How I….keep my local RE Network up and running – Frances Neil

As a Primary teacher and then Headteacher I have taught pretty much everything over the years. However I love RE because of the variety of areas within the subject. I have always been fascinated by students’ responses to what they learn in RE, especially if they have a ‘lightbulb moment’.

I retired from Headship and took up a post as a local RE adviser. I did this so I could continue to be involved in policy and debate about RE, as well as the development of teaching and learning. As a local adviser I try to share and support the areas of the subject that I believe are essential for education in the 21st Century. I try to kindle the excitement I feel about the subject when working with the council, local faith bodies and other stakeholders.

I have run a Primary and Secondary network for years now. The network is small but we have members from a variety of settings. This is particularly important to me; to be able to support all phases and types of school. RE matters in all of them. Some members attend regularly, others can only make it once a year. All are keen to attend and keep in touch. When members can’t attend it is always due to their busy lives, the demands of childcare, work and family.

My overall aim for the network is simple; to support teachers so they can do their best for their students. Teachers need to be kept abreast of current and future changes. I hope to empower teachers to work positively with their senior team and colleagues so they can be the best subject leader they can (without dying in the attempt).

I keep the network going by publishing dates and agendas early, and sticking to them. I need to be well-planned and forward thinking as well as responsive to needs and requests when setting agendas. I also keep in touch between meetings, especially if help is sought. Teachers don’t always need help on the date of the scheduled meeting, an adviser doesn’t stop being an adviser between network sessions. As an adviser I see it as my job to ensure important policy, national and local directives are explored and time is given to teachers to discuss and make sense of them.  I like to share examples of good practice, teaching resources or CPD. Teachers are inspired by all sorts of new ideas, and it is my job to bring a wide selection for consideration.

At sessions I am welcoming and friendly, and when possible enable teachers to lead meetings themselves so the network belongs to them. I always involve teachers in local policy development such as our revised Locally Agreed Syllabus. I respect their views, welcome their input and take their concerns seriously.  Issues I have had recently are teachers’ worries about preparing for Ofsted, especially in situations where the senior team are not fully supportive of RE’s place in the curriculum or it’s status in law, as in some local academies. My teachers are dedicated and passionate but they are also overworked. They struggle to keeping RE fresh and new, lively and interesting in their schools, as they don’t always have the time to plan new material.  I have also had to support teachers who are dealing with withdrawals from RE. in all instances I need to be prepared and briefed, in order to give the best advice.

Ongoing issues for teachers are when staff meetings, parents’ evenings  or Inset days are diarised by headteachers to take priority over attendance at Network Meetings. We have a local system which should avoid this, but so often RE is not seen as important enough to protect. I am sure many other advisers around the country find that it is not teachers who are the problem, it is the lack of support, status and interest paid to teachers of RE that is so often the problem.

Despite the battles we sometimes have to fight, local networks are truly excellent value. They allow teachers to help other teachers, sharing ideas, successes and news about special events. My teachers as a group offer each other so much.  They support each other to achieve excellence in subject leadership, especially those new to the role, as well as sharing news about good venues for visits, good local speakers and resources they have used and found helpful. However the moral support and friendship is what really makes the network special, and why teachers come back.

I hope that RE will be embraced as the fantastically rich, varied and engaging subject it undoubtedly is. I see RE as the route to understanding what it is to be essentially human, socially connected, aware, positive and responsive to the local and national community. I see deep value in RE’s capacity to foster, between different groups, understanding, respect, empathy, mutual trust and liking so people can live together in harmony and with mutual support.

Frances Neil

RE adviser, Southend-on-Sea