be easier to gain a pass grade on the former, but proponents of the latter believe that biblical study is integral to RE, and that Mitch’s education will not be complete without some basic knowledge of the Bible.

This noble concept is under increasing pressure. Mitch is with me because he needs another GCSE pass to complete his set of five, and RE is thought to be his best bet. Opinion is divided but, for the moment, St Mark’s Gospel it is. We begin with the Parable of the Sower. The seed seems to fall mostly on rocky ground.

We move on to the concept of miracle. “Nah. Impossible.” He is particularly scornful about my attempts to rationalise seemingly miraculous events. Either they happened, or they didn’t. Passing the sandwiches round as an explanation of how the 5000 were fed he regards as cheating. I conclude that it will certainly be a miracle if he passes the exam.

He has no time for evil spirits. The “Big Three” events in Mark briefly command his attention — or at least the first two do. The baptism of Jesus reminds him of his own status; and the conversation between Jesus and Peter at Caesarea Philippi speaks powerfully for itself. Mitch doesn’t “get” the transfiguration, but is reassured when he learns that Peter, James, and John didn’t either, and they were there.

 

STRANGELY enough, he does enjoy Bible stories. If the wholesale switch to Philosophy and Ethics is to be slowed, a “Best of the Bible” option is needed. Old Testament dramas, the parables, and a selection of Jesus’s interactions with others would stand a far better chance of preserving this precious heritage than a detailed study of one text. Exam boards, take note.

We also need to sort out once and for all whether it is RE or RS (as it is designated in all the GCSE syllabuses). The current situation is akin to putting Arithmetic on the timetable when the GCSE exam is called Maths.

Mitch got a B. The intervention worked. You may say that he must have been bribed in some way. I couldn’t possibly comment.

 

Dennis Richards is a former head of St Aidan’s C of E High School, Harrogate.

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