A response to the Commission on RE

So, after 2 years of work, the Commission on RE have published their final report and a series of recommendations. I am sure that a lot of time, effort and hard work went into this report and those involved should be thanked for their commitment to RE. Having read the report and considered the recommendations, I thought I would summarise my thoughts here (thanks to Chris Giles for encouraging me to do so, my tl;dr version was ‘it’s a missed opportunity and some of the suggestions are just distracting from the real issues’).


Firstly, there are many recommendations which I feel are a positive for the RE community. Recommendations 3&4, which seek to establish a national ‘entitlement’ and eliminate the need for SACREs to be involved in curriculum development would be a huge step forward. It would allow for consistency of content across the country (with some regional variations where appropriate) which would allow the RE community to be (even) more supportive of each other, and would also eliminate the fairly daft notion that a child in Suffolk should learn a totally different RE curriculum from one in Cornwall or London or Carlisle. I welcome the suggestion that a group should be formed to develop a national entitlement to a religion curriculum.

Recommendations 6&7 which seek to enhance the ITE offer and the CPD available would obviously be welcomed, and if SACREs need to exist (I would argue they don’t!) then a role akin to that in recommendation 8 is a good idea.


Recommendation 11 is a real missed opportunity. The RE community is crying out for an end to the right to withdraw from RE, which is a hangover from the days of RI and has no place in a modern, diverse subject. I think the commission could have been much more assertive in their wording here, and not just asked the DfE to ‘review’ the right to withdrawal. We need the RE community to challenge the idea that parents can simply take their children out of all (or part) of our subject, something that we would never see happen in maths or English.


The heart of the report, though, is recommendations 1 and 2, which seek to change the subject name (to Religion and Worldviews), and then states 9 areas which pupils must be taught. I absolutely despair every time the ‘what should we call the subject’ debate is raised (and believe me, it is raised a lot), and have sat through many discussions at school, conferences, meetings, networks, etc about the name of the subject. This is the second suggestion this year on a new name for the subject, this time seeking to ‘add’ worldviews to religion (are religions not worldviews?).

If we examine this further, it is clear that at its root is the desire to make far more explicit the need for us to teach more about non-religious worldviews. There are many issues with this. First, there is the perennial discussion about what our subject is for; knowing more about religion and its impact through history, or looking at what different people believe today and why. I would strongly argue that you cannot do the latter without the former, and that we don’t do the former well enough (yet) to allow us to do justice to the latter – certainly not until late in KS4 or even KS5. We are not going to get more curriculum time, so every lesson I have to include on humanism/atheism/nihilism/whatever has an opportunity cost, meaning I can’t develop the religious knowledge and understanding of the students I teach. Furthermore, the issue of the content of lessons on these ‘worldviews’ is always present…what content do we need to deliver? There simply is not the same volume of history, sources of wisdom and so on as with the religions we study (this obviously does not mean things that humanists have done are not worthy of study. But in RE?). Studying the NRWVs in RE is always a reaction to the religion being studied, rather than core content on its own; you need to know a lot about religion before you can get academically near the other worldviews in any meaningful way. Reading some of the report, it almost seems that we are lucky the word religion got in at all! (‘What have you got later?’. ‘Worldviews. Miss says we are doing communism or something.’)

The suggestions that we also need to have the new GCSE and A level specs reviewed in light of the national entitlement also saddens me. ONE cohort has gone through these courses, and they have been sniped at from the start. These courses develop a much deeper understanding of a lot of issues to do with religion and belief and should be supported, it is unhelpful for the commission to imply that their content needs to be altered whilst we are still analysing lessons to be learned from the first cohort of students.

Finally, with regard to asking the DfE to review the impact of RS not being in the EBacc (recommendation 10)…this is a waste of time. We aren’t going to be in the EBacc whilst we are a compulsory subject, so if we want to campaign to be included we probably need to accept being optional after KS3. And, as ever, we should be careful what we wish for.


The (absolute) state of the nation: #GE2017

So…where to start?

Firstly – the fact we are having this election is simply down to a cynical calculation by Mrs May and her ‘team’ that they were so far ahead of the opposition that they could increase their majority to well over 100. Brexit was a clear excuse, as article 50 had not been held up by parliament, and there was nothing to suggest that parliament would not allow the government to proceed with the negotiations. For that reason alone, the narrowing of the opinion polls is welcome, and (should this narrowing be reflected in the voting) highlights that both taking the electorate for granted, and trying to just ‘run out the clock’ are bad ways to organise a campaign.

