The (un)welcome return of Lance Armstrong

I wrote this about 20 months ago, when the Armstrong/Oprah interview had just aired. I thought I’d post it here as it appears Mr Armstrong is on the long road to redemption…



Like many cycling fans, I have found the whole Lance Armstrong affair very disappointing. I do not wish to blog about my own feelings on the issue, however. Those who need a bit of background on the story may wish to read this article.

This story is a great example of how we can use current news stories as a learning resource in RE/Philosophy. The affair raises a whole host of ethical questions that could prove to be source of excellent learning in the RE classroom.

Many of these issues have been brought back into the public eye in the light of the interview of Armstrong by Oprah Winfrey that was aired around the world over the last 2 days. I have seen (and been involved in) many discussions on twitter on these issues, and they have been raised by many writers and contributors to newspapers, radio and television.

The main issues I think we can explore in the RE classroom are:

Does apologising change anything?

Many people have suggested the apology was not sincere or that the ‘apology’ was carefully choreographed so as not to be valid. The issue of apologising could be investigated by students, though. Do they think that Armstrong’s apology makes up for what he did? Does the fact he has now admitted to what he has done wrong mean he should be treated more leniently? This issue links to the next 2 questions:

Does Lance Armstrong deserve to be forgiven?

‘Forgive us our trespasses’…does this apply to Lance Armstrong? Can he be forgiven for deceiving so many people over such a long period of time? Forgiveness is a difficult issue to teach in my experience and I think that by offering a situation such as this could allow for discussion that are not open to the extremes of emotion of some issues that might be discussed in terms of forgiveness.

Is a life ban fair?

Mr Armstrong has called his punishment the ‘death penalty.’ Compared to other sports men and women who have been caught doping (inside and outside cycling) it could be deemed harsh as many have returned to competition. This discussion could then be linked to other discussions of punishment – something that is certainly covered within the Edexcel Religion and Society GCSE course.

This is perhaps the most difficult issue to unpick with students. I gave this some thought yesterday after seeing these 2 messages from Darren Huckerby, the former Norwich City footballer, on Twitter.



On the face of it, it could be judged an ad hominem attack ‘his charity work is invalid as he has been proven to be a cheat’. The 2 may not necessarily be linked, but Armstrong felt the need to resign from his position as chairman of the LiveStrong foundation. So  – has the charity work been undermined?

Why is it wrong to cheat?

This is something that could clearly be applied to lots of issues. I think it would be worth discussing the Armstrong case with students, but the scope of the question is much wider. Students may wish to discuss other examples from within sport (diving in football might be a popular one), but it could also be linked to something closer to the students – school work and exams.

There are obviously other issues, but these are the ones that I feel are most pressing and that I hope to make use of in the classroom. Any thoughts are more than welcome!


Philosophy GCSE: To be or not to be?

There is an excellent article in Schools Week by Dr John Taylor on the benefits of a GCSE in philosophy. It can be found here: . As someone who came to RE teaching via studying philosophy (rather than religion), I would be inclined to agree with him. Here is why I think a GCSE in philosophy could be a benefit to philosophy, and to RE.

Philosophy is not RE; RE is not philosophy

This, for me, is the main argument for introducing a GCSE in philosophy. There is a huge amount that can be gained by students studying the subject, and doing so without the constant link back to religion and religious teaching. Moral philosophy, for example, is a wonderful, rich area of study which does engage students when it appears in RE – but the constant need to then link back to ‘what do Christians say about this’ limits the range and scope of the philosophical enquiry. Allowing a philosophy GCSE to be developed would mean the current topics which are squashed into a ‘catch-all’ GCSE in RE could be studied in the depth that they deserve. Other routes of philosophical enquiry could be taken, and philosophers could be read and examined in detail (something which doesn’t happen in the current GCSE RE philosophy-fudge).

Doing this would also allow a GCSE in RE to be just that. Studying religion and faith, the specific truth claims made by religion (not just general philosophical arguments), the history of faith, scripture and its modern applications, and the modern challenges to religion is more than enough for an engaging, relevant GCSE. RE doesn’t need philosophy to make it interesting, relevant or ‘cool’. And philosophy shouldn’t need RE in order to be introduced to our students.

