Two Commissioners, Alan Brine and Joyce Miller, were in attendance at the final regional evidence-gathering session which was held at York St John University on Tuesday, 4 July 2017. We are grateful to Emma McVittie for her help in arranging this event. There were seven individual presenters and two groups of Young Ambassadors (YAs).
As always, it was a great pleasure to see the enthusiasm of students for the subject and both groups, one from the Venerable Bede Academy in Sunderland and the other from Redhill Academy in Nottingham, spoke eloquently. They reminded us why RE is important for them and their lives and made a plea for the inclusion of minority religions in their studies. They made particular reference to the importance of understanding religion and belief in the context of media reports. It was very pleasing to meet two former Young Ambassadors from Redhill, now students at York St John and both planning to be RE teachers! This is a small piece of evidence that the YA scheme is working effectively.
A number of key themes emerged throughout the afternoon:
Recruitment and retention of RE teachers
- Evidence was presented about the ‘uneven playing field’ in which RE operates, when a bursary of £25, 000 is available for a graduate in Classics or Geography with a 2.2 but only £4,000 to a Theology/RS graduate with a 2.1
- We heard evidence of the difficulty in recruiting sufficient high-quality teachers – an RE post in a prestigious department with supportive Senior Leaders, attracted far fewer applicants than posts in PE and Modern Foreign Languages
- There was very disturbing evidence about the loss of capable RE teachers from the profession, especially in community schools. Of a cohort of 35, only one remains teaching RE in a non-faith school, ten years after completing their PGCEs
- The reasons suggested for this is that teachers are feeling de-skilled and unvalued. It would be useful for the Commission to know if RE merely reflects the general trend of teachers leaving the profession or if the problem is greater in RE than in other subjects
- The issues surrounding recruitment and retention impact negatively on student experience
- One of the YAs pointed out that RE in her primary school was taught by a teaching assistant and this meant that pupils knew it was considered to be a low-status subject
- The omission of RS from the Russell group list of desirable subjects has negative impact.
Support for teachers
- There is a considerable amount of support for teachers at local level. This includes the hubs, financed by the Culham St Gabriel Trust, Learn Teach Lead RE, Farmington Fellowships, Diocesan support and teacher networks. Such grassroots activity was helpful, generated enthusiasm and increased teacher confidence. It also enabled cross-phase and cross-local authority co-operation which was particularly valued by non-specialist primary colleagues. It would be helpful if the Commission were able to gather quantitative data on such provision and to identify shortfalls
- Other forms of CPD, termed the ‘M and S’ approach, are often unsatisfactory in effecting long-term change
- The availability of commercial materials to support RE was noted, driven by the needs of primary school teachers for medium-term planning. This raises questions about such materials’ relation to the requirements of different agreed syllabuses.
- Students in non-faith schools are likely to receive an inferior level of provision in terms of timetable allocation
- Options are not really options, given the demands on students from other curriculum areas. They end up with very little, if any, choice
- RE is damaged by not being part of the EBacc and this was true for independent as well as state schools
- The GCSE examinations were described as ‘not fit for purpose’. The subject content is too heavy rather than too difficult and pupils are required to learn too much specialist vocabulary.
- As in previous evidence sessions, it was argued (by students) that the right to withdrawal should be removed
- How to define the subject and its boundaries was considered, with stress being placed on the need for integrity in relation to cognate subject areas
- There should be a focus on ‘us’, not just them and me. There is a danger that learning takes place with an individualistic bubble. Can learning about and from (considered to be inadequate) be supplemented by learning ‘within’? The latter is an unsatisfactory term, admittedly, but some such phrasing needs to be found
- The name of the subject was brought up again and one school argued that ‘Philosophy, Religion and Ethics’ was appropriate, not least because it puts religion at the heart of the enquiry
- On the question of local determination, there was recognition that some SACREs are not working effectively – from not meeting at all to failing to lead RE in their area. There was a general consensus that a national entitlement would be beneficial and the Chair of the Independent Schools RS Association said that schools within that sector would be willing to accept one as the basis for their work. Another speaker suggested a national entitlement with room for local input would be the best solution
- The tension between providing clarity and maintaining flexibility was noted. The ‘fuzzy’ nature of the subject was part of its strength, it was claimed, but there is a need to balance that against the apparent confusion/conflict of some teachers. Teachers – and pupils – need intellectual autonomy.
And so, plenty for Commissioners to consider as they prepare their interim report!