But yet, we have an election, and need to consider who it is sensible to vote for. It certainly is not the Conservative Party. Over the last 7 years they have enacted their austerity agenda, without meeting any of the objectives of it. We still have a sizable deficit and growing national debt. It is becoming increasingly clear that we cannot maintain the level of services people expect (and require), with current levels of taxation. Mrs May has not tackled either of these issues head on, instead hiding behind the ‘record levels of funding’ and ‘magic money tree’ soundbites. Both are demonstrably nonsense, and the electorate deserve a Prime Minister who is honest enough to level with them about the state of their public services, and what would be needed to ensure they remain as we would hope.

In this regard, Mr Corbyn and the Labour Party have had a successful campaign. He has managed to get across a plan for both how to raise money in a sensible and pragmatic way, and to ensure that some of the recent cuts be reversed. Yet there are huge issues here. Free tuition fees, at a cost of £11bn. a year is neither progressive nor fiscally sensible. If there is £11bn to be spend on education, funding all schools fairly, and reinstating programs such as sure start would be a much better place to start. However, Labour have at least shown themselves to be a party willing to defend their manifesto, debate why they feel strongly about it, and to argue their case. There are still huge reservations over Mr Corbyn and his historic links to groups like the IRA, although I am not sure whether the activities of an 80s backbencher are more or less concerning than those of a home secretary who cuts 20,000 police at a time of increasing domestic threats, or of a Prime Minister who will cosy up to dictators and sell them arms as it is good for business.

A Brexit election should have offered the Liberal Democrats a chance to claim some seats in pro-remain areas. And any election should offer them the chance to begin to rebuild their support after the 2015 drubbing, but they have been squeezed by a combination of a return to the Con/Lab tribalism and a fairly poor campaign from Tim Farron. I am convinced that there is a place for a true party of the centre, but it may need a Macron-style insurgent campaign to truly inspire it.

One bright spot in this election is the demise of UKIP. This brightness is dimmed by the fact they were successful in pushing the EU referendum into the Tories’ collective consciousness, leading us down a Brexit path which is full of uncertainty and, however it ends, will result in us being worse off than we were before the vote.

Choosing who to vote for remains a challenge. As a passionate liberal elite remoaner, it will almost certainly be the Liberal Democrats who will get mine. However, I would be very tempted to lend Labour my vote should I live in a seat where a Labour vote could stop a Tory candidate.

And finally, some wishes for the next election: People are not called ‘dicks’ by other members of their profession simply because they are going to vote for one party ahead of another, politicians engage with the debate and do not simply regurgitate soundbites and, finally, those of us on the centre-left have a legitimate candidate to rally around. I don’t hold out much hope for any of them.


My Desert Island Discs

Inspired by Andy Lewis doing the same thing <here>, I have put together my Desert Island Discs. This is actually the 2nd time I have done one, as I was a guest on a radio show when I was at UEA, on their radio station Livewire, and had to pick 5 songs. But that was a while back, and I get 8 choices…so here we go!

1: Vera/Bring the Boys Back Home/Comfortably Numb – Roger Waters

A bit to unpick here! Firstly, I am obviously aware that The Wall is a) by Pink Floyd and b) the best album of all time. And that this is 3 songs, not 1. If I were forced to pick one, it would be Comfortably Numb, but I have put this run of 3 songs in as when I saw Roger Waters perform The Wall at the o2 and again at Wembley, this 10 minute stretch was truly mind-blowing. There is a little taster <here>

2: Common People – Pulp

My formative years in music were the early-mid 90s, so there had to be some BritPop in on the list. Most of my friends were Oasis or Blur, but I always had Pulp ahead of them. Different Class is a fantastic piece of work, and Common People is my pick of the tracks from it.

3: Remember Me – British Sea Power

I first stumbled upon BSP watching some festival highlights on TV late one evening. They showed 2 songs, this being one, and I was hooked. I’ve followed them ever since, and have seen them live on a few occasions – something I would highly recommend that you do. They almost certainly haven’t had the mainstream success they deserve, but then that’s not always a bad thing…if you’ve never heard the song, <click>

4: A Certain Romance – Arctic Monkeys

Driving to a cricket fixture at Mistley (or some other glamourous location in the Suffolk/Essex borders) in 2005, my friend put a CD on which he’d sourced somewhere online. It was a demo CD from the Arctic Monkeys, and lived up to the hype he had been giving it, from that, to seeing them at numerous venues holding 700 up to 70000, I’ve always had this track ahead of anything else they have done.

