Report on Manchester evidence gathering session
The third regional evidence gathering session took place in Manchester on Tuesday 13 June 2017. The Commissioners attending were: Alan Brine, Emma Knights, Joyce Miller and Anthony Towey. Four members of the Secretariat were in attendance: Trevor Cooling, Amira Chilvers, Rudolf Eliott Lockhart (Chair) and Jon Reynolds.
The meeting took place at Trinity High School where we received evidence from: Prof Brian Gates, Seyed Jaafer Milani (Al Khoei Foundation), Dr James Holt and Dr Wendy Dossett (both from Univ of Chester), Paul Smalley (Chair of NASACRE), Janet Buck and Steve Birkinshaw (Head of RE and chaplain at Trinity High), Rachel Kemp (Birchfields Primary and Manchester SACRE) Ben Wood (NATRE), Moner Ahmed (RE Teacher and Director of Engaging Faith) and pupils from the school.
Many of the presentations reiterated themes and debates from previous evidence gatherings and as such provided useful reinforcement of some familiar messages. These included:
- Some of the tensions around key issues including:
- Whether the purpose of RE should be clarified and agreed or whether a certain ‘fuzziness’ and flexibility around the nature of the subject was beneficial.
- Whether RE should be locally or nationally determined and how to balance these dimensions of the subject.
- The balance between the academic, personal and instrumental goals of RE (The Head of RE at Trinity High emphasised the busy-ness of the curriculum and the way RE can provide students with space to step back and think – but there is tension between this and the demands of GCSE. It requires highly trained professionals to navigate this tension).
- The urgent need to prioritise the improvement of training and teacher supply.
- The persistence of variable provision and lack of challenge in much RE. The representatives from ITE spoke of increasing challenges in finding high quality departments to place trainees.
- The value that many students place on RE especially in terms of promoting mutual understanding and community cohesion (this has additional poignancy after recent events in Manchester).
- The challenges of developing mechanisms for holding schools to account for their statutory responsibilities in relation to RE.
- The anachronistic nature of the right to withdraw and its increasing selective use especially in relation to learning about Islam.
In addition to this helpful re-iteration of familiar themes, there were a number of distinctive threads worthy of special note:
- Brian Gates offered a strong case to re-emphasise the ‘strategic national and constitutional significance’ of RE. This was a timely reminder that we need to find the triggers that will have impact on Government and national priorities. In addition, Brian highlighted the need to ensure that aspirations for the subject match capacity in terms of resource.
- We had two important presentations from representatives of the Muslim community. In response to questions, the speakers offered the view that the Muslim ‘faith school’ community would be open to inclusion in national discussions around RE if the rationale was clearly explained. However, it was acknowledged that this community is quite fragmented. Both made some important points from their distinctive position. These included:
- The relationship between RE and public life and the danger that pupils see a disconnect between the two.
- The priority of countering extremism as well as negative attitudes towards Islam.
- A recognition of diversity within religions including more acknowledgement of Shia Islam and the more active promotion of progressive forms of Islam
- The need to focus RE on human rights and shared values
- The value of RE as a safe space to build an understanding of ‘value complexity’ and for difficult conversations about religion
- The importance of moving away from focusing on ‘faith traditions’ towards a greater emphasis on the real religious landscape of the modern world especially in Britain.
(NB the thread around recognising diversity was also emphasised strongly by James Holt talking about the importance of acknowledging more minority faiths and NOT using language which fails to recognise the experiences of children from groups which lie outside the mainstream (e.g. non-Trinitarian forms of Christianity)
- There were important contributions on the issue of local determination and the future of SACREs. Paul Smalley provided a summary of the recent survey of SACREs undertaken by NASACRE (35 SACREs responded – around 25% of all SACREs) His summary points are worth quoting in full:
- Many SACREs are not opposed to a National ‘Framework’ or some definition of core entitlement – for all schools, but any solution needs a significant locally agreed element.
- All SACREs would like to do more to support, guide and advise schools.
- SACREs need fair and proper funding, and reasonable provision of specialist help and advice to enable this to happen.
- The creation of a Locally Agreed Syllabus is enabling for teachers and others involved and leads to high quality RE
- There needs to be consequences for schools who are not providing good RE. Either SACREs need to be given power to hold schools to account or Ofsted need to rigorously examine RE provision in all schools.
Many of these points were reiterated by other speakers. Rachael Kemp spoke about the successful launch of the new Greater Manchester agreed syllabus – shared by five LAs across the conurbation. This provides consistency and renewed impetus for RE across the city. However, she also noted that the syllabus had been produced without the involvement of local schools and faith communities. Rachael stated that it was bought from RE Today. She recognised that a national syllabus could be a better option given that many LAs no longer have the capacity to produce their own local version.
It was agreed that NASACRE would talk further with the Commission Secretariat to see how far the survey can be used to drill down for more detailed evidence about the national picture in relation to the effectiveness and impact of SACREs.
- The contribution from Ben Wood representing NATRE provided an important opportunity to hear from this key professional association (3000 members with 250 local groups). Ben made four key points:
- There is a need for a nationally-agreed common baseline entitlement for all schools. This would help secure clarity of purpose and progression. The baseline needs to improve on previous attempts (2004 and 2013) by being specific enough to be useful but flexible enough to apply in different contexts.
- Teacher education (initial and in-service) is a crucial priority with a need for greater interaction with universities. A common baseline entitlement would help here.
- The legal structure needs to address the increasing ‘selective withdrawal’ issue and NATRE are pleased to be supporting the National Association of Headteachers in their campaign to end the right of withdrawal. There is also a need to look more closely at the issue of accountability.
- There is also a need to secure agreed standards. The voice of the practising teachers are crucial here but NATRE suggest “we must acknowledge that too much RE is not good enough and that standards need to be raised. We think that part of the problem here is the multiplicity of influential voices pulling the subject in different directions”.
- A further thread from a number of speakers was around patterns of teacher support and resourcing. As well as the good work of many SACREs, there was reference to other support including work linked to university departments, NATRE local groups, research opportunities, cross-LA working, faith-based advice etc. However, Wendy Dossett when speaking of the unevenness of the funding landscape offered an important note of caution. Some traditions/denominations/ schools are benefitted from funding sources while others are not. In addition, the competitive environment of the exam system is also not always conducive to the production of good resources. Exam boards function as businesses, and as such have an economic rather than an educational bottom line.