Farmington Project – RE In The Sticks: Supporting RE Teachers In Suffolk – Martin Cobbold
30 July, 2019
The aim of the Farmington Institute (part of Harris Manchester College, Oxford University), is to support and encourage teachers of Religious Education in schools. This can be in either primary or secondary settings or other centres offering RE teaching including places of worship, and often encompasses being released for a fixed period of time to research a specific area pertinent to RE, be it literacy, teaching of a specific religion or something a bit more unique.
We, as a collective, became one of the first group scholarships, with the brief to provide support to secondary RE teachers in Suffolk.
If you asked somebody to name something about Suffolk, my guess is that most think of Ed Sheeran. They will have heard of John Constable. Some might think of the Adnams or Greene King breweries or Aspall’s cider. They might mention Ipswich Town Football Club (they’ll look unhappy if they do), or they may talk about our beautiful coastline. My guess is that they might not know that the honeycomb in the centre of a Malteser is made in Suffolk, or that we are home to an endangered species – the Suffolk Punch horse.
But I can almost guarantee that they will not think of multiculturalism, or a large amount of different beliefs and worldviews being prevalent. And they would be right.
Of a population of around 750,000 people, 61% of those claim to be Christian according to the latest census. The closest belief next to that are the ‘nones’ at 30%, with each of the other major belief systems all being in the 0 point something percent. While the increasing rise of the ‘nones’ reflects UK society in general, for each of the other beliefs, Suffolk lags behind with every other belief in the country. Resultantly, many students in Suffolk are less exposed to the diversity of beliefs in the UK and, we would argue, this makes RE even more crucial in their development as citizens of our country.
And yet, RE has found itself increasingly on the margins; squeezed into PSHE schemes, given a couple of cursory drop-down days every now and again, or just purely forgotten about. And, for those schools that do commit to it, do see the benefit in it and fulfil their obligations to their students, RE teachers are often left to fend for themselves, largely in single-staffed departments. Energetic and talented NQTs often find themselves leading subjects in their first year in the job, even having to create the programmes of study on the fly. RE departments are often led by well-meaning, non-specialists crying out for a bit of guidance and no knowing where to turn for it.
And then there are the practical Suffolk issues: how can I get my students used to different places and ways or worshipping when the closest Synagogue or Mandir is 90 minutes away? Can I afford the time to drive 60 minutes for a network meeting to then drive 60 minutes back home again? How can I keep up to date with new resources and ideas to keep RE interesting? Who do I turn to when I need some support and advice?
These were the questions that the four of us were hearing through our roles as Professional Advisors to Suffolk SACRE, where we update local faith representatives and politicians about developments in RE, both nationally and locally, providing us with a clear insight into the status of RE in the county. Thanks to some clear guidance and support from passionate people such as Jan Maguire and Helen Matter on SACRE, as well as those at Farmington, Suffolk Resolve was created. All of us are subject leaders (as well as, somewhat typically for RE teachers, having other roles in our schools), but most importantly, we all care deeply about RE being done and done well.
There have been a number of outcomes from the project. Firstly, we were able to offer teachers the chance to go on an organised trip to Coventry, to look at two places of religious significance; Coventry Cathedral and the Sikh Gurdwara. This was done to show that it is possible to expose our students to wider religious beliefs and practices, as well as providing valuable CPD for teachers.
Secondly, we made ourselves available for coaching and mentoring across the county (and a little bit beyond the borders too!), especially for those aforementioned who might not have much subject specific support. The intention is that this is ongoing. One colleague who benefited from the coaching said that it was particularly beneficial to have “a subject specialist observing me for a day, giving feedback, suggestions for improvement and sharing expertise and experience. To have an experienced practitioner as a go-to, at any time has been exceptionally useful.”
Finally, our website (www.suffolkresolve.co.uk) was created to host our project and share our learning. On the website, we have made the latest research and developments in RE easily accessible in a single location, so that we can keep improving our practice in order to benefit those we teach. This includes articles, podcasts and signposting to various RE influences, including RE:ONLINE. The website also hosts a plethora of resources developed by one member of our team, with ideas based on requests from local teachers as well as looking to cover the range of specifications, topics taught and worldviews that our students should encounter. These will remain available and we hope you find them useful too.
We are yet to see the full impact of our project, but many have stated a greater confidence, a greater feeling of support and a sense of relief that there are people there to help, and who want to help. They now know that they are not on their own. This is something that we have all felt when working on the project together – the benefits of talking to each other regularly about what we are doing and why, either in person or online has made us all better teachers; as the saying goes ‘iron sharpens iron’. Despite our geographical distance and various contexts, we have felt that we are a team who have experienced each other’s struggles and successes and it has become more and more apparent that too many RE teachers feel like individuals out there in the wilderness and we want to be a part of the solution to these issues.
Teaching is a team game and this is most certainly true for RE, so we believe that we should be treating it more like that and we will be endeavouring to continue to play our part. For us, there is more and more evidence that as experienced professionals, we need to share. Share resources. Share experiences. Share ideas. Share our struggles and share our successes. So we will keep sharing, and hopefully play our small part in making this great subject a little bit better.
Find out more about us at www.suffolkresolve.co.uk
Martin Cobbold, Debenham High School
Sarah Cobbold, St Benedict’s High School
Wayne Buisst, Ormiston Denes Academy
David Yaroslaw, Debenham High School
For more information about Farmington scholarships, visit http://www.farmington.ac.uk
Head of RE at Debenham High School, Suffolk, Professional Advisor to Suffolk SACRE and Suffolk and Norfolk SCITT RE Subject Knowledge tutor