The Baby in the Bathwater… Rejuvenating a primary Religion and Worldviews curriculum
I have come to think of our RE curriculum as my “baby”, something our team has nurtured. But lately, maybe that baby has been splashing about in a bath cluttered with far too many pointless plastic toys. Bear with me with this metaphor…
First, a little bit of context. I am a HLTA and I’ve been leading RE at our three-form entry Primary for about 10 years. Our Head Teacher took RE seriously, she took our HLTA subject development seriously and, perhaps most empowering, she takes me seriously (many HLTAs will understand the importance of being taken seriously). Before we took over RE as a PPA cover subject, our team were lucky enough to have three days of training with Mary Myatt on how to use the Suffolk Agreed syllabus to plan our curriculum and what good RE should look like. (Three days with Mary Myatt, these are the things RE dreams are made of right?)
This stood our team in good stead to throw out the dull worksheets and start from scratch with our curriculum planning. Not for us, an off-the-peg scheme, it was important that this was something we developed and planned from the bedrock. We built a curriculum with strong foundations, with a focus on Mary’s message that a great curriculum can be difficult and beautiful. As an RI school things were tough, as a new subject team, things were tough. We made mistakes along the way, but, through CPD, network engagement and connecting with faith groups in development projects, we grew in subject knowledge and classroom confidence. Once established, we used the REQM criteria
http://www.reqm.org/achieving-the-award/how-to-apply to build a three year plan of improvement. In 2016 we earned the Gold REQM. We are a cracking team and we have worked hard to ensure what happens in our RE lessons is high quality.
Hard slog. So why, given how good we knew our curriculum to be, bother with a rewrite? Maybe because what was considered best practice 10 years ago, is not now visionary enough. Times change, maybe more so in a subject where we are reflecting on the people and society around us, a society whose worldviews are in a constant state of flux (just think how your worldview has been influenced by recent events). This is a problem I have seen in a number of schools, where effort may have been put in to initial curriculum development, but nothing has been looked at since, nothing updated, nothing developed and the plans have been passed on like Chinese Whispers, until the deliverer of a “scheme” has no background knowledge or investment in the learning.
The more I developed my subject knowledge, and witnessed the opportunities others were offering in their lessons (not just RE), the more I questioned the why of what I was teaching. Over the last few years I have been asking myself, and my team, a lot of questions about our RE curriculum. We began with moving away from the old “learning from” AT2 with a greater emphasis on philosophical questioning. We considered the recommendations of the CoRE report – the name change to Religion and Worldviews, appealed to our team and our learners. I know there is much debate on “what’s in a name?”, but for us, moving from the verb “religious” to the noun form “religion” is transformative. One thing I have always been sure of (but perhaps parents misconceive): we are NOT teaching children how to be religious.
I love edutwitter – in it I find nuggets of wisdom and debate that encapsulate my sometimes incoherent thoughts, I bookmark a lot of things, then go away and dig deeper until things crystalise in my mind. This tweet from Christine Counsell, last year, spoke to my perfect curriculum-seeking self. There is no goal – continuing renewal and ownership drives our development.
Ben Arscott in Impact journal in 2018 https://impact.chartered.college/article/designing-a-secular-religious-studies-curriculum/
“The review process should be constant, although it is helpful to have periodical formal reviews with the whole department and outsiders. During these reviews, it is crucial to remember that no curriculum is perfect and time is severely limited.”
While taking part in a Leading Active Learning research project 4 years ago, I developed an embarrassingly ham-fisted approach to disciplinary teaching in our RE curriculum. In an effort to improve our learners’ religious literacy, I introduced “Pupils as Theologians”. This was successful on a small scale, but the more I dug, the more I realised this wasn’t enough, perhaps I was still too inward looking at our own school, too bound to the curriculum “baby” our team had developed, I was only tweaking the edges without being truly informed, I suspected it was actually time for what Matthew Lane calls a “curriculum revolution” https://www.reonline.org.uk/blog/how-i-brought-about-a-curriculum-revolution-in-re-matthew-lane/.
I secretly knew, it was time to drain the bath and begin to dispose of the mouldy toys.
When I took on the NATRE East Anglia Regional Ambassador role just over a year ago, I had a telephone call with Kathryn Wright, and when she told me about the Multidisciplinary approach Norfolk were implementing in their Syllabus I knew this was what I’d been looking for. RE or RW has been craving discipline, I felt our learning was ill-disciplined and the clarity of this approach was inspiring. How might this approach provide learning parameters for our ill-disciplined “baby”?
I went on to read what I could about the approach, including Gillian Georgiou’s Impact Article on Balance RE https://impact.chartered.college/article/balanced-re-thoughts-re-curriculum-design/
The approach was developed by RE advisers Jane Chipperton, Gillian Georgiou, Olivia Seymour and Kathryn Wright.
At last year’s AREIAC conference, I heard Ben Wood and Richard Kueh speak about the approach. This was it, the knowledge-rich, disciplinary plurality of thinking I was looking for. You can read Richard’s take in RE Today (Autumn 2019). Adam Smith’s blog is an interesting reflection, https://mrsmithre.home.blog/2019/10/06/disciplinary-knowledge-and-re-an-attempt-at-professional-wrestling/
As the bathwater drained, I saw beyond the bubbles and steam. Even before the whole curriculum rewrite, our learners were ready this year to be introduced, right from year 2, to the disciplinary concepts of Theology, Philosophy, and Social sciences. We began with the etymology and built up our ideas of the skill sets involved along with categorising our growing knowledge. Finally, we felt clarity, the steam was beginning to clear.
I began plugging multidisciplinary while working with our Trust RE leads on a Trust-wide curriculum rationale, encouraging our RE leads to use the RE Online: Religion and Worldviews in a broad and balanced curriculum, A practical tool. https://www.reonline.org.uk/leading-re/re-in-a-broad-and-balanced-curriculum-a-practical-tool/ . when considering their curriculum choices.
All the while waiting, with bated breath, for the Norfolk Syllabus to be released. I’m an RE geek, what can I say?
When it finally arrived, I was excited to begin working with our team to tailor the approach of the new syllabus into a curriculum specific to our setting. We’re an academy, we can choose our curriculum – lucky us! But those of you bound by your Locally Agreed Syllabus can still consider a multidisciplinary approach in your planning, you may be bound legally by content, but not by pedagogy. The Norfolk Syllabus is great way to start thinking about this approach https://www.schools.norfolk.gov.uk/School-management/SACRE/index.htm .
Our new curriculum has been a year in the design, the last few weeks in lockdown have given our team unprecedented time to construct, plan and resource a challenging, disciplinary-focused primary Curriculum. We’re good to go from September. As always, we will be continually reviewing our curriculum, not just because it’s a process I can’t get enough of, but because ongoing rejuvenation of our practise is the only way we can ensure continuing quality. In truth, our curriculum possibly had well considered content, we just didn’t have a clear focus for the skill set. We were ill-disciplined. It was always our baby – a curriculum content with value – it needed to get out of the bath and get dressed, ambitiously, for the occasion.