5: The Globalist – Muse

My favourite ‘current’ band (if that is a category? If not, it is now), and it is very hard to pick one of their tracks. Time is Running Out is the one that introduced me to Muse, Hysteria was a go-to track when I used to do some DJing. But Drones is their best album, and I adore this song – it probably has a bit of everything that makes them so good.

6: Intervention – Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire probably push Muse in the previous category. A truly stunning band with a great body of work behind them already. This, from their album Neon Bible is my pick of the bunch.

7: Baba O’Riley – The Who

There had to be something in here to represent how important listening to bands like The Who has been to me. With parents who were in their early 20s in the late 60s, I was introduced to a lot of great music growing up, and this song is probably the one that I have gone back to time and again of those bands that they introduced me to.

8 – All These Things That I’ve Done – The Killers

At UEA, in 2005, watching The Killers was one of the best gigs I have been to. A band and song to sum up my time at UEA would certainly be this.

As well as the music, I get a book and an item. The book would be The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas, and I would take my piano and try to learn the bit from the end of the Globalist…

So. What’s on your list?


TEDx NorwichED – Ideas Worth Sharing?

Yesterday’s TEDx conference in Norwich was titled ‘Thinking Differently’. It was no surprise, then, that a wide range of speakers were selected to address the delegates, most of who work in education.

There were some notable highlights – Mary Myatt speaking about the benefits of high-challenge low threat testing, Vic Goddard explaining why Michael Wilshaw is wrong to link TV ‘reality’ shows about schools to the teacher recruitment crisis and Alistair Bryce-Clegg entertaining us all with tales from the Early Years…

There were also some very interesting contributions from those who are not as directly involved in teaching. A local 6th form student, Jason Brown, spoke passionately about the use of technology in the classroom and certainly challenged some of my thinking on the issue, and 2 speakers on the importance of encouraging more students to get involved in coding and software development certainly highlighted an area that schools need to do more on, to shed the old ICT and transition to a modern computing curriculum (although I wasn’t impressed at their claim that they ‘don’t use maths’ and if they need to they just ‘Google it’!).

Scattered through the speakers you might expect to find at an event like this were some speakers from other sectors, all of whom have an active interest in education in one form or another. Obviously, this is to be welcomed. The more opportunities we can give our students to get involved in other activities alongside their curriculum, the better. What did concern me about some of these speakers though, were sweeping generalisations about the current education system, that were then used to justify ideas which I think most certainly are not worth sharing. Variously, we were told (amongst other things):

  • Schools tell students that good grades are the only things that get them jobs
  • Schools impart a notion that we all have to work for 40 years, for 40 hours a week, to get a pension which is 40% of our salary
  • Students sit in rows learning pointless facts to pass exams they don’t care about which don’t matter
  • I didn’t do well in (x) but I’ve done ok


The most controversial speaker, to my mind at least, was Siam Kidd, a former RAF pilot who now works as an investor. He was certainly passionate, but passion alone doesn’t make a compelling argument. After a few minutes of sweeping generalisations about the state of the education system, Mr Kidd explained how he is planning to start a chain of free schools, ideally with Sir Ken Robinson involved in the creation of these schools. He outlined a 13 point plan, and I will blog again about all 13 in more detail once the video of the talk is online. One of the 13 points highlights where I feel the crossover between those who are trained to work in education, and those who wish to (for whatever reason) can be of some concern.

Mr Kidd told us that his schools would be based around the idea of students having preferred learning styles. There seemed to be a collective sigh amongst many of the teachers in the room at this, as those of us who work in education and try to keep on top of the research are well aware that the VAK model has been debunked. It is a myth. I tweeted as much, and have been dragged into arguments ever since with Mr Kidd, but also Richard Dwyer (another speaker – former stuntman and gymnast) and others who claim that they know learning styles exist, as they have seen students learning in their preferred ways! Clearly their anecdotal evidence is much more compelling than the actual research (which Mr Dwyer stated earlier today he hadn’t read), and I’m sure they will be telling Willingham et al why they are wrong in due course.

I am somewhat surprised that the organisers allowed a speaker to deliver a talk containing cod-science such as this. Yes, we need our thinking challenged, and the education system certainly needs to think of ways to deal with challenges it will face over the next few years. But these challenges will not be met with the promotion of old-hat ideas, nor will they be met by founding free schools which are based around these ideas. We obviously want people from outside the education sector to take an interest and be involved, but they must take the time to get a real picture of what is going on in schools, and they must also take the time to ensure they fully understand what they are proposing, and not just basing it on anecdote or hearsay.

