Leading and managing religious education in the special educational needs school

Joanna Grace

My name is Joanna Grace, I am the RE coordinator at Nancealverne school. Nancealverne is a school for students we severe and complex special needs. I joined the school in 2004 as an NQT. After a steep learning curve through my first year I was given the position of RE coordinator, perhaps in recognition of the enthusiasm I could bring to the subject, perhaps because it’s thought to be an easy task suitable for someone just out of their NQT year.

Role of the subject coordinator

Role of the subject coordinator

Coordinating RE at Nancealverne school is not an easy task! I am fortunate to be surrounded by a team of teachers with lots of experience and expertise, who are always ready to support me and any new initiatives I may dream up. However presenting something as diverse and sensitive as religion to a student base ranging 3 to 19 is always going to be a big challenge.

As RE coordinator it is my job to be on hand to any member of staff who needs support with the subject. I am also in charge of setting the long term planning for the subject across the school. We take our medium term plans from the Cornwall Agreed Syllabus. Teaching staff write their own short term plans. I monitor the subject across the school through observing lessons and looking at pupils work. I also track the P levels pupils are achieving in RE.

I regularly update the subject policy. I also audit and order resources to help to promote the subject. I am constantly trying to find faith visitors to come into school. I’m also keen to get other schools interested in working with us. I promote the subject as much as I can via the school website, in school through displays around the building and also on a designated notice board within the staffroom. RE is further promoted to visitors to the school through coffee table books available in reception.

Working with staff

Working with staff

Direction-2.jpg The teachers within Nancealverne are dedicated to their students and will always seek to get the best out of a subject for them, several teachers have religious qualifications. I’m ashamed to say I’m not one of them. In spite of this, I find boosting staff’s confidence in their own subject knowledge to be one of my greatest challenges. At first when I took on the role I misunderstood people’s reticence as a lack of subject knowledge. Having observed lessons and looked at the work done by pupils I can see this is not the case. RE is an unusual subject, in that people feel they ought to understand everything about it before venturing to say anything on a topic. We wouldn’t have such reluctance teaching maths, we are happy to pronounce that 2+2 is 4 well before we can decipher quadratic equations.

This is not the case in RE. It’s important for me not to be frustrated by this and to recognise that it comes from something wonderful, it comes from a deep respect in people for the subject, from them not wanting to get it wrong. I sometimes wonder if having someone unqualified like me lead the subject can inspire a ‘have a go’ attitude in people, because that’s all I’m doing. I’m having a go!

I am working with a staff base who already have a lot of knowledge and experience. I am not going to get the best out of them by telling them what to do, or even pretending I know best. Occasionally I use staff meetings to dish out gentle reminders about how important the teaching of RE is and how pertinent it is to our pupils.

Direction-2.jpgI am especially keen to get support staff on board as there can be the attitude that RE isn’t for ‘our’ pupils. It is a funny attitude to encounter in people who generally fight for the rights of ‘our’ pupils to have access to everything a pupil in a mainstream set up would have. Again, I have to recognise that this unfortunate attitude comes from a kind of respect for the subject. I find the best way to tackle it is to point out just how many life skills can be learnt through RE, this alone makes it one of the MOST relevant subjects for our pupils. However, it is also an attitude I’ve heard from mainstream friends, a PE teacher recently told me that his pupils see no point in either French or RE and it’s annoying for him when they have one of these lessons prior to his own, as they then arrive disgruntled and are hard to settle. I find it amazing that this sort of basic prejudice against the subject is able to survive in seemingly intelligent individuals.

At school I studied not French, but German, I also studied RE and all the other subjects you would expect. In my life so far I have had little need to know how to find a standard deviation, nor have I needed to be able to label the parts on a plant, my knowledge of Jane Eyre hasn’t had much airing either, and so on. I am not disputing the worth of any of these things, nor the subjects to which they are attached. No one would. But MFL and RE must fight for respect.

When I left school I went camping on the Isle of Wight, I met a German who has since become a life long friend, I remain bitterly ashamed of my lack of ability to speak German. At university I made friend with people from different religious backgrounds, people with whom I remain friends today. In the media, on the news, I hear about religion every day. Whether we are religious or not, a basic understanding of religion and religious people is essential in daily life in a way that no other subject can be. I have made attempts to highlight this with staff by commandeering a notice board within the staffroom and using it to paste up modern events with links to the RE curriculum. It is engaging for pupils if their teacher is talking about something they saw on TV the night before.

Resourcing RE and making it meaningful

Resourcing RE and making it meaningful

Direction-2.jpgAnother great problem I have encountered during my brief time coordinating the subject is a lack of truly useful resources. When flicking through educational catalogues I pass pages and pages of science resources, literacy resources and so on, I am lucky if a catalogue has a couple of pages dedicated to RE, some don’t have any. In the main, this problem and the problem of staff confidence are ones I’m sure every RE coordinator in every school encounters. However resources are particularly important within my setting where pupils at some level may be accessing the curriculum in a purely sensory way.

I want RE to be an engaging and meaningful experience for all pupils, whether they are functioning at the level of a grade A GCSE student, or at the level of a 3 month old baby. In order to ensure this happens within school, I need to provide staff with resources that offer meaningful sensory experiences to the pupils. Permit me to explain by way of a few examples: A great resource I purchased a few years ago was a puppet that folded inside out on itself to show the faces of Rama, Ravanna and Sita. It came as a prop to go with a book telling the story of Rama and Sita. If I were to use this puppet and story book to tell the story of Rama and Sita to my friend’s daughter she would sit wrapped up in the narrative and fascinated by the changing puppet. It’s a delightful resource. However if I use this same resource to tell the story to a student with limited sensory awareness, what will they get from it? They might hear my voice, this might give them reassurance of my presence. They might be able to see the puppet, but it’s quite small, not much of a sight experience really.
I could let them touch it, and it would feel the same as any cuddly toy they’d ever experienced. Yes I could use it with them, and yes I’d be telling the Rama and Sita story, and yes sharing that time together might be meaningful, might be a worthwhile RE experience. But in terms of the resource alone, did it really help me? If I gave it to other teachers would it inspire them? Sadly not.

Another resource that I purchased when I first started coordinating the subject were little plastic pictures of Hindu deities. Small and brightly coloured, they’d make a nice contribution to a class display. As a touch experience, they rate alongside the plastic moulding any toy comes wrapped in. Sight? They are bright, but they are small. They are also fragile, and would crack if handled wrongly.

Direction-2.jpg I am lucky enough to have money designated in the school budget each year ear marked for RE resources. During my first year as RE coordinator I bought everything from the catalogues that I thought might be useful. When in my second year I came to spend my allocated money I looked through the catalogues dolefully. I had already bought everything on offer. Since then I have generally opted for a ‘make it yourself’ approach and my budget has been spent in fabric shops and on things in supermarkets or music catalogues. I hope the novelty of some of the things I have created has motivated staff to have a go at doing something a bit different.

Resources I have generated include:

  • Sensory stories
  • Numinous tent
  • Costumes
  • Shadow theatre
  • How to dance RE