I have a growing experience of Religious Education research, dating back to my time as a diocesan education adviser in Chelmsford, when I ran an All Saints Trust funded RE Resources Project with a group of schools, comparing teachers’ responses to specific resources at three different stages: firstly, their immediate response to seeing the resource (a five-second glance, such as one might give at a bookstall); their more-considered reactions after a fifteen minute look through it; and finally, their reactions after having made use of it with a class of pupils. All of the resources were classroom materials, and it was interesting to note that quite often, what at first sight didn’t appeal, often was seen in a very different light once it had actually been used by pupils (and vice versa!).
Shortly after that project I embarked on an MPhil/PhD programme to explore Hallowe’en in schools. This was quite a different style of study, using a questionnaire to discover what was actually happening in respect of the festival in three local authorities, as well as an exploration of teachers’ attitudes to Hallowe’en. Although I eventually decided not to complete a PhD, I did publish this work (Plater, 2007) and continued to explore the topic, publishing a few years later the results of a pupil survey, examining their activities during Hallowe’en and their attitudes to it (Plater, 2013).
By now I had moved into higher education teaching, and, alongside my teaching, was actively engaged in leading regular field visits, locally to religious centres in the region, but also further afield, to London, Turkey, Rome, and India. Especially for students in Lincolnshire, such first-hand experience of non-Christian places of worship was often a novel experience, and some of my students had never previously even been to London, let alone Europe or Asia. I was already convinced of the value of travel, having myself lived in Australia and India, but these university visits further confirmed for me Allport’s ideas about contact theory (Allport, 1954): that such immediate experiences of the ‘other’ are invaluable for breaking down stereotypes and assumptions, and for helping the study of religion to come alive for students.
Another key concept threading through my experience of university teaching is dialogue. Apart from teaching several modules with this word in the title, I have also established strong links over many years with the Dialogue Society, a Hizmet-inspired, Turkish Muslim group who are based in London and several other cities around the UK, but who also were instrumental in setting up my student visits to Turkey. I have participated in many of their activities over the years, and now count them as good friends.
The same concept of dialogue has also been central in discussions about school religious education. Mike Castelli proposes Dialogic RE (Castelli, 2012; Castelli, 2018) as a pedagogic methodology for RE. A former work colleague- Antony Luby (Luby, 2019) – also works in this field, identifying different forms of dialogue used by pupils in a Catholic school setting, and Kevin O’Grady’s work (O’Grady, 2018) portrays the whole purpose of RE as being a dialogue with difference. These, and many others from across the world (e.g. Bagrowicz, 2010; Schihalejev, 2009; Linden, 2016; Shuster, 2016) lay emphasis on the importance of dialogue as a focus and methodology in the teaching of school religious education.
An idea is born
I have been the coordinator for a Lincolnshire RE Hub group for several years, seeking to support and develop RE in the region through teacher support and resourcing. In discussing this group with a director of the All Saints Educational Trust (ASET), the idea was developed for a local project which would help to fund the coming together of schools and faith practitioners for mutual benefit. The funding would enable us to purchase the expertise of the St Philip’s Centre, Leicester, as well as provide support for schools to fully engage with the programme. A funding bid was drawn up, using the expertise of this local ASET director, and we were successful in gaining funding for an initial pilot programme.
The programme was based on a very simple idea: to link faith practitioners to six schools for a year, allowing a relationship to develop between the two, and with funding to both incentivise engagement and cover the costs of active participation. The schools were free to engage in the programme in any way that they wished, and ideas and training was provided in order to stimulate suggestions and to enhance their enthusiasm.
The challenge of implementation
No difficulties were encountered in attracting interest from local schools, and I was then faced with the challenge of selecting six schools from the thirteen applications. The selected schools offered a balance of primary and secondary, large and small, rural and city. Named contacts were identified from all six schools, and faith representatives were identified by St Philip’s Centre according to school preferences.
A timeline had the pilot stage of the programme running from September 2019 through to July 2020, with the possibility of bids for further funding to expand the project into 2021 onwards. However, Covid-19 lockdown resulted in an extension of the first phase to December 2020, and the freezing of ASET funds from the same period, meaning that any expansion of the project had to go on hold, at least for the time being.
Outcomes of the project
At three stages during the course of the pilot project intermediate feedback was gained from all participants and this was summarised into published Project Update leaflets. The purpose of the updates was to maintain enthusiasm, and to share ideas on how individual schools were engaging with this unique opportunity. These leaflets provided photos of activities and descriptions and quotations from schools and faith practitioners. However, lockdown had affected participating schools in different ways, so that some of the planned visits had to be cancelled, and other activities were significantly curtailed. Most schools did manage to maintain involvement however, but often in different ways than they had initially intended or hoped.