Did the day challenge my thinking? Yes. Did it provide us with a range of speakers who Think Differently? Yes. But – TED is an organisation based around ideas worth sharing. It is a shame that a lot of these were obscured by some ideas that quite clearly aren’t.

The host of the day kept reminding us to start conversations – get in touch and tell me why I’m wrong!

B H Eh? Humanism and GCSE RS

I am a humanist*

However, I am very disillusioned with the decision at the high court today which appears to indicate humanism must be studied within the RS GCSE (although it may not be quite that simple). It strikes me as quite odd that a ‘non-religious worldview’ would seek to be part of an academic subject which promotes the study of, ahem, religion. Why would they want to be included alongside the ‘big 6’ which are studied (or can be studied) on the GCSE specs? For me, this is more about scoring a political point than any real concern for the education of young people. *If* it was still RI, they would have a valid point. It isn’t, so they don’t.

There are also a few questions which this ruling raises, and my worry is that it could muddle and complicate the introduction of the new GCSE, which should be ready for teaching in September 2016.

  • What do the BHA want to be included in the new GCSE? The new specs include things like ‘beliefs and teachings’ and ‘practices’. What are the teachings of humanism? Who will agree on them? And the practices? To include humanism properly, it needs to sit alongside the other worldviews. I am not sure how it can (and I don’t think the BHA are either)
  • What is to stop other ‘worldviews’ now challenging the ruling? Rastafarians? Jains? Jedi? Scientologists? Atheists? (are they humanists?) I don’t see how humanism can represent all other world views, or why it is more valid than others for inclusion.
  • Who is going to decide what the humanists think about the issues in the ethical side of the course? It is hard enough to decide which religious attitudes to include on (say) abortion – but at some point there is scripture to base these attitudes on. Where are the humanist teachings? Or will candidates just have to write ‘humanists tend to have a range of opinions on this issue which probably revolve around being nice to each other’
  • Will the BHA be supporting having homeopathy taught in science or Bridge taught in GCSE PE….

I think the new GCSE specs did provide RS an opportunity to move away from a moral/ethical fudge and to become a proper, academic subject which would sit alongside history and geography. There could even have been a proper case for it being in the EBacc. I worry with this decision that there could be a backward step now and I hope the DfE stick to their guns and do not order (further) changes to the new specs.


*Probably – it is hard to pin down exactly what one is. I try to be nice to everyone and respect their right to an opinion. I dislike violence and don’t think religion should be part of the state. That isn’t really much to base a GCSE on though.



(thanks to http://www.xkcd.com)

EBacc to the Future? 1998 and all that

At the start of this blogpost I feel I should point out (in case it is thrown at me) that I am not a great fan of the coalition/Tory education reforms. I am not convinced that academisation is a silver bullet that will transform a school, and I have many reservations about free schools and multi-academy trusts. What I hope to do here is simply set out why I am not opposed to the recent move towards making the EBacc mandatory, to challenge some of the assumptions about the EBacc, and also why I don’t think this needs to drastically curtail the choices students will get in other areas.

Simply, I think it is important that students study EBacc subjects to 16. These subjects do make up the core of the curriculum throughout a student’s time at school, and are subjects that have been recognised by universities as preparing well for further study (of course others will do this as well, but nobody is saying they can’t be studied). Students will be in full time education until 18 – so would still have 2 further years to move away from the study of these core subjects. With many students now taking options for GCSE at 13 years old, I think a move towards keeping them studying these subjects is no bad thing. Do they know at 13 what they will end up doing at 16? Probably not, and we certainly shouldn’t be closing down potential routes by moving them away from the core academic subjects.

‘But they don’t enjoy humanities or languages’

Is not a very compelling argument. A huge number don’t enjoy English, maths or science, I would suggest. Are we saying that they should only study things they enjoy? If not, I would apply the same arguments that are used for English, maths and science being studied to GCSE to humanities and languages. These are important things that contain skills and knowledge which are likely to benefit students in future. They can spend some more time studying them, and at 16 they can choose where to specialise further. I would also warn RE colleagues against employing this line of argument – I have heard far more students complain about RE being compulsory (including at KS3) than I ever have languages or history/geography

‘Schools will stop them studying other subjects’

It seems to me that this isn’t an argument against the EBacc, but an argument against how schools are trying to jump through this hoop. In short, they shouldn’t stop offering a wide range of other subjects. I sat my GCSEs in 1998, and on top of a compulsory choice of German or French, and another of history, geography or RE (no core RE at my school), I had 3 more option choices. If schools choose to only do the EBacc subjects, they are curtailing choice unnecessarily (more in a moment)

‘Some shouldn’t study humanities or languages’

I would certainly agree that there are some students who shouldn’t study languages all the way to 16 – perhaps in the case of an EAL student with very poor levels of understanding in English, or a student who has a SEN which requires him or her to spend more time on English. This should be the exception, though, and I think all students would benefit from the skills and knowledge to be gained in history or geography.

