Mon 01st Sep 2014

A time of transition

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This is my first blog, and not just as the new Chair of the REC!

I would like to begin by paying a very warm tribute to John Keast who has led the Council for the last three years with skill, courtesy and courage and thus I am about to chair an organisation that is now stronger than ever before, working with more people than ever before and in a better position to promote effective RE in schools and colleges. We have also said our farewells to Prof. Trevor Cooling who has not only been an exceptional and prudent Treasurer, he has contributed wisely to the work of the Council as a whole. I am delighted that Rosemary Rivett has been elected to serve in Trevor’s place: already she is showing her mettle and I am confident that our finances will be safe in her very capable hands.

Soon, there will be other changes upon us. Helen Harrison will cease to be the deputy chair and at the end of the academic year Deborah Weston will complete her term of office as Secretary. I have said that I am willing to serve for this year only, as a stop-gap, and so a new Chair will have to be elected in May. I hope that all these posts will arouse considerable interest across our member organisations.  

We are also losing Alan Brine HMI as our subject lead at Ofsted – another very good friend to the REC – and we wish Alan well in retirement. Our curriculum link at the DfE, Paul Adams, is being moved within the department and we welcome instead Gillian Machin with whom John and I have already had a very cordial meeting. 

A huge change for the REC will be Sarah Smalley’s departure at the end of this term when we will lose an Executive Officer of extraordinary ability and commitment. At its last meeting the Board took the courageous decision to make two changes: to appoint a full-time member of staff and to create the role of Chief Executive Officer, a post is about to be advertised.  I believe that these changes will have a very positive impact on the Council and will enable us to work more effectively with our member organisations and with politicians, civil servants and the media.

And so, this is a year of many changes and a transition from being an organisation that has relied (too) heavily on its Chair and has been constrained by lack of resources in its operations.  I see this year as a time for creative and innovative thinking about the shape, structure and purpose of the Council, its roles and responsibilities, its internal and external relationships and its effectiveness.  I hope to be able to hand on to the next Chair an organisation that has grown in strength and that has begun to re-invent itself to face the future.

Oh for a crystal ball to see what that future is going to look like!  By the time my successor takes over, there will have been a general election and we must be ready to work with whichever party/ies are in power.  The Council is being represented at the three major party conferences this Autumn – another brave and innovative step, led by our Public Relations committee. We need friends across the political spectrum if we are to have our voice heard and to influence policy – and much influencing needs to be done!  We have many challenges in the foreseeable future, including teacher training, recruitment and retention and in improving the confidence and competence of the current work force to make RE the rigorous and relevant subject it should be for all young people. And we still have much work to do through our own strategic plan and following up the recommendations of the RE Review and the APPG reports. Our various committees are going to be very busy in the coming months.

This summer has seen some successes for RE: more students sat full course Religious Studies (282,099 of them) than History or Geography, an increase in entries of nearly 7%.  That made us sixth in the top-ten subject league table, beaten only by English, Maths and Sciences. How wonderful is that! And this isn’t a flash in the pan – there has been a steady and consistent rise over the last few years. We are the only subject that can claim that. 

Of course, that is only part of the story because we saw a massive decline in short course entries by around 50,000 in England. The picture in Wales is very different where short course has remained stable and the reasons for this are fairly obvious.  Examinations generally are taking up a great deal of time as members of the Qualifications Committee work on the subject criteria in readiness for public consultation this month. In particular, we owe Deborah Weston who has chaired the committee a huge debt of gratitude for her painstaking work on the draft documents. This is on-going as I write and the criteria are subject to considerable political scrutiny, of course.

It is an honour and a privilege to take over chairing the REC and I am very much looking forward to its challenges and to working with our member organisations and our committees to promote the subject we all believe constitutes an essential and valuable part of young people’s education.