Leading and managing RE in the primary school
What does R.E. look like in the classroom?
Where does its value lie?
What content and skills should be taught?
These are all questions which are shrouded in uncertainty. In fact, it appears the more you learn about the theories and frameworks developed to support the teaching of RE the less certainty there is about which one to follow.
Issues in teaching primary RE
Most teachers consider RE a ‘high risk’ subject with a wide number of well-meaning, but highly opinionated stake holders eager to ensure RE represents their own view: from Humanists, to religious groups, to parents with deeply held beliefs, to children who consider any questioning of their belief system intolerable. Many professionals are wary to upset these groups and individuals by challenging the status quo. As a result, beyond the national statutory framework for RE, these matters are agreed locally. Each council has risen, or not, to these challenges in their own way by producing an Agreed Syllabus, which must be followed, regardless of how vague and broad its coverage.
This killer combination of uncertainty and insecurity, results in a very conservative approach to teaching RE rooted in rote learning of facts and stories, supplemented by art and craft activities. It is in this climate that, as I recently noted, completing a giant word search of Hindu terms and making lamps saying “I have learnt about Divali” are cited as best practice! It appears that children are not being taught the skills to raise their level of performance in RE, as described in the national documentation. A further complication, is that in an increasingly secular society, teachers often lack the will as well as the skill to improve the provision of RE. The phrases ‘RE often falls off the end of the timetable’ or ‘we won’t do RE this week’ are ones which I am certain many primary school teachers have heard before.
As a result of all this, RE requires strong leadership, as opposed to competent management. Making a difference often requires more than resource (human and material) management, but a vision for the future. In this article, I briefly outline how I have done this in my school. These measures have been aimed at raising the standard of RE outcomes throughout the school, through a skills based approach and ensuring the R.E. takes its place at the centre of the curriculum.
Linking RE and other subjects and curriculum planning
In recent primary curriculum reviews, discrete subject areas such as history, geography, science etc. have been grouped into areas of learning (combining subjects which belong to the same family). The Rose report, recognised the effectiveness of cross-curricular learning in the primary phase as effectively demonstrated in the foundation curriculum.
Cross-curricular RE is often considered impossible. However, I disagree. In our four and three year rolling program, I have matched the areas of study as dictated by the county to find the best-fit with the termly topics covered by each key stage, ensuring the areas of study are evenly spread throughout each year and the four years. Through an examination of what is required in each area of study, related religious subject matter, what our children are interested in and what values are at the heart of our school’s ethos, I have generated topics, which fit the termly topics all other subjects conform to (with the exception of PE).
Further considerations, which needed to be weighed in, were the percentage of time to be allocated to different religions and the arrangement of topics with religious festivals throughout the year. As a C of E VA school our percentage split has to be 70% Christian coverage and 30% other religions. Previously the school has allocated one half term a year to another religion (Judaism and Sikhism at KS2), I have spread the coverage of ‘other religions’ more evenly through each year in order to allow children to do direct comparison between religions more frequently and meaningfully as required by the level descriptors. Examples of such topic and RE scheme combinations include:
- Victorians – How does the work of Victorian Christian philanthropists such as Dr. Barnardo inspire us to deal with the poverty of children today?
- Germs, Germs, Germs – ‘Can we ever be clean? (Baptism and environmental issues) Some topics have required a little more creativity than others, but now R.E. is rooted within the curriculum so that connections can be made between subjects to raise performance in each.
The benefit of enshrining the connections between key stage topic, religious subject matter and taught disposition in a four year rolling program, are that teachers delivering RE in each key stage are required to make the links described within it.
Values and skills
In the above section, I talked about the teaching of values through RE This idea is fundamental to the approach taken in the latest Birmingham Agreed Syllabus for RE where a broad selection of dispositions are listed as part of the curriculum. How these dispositions are to be taught is up for debate, but the identification of them makes the selection of subject matter less daunting. In accordance with my headteacher’s wishes and the Christian ethos of the school, the values/dispositions have been taken from the Christian Values for Schools Website produced by The National Society. Other schools who have adopted this approach have undergone whole school and community consultation on what values and dispositions are important to the community. In this way RE can be truly locally agreed and made relevant to the purpose of the school.
