#REchatuk – How do we teach pupils to be literate about Christianity?

In advance of this evening’s #REchatuk discussion, I thought I would (briefly) pen my ideas on what we need to deliver to students so that they can be literate when studying and writing about Christianity. As ever, this is with secondary school students in mind.

Broadly speaking, I would make the study of Christianity much more knowledge-based that it is currently. I would have the following as a bare minimum:

1) Teachings and history

– Nature of God, including the Trinity and the characteristics attributed to God

– Creation, including an understanding of the Biblical account, and interpretations of this

– Jesus Christ, including key features of his life (as a minimum, birth, miracles, Sermon on the Mount, some knowledge of parables, death and resurrection)

– Importance of salvation, and the role of Jesus in this

– Importance of resurrection and the links to views on what happens after death

– The Bible and its contents (clearly not all of it, but some idea of the composition and contents)

– Split in Christianity, including formation of the Church of England

– Shared history with Judaism

2) Practice of Christianity

– Knowledge of forms of worship used by Christians

– The sacraments

– Role and importance of prayer (including the Lord’s prayer)

– The way in which belief can inform action, particularly linked to social justice and charity

– Use of the Bible/Church as sources of authority and guidance

3) Christianity in the modern world

– How core teachings inform attitudes towards issues (via a detailed case study or two, not a whistle-stop tour of many ethical issues)

– Major Christian churches, and differences between them

– Role of women in Christianity, controversy over female bishops

4) Philosophical/controversial issues (possibly, although this could be a bit of a luxury)

– Problem of evil and suffering, responses

– Science and religion, including evolution and creation

– Attitudes towards marriage

I am sure that there is a lot more that could be included, but this is what I would put into a KS3-4 curriculum were I to be starting from scratch!

Pedagogical thoughts from the ski trip

Skiing is hard (1)

As such, it is important that the students we take on ski trips are able to be taught how to do it in an effective way. Luckily, on the trip I returned from yesterday, this was (predominantly) the case. It has led me to ponder how the skiing lessons might translate to the classroom.

The top set:

We had one group of students who had all skied before, and they were placed into the ‘advanced’ group. They were itching to be taken straight to the harder slopes and to be allowed ‘just to ski’ (I assume they meant ‘just to ski as fast as they could’). Their instructor, however, had different ideas. Lots of little drills, repeated if done incorrectly filled the first couple of days. This caused a bit of grumbling from the students who didn’t (all) want to copy the instructor or practice these building blocks as they weren’t skiing fast! However, the instructor said ‘I’m not interested in today, I’m interested in day 6’ – seemingly suggesting he knew that repeating these drills wasn’t the most challenging, but was crucial for what was to follow.

I was really struck by this – we are often told that students need to be progressing onto more and more challenging work each lesson, or the students won’t be making progress. Yet here was a group who spent 2 days (12 hours!) doing things that they had done before. Surely that isn’t right? Well…by day 6 it absolutely was. All of the students finished the week skiing confidently on very tricky slopes, utilising the skills they had practiced until they mastered them earlier in the week.

Lessons we can take away – don’t worry about practicing the basics, even if it is seen as boring – it will help them in the long run. And don’t worry if the students are having a bit of a winge about repeating a task/skill; if mastering the skill will benefit them, make sure they can do it – it will give them the key to the tougher work to come later on.

Set 3:

One group had a teacher with a slightly different approach. This group had only had a brief introduction to skiing before, and were shown the basics on the first couple of days. The instructor, however seemed to be in a rush to get them up to the more tricky slopes, and once she did, was less interested in the continual development of skills, and more in getting on to progressively more tricky slopes as quickly as possible. Some students improved well (almost by working it out for themselves) but others didn’t have much confidence in what they can do at all, and rather than wanting to tackle trickier slopes, always took the option of an easier route when given.

Points to ponder – are we pushing students to quickly on to more challenging work before they are ready? Does this lead to students not even wanting to try it in case they can’t do it (more high risk on a ski slope than in a classroom, granted!)? Should we be more concerned with building up the basics than pushing for the hardest thing possible *all the time*, so that when we do tackle the tough work the students are ready to do so?

I should also add – the students all had a great time, and the benefits to them of a week like this go far beyond simply how good they got to be at skiing – looking forward to the next one already!

And one final thought…discovery learning might have a place, but it certainly isn’t on a ski slope!

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: http://bit.ly/17r0hE7

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: http://tdreboss.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/sacre-time-to-move-on-to-drive.html

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 (http://t.co/c1Y8hThQhH) 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?