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7 July 2022
By Anthony Cosans - Improvement Adviser

Time for a REthink?

Estimated Reading Time - 9 minutes

In October 2013, Ofsted published its report ‘Religious education: realising the potential. This report was based on evidence that had been drawn from 185 schools that were visited by the inspectorate between September 2009 and July 2012. The report also took account of a telephone survey of 30 additional schools, available examination results, other reports commissioned and published by Ofsted, extended discussions with teachers, members of SACRE (Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education), other RE professionals and wider surveys undertaken by professional associations for RE.

The conclusions of the report were of no surprise to many,

“…evidence from the majority of schools visited for this survey shows that the subject’s potential is still not being realised fully. Many pupils leave school with scant subject knowledge and understanding. Moreover, RE teaching often fails to challenge and extend pupils’ ability to explore fundamental questions about human life, religion and belief.”

More disturbing was the assertion in the report that in the three years since Ofsted had last undertaken a study into the nature and effectiveness of RE in the countries schools very little had been done to move teaching and learning forward. The earlier report from 2010 ‘Transforming religious education’, had highlighted several key barriers that prevent the development of better provision for RE in school and made several recommendations about how these should be overcome. Three years on and evidence clearly showed not enough had been done and that in the main, locally based structures that underpin the determination of the RE curriculum had failed to keep pace with changes in the wider educational world.

This report is now almost a decade ago and aside from the detailed research review document for religious education published in May 2021 there has been no gathering of evidence on the quality of RE in primary and secondary schools at a national level by the inspectorate. However, in their publication ‘Religion and Worldviews: the way forward. A national plan for RE’ by the Commission on Religious Education the conclusion is that evidence suggests

“…there has been little positive change in the past five years and that the situation has got worse in some areas.”

So, with the increased focus on curriculum in the Ofsted Inspection framework and the possibility that Religious Education could be an area that is selected as the focus of a deep dive, what should schools be asking themselves to make sure that the provision for RE in our schools stands up to scrutiny and goes someway to fulfilling the aims and ambitions of the Kent Agreed Syllabus?

What is Our Curriculum Like?

Do we provide an RE curriculum that reflects the vision, values, context and pedagogic approaches of the school? Is RE aligned to the approaches that are undertaken in other subjects covered in the wider curriculum? Do we as a school make sure that the approaches to good quality first teaching that we expect in English, Mathematics, History and so on are equally applied and expected in the delivery of RE?

Is the curriculum content aligned to the context the school finds itself in whilst also maintaining the aspirations and expectations of the agreed syllabus?

The Ofsted research Review document produced by Ofsted on RE makes it clear that the RE curriculum should set out what it means to ‘get better’ at the subject as pupils move through the journey of the curriculum. This may seem like it goes without saying but from a brief internet search of school websites it becomes clear that the same level of attention to detail around the sequence of learning and end points that is afforded to the range of subject areas is not always replicated in RE. The entitlement that children have in each year group/phase is not always detailed in the same way as it is in other areas and it is not always clear what is going to be taught and when, for example by the end of Year 3 we expect all children to have and understanding of these concepts that clearly build on the work and learning that they experienced in Year 2 and lay a solid foundation for moving into Year 4. This includes how you intend to enrich the curriculum with eg visitors, extracurricular clubs, specific experiences designed to develop knowledge and cultural capital for your children.

In short, a consideration of how your curriculum has been designed is essential if you want to ensure that there is high quality RE that will stand up to scrutiny. Has it been designed to make sure that there is:

  • Clear and shared vision for RE in the school?
  • Reflection of the ambition and scope of the Agreed Syllabus?
  • Relevance to the school’s context?
  • Identification of the key principles, knowledge, vocabulary and skills?
  • Evidence informed pedagogy and approach for the subject?
  • Scope for clear learning and progress for all, including a consideration of provision for vulnerable groups especially SEND?
  • Acknowledgement of the importance of retrieval opportunities for long term memory?
  • Opportunity for step-by step building on prior learning?
  • A consideration of the development of cultural capital?
  • A clear rationale that has been communicated to all including parents?

How Do We Deliver This Curriculum?

Having a well sequenced and progressive curriculum is a huge part of providing effective RE but is it only one part of the process. The way in which the curriculum is delivered is of equal importance to the curriculum itself. There is no point in a school having the most impressive curriculum that is supported by clear rationales and documents that detail key principles, knowledge, vocabulary and skills if they it isn’t what is actually delivered. Implementation of the curriculum is essential and with this comes some more things for schools and school leaders to consider.