The current system of philosophy only existing in RE (certainly pre-16, but in a lot of cases post-16) does both subjects a disservice. Students are not introduced to philosophy as a discipline in its own right (just as a part of religious ethics), and they are also left with the impression that studying RE must include the study of philosophy. This doesn’t need to be true, and both subjects should be available to be studied at GCSE level.

Which brings me to the challenge of *how* to fit a GCSE in philosophy into the curriculum.

My view is that philosophy should be an optional GCSE, allowing students who choose to study it to do so. Some will argue that with students already obliged to study RE, that choosing philosophy wouldn’t be popular (they are too similar, perhaps? – I don’t agree, of course). Along with this, though, I don’t think students should be made to study RE up to GCSE level*. Making it optional would free up some curriculum time, and students would be offered the choice of taking a course of study in philosophy OR religion (or even both) as part of their KS4 curriculum.

Introducing a GCSE in philosophy would be an exciting opportunity for both subjects to develop as what they are – independent, relevant and engaging academic disciplines.

*Schools should still be obliged to offer GCSE RE, however, as well as being obliged to teach it at KS3.

Guest Post: Paul Smalley’s response to Lord Nash on SACREs

So Lord Nash seems to have successfully stirred up that frequent re debate about local v National and the role of SACREs and the like….This inevitably becomes muddied in the legal waters of the status of RE…

Here is my view of what should happen, a view which I have held with increasing certainty for a few years, and one which I thought we were coming close to when Mark Chater was at QCA.

SACREs have existed in some places since the 1944 Education Act made Religious Instruction compulsory for all students in maintained schools, but it was only in the 1988 and 1993 Acts that their legal duties became as they are now. If those parts of those Acts giving SACREs legal obligations were repealed, SACREs in some places might continue to support RE, and possibly grow in that role as they sell their services to schools, academies and LAs, probably on a regional basis.  With a more flexible approach to membership, they might not require councillors, or retired methodist head teachers to fulfil quotas, but would (I imagine) be increasingly made up of serving, committed teachers, advisors and consultants; those best equipped to support school RE. In other places, where SACREs now essentially exist simply to fulfil a legal role, and actually do little real support or monitoring of RE, they would disappear.

There should be a distinction made between RE and RI. RE would be governed by a National Curriculum document.  It would retain the compulsory status it currently enjoys, or perhaps take its place alongside history and geography in terms of how long it must be studied for.  It would not have a parental right of withdrawal.  Faith schools would have to teach NC RE, which would have as one of its objectives a countering extremism role, but as part of a proper academic study of faith, religion, world religions and beliefs.

RI would include those aspects of faith nurture which schools with a religious character seek to impart to their students.  RC, CE, Muslim and other faith based schools would be able to teach this RI alongside RE, not instead of RE. A parental right of withdrawal from these RI lessons would be maintained.

Probably far-fetched, and politically too hot a potato to ever happen, but an improvement on the current state, in my humble opinion.

Paul Smalley is a SOLSTICE fellow, Senior Lecturer and course leader for BA (Hons.) Secondary Religious Education with QTS at Edge Hill University. He can be found on Twitter @PabloPedantic 

A response to Lord Nash’s letter to SACREs

On Jan 7th, Lord Nash wrote a letter to all SACREs (Standing Advisory Council for RE) telling them just how good the job they are doing is. The full text can be found here:

Mark Chater encouraged those of us with an interest in RE to air our view on Lord Nash’s letter. This is my take on it.

Dear Lord Nash,

I read your letter to SACREs earlier this week with great interest. There are a couple of points in your letter on which I agree with you, however the main focus of the letter is something which I cannot agree with, and felt compelled to respond to.

I will begin with where we agree. Developing the academic ‘rigour’ of the subject is paramount. To this end, I generally support the new plans for GCSE RE as I find some of the current specifications lack any real detailed study of religion. As RE teachers, we (quite rightly) want our subject to be valued, and it won’t be until it can stand on an equal academic footing to other subjects of its type. I also agree (as I am sure most would) that RE can help to promote tolerance, understanding, respect or any other British value you would care to name. However, due to this I think that faith schools have no place in 21st century Britain (I doubt we agree here).

