I am lucky enough to be working on Stockton-on-Tees’ Agreed Syllabus. Designed by adviser Kirsten Webber, the syllabus is already well-planned, challenging and highly practical. As I take the train up to Stockton, home of course to the world’s first public railway, I reflect on the pleasure of creating something of educational value for teachers and pupils and working with like-minded people. The syllabus is supportive and practical, but it also encourages teachers to increase the challenge of their teaching as children grow. Kirsten and I are agreed; we want to support teachers as much as possible, but we also want to establish a high standard of quality and coherence. We want growing understanding in RE to be systematic and deliberate. This syllabus encourages increasing demand and complexity. This is not accidental.
Gazing from my train window at the big skies of the North East, I wonder why isn’t there a Kirsten on every SACRE, academy chain and diocese? Why should this syllabus ‘only’ support teachers in Stockton? The Commission Recommendation 3 comes to mind:
Non-statutory programmes of study for each of Key a. Stages 1–4 should be developed at a national level…
Programmes of study should be developed by a national body of a maximum of nine professionals, including serving teachers.
Travelling around the country as I do, working with Academy Trusts and SACREs on various aspects of their RE architecture, I can say from personal experience how much energy is being spent on locally agreed or other RE syllabuses. 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.
What existing models can we look at to judge this proposal? RE Today’s Understanding Christianity and Model Syllabuses are good examples. Either, or both, of these syllabuses allows SACREs or trusts to access practical, coherent curricula at a standard they would be unable to create on their own. Both syllabuses are popular and continue to sell; teachers and schools want them. Could programmes of study, produced nationally to exemplify the National Entitlement, offer trusts and local authority areas coherent, practical RE of a universally high standard? This is certainly the intention. The Commission Report sets out in forensic detail just how inconsistent and incoherent children’s learning is in our atomized system.
However the oft-repeated warning springs to mind, given in response to the suggestion of a national curriculum for RE: whose RE? What curriculum? The small print of this Recommendation however cuts through that particular Gordian knot:
Members of the national body should be appointed on the basis of commitment to the approach taken to Religion and Worldviews in the National Entitlement’ (Rec 3, p 14)
I am sure in some quarters this phrase, nestling in Recommendation 3, will give rise to howls of anguish. ‘The Commission’s RE’, is the answer to the question ‘whose RE?’ and it will not please everyone.
What is ‘the Commission’s RE’? This justification for learning about religion and worldviews is given in the report; ‘it is impossible fully to understand the world without understanding worldviews’ (p. 3). Thus the National Entitlement presents one purpose of learning in Religion and Worldviews; to understand the nature, types and impact of religious and non-religious worldviews. The National Entitlement sheds other purposes for learning in RE, such as improved community relations, personal inspiration or respect for outlooks different to one’s own. ‘The Commission’s RE’ is the most inclusive version of the subject. With one purpose given for learning, the purpose of understanding, students don’t have to be religious or to care about religion to engage in this area of study. The rise, interaction and concerns of different worldviews explains both the past and the present. Worldviews studies could be described, perhaps at an open evening to parents, as the history of human thought. All humans have a worldview. With personal and spiritual aims of the subject dropped from the National Entitlement, Religion and Worldviews becomes the study of human thought, essential for understanding the world.
Kirsten and I are a good team because we agree on the purpose of learning in RE; to understand. It is an exciting partnership. One clear aim means we can see where we want to be. We might disagree about how to get there, although more often than not we agree, but we know where we are heading to. If national programmes of study can offer a clear purpose for the subject, which I hope they will, we as a community will have one outcome to aim for. Of course there is complexity in the doing, but clarity of what we want to achieve would cut out a whole host of distracting and stultifying confusion.
Programmes of study with one clear aim and purpose for learning would not only save teachers, SACREs and Trusts huge amounts of time and effort, it would enable a degree of creativity to flourish along the path to one clear aim. Teachers, schools and students are incredibly diverse, as anyone who has tried to teach from their colleague’s lesson plan knows. Teaching and learning has to be shaped to fit the teacher, the class and the context. How much more effective will we be as a community with one clear aim to provide an eventual outcome, as we work to achieve that outcome in our own particular contexts? Programmes of study offering coherence and progression, to relieve teachers’ burden of creating resources from scratch and to provide a benchmark of high quality, inclusive learning is surely to be welcomed.
RE Adviser, working with teachers around the country on matters of curriculum and teaching and learning in RE