‘RE should be in the EBacc’

Current RE specifications should not be. They are not as challenging as history or geography, but this is likely to change. I am still suspicious of RE being included – it is compulsory to study it to 16 (but not to GCSE) and worry that some schools would use it instead of history/geography to tick the ‘humanities’ box but not actually give it a full curriculum allocation. I could be persuaded that the new specs should be included and RE GCSE become part of the options process, though.

So what would I do? If I were to be in charge of curriculum design (again), I would look to implement something like this across a 3-year key stage 4. This assumes 25 1-hour lessons per week, across a 2 week timetable and I think is a good solution to allow study of the EBacc, but also freedom for other GCSE options:

English – 7 lessons (approx. 370 across KS4)

Maths – 7 lessons (approx. 370 across KS4)

Science – 9 lessons (approx. 480 across KS4)

PE – 4 lessons (core PE)

RE – 2 lessons (approx. 105 across KS4)

Hums option – 4 lessons (approx. 210 across KS4)

Languages option – 4 lessons (approx. 210 across KS4)

3 x GCSE options – 4 lessons each (approx. 210 each across KS4)

Which only adds up to 49 lessons…leaving one more to go elsewhere, or be used for PSHEE-type lessons. It could be used to give science an extra period (helping with triple science perhaps), or English/maths to have 8 not 7 lessons. It could even go to RE which would push hours to around 150, leaving enough time for full course for all.

This would allow students to take 10 GCSE subjects (11 if triple science was studied, 11 or 12 if RE was a full GCSE), the EBacc for all, plus 3 other option choices. Some schools may wish to give option groups more lessons – a reduction to 2x GCSE options could increase the others to 5 hours per fortnight. Others may wish to give English, maths and science more time – again, you could do this and retain 2 EBacc options and 2 others.

In short, studying the EBacc shouldn’t curtail other subjects as much as some seem to fear. I feel giving all (or the vast, vast majority) the chance to study these core subjects is a good idea, beneficial for them and the choices they will make at 16. Students should still get the chance to study other option subjects – providing those responsible for curriculum design are willing to provide it, and senior leaders are not panicked into pouring all available time into the EBacc subjects.

Feel free to disagree…

‘Your revision time is precious. Don’t waste it’

I was recently asked to take a year 11 assembly during the last week of term, with the focus being on maths revision (English and science having had their go during the weeks before). After a few discussions, particularly with Andy Lewis (@ITeachRE) I thought that rather doing an assembly on what to revise, I would focus on the how of revision. Revision time is precious after all, it shouldn’t be wasted. Here are some thoughts and reflections on what I told them:

1: Know the domain

I asked students to try and split their subjects (in particluar maths) into 4 areas:

Known/Easy (the things they know they can do – also what they are most likely to revise)

Known/Hard (the tough things they know they struggle with)

Unknown/Easy (the basics that they know they slip up on or are not confident on)

Unknown/Hard (the things that they either have no idea on, or aren’t aware of being on the course)

The message was simple. Don’t spend too much time on the first section. The middle 2 should be revised a lot, and the last section needs to be identified and discussed with a teacher ASAP!

2: Revise in ways that are effective

I don’t think telling students ‘do what you think works best for you’ is very helpful. Most won’t know what works best, as they won’t have done or read any research into it – why should they? We are the professionals and are paid to be aware of things that will and won’t work. Lots of students will also do things that are ‘fun’ (easy) or spend time revising things they are good at (we all love being good at things and getting them right). Not a great use of their precious revision time.

To this end, I explained and told them to: Interleave their maths revision, test themselves regularly and to distribute their revision of skills (and to revise the skills 3 times at least). I also told them that just highlighting their books, and reading notes/revision guides without doing questions wasn’t a good use of their precious time. Thanks to Andy here for pointing me towards Dunlosky et al.

3: What to use to revise

As ever with maths, I pointed them towards http://www.corbettmaths.com, http://www.hegartymaths.com, SAM Learning and a host of printed resources that we have in school (some of which are excellent collations of practice questions made by my HOD).

We then ended with this.

Revision time is precious. Help your students use it effectively!