Now for where we differ. There is quite a bit, so I shall cut to the chase.

SACREs should play no further role in setting the curriculum for RE. They are an outdated, old-fashioned system of localism which has no place in a modern, interconnected nation such as Britain. The chances of a young person staying in one area for their whole life are much lower than when SACREs were established, therefore RE should reflect the whole nation, across the nation, and its curriculum should be national.

Collective worship (to which you refer in your letter) is nothing to do with RE, and it is fairly poor that you link the two. They are entirely separate and linking them is of now help. On CW, it just doesn’t happen any more, outside of faith schools. I spent a year on senior leadership recently and not ONE discussion was had between me and any of my colleagues about CW, or ensuring our assemblies contained acts of worship. Nor should they – why should we push any faith onto students in the year 2015.

I also object to the DfE using time and money to commission a review into SACREs and their work. What a waste of both. Save both, and push for RE to be brought into the 21st century as a proper academic subject.

Which brings me to my plan for how to improve RE, should you care to read it:

  • Introduce a National Curriculum for the subject, to replace the Locally Agreed Syllabus in each area.
  • Remove the withdrawal clause (that has no reason to exist, as we are about education not instruction). The idea that you can be removed from education as it might clash with your faith is at best anachronistic, and at worst, toxic.
  • Ensure that RE is being taught well in all schools, by making it part of what Ofsted report on
  • Invest the money being thrown at a review of SACREs into teacher education, to ensure top-class graduates enter RE teaching, and existing teachers are supported in their professional development.
  • (Not RE but…) Remove collective worship in non-faith schools. It doesn’t happen, nobody is interested in making it happen, and it can’t work in modern Britain.
  • And while you are at it, abandon AT2

Kind regards,

Mr Shepstone

EDIT – Read Andy Lewis’ response to the Nash letter here:

Workload and faddishness II…a teaching and learning plan

Yesterday I published a blog post which was fairly critical of ‘poundland pedagogy’, in particular of one use of it which asked a teacher to use a pair of plastic sporks in a lesson, then pass on their ideas of how the items could be used to colleagues, before collecting another item.

On reflection, I think the reason that I found this instance quite so ridiculous was the combination of the (almost) useless items that had been given to the teacher, and the time that had then gone in to thinking of how to shoehorn it in to a lesson(s). Time is a hugely valuable commodity to teachers, and this fact seemed to have been ignored here. Of equal value is trust – trust in teachers to know how to teach their classes and students in order to allow them to progress and learn in engaging, relevant lessons.

This is not to say, however that there is no way that this approach could work. @ASTSupportAAli sent me a link to a post on his blog about how he has used ‘poundland pedagogy’ to good effect in his practice ( for which I thank him. I am also not of the view that we cannot incorporate new techniques and ideas into our established practice in order to benefit our students. Where I am sceptical, though, is of whole school implementation of new ideas such as that I set out, which force teachers to apply an idea to their subject, rather than applying the subject to a new idea.

The idea (teaching technique) is the vehicle to deliver the knowledge or skill in the planned lesson –  but the process must start with the knowledge or skill, not the idea.

So, my plan for how to try and develop T&L, but not place onerous demands on the time and trust of teachers would be:

1: Introduce new ideas/techniques appropriately in CPD sessions, and allow staff time in these sessions to consider possible applications.

2: Don’t expect all departments/staff to want to introduce a new teaching style/activity in the same way – and don’t assume their lack of desire is due to not wishing to innovate. Start from the position that it wouldn’t benefit their students if they don’t want to do it (there are of course ways to work with staff who are not teaching appropriate, engaging lessons)

3: Allow staff time to work with each other to develop T&L strategies, either through coaching, peer observation, joint planning time and so on; but don’t stipulate what the strategies and activities will be or look like at the end of work such as this.

