Fri 12th Dec 2014

A busy term draws to a close

small-thumbnailSo, another very busy term draws to an end and much has been achieved at the Religious Education Council as Christmas approaches.

For the first time we decided that the REC should send a Christmas card to people outside our organisation who have given us support this year, including MPs, and who better to design one than the Young Ambassadors?  The winning entry came from the Venerable Bede School in Sunderland and we congratulate them on their very clever design which incorporates a wide range of religious symbols and a message of peace.

Young Ambassadors up and down the country have been very active this term: in November a visual presentation by Broughton School was shown at the RE Council meeting in Harrow and four groups of YAs attended a day conference at which one of our patrons, Sara Pascoe, was the key speaker, exploring the question of humour and religion. In my role as a YA ‘buddy’, I visited St Mary’s CE Middle School in Belford in Northumberland and met some very keen young people who are the youngest, most recent and most northerly of our ambassadors.

Other events involving young people and the RE Council have been in collaboration with the Inter Faith Network UK, one of our member organisations. The launch of Inter Faith Week 2015, Young Voices, Young Agents for Change, included the involvement of Redbridge’s Faith Ambassadors  and  young speakers  from Scotland.  Earlier in the term, IFN had also organised a conference relevant to RE in Birmingham on ‘Hard Issues’. I was pleased to be able to give a short presentation at both of those events.

I’ve been busy speaking at other conferences too. For the first time, a joint conference was organised by AREIAC and NASACRE addressing the complex question of the ‘Trojan Horse’ issue in schools. The conference was very oversubscribed and it is planned that it will run again in the Spring, evidence that this is a difficult question, affecting many teachers (and therefore SACREs) and  that there is a need for space to learn, analyse and reflect on the allegations, the evidence and the impact that this is having on our schools. In my paper, I acknowledged that everybody there had their own views and experiences – many with far more relevant and immediate experience than I have.  I tried, therefore, to look at some of the deeper questions and the context in which this has arisen. The ‘Trojan Horse’ is an example of the way in which religion has become part of mainstream educational  (and therefore political) discourse and how ill-equipped so many people are to deal with it.  The lack of religious literacy among adults, including those who make confident public announcements, is worrying. Grace Davie in her important book, Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without belonging, bemoaned the ‘lamentable quality of conversation about religion, just when we need it more than ever’ – and that was written in 1994!  The lack of a National Lead for RE at Ofsted, since Alan Brine’s retirement is also of serious concern to us and, along with colleagues in other organisations, we will press for an appointment to be made.

As always, the RE Council has worked in collaboration with ministers and civil servants.  I have written before about the huge amount of work undertaken by Deborah Weston, Chair of our Qualifications Committee, in relation to the criteria for examinations in religious studies. The dates for the close of consultation on those documents are drawing close  (29 December  and 5 January) and we do urge everyone to make their own responses.  The RE Council’s response to the draft examination criteria and the Ofqual consultation will be available on this website soon. One of the key areas of debate has been the place of Humanism in examination courses but there are many other areas for consideration as well and some important questions to be asked about both content and assessment.

One consequence of the new examinations will be the need for professional development for teachers to help equip them to meet the challenges of these new courses and this is a matter we have raised with ministers and civil servants.  My general view is that the DfE understands the importance of RE and wants to give support; we look forward to receiving it.

With an eye to ensuring our voice is heard across the political spectrum, Andrew Copson (one of our Trustees) and I had a meeting with Kevin Brennan, the shadow education minister who had visited our stand at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester.  It was an opportunity to put RE on his radar more clearly and, again, there was support for the subject and a shared concern about the recruitment and retention of teachers.

Political questions, of course, go beyond the practicalities of support and funding – as important as they are. Current guidance on existing legislation is out of date already: our last iteration was in 2010, done in collaboration with the Department, but there is a need for urgent updating now.  This is a matter we have raised formally with civil servants and we have submitted a costed plan on how it can be achieved.  But there is a larger question too. Our manifesto for all the party conferences included the need for a review of the current legal settlement for RE and this is a question we must begin to address seriously. I would guess that there has never been a time when issues relating to so-called ‘faith schools’ and to the place of religion in community schools have been more vociferously and widely debated, while the school system becomes ever more complex and fragmented, and SACREs struggle to fulfill their statutory responsibilities.  It is generally believed that there is no political appetite for changing the law on RE and we have generally accepted that to be the case.  Perhaps it’s time for change.  This, and other big questions, will be part of the REC’s ‘theory of change’ process which is looking to the future, with a vision of what that future will be and how it can be secured. This will be the key task facing members of the current Board and its newly elected members when we have an away-day in June. 

And talking of the Board, we are delighted that Dave Francis, already a member of the Board, was elected as Deputy Chair at the November Council meeting, replacing Helen Harrison who will be standing down at Easter (though not leaving us entirely, I’m glad to say).  Helen has served the Council with immense energy and enthusiasm and we are deeply grateful to her for all her work, not least with the Young Ambassadors, an area of our work that is very close to her heart.

With very best wishes for a peaceful Christmastide and New Year.