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Education: RE is thriving

25 September 2015

Non-church schools can show the way, says Margaret Holness

Belief: the head teacher, staff, and pupils of Eastbury School in Barking

Belief: the head teacher, staff, and pupils of Eastbury School in Barking

RELIGIOUS education — RE — is an exception. It is the only subject to be a legal part of the basic curriculum of every school in the country. And everyone, or almost everyone, including successive governments, agree that RE is a Good Thing. It is now seen as more important than ever in the new multi-cultural, multifaith society, as a way of helping different communities to understand each other.

RE is perceived as a linchpin of community cohesion and a repository of British values. These expectations have been added to its original purpose of developing children’s spiritual understanding and helping them approach the eternal questions of human life.

So why, in OFSTED reports, is RE rated “Good” or “Outstanding” in only four out of ten community primary schools, and found wanting in the other six? And why do more than 1000 (just over a quarter) of all community secondary schools in England fail to enter any students for GCSE Religious Studies, including for the short course?

One reason put forward by Clarke and Woodhead in their New Settlement pamphlet is the locally based organisation of RE itself. There are about 150 locally agreed syllabuses, drawn up by a variety of faith and interest groups.

They argue — and most RE professionals agree with them — that RE should be part of the national curriculum, and have the same sort of professional, centrally agreed syllabus as other subjects.

Clarke and Woodhead write: “We believe that RE should be put on a similar footing to other subjects, and no longer treated as the exception.”

In primary schools, subject leaders with the specialist knowledge needed to plan RE are as rare as hen’s teeth, and dedicated local-authority advisers, who might have helped them in the past, are an almost extinct breed.

In their absence, already stretched diocesan education services are increasingly called on to support RE in community schools as well as church schools. London diocese, for example, employs an adviser for one day a week solely to work in the community sector.

Pointing to the huge rise in entries for full GCSE and A-level religious studies, the current Government dismissed the charge that RE is underfunded and further damaged by its exclusion from the national curriculum.

But that rise has been accompanied by a dramatic fall in entries for the previously popular short course, and, at the chalk face, RE professionals report that too many of their number are losing their departments and are being transferred to humanities teams. Moreover, curriculum time for their subject is squeezed, as head teachers, understandably, throw their resources into EBacc subjects.

In church schools, naturally enough, RE is generally protected, and a few community schools buck the trend. I visited a community primary and a community secondary where RE is thriving: Eastbury School in Barking, and Salusbury School in north-west London.

 

“THERE is no subject like it for dealing with the big questions, or for making students think critically. You see the children developing right in front of your eyes.” Shareena Pradhan, the head of religious studies and citizenship at Eastbury School, Barking, in suburban east London, is talking about RE. After teaching the subject for ten years, her eyes still light up when she talks about her work.

Ms Pradhan, from south Wales, graduated in religious and theological studies from Cardiff University, then took a PGCE in the same subject at Trinity St David’s, Lampeter. In her first job as a newly qualified teacher — and the only one qualified in her subject — she built up a specialist RE department from scratch.

She has done the same since, five years ago, she moved to her present school — a multi-ethnic, multifaith community school in one of the poorest boroughs in the country. But, this time, she has the backing of the head teacher, David Dickson, and the entire senior leadership team.

“We believe in RE in this school. I like it; the children enjoy it; and it’s as important as any other subject — if not more so,” Mr Dickson says. As a result, there are now three RE specialists in Ms Pradhan’s department (and one keen non-specialist), and twice in four years Eastbury has been awarded the RE Quality Mark at Gold level.

More and more students have taken GCSE full-course RE; and, this year, the whole cohort was entered. In addition, the first 12 students to take RS A-level took their final exams this summer. The average grade was A.

This success was achieved by giving RE the same status, the same time, and the same resources as EBacc subjects, including equal curriculum time, Saturday revision classes, and 7.30 a.m. breakfasts and encouragement on exam day. Some students were at school by 7 a.m., Ms Pradhan says. The school even organised an away revision weekend, in central London, for about 40 GCSE students.

RE at Eastbury has now influenced other schools in the borough: its in-house RE curriculum has become the basis of Barking and Dagenham’s agreed syllabus, and, one day a week, Ms Pradhan has become the borough RE adviser.

A further spin-off has been the school’s relations with the various faith communities. One of the RE teachers, from a Muslim background, has forged connections with the local mosque. And mosque leaders helped to plan Eastbury’s sex-education programme.

“I believe that if people really understood each other’s religion, the world would be a better place,” Mr Dickson says. He is proud of the strength of RE at his school — but frustrated because it’s not in the EBacc. “The children learn so much from RE,” he says. “They work hard to achieve well in the subject, but it doesn’t count as a core humanities subject. There will have to be a rethink.”

 

SALUSBURY SCHOOL, a three-storey community primary in north-west London, reflects the socially and ethnically mixed multifaith community it serves. Between them, its 680-plus pupils speak 49 languages. Doing RE is challenging. But Linda Kieran, who was appointed executive head teacher three years ago, after the school was placed in special measures, believes that good religious education is an essential part of any school’s curriculum.

“Teaching children about religion brings different communities together, and breaks down prejudice and ignorance,” she says. It is also, she suggests, a way into understanding great art, literature, and music; so, this month, a print of Piero’s Baptism of Christ hangs above the school’s RE display with its seasonal Harvest loaves.

And, naturally enough, RE has had a makeover, along with the rest of the school. Last year, Debby Rigby, who oversees a school in Liverpool, joined the recovery team as one of the deputy heads, for two days a week. Experienced in RE, and a former member of a Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education, she took over responsibility for the subject, working with a keen, newly qualified teacher, Andy Bate.

“RE had previously been grouped with PSHE, and when that happens it tends to get submerged. It has to be treated as a separate subject,” she says. Together, Ms Rigby and Mr Bate — who this term became RE leader — have developed a carefully calibrated syllabus.

It covers the seasons, world faith festivals, and, most important, perhaps, the virtues and values — courage, truthfulness, kindness, forgiveness, for example — that are common to people of all faiths and none.

As children progress through the school, individual faiths come to the fore in different years. Salusbury’s RE syllabus has been planned using the SEAL (social and emotional aspects of learning) template.

But Ms Rigby would like to see a national RE syllabus such as that proposed by Clarke and Woodhead. “It could transform RE, particularly in schools with no trained specialist, where teachers may be willing, but are uncertain,” she says.

On average, all classes have a dedicated RE lesson once a week, and the subject is included with others in cross-curricular themes. There is more education in religion when festivals with direct importance to the school community, such as Christmas, Diwali, and Eid, are celebrated, and pupils are encouraged to explain what is involved to classmates of other faiths. And there are regular visits to local places of worship.

Children also attend daily assemblies. Each week, there are three in their classroom, one with their year group, and the weekly whole-school “Praise” assembly. Only a couple of children, from Jehovah’s Witness backgrounds, are withdrawn. This suggests, Mrs Kieran says, widespread parental support for RE and assemblies.

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