Similarly RE has been a flagship subject championing and promoting the teaching of thinking skills. This whole school initiative has included the embedding the use of De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, Hyerle’s Thinking Maps and the use of Bloom’s Taxonomy to raise expectations as to the level of thinking the children are taught and expected to demonstrate in all lessons. This has dovetailed with a whole-staff approach to developing awareness of what different levels in RE actually look like: what skills children at the end of KS1 and KS2 should be demonstrating the ability to do. During a whole staff INSET, teachers and teaching assistants were required to identify the differences between each of the level descriptors for both AT1 and AT2 and begin to level a selection of exemplar work.
The expectation is that the necessary thinking skills to achieve these levels need to be taught and practiced in each RE lesson and that the children can demonstrate these abilities both orally and in writing. Often this involves the teaching of connectives and conjunctions such as ‘whereas,’ ‘because’ and ‘despite.’ Although what children can write often lags behind what they can demonstrate orally, the process of using and applying their knowledge and understanding through creating a piece of written work for defined purpose embeds their learning in their memory and improves their literacy skills. In order to strengthen cross-curricular links and improve the quality and quantity written for RE assessment tasks, these have been conducted in the morning, during literacy time as one of each class’s Big Writes (assessment tasks).
As a result of unpicking what skills are required to achieve different levels of RE performance, success ladders have been produced to aid children in assessing their own work in RE. The generation of an assessment task, which allows children to demonstrate the requisite skills to provide evidence for a level takes practice! In order to get Primary School children to answer complex ‘essay’ questions, I have taken the following steps to scaffold the children’s learning. When planning, I have encouraged staff to work backwards from the assessment task, by identifying what sub-questions the children would need to answer in order to answer the question in detail and demonstrate a sufficient number of skills to demonstrate a level.
These questions can then be used to work out what needs to be covered in the unit. So far I have provided the children these sub-questions, which I have dubbed “invisible questions” because they are not included by the children. I hope to push upper Key Stage 2 to a stage where they are generating these questions for themselves. There is a danger that this assessment led approach impacts on the breadth of study, but the corresponding depth of study has reaped many rewards so far. Teachers need to be aware of the breadth of coverage expected in the National Framework and Agreed Syllabus, in order to strike some sort of balance.
Monitoring and assessment
The expectation of a demanding end of term assessment task to be completed by each class provides some assessment data and each teacher with a target to aim for. Further systems of monitoring children’s progress and the quality of delivery of RE in both key stages can be completed using the following mechanisms:
- termly book scrutinies (open staff meetings looking at the progress across the school in all RE work)
- peer mentoring (staff observing each other to help one another develop an area of their teaching and to share good practice)
- co-ordinator observations
- pupil interviews
- keeping a schemes of work file in which all planning for RE is collated
- the use of staff INSET’s to develop teachers understanding of best practice in R.E.
A dedicated week for the teaching of RE can prove useful in order to ensure sufficient coverage of R.E. in the curriculum and as a way of raising the profile of RE in your school.
The extent to which these systems of control can be rolled out in your school will depend on the eagerness of your staff and the level of support you have from your headteacher. If the staff are not particularly enthusiastic and the headteacher is not willing to enshrine these or your own ideas as school policy, then an alternative approach will be required. Your job will be to make the teaching of high quality RE easier for your fellow staff by making the tough decisions as I outlined in designing the rolling program and then to go even further by providing the necessary resources, examples and opportunities for staff to consult you on their planning.
These are only my experiences of what works in my primary school. Your school may have more to contend with or a different concept of what RE should look like in the classroom. However, the two most important things are to know what quality RE outcomes looks like and to know what would make RE relevant to your school community.