Set RE Free: Breaking the chains of the agreed syllabus monopoly system

October 31, 2017
Think Pieces,

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther wrote 95 theses or propositions ‘on the power and efficacy of indulgences’, posting them on the church doors of Wittenberg, an act usually seen as the spark that lit the fire of the European reformation. Church doors, for Luther’s time, were the equivalent of our internet. In Luther’s honour, and with a similar intent of encouraging debate, I offer these 39 propositions on the writing of agreed syllabuses for Religious Education. Neither my subject matter nor my intellect can hope to match Luther’s; I doubt if I shall be tried for heresy or excommunicated; nevertheless, like him, I hope to provoke debate and change.


On quality


1. Agreed syllabuses are not all equal in quality. Some are more teachable and effective than others; some have more integrity than others. Municipal pride is not the same thing as pedagogical clarity.
2. Defenders of the agreed syllabus system make claims for its quality which may or may not be true of the system at its best. They seldom acknowledge the systemic weaknesses, or if they do, blame them on limited funding.
3. The fact that some agreed syllabuses work well does not make the whole system worth keeping. If a school had two good departments while the rest were inadequate, it would still fail its inspection.
4. Defenders of the agreed syllabus system raise the fear of a ‘national syllabus’, warning that it might be inappropriate in content, or poorly designed, or excessively prescriptive. Yet there are some agreed syllabuses which have these faults, and schools are stuck with them, if they follow them.
5. The agreed syllabus system allows RE to have different purposes in different counties or boroughs, and sometimes multiple purposes. This is a ridiculous state of affairs. It disables RE from being clear about its place in the curriculum. It weakens the teachers in their conversation with their head teacher and other decision makers.
6. The agreed syllabus system parochialises RE. In such a honeycombed structure, it is impossible for RE to respond nimbly to policy interventions or research outputs. The long-term consequence is that RE becomes a neglected backwater.
7. For those schools bound into it, the agreed syllabus system imposes layers of pedagogical and planning complexity which confuse, inhibit, confine, and distract the teacher. For example, a syllabus planning might have up to six variant choices the teacher must make before they select content. This level of elaboration is an adviser’s indulgence and a teacher’s nightmare.
8. The existence of multiple agreed syllabuses in training partnerships raises additional difficulties for trainees in RE.
9. Merely the fact that a teacher likes their agreed syllabus does not mean that they are teaching good RE.
10. Merely the fact that a teacher understands their agreed syllabus does not mean that they own a clear pedagogy.
11. Strong secondary RE departments tend to ignore their agreed syllabus. Weaker ones tend to be over-dependent on it.


On curriculum design


12. Curriculum design is rightfully a professional matter for teachers, working within school or Trust priorities and national parameters.
13. Agreed syllabus conferences, structured by stakeholder interests, have an inherent tendency to promote breadth over depth. This makes RE harder to teach, and clear progression virtually impossible to build in.
14. Agreed syllabus conferences have to reach agreement. Agreement is very often at odds with clarity. In this way, the design of clear learning in RE is habitually sacrificed to the reconciling of multiple vested interests.
15. When religion/belief representatives have a hand in writing or approving syllabuses, they want their share of the curriculum and they want their religion/belief shown in a good light. This utterly compromises the design of learning in RE.
16. Religion/belief representatives may be called in as speakers in schools, or as critical friends in the curriculum writing process. But they should not have a vote in curriculum-making.
17. Agreed syllabuses that have a range of six or more religions/beliefs, and a set of up to six pedagogical choices (such as: choose a strand, a concept, an enquiry question, match it with content, a skill, and an attitude) are imposing on teachers a burden of cumbersome methodological elaboration, while often remaining relatively silent about the actual content that should sit at the heart of good teaching.
18. Agreed syllabuses that brand themselves with portentous metaphysical titles are aggrandising themselves and their writers, instead of being a servant to teachers and to learning. The job of a syllabus is to itemise content, sequence, and measures of pupil success. It is not to obfuscate the teacher’s task in thrall to elaborate pedagogical or philosophical castles in the air.
19. Agreed syllabuses that enshrine ‘learning from’ religion as an outcome are presumptuous in assuming that pupils will see anything to learn from. For those who care about the continuance of religion as a recognised public good, ‘learning from’ is a false friend, intrusive and shallow: for religion will only be seen as a public good if it is adequately known and understood. For those who are suspicious of religion, or doubtful of its claimed benefits, ‘learning from’ is their confirmation that RE has a confessional agenda: for RE will only finally shed this lingering confessionalism when it embraces an empirical approach to teaching knowledge and understanding. For both these reasons, RE curriculum-making should focus on clearly sequenced content having accuracy and challenge.


