If there’s one subject that’s likely to knock the confidence of a non-specialist teacher, it’s Religious Education. Its sheer breadth, depth and ongoing diversification make it a challenge to fully understand in order to teach it with meaning and purpose. It’s not just the diversity between religions, but within them too, that adds to the subtleties that need to be conveyed to children at even the earliest of ages and stages, so that they gain subject knowledge and understanding of this demonstrably significant element of human experience.
Approximately 86% of the global population is religious. If the children we teach are to understand the world they live in, having high quality Religious Education is a part of that process, and ongoing subject knowledge development for specialists and non-specialists alike has to take priority.
Andy Lewis, Assistant Head Teacher and Director of Religious Education at St Bonaventure’s at Forest Gate in London, knows only too well the need for teachers to access high quality professional learning to improve subject knowledge. “The new GCSEs and A Levels have only added to this demand” he told me. “I ran the London RE Hub events in 2016 and 2017 and they had over 120 delegates from all over the UK in attendance from as far afield as Pembrokeshire and Cumbria. Many teachers have struggled with the new qualifications as they have found the subject knowledge a challenge, in particular if they are non-specialists or non-RS graduates. It can be amazing who ends up teaching RE!”
In addition to the London and other regional RE Hub events, there have also been a few grassroots events, for example Chris Giles (@sbhsrs) ran one at South Bromsgrove High where faith experts and teachers were brought together to help develop subject knowledge.
Developing knowledge and skills in order better to teach GCSEs and A Levels is just one part of the picture. RE is a compulsory part of the curriculum for all children in full time education, but it sits outside the national curriculum. Schools use locally agreed syllabuses, but as Andy Lewis explains, “there are possibly 150 odd different curricula being used, and academies and free schools need a curriculum, but not necessarily their local one. This creates a real problem for RE CPD.”
In addition to the vast range of RE syllabuses in use for children in full time education, the lack of specialists teaching those age groups and the low priority given to RE in some schools is problematic, not just for children, but for those doing initial teacher education too. While trainees may receive a limited number of hours of education devoted to RE on their courses, while on their placements in schools many report not seeing much RE in action at all. Not surprisingly, we often hear that teachers lack the confidence to teach RE effectively. As Andy Lewis explains, “There are some amazing primary RE specialists out there, doing great things, but some schools are doing very little and, like at secondary level, confusing it with PHSE, Citizenship and British Values.”
Many questions remain outstanding for RE in our schools. Can the locally agreed syllabuses be justified any longer or would we be better served by a national curriculum for RE? There’s no doubt that this issue and more must inform the CPD that teachers access for RE, but we still need to explore the bigger picture. Lat Blaylock, National RE Adviser, RE Today explains that, “Both secondary and primary teachers of RE love coming to the courses and conferences RE Today and NATRE offer because they are starved of up-to-date ideas for making questions about religion and belief accessible to young people. As patterns of religious understanding change, teachers of RE deserve the opportunity to be updated. The DfE supports some subjects with bursaries and initiatives costing millions of pounds. If they care about religious literacy and inter faith cohesion, they should do the same for RE.”
RE Today provides subject specific CPD tailored for both primary and secondary teachers of RE. Primary courses range from ‘Help! I am the RE Subject Leader’, ‘Practical Primary RE’, to ‘Teaching three religions’. For those who struggle to get out of the classroom RE Today also hosts online webinars after school hours. The next primary webinar is on ‘Meaningful and manageable assessment for RE in the primary school’.
Secondary courses include ‘The RE Update: a day course for every secondary RE teacher’, ‘Understanding Christianity’, ‘GCSE RS renewed’, and the next online webinar for secondary teachers is ‘Handling key Christian concepts for GCSE’.
Membership of NATRE offers schools on a limited the chance to get significant discounts on RE Today’s CPD training as well as its termly magazine and curriculum book, RE Adviser support, access to over 1000 RE resources, and discounts on publications among others. Packages start from £75 for the year. Find out here.
Great quality professional learning for teachers of RE is increasingly available and can transform teaching. In a subject that can suffer from lack of focus and clarity, the need for a commitment to ongoing development on an institutional as well as individual level has arguably never been greater.
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– Higher Education Institutions often offer subject specific CPD for teachers in the locality and beyond. For example, the University of Winchester Department of Theology, Religion and Philosophyis providing subject booster sessions for Winchester PGCE students and also for A level teachers, specific to exam board specifications. This year the focus is Christianity and ethics and next year the focus will be non-Christian religions.
– RE Today/NATRE host training with their ‘big day’ being Strictly RE in January
– All of RE Today’s course can be found here
– Candle Conferences un both student and teacher days – lead by Peter and Charlotte Vardy (and guest lecturers)
– Commission on RE Report
– Teach: RE courses are for primary and secondary teachers and those who plan to start initial teacher education. They focus on RE’s rationale, pedagogical approaches and subject knowledge.
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.