4: Encourage staff to network – Twitter and blogging are good (if you’re reading this you probably already think that!), and there are a whole world of ideas out there that can be used to develop practice.

5: If something is to be requested to be used in lessons, consider the evidence that is behind any new idea that is introduced. Has it been used and found to benefit students, or will it go the way of brain gym?

Workload and faddishness… ‘poundland pedagogy’

poundland ped

This picture was posted earlier to a Facebook group I am part of, along with a request of how it could be used in a classroom activity. It appears that all teachers at the school in question have been given something from poundland, they are asked to use it in a lesson activity, and then pass it on (with said idea) and then get a new object to use.

In a profession where there is already a *huge* amount to do, so much, in fact that it is often not possible to get it done, it strikes me as a colossal waste of teacher’s time to get them to contrive an activity which can be shoehorned in to using a (seemingly) random object to try and, I assume, engage the learners. I wonder how much time has been spent devising activities to use objects such as this, in the name of ‘poundland pedagogy’ rather than the teachers spending that time either planning lessons that will fit the needs of their students, or giving them feedback on the work they have done. That is without considering the engagement or learning that will be take place with students conducting the activity with a plastic spork.

I am all for taking risks in lessons, and trying new or different activities out, but this should be done and decided upon with the needs of the relevant class in mind. This idea seems to be a faddish waste of time, and whilst there might be the odd object which can be used in an interesting way, I would be surprised if the time, money and effort could not be better utilised elsewhere.

Poundland is often seen as an ‘imitation’ shop, which lacks in quality. I fear, from what I have seen, that its pedagogical cousin is the same.

One new film a week…a wellbeing promise

star wars 7

As ever, there has been a lot of discussion about workload in teaching recently. I will blog on that once term is up and running, I am sure, but I enjoyed the #SLTchat discussion yesterday on the theme of ‘What wellbeing promise will you make to yourself for 2015?’

My promise (along with the usual hope to run and cycle more, eat less junk) is to try and spend more of my time on two of my hobbies – films and baking. To that end I will watch at least one new (for me) film every single week, either at home or the cinema. I might even bake something new too (what was that about less junk?!). A bit self indulgent – but I thought I’d pop a brief review of them all on here, as a record for me more than anything, but please (dis)agree if you would like to. If you have any suggestions of a film I should try and see – let me know in a comment or a tweet!

w/c Mon 16th March

The Book of Life

A very enjoyable animation, based around a teacher explaining the stories behind the Day of the Dead to some students in a museum. Thoughtfully put together, very funny, and some wonderful music. Highly recommended.

Twelve Monkeys

I guess we could say ‘well its Gilliam, what do you expect?’ A rich, fast-moving, engaging sci-fi thriller which, for me, missed the mark slightly. Bruce Willis travels back from 2017 to discover what caused a virus which destroyed 99% of the human race, forcing the rest to move underground. Viewed with some suspicion, he winds up in a mental hospital with the fantastic Brad Pitt. The story rattles along, and would probably benefit from being seen again, but I wasn’t a huge fan, and don’t think it lives up to Brazil or, latterly, the Zero Theorem.

w/c Mon 9th March

Big Hero 6

This is fantastic, and is one of the best animations I have seen in years, if not ever. Set in the beautifully constructed San Fransokyo, the story follows Hiro, a young tech genius who earns a place to study at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology – and his brother’s invention, Beymax, a robotic health care assistant. The story is engaging, funny, moving and fast-paced. The two main characters are wonderfully portrayed and have a series of fantastic scenes together. The animation is stunning, and everything about the film is a truly immersive experience. I implore you to go and see this at a cinema, as some of the visuals are truly mind-blowing on the big screen. This film has gone in to my top 3 of the year, above the Imitation Game. Not only that, I enjoyed it more than the Incredibles. Which is saying a lot. Balalalalala….