A final project conference was held online in December 2020 to consider the impact of the programme and to update participants on how it might be developed further into the future. Follow up interviews were also held with all participants in order to ascertain the individual impact on schools and participants, and to seek their advice on how the programme might be refined. A Final Report on the project was published in November 2021 and can be accessed here: https://bgro.repository.guildhe.ac.uk/id/eprint/884/
Participants in the project were unanimously positive about its impact, and in some instances the claim was made that it had left a lasting impact on pupils and teachers. One teacher commented, “This project was amazing! It’s one of the best things we’ve ever been involved in” (Primary teacher).
However, there were two schools (one primary, one secondary) which did not fully engage. In one instance this was because the link staff member moved on from the school during the start of the programme, and in the other, personal circumstances led to a delay in establishing practical actions, and then came the impact of Covid. With such a small cohort of participating schools, two ‘failures’ amounted to one third of the participating schools, so this was a great disappointment for me.
Another learning point for me was the fact that, in the follow up interviews, several of the school link-teachers expressed the wish that clearer guidance and targets had been provided. As one teacher put it: “We’re used to being told what to do” (Primary teacher). My hope had been that schools would appreciate the freedom and flexibility that was provided through the open structures of the project, but in fact the lack of such targets only implied that there were no minimum requirements, that it did not matter how much they engaged: they were free to do as little or as much as time and circumstances allowed. I guess that I had underestimated the extent to which performativity and target-culture had infiltrated the teacher mindset. Without threshold standards and minimum targets, there was no framework within which to work; no set standard meant that the task was inconsequential, that it did not matter. In the event, all of these teachers did engage with the task and did make arrangements with their linked faith visitor, but this was due to their own interest and motivation, not, as was the norm for them, because there was a task that had to be done and for which they might be held accountable.
I am still hopeful that it might be possible to expand this project to a wider range of schools in the Lincolnshire area. However, this would not be possible without further funding to appropriately engage all participants in the setting up of the programme, and, in view of what I have said above, next time I might work with participants more closely to identify appropriate expectations and targets.
Meantime, lockdown afforded me the opportunity to engage with another fascinating piece of research: to explore the make-up of the 2020-21 cohort of secondary Religious Education trainees on various Initial Teacher Training courses across the country. Because this involved completion of an online survey, it ideally suited the lockdown context, and, because this proved to be the largest ever cohort of trainees for RE ITT, it was a unique group to work with in seeking to discover their motivations for entering teaching as a profession and to discover various other demographic details about the group. The results of this piece of work have now been published, and can be downloaded from: https://bgro.repository.guildhe.ac.uk/id/eprint/881/
Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.
Bagrowicz, J. (2010). Dialogue in religious education. Paedagogia Christiana 26:2 pp. 215-232. DOI https://doi.org/10.12775/PCh.2010.032
Castelli, M. (2012). Faith dialogue as a pedagogy for a post secular religious education. Journal of Beliefs and Values, 33 (2), 207-216.
Castelli, M. (2018) Principles and procedures for classroom dialogue. In: Chater M (ed.) We Need to Talk about Religious Education. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, pp. 143–154.
Linden, L. (2016) From Freire to religious pluralism: exploring dialogue in the classroom, International Studies in Catholic Education, 8:2, 231-240. DOI: 10.1080/19422539.2016.1206404
Luby, A. (2019) Dialogic skills in RE: recontextualising the dialogue school. Journal of Religious Education (67). Pp.127–142.
O’Grady, K. (2018) Religious Education as a Dialogue with Difference: Fostering Democratic Citizenship through the Study of Religions in Schools. NY: Routledge. DOI https://doi.org/10.4324/9781351064385
Plater, M (2007) ‘Toil & trouble revisited: Hallowe’en in schools’, British Journal of Religious Education 29:2
Plater, M (2013) ‘Children’s attitudes towards Hallowe’en’, British Journal of Religious Education 35:2.
Schihalejev, O. (2009) Dialogue in religious education lessons – possibilities and hindrances in the Estonian context. British Journal of Religious Education, 31:3, pp. 277-288
Shuster, D. (2016) Mutuality and Intersubjective Dialogue in Religious Education. Studia Paedagogica Ignatiana, 18:0 pp. 149 – 176.
Mark has been a religious education teacher all of his working life, but has experienced a range of employment opportunities within that field over the past forty years. He is married, with two children and one grandchild, and, alongside work and family, enjoys a recently purchased small piece of woodland as a source of retreat and creativity.