On locality, freedom and inclusiveness


20. ‘Local’ determination is not local. Schools and small trusts are local. The system of so-called local syllabuses is a monopoly, though a shrinking one.
21. The notion that ‘local’ syllabuses can respond to local religion/belief demographics is a mistake, because diversity exists distinctively at community level, not county/borough level.
22. The notion that ‘local’ syllabuses give RE local colour and local priorities is false, because so many copy each other or are bought off the peg.
23. The notion that ‘local’ syllabuses should reflect a local religion/belief presence is wrong, because we want children to grow up with a knowledge and understanding of religion/belief at local, national and global levels.
24. The circle of stakeholders in SACREs and Agreed Syllabus Conferences is too narrow. If these bodies are to continue, they should take freedom seriously by including, by right, universities, parents, employers, museums/galleries, and young people, together with teachers, politicians, and religion/belief communities. All these categories have a legitimate interest in RE, but only teachers should write the curriculum.
25. The astonishing thing about those who claim ‘local’ syllabuses as a form of freedom is that they have no external quality assurance. When exponents of the agreed syllabus system argue that theirs is an accountable system, they are merely seeking to justify their monopoly by dressing it in democratic clothing.
26. Defenders of ‘local determination’ see themselves as heroic underdogs, guarding their freedom from the intrusions of a Leviathan state. In fact, the agreed syllabus system is the Leviathan: it is the enemy of school autonomy, creating unnecessary monopolies and restrictions. Professional freedom is best promoted by determining national parameters and setting schools free to interpret them in a truly local context.
27. For those schools bound into it, the agreed syllabus is often more prescriptive pedagogically than a national curriculum document, not less.
28. When several local authorities share an agreed syllabus, they have tacitly admitted that ‘local determination’ is not necessary.
29. ‘Local determination’ is the wrong phrase for the current system. It is not local enough, and it determines the wrong priorities.


On money


30. The creating of ‘local’ syllabuses is a pre-digital cottage industry, inefficient and wasteful.
31. If anyone wishes to defend the creating of ‘local’ syllabuses, let them first declare whether they earn income or professional esteem from the writing of them.
32. If a syllabus is elaborate or theory-heavy, it needs a paid adviser or consultant to ‘explain’ it to teachers.
33. Writers of syllabuses are experts in religious studies and pedagogy, who can get lost in the game of complexity and nuance.


On moving on


34. The legal requirement that agreed syllabuses ‘reflect the fact that religion in Britain is in the main Christian, while taking account of the teaching and practices of other principal religions’, no longer serves our identity as a nation. The requirement should be updated, and placed on schools, not local authorities.
35. Let us move on from an RE that is structurally marginalised, intellectually compromised, and chained to outmoded monopolies, to an RE that is nationally recognised, has clear pedagogical integrity, and sets schools free to plan and teach.
36. SACREs will be an asset to quality, curriculum design, freedom and inclusiveness, if they widen their range of legal stakeholders, accept that teachers alone should determine the RE curriculum, and offer services to enrich, exemplify and exchange insights for teachers.
37. SACREs will also be an asset to RE if they sever their links to collective worship. In community schools, it is urgent that RE break that chain.
38. It is within the RE community’s grasp to shape its future in this way. Chained to our present raft, we will sink before too long. Freed from it, we will float with new structures that guarantee our future.
39. And therefore, let RE professionals be confident enough to strive for a different and better future, freed from the agreed syllabus system, free to plan and teach with challenge and rigour, in ways appropriate to their own pupils.


Mark Chater is the Director of Culham St Gabriel’s Trust writing in a personal capacity