Learning to Lead in RE: Research as a Travelling Companion (Part 1)

I have been teaching RE for 25 years and one of the challenges in teaching at the moment is how to keep our subject moving forward and keep our motivation going. This year I have been a participant on Stage One of the Culham St Gabriel’s Leadership programme that is supported and guided by the main national organisations that have a say on the future of RE. The subject has seen many changes over the decades in terms of approach, name, content, purpose, and value within schools. Do teachers have a say in any of this and how can they implement change? This was a motivating factor in applying for the Culham St Gabriel’s Leadership Programme; to have a voice and be heard in the debate. I decided to engage with a set of research outputs, as part of an attempt to clarify where I stand in terms of the issues in RE. I chose a range of articles reported in the RE:ONLINE archive to read, digest, think about and if possible, implement on my own teaching.

One of the first articles that I read was Nastasya van der Straten Waillet, Isabelle Roskam and Cécile Possoz’s work on the advantages of using Philosophy for Children in RE (2014). I am a long-term advocate of this approach but my use of it is hampered due to lack of time within the classroom and that P4C needs to be used in a certain way that sometimes gets lost.

Although the research takes place in Belgium, it has very clear links with my syllabus: Hampshire Agreed Syllabus, ‘Living Difference’. The interpretative nature of the process, along with an enquiry-based approach helps the learner unwrap and unbox the key ideas of the focus of enquiry. It needs careful prodding and needling (and a skilled facilitator) in order to get to the evaluation process.

This point about interpretation connects with Julia Ipgrave’s work on what secondary teachers can learn from our primary colleagues (2013). “From storybooks to bullet points” leads us to understand that primary RE is full of colour, rich in text and story and that the child is allowed to imagine and think through those stories that come to life from the holy books. This piece was written before the new GCSE specifications came into being, and these have a renewed focus on textual references but often they are just that. The context has been stripped away, they are words to back up an argument, as an example to show a believers’ faith and not as the story with meaning that they should be. Take for example the AQA GCSE spec that looks at the Incarnation and then jumps straight to the Crucifixion. Where is the narrative? Where is the story that sets the scene for the final act of Jesus’ life? Is this meant to be left for previous knowledge or learning? One thing I have taken from Ipgrave’s work is that the story is just as important as the teaching as it is the context that matters.

Bob Bowie, Farid Panjwani and Katie Clemmey (2020) may agree. Their work, “Opening the door to hermeneutical RE” has really helped me to open up the texts in ways that our English subject colleagues have been doing for decades. The pupils are familiar with taking a text, breaking it down, looking at its context and meaning, the purpose of the writer and the symbolic nature of the words. We should make more of these insights in RE, enabling pupils to learn in more focused, nuanced ways.

In part 1 of this blog, I have shown my initial motivations of choosing relevant research linked to my classroom teaching and how these articles have helped my thinking. In part 2 I will develop this by delving into more classroom practice of others and how these examples have helped shape what I now do in the classroom.


Bowie, R, Panjwani, F, Clemmey, K (2020) Teachers and texts: Improving Religious education through hermeneutics (canterbury.ac.uk) Online material can be found here

Ipgrave, J (2013) From storybooks to bullet points: books and the Bible in primary and secondary religious education, British Journal of Religious Education 35.3 pages 264-281 online article available here

Van der Straten Waillet, N, Roskam, I & Possoz, C (2015) On the epistemological features promoted by ‘Philosophy for Children’ and their psychological advantages when incorporated into RE: British Journal of Religious Education, 37:3, 273-292 Online article can be found here


Matt is a Head of RE from the New Forest and has been teaching RE for 25 years. He likes to run a bit and has been known to tweet @re_runner

See all posts by Matt Pitcher