How I… set up a Youth SACRE in Milton Keynes – Shammi Rahman
15 November, 2019
I have taught RE since 2003, as an SLE for RE and RE consultant for SACRE. As such I support colleagues across Milton Keynes in projects that involve increasing student engagement in the humanities subjects and interfaith dialogue. I have been teaching Sociology, Religious Studies and Health and Social Care for the past 5 years. Currently outside my teaching timetable, I work one day a week with secondary schools across the town to improve community cohesion.
When RE was not included in the EBacc I became frustrated by the declining status of RE and non-rigorous approaches to teaching RE. So, in 2015 I contemplated giving up teaching altogether but then applied to teach Sociology and Health and Social Care in another local school. I threw myself from a lovely part-time job into a challenging full-time role teaching two new A level subjects and other Humanities subjects at KS3. Yes, you must think I was mad. I felt like an NQT again, reading in the early hours of the morning to build on my subject knowledge before my two small children would wake up. Little did I know what this journey would start…
As part of this new adventure, I was also given permission to take the lead in RE and it was made clear that the school wanted to raise the profile of the subject. The Humanities team placed a high value on RE and believed that RE underpins the concepts and emotions that help young people understand and appreciate belief and practice and understanding of our own culture and society. This appreciation of RE as an intellectual discipline enabled me to gain the full support I needed to make changes to RE across the school. I decided to set up an interfaith group in the school and use the ideas of our students to redesign the RE into a curriculum that met their needs. Every week I would meet with a range of students who represented atheist, agnostic and theistic beliefs.
Before the Commission of RE report (2018) was released, we started taking a multidisciplinary approach to RE and decided to teach the subject, so it reflects the diversity of the beliefs of our students. As a result, we now have over 50 students studying A Level Religious Studies and 6 GCSE option groups. Without receiving the incredible level of support and trust from all my colleagues, the foundations for setting up Youth SACRE MK and a growing interest in RE would never have been possible.
One of our school improvement officers had heard about the growing success of RE in our school and invited me to attend a SACRE meeting. I shared my concerns about the general decline of RE both nationally and locally. I then started working with the Milton Keynes SACRE to form a ‘Youth SACRE’. I approached senior leaders in my school and received both advice and practical support concerning advertising and booking events. A lot of support given by the head of the teaching school meant that all the systems were in place to email all schools in the town. I personally wrote to individual RE leads and local feeder schools and advertised events through Educate, SACRE contacts, and through word of mouth. We hold 5/6 meetings a year for Year 5 to Year 13 students. All meetings are held between 1-3pm so that it is less disruptive for schools and easier for primary schools to attend. Each school brings up to 6 pupils and sometimes more if we have the capacity.
The aim of Youth SACRE was originally to bring pupils together and share ideas and resources in a bid to update local RE to meet the needs of the diverse community of children. Our first Youth SACRE meeting was attended by over 14 schools. Out of this, the Youth SACRE has provided many opportunities for students and teachers all over Milton Keynes to build a bridge of cooperation between young people of all faith and non-faith backgrounds. Members of the Youth SACRE presented their thoughts on RE at one of the primary head teachers meetings and have worked together to improve and update the locally agreed syllabus. RE in our local feeder schools has improved. Our young people have been asked to present at the annual Holocaust Memorial and other Interfaith events. The group continues to support a new vision for RE that promotes freedom of thought, increased tolerance and respect of others. The pupils reflect the community of interfaith cooperation and older pupils get to demonstrate true leadership in helping the younger pupils.
The Youth SACRE meetings are also designed to inspire RE teachers (and non-specialists) with ideas and literature to support their own planning in RE. It is not easy balancing a full-time teaching role and promoting RE through Youth SACRE, it requires a lot of sacrifice of ‘free’ time. Sometimes the dates for the meetings have not worked out so now we know which times of the year to avoid and all the dates are set for the year in advance. It is not always easy to pitch the activities to ensure we are engaging both primary and secondary pupils and we have had to refine our activities to meet the needs of the schools who attend. It has been particularly difficult to get all the secondary schools on board and another challenge is reaching out to primaries who are not teaching RE at all.
In classrooms when RE is taught well by subject specialists or most importantly, by non-specialists who care about RE, students love the subject. I would encourage all RE specialist teachers to collaborate and work together to set up a Youth SACRE in your local area. Our non-specialist colleagues need guidance and inspiration and they are willing to receive support if it is made easier for them. Young people love discussing faith and they love meeting other students in their local town. Teachers gain inspiration from these meetings and our young people empower us to do more in supporting RE to meet the needs of 21st century Britain.