The Diocese’s response to the National Society’s Review of Religious Education in Church of England Schools

,

Jo Fageant, Principal RE Adviser for the Diocese of Oxford on Making a Difference, the National Society’s review of religious education in Church of England schools. The Oxford Diocesan Board of Education is pleased to receive this report and consider its implications for RE in our schools.

Chair of ODBE, the Rt Revd Dr Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham, said:  “We welcome this report which will support our continuing focus on RE in all schools throughout our as well as the Church of England as a whole. We have increased our RE specialist team with a new part-time adviser having joined us in February of this year. They have studied the report and considered its implications for their work in the variety of school contexts with which they are involved. They are also familiar with the progress of the National Society’s Christianity Project (mentioned in this report) and are looking forward to using this material to develop a more theological approach to study with pupils from Year One.”

I was a member of the team that visited the sixty schools involved in the review.  It was a privilege to meet the RE staff in each of the eight schools I visited and have open conversations which contributed so richly to the evidence used in the report.  I have been with the diocese for almost seventeen years and I have got to know our schools well. I recognise that many of the strengths set out in the review are evident within our own area.  For example, recent SIAMS inspections have highlighted outstanding practice in both Waddesdon and Ranelagh, two of our secondary schools.  Their reports include the following comments which describe aspects of the sort of best practice praised in Making a Difference?

Ranelagh: Teaching and learning across all key stages is outstanding. The theological and enquiry based approach supports deep, thoughtful learning and critical thinking. Learning is structured to enable students to make good progress in lessons, and through units of work. For example, questions are scaffolded using higher order thinking strategies to provide challenges. The impact of continuing professional development provided by the Diocese and National Society has empowered the teachers to develop new approaches to the curriculum.

Waddesdon: Excellent results are the product of outstandingly effective teaching and learning.  RS teachers have high aspirations for every student and work with outstanding dedication and commitment to enable students to realise them. As a result, students relish and enjoy the learning in RS and feel that it not only gives them the confidence to achieve well academically but also to be able to make well informed moral choices.  From Year 7 to Year 13 students have levels of theological literacy and spiritual understanding normally found in older students. The level of discourse on philosophic perspectives on the nature of miracles, exhibited by students in Year 13 is of university standard. This performance is the result of outstandingly skilful teaching which balances challenge, interest, pace and assessment for progress.

Although the review report points to a more mixed picture of RE in primary schools we are aware of some excellent practice evidenced in recent SIAMS reports:

Appleton: All children enjoy the high expectation and opportunities to develop their thinking skills, with support as necessary. For example, older children can discuss ‘are there things that God cannot forgive?’

Reading St Johns: Parents report that their children are keen to share and talk about what they have learnt, which often leads to deep and meaningful conversations at home.

Gerrards Cross: In RE lessons well-structured and challenging discussion, supported by skilled questioning by teachers, promotes excellent spiritual and moral development. Learners say they like debating ‘the big questions’, and a Key Stage 2 class enjoyed thinking up questions for God, e.g. ‘Have you always known the world would turn out like this?’

St Nicolas’ Junior School, Newbury: A hallmark of RE at St Nicolas is using the pupils themselves to speak about their faith and beliefs. Excellent examples include Year Three pupils investigating ‘Does completing The Hajj make a person better’ hot seating a Year 6 pupil whose father had just returned from his Hajj; and Year 6 pupils asking of their Hindu classmates and teacher, ‘Do beliefs in karma help Hindus live a good life?’  They go on to say they have ‘one main question each term in our class and in our weekly RE sessions we always answer a little bit of it and do a big summary at the end of term to share what we’ve learnt’.

Alvescot (Infant): Children are confident and adept at raising questions to explore areas of interest and puzzlement such as the nature of God (“Is God spirit or person or both?” asked one child) and the origins of the universe in recent work on God’s world.

Theale (VC) : Pupils enjoy being challenged and know that they are supported by adults, as well as each other, to achieve academically and personally. This was recognised in an outstanding RE lesson where children were invited to respond to the Easter story through carefully designed activities that led the pupils to explore themes of ‘struggle, suffering, repentance and hope’ deepening their personal understanding and engagement with the story.

High Wycombe: A number of pupils demonstrate very high levels of attainment.  An excellent example is seen in Year 6 lessons where pupils regularly look at the original Greek meaning of words and phrases such as the ‘I am’ statements of Jesus.  Pupils also have the opportunity to reflect on challenging questions.  Different approaches to RE such as Philosophy for Children and Godly Play are well embedded enabling the enquiry approach and philosophical debate to take place.

However, we are not complacent.  Not all our schools have been judged to have outstanding RE and as a team of specialist advisers we know that criticisms included in the RE review apply in some contexts in our diocese.  There are teachers who are not clear about the place and purpose of RE; there is a need to help schools improve their curriculum design and move away, where it happens, from engaging pupils at only a superficial level. There is certainly a considerable amount of work to do to ensure that theological and philosophical enquiry becomes common place.

Encouraging all of this is not new work for diocesan advisers.  For example, in July, ready for the new school year, we published a scheme of work exploring big, open ended questions.  This is available on the here.  Its very careful construction ensures the planning supports schools anywhere in the diocese to deliver their local authority RE syllabus. It embeds a cycle of learning (engage, enquire and explore, evaluate, reflect) which Making a Difference? recognises as effective in supporting good learning.

Making a  Difference? suggests teachers find it difficult to access training in RE. They have often experienced very little in their initial training courses so on-the-job opportunities once they are in schools are important. Each term we organise twelve regional meetings for primary RE coordinators to discuss and learn together. We also provide a course each autumn for relatively new primary school RE subject leaders to help them develop a clear sense of the place and purpose of RE and their own leadership responsibilities. There is also an annual training programme aimed at improving the ways in which RE is taught.  These courses draw on top national speakers and are always exceptionally well received with teachers acknowledging how much they have learned.  However the number of schools identifying this as a priority and enabling teachers to attend is small.  The pressure for training in other areas is always greater.  It is hoped that this year’s conference to be held at the Oxford Belfry Hotel on 24th April will attract at least 80 delegates. There will be a keynote address and workshops enabling teachers to reflect on a number of different strategies for developing children’s thinking skills in RE.  Schools can also invite diocesan advisers to work with them individually or in self-determined clusters to address particular areas for development.

Making a Difference? is an important report highlighting as it does key areas in which improvements need to be made.  It’s great also that it celebrates successes already recognised in schools within our diocese.

This is an older post. Please note that the information may not be accurate anymore.