Is the correct amount of time given over to the teaching of RE? Who delivers the subject – is it impacted significantly by routine arrangements for class cover for things such as PPA? Do teachers have the correct level of subject knowledge and resourcing to deliver the requirements of the curriculum? Is there an enthusiasm to teach the subject or is it the area that is left every week until everything else has been covered? Are there relevant links made to other areas of the curriculum to enhance and develop the provision for RE?

The best place to start a consideration of how we deliver the curriculum is to give some thought to how long we give over to the teaching of RE and how close this comes the recommendations that are made for the time spent learning in the subject. It would appear there is a common misconception around the time we should be spending engaged in RE and that this time does not include in the requirements for a collective act of worship which has its own regulations and recommendations.

Simply put children in the Early Years Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1 are recommended to be receiving 36 hours per year of RE. A simple calculation will bring the swift realisation that equates to an hour each week of the school year. This then rises as children enter Key Stage 2 to 45 hours per year which equates to 75 minutes per week. In reality for large numbers of our schools in the UK this is not the case and children are not being exposed to the quantity of RE that is recommended. With the content of the Agreed Syllabus being based on this recommendation any curriculum that is designed will fall short of the ambitions of the syllabus if insufficient time is allocated to the coverage.

In the Ofsted report ‘Religious education: realising the potential’, one of the key areas that was identified for the poor provision that was evidence in RE in schools was recognised as being weaknesses in teachers’ understanding of the subject which in turn led to poor and fragmented curriculum planning and weak assessment practices. Taking these issues alongside the realisation that many schools give insufficient time to the coverage of the subject it becomes clear that the implementation of the RE curriculum lies at the heart of the work of the RE subject leader.

How Do We Support in RE?

The difficulty that is faced once these considerations are made is the one of the other key areas of weakness that Ofsted outlined in their reports – the quality of training and CPD for teachers to equip them to deliver the subject well. Ofsted discovered that

"In many of the primary schools visited, the senior leadership or RE subject leader acknowledged that the level of subject expertise among the staff was generally weak. Many of the teachers to whom inspectors spoke did not feel confident about teaching RE. They were often worried they might ‘say the wrong thing’ or were unsure about what they were trying to achieve in RE. Discussion with newly qualified or recently qualified primary teachers confirmed that very few had had any significant RE training during their initial training and sometimes had had little opportunity to teach RE in their placement schools".

To compound this issue further several Primary Headteachers openly acknowledged that because of a lack of confidence when it came to teaching RE, an increasing number of staff preferred to take their PPA during the time RE was taught thereby handing responsibility for the subject to a Higher Level Teaching Assistant or supply teacher. This creates a worrying picture especially considering the focus we could find is placed upon RE in the current Education Inspection Framework.

Ofsted went on to note that

"The evidence indicates a link between access to training in RE and the overall effectiveness of the subject, particularly in primary schools. In the majority of cases, this was directly linked to the capacity of the local authority to provide such training and support. In nearly every case where such support was not available, it had a direct and negative impact on the effectiveness of the teaching and subject leadership".

A decade further on and there appears to be little shift in the quality of support and effective CPD for teachers in this key area of curriculum provision that links so well to so many aspects of life in school be it SMSC (Social Moral Spiritual and Cultural education) or British Values, general values and ethos or tolerance respect and diversity. With this in mind, and all the evidence that is available on the need to raise the profile and develop the provision of RE in our schools, there has been a conscious move towards developing and designing some training that can be accessed through The Education People's Primary School Improvement Training Package to develop RE in our schools.

In the coming academic year, a range of support will be provided through this training package to help develop the subject knowledge of those delivering RE and to give some support to subject leaders to empower them better support their colleagues in driving this subject forward.

Is it time to ask yourself – is it time for a REthink?

About the Author

Anthony works as an Improvement Adviser within the Primary School Improvement Service, he has had 22 years experience in education and classroom teaching and 15 years successful and extensive leadership in a number of schools - Anthony understands the demands placed on the role of headteacher. He has led a number of schools with challenging circumstances to rapid school improvement and which the impact of his work has been noted by Ofsted in a number of inspections.

Anthony is passionate about promoting reading in schools and making sure children are encouraged to read high quality texts that enhance the development of reading for pleasure.