At just over 2 hours, it is too long. And for the first hour, there is too much running around and whooping from the ‘Dauntless’. Nonetheless, quite good fun, some good action scenes, and some decent special effects. I’m not target audience for this, and it is a little bit predictable, but certainly not dreadful and I would happily go and see the next one which will hit your screens this year, film fans.

w/c Mon 2nd March

Jupiter Ascending

This film is completely, totally, and endearingly bonkers. It isn’t very good by any usual standard, but it is very, very enjoyable. In short, Mila Kunis is a cleaner in Chicago who actually owns the Earth. She finds this out after one of three galatic heirs sends some space monsters to kill her, and she is saved by a wolf/human splicer (not the most odd splicer, of course – that is Sean Bean’s human/bee version). We then have a period of ‘Mila Kunis gets kidnapped by different folks and put on some wacky spaceships’ and various rescues and re-kidnaps. I’m not really sure what happened at the end, or how and why any of it happened. But it was all rather charming, and I certainly wasn’t bored.

Of Gods and Men

An advantage of listening back to the old ‘Wittertainment’ podcasts is that you get the chance to catch up on films that you didn’t see at the time. This, from 2010, is a very moving piece of work. A French-made film, it follows a group of monks in an Algerian monastery in the mid-90s. The portrayed events are true, and are shot in a wonderfully quiet and intense fashion. Religious imagery (unsurprisingly) in present throughout as the cast battle with forces both spiritual and actual. A hugely emotional set-piece at the end, where nothing is said, but everything is visible gives way to a moving finale. I recommend you find, and watch, this stunning film as soon as you can.

w/c Mon 23rd February


The Oscar-winning documentary for this year follows the events of the Edward Snowden affair of a couple of years ago. Suffice to say, this should be viewed by everyone who gets the chance. Very well put together, engrossing (and quite worrying), the journalists behind it have done an excellent job.

Silver Linings Playbook

Finally, I’ve caught up with this. And I am so pleased that I did. A wonderful little picture, centred around 3 fantastic, Oscar nominated performances from Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. Dealing with topics of mental health, superstition, love, loss and (ahem) football, all wrapped up within a rom-com (just) is quite a lot in under 2 hours, but this film does so admirably. At times funny, often serious, and in one fantastic set-piece entirely wacky, this is one of the best films I have seen so far this year, and I would highly recommend you seek it out – even if (like me), you are not a fan of the ‘rom-com’ genre.

w/c Mon 16th February

The American The main problem here is that it wasn’t In Bruges. There were so many similarities (set in Europe, main character in hiding, falling for a local, excellent shots of scenery, guns, dodgy character at the end of a phone line, final shootout in a crowded area of town, Thekla Reuten) that I just kept being reminded of Martin McDonagh’s excellent picture from 2008. Sure, this isn’t as violent, as funny, as dark, as independent. And this also forms part of the problem. It wasn’t bad, but it just wasn’t as good as it could have been.


One of Chris Nolan’s earlier works, and some familiar features for those of us who have almost seen his canon in reverse (time as an enemy, the nature of memory, interweaving story/time lines). This picture, following the attempts of a husband to avenge the murder of his wife, whilst being unable to store any ‘new’ memories, was very slick, witty and engaging. Good performances with a good script and excellent editing meant a very well-made film, which I probably need to see again to fully appreciate.

Pay It Forward

A bit too obvious, a bit too saccharin, a bit too cheesy. Not really a fan of this I’m afraid, despite the best efforts of Spacey and Hunt.

w/c Mon 9th February

The Mangler Useless. Dreadful story, dreadful acting, dreadful effects.

The Boxtrolls

Finally, I caught up with this wonderful little picture having missed it on 2 goes round the local cinemas. I am a huge animation fan anyway, and this was a fantastic film, full of wit, charm, suspense and humour. It may have been slightly predictable, but this didn’t detract from a brilliant animated movie, with an excellent voice cast and endearing characters. It could easily pick up the Oscar for best animated movie, particularly as the LEGO Movie isn’t involve. (I’d have the Boxtrolls slightly ahead anyway!)

w/c Mon 2nd February


This is an amazing film. You must go and see it. I have a (slight) vested interest here: I play the drums. But this isn’t really about drums (even though the drumming in it is brilliant). It is almost a war movie, and JK Simmons’ sergeant is one of the most disturbing (and wonderful) characters I have seen in cinema in the last few years. Great performances from Simmons and Miles Teller, and superb direction from Damien Chazelle. This should win awards. Simmons will win an Oscar. And from what I’ve seen, there should be a few more statues winging their way towards this film, the best I have seen in the last 12 months.

Hard Eight

Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film is a bit of an unknown gem. A slick film-noir thriller, starring Philip Baker Hall and John C Reilly, and set around the casinos of Las Vegas, this is really worth looking up. Excellent performances are produced by the whole cast (including a brief appearance by Philip Seymour Hoffman) and it moves along a pace. Quite enthralling.

w/c Mon 26th January

Alter Egos A perfectly acceptable, endearing little (under 1h20) comedy. A bit like a live-action version of The Incredibles (nowhere near that good, though) in which the super heroes have fallen out of favour, and need to find a way of being accepted. Some quirky performances from the 3 leads, and a nice little twist to keep me interested at the end.

Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

This is very, very good (as you’ve probably read or seen for yourself!). Some genuinely excellent performances, perhaps more so from Emma Stone and Edward Norton than Michael Keaton (although it is a great performance from Keaton). It moves along quickly, and is thought-provoking, funny and endearingly quirky. The in-one-take-but-not-really works well (except the in and out of the screen bit) if being a little bit ‘hey look how clever we are’ and the visuals are rich and engaging throughout. Not as good as tGBH, but still one of the better films of the last 12 months. The drums though. The drums.

Aguirre, Wrath of God

An introduction to Werner Herzog, after it being named TV film of the week by Mark Kermode. I imagine a lot has been written about this far more eloquently than I can manage, but it was dark, comedic, absorbing and very interesting. Thanks Dr K, I think I will seek out more of Herzog in the weeks to come!

w/c Mon 19th January

The Zero Theorem

Finally caught up with Terry Gilliam’s recent sci-fi offering. It is (as expected) quite surreal, and has some very good performances throughout. I’m not convinced it is Gilliam’s greatest offering, but enjoyable nonetheless.

Into The Woods

Some funny princes. And some decent songs. A couple of half-laughs. A good Emily Blunt, but an out-of-depth James Corden. Average

w/c Mon 12th January

Before I Go To Sleep I quite liked this. I hadn’t read the book, so guess I came to it not really knowing what to expect (which was the same as when I saw Gone Girl, which I think added something to the enjoyment I got). The central performances were good, the plot moved along quickly (it is under 90 mins) and the twists were enough to provide a suitable amount of intrigue. Enjoyable, and worth seeing.


Now. I realise I’m not ‘target audience’. But this was not a good film.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

This weeks second Liev Schrieber film was much better than the first! A very engaging, thought-provoking film with some strong performances. A second political thriller for this week, but this is well worth seeing.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

I really don’t know what to make of this. Whilst quite liking the whole ‘exposing a mega corporation’ theme, I just found the whole thing rather silly. Which probably isn’t the point! Denzel Washington was good, without being great, and quite a lot of questions seemed to be left hanging, rather than ever really being addressed. Not very impressed.

w/c Mon 5th January

The LEGO Movie

EVERYTHING IS AWESOME! This is a very enjoyable, endearing and funny film. A great cast of voice actors, and the twist near the end is very very well done indeed. Easily passed the 5 laugh test, a real treat.

Captain Phillips

Hmmmm. A little bit predicatable. Some clever shooting to build tension and a sense of claustrophobia, but without a very good performance from Tom Hanks this would have been distinctly average. He made it watchable, but not something I would recommend anyone rushes to see.

w/c Mon 29th December

The Imitation Game

This is, quite simply, a wonderful piece of cinema. The account of the role Turing played in WW2 is one which is well known now, through books such as ‘Enigma’ by Robert Harris. This was not an issue, however. I was gripped from start to finish by wonderful performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightly and others (including Tywin Lannister…). The movement between 3 periods of Turing’s life was seamless and very well managed, and a sombre reminder of the brutality with which homosexual men were treated until very recently was very moving. I expect a large number award nominations to be winging their way towards the cast and crew – they will be much deserved.