by John Semmens
The challenges faced by RE leads are often enormous. If you’ve been handed the Norfolk Agreed Syllabus 2019 to implement you may be impressed and confounded in equal measure. Teachers have probably never been as overworked as they are now and that exhaustion is, for many, rooted in just treading water; just keeping things going; planning, teaching, marking – the endless cycle. There isn’t an easy answer and I won’t advise you in this instance on this huge subject. But, let’s say that you find some time to plan some changes to your curriculum, where do you start?
Religion or Worldview? And Worldview? What is a worldview? Well this is hard to pin down but exploring the Reforming RE blog you might just find the answers you are looking for. I have selected Humanism at my school as it is rooted in the philosophy that I want our learners to engage with.
Once I have selected my religions/worldviews, the ones I legally have to look at and then ones I want to include, perhaps now would be a great time for a cup of coffee and a chat with your Headteacher. Which religions should be represented in your curriculum? Do you pick one represented or unrepresented in your community? This is a great opportunity to open up the conversation with stakeholders and begin looking at the narrative of your RE curriculum.
The narrative is the story you want your curriculum to tell. What do you want to communicate? For a church school the Christian stories are there to guide your choices. For a state school or academy without a religious foundation there is yet again more wide-ranging freedom. After you have added what you must you can begin to plan in the rest. This is the where the scholarship comes in. The BBC radio 4 programme ‘In Our Time’ is an excellent place to start finding out about religions, theology, philosophy and the great intellectual and spiritual movements of humanity. The exemplar materials that accompany the Norfolk Agreed Syllabus 2019 are also there to inspire and guide. The Syllabus itself is full of subject related vocabulary and knowledge for each of the religions, helpfully split into the disciplinary lenses.
For me a major thing that came of out my research when writing some of the exemplar material is the narrative around philosophy. We have a great golden age then we have the dark ages, followed by the renaissance and later the Enlightenment. But there’s whole pieces of history missing in this narrative. The Translation Movement, in Islamic history is comparatively little known although its significance is huge. In my classroom the philosophy timeline features a hand holding a torch and this torch is symbolically passed from thinker to thinker. It stops, for a long time in the Islamic world when scholars in the salons of the Abbasid Empire were being paid as much as Premiere League footballers to translate the works of Aristotle. Having this moment in our curriculum helped form that narrative thread for me.
The skills I wanted each year group to acquire and build on were also central. For each year’s curriculum there is a title: In year 3 it’s ‘Central Beliefs’ where the children work on those religious literacy skills by learning about the core beliefs of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. In year 4 the children study ‘Religious Journeys’ both figurative and physical, discovering the impact these have on the spiritual. In year 5 they are called to become ‘Critical Thinkers’ and engage in a more critical analyse of the issues and themes in religious and non-religious life. In year 6 they are ‘Deep Thinkers’ and quest to find deeper meaning in some of the more complicated and controversial parts of religious and non-religious thinking.
When sitting on the Norfolk SACRE in 2018, knowing where we were headed as a county, I knew that the Theological lens was there with the work we had done on Understanding Christianity. It needed work but we could become equally theological about Islam and Hinduism. I knew, due to the make-up of the current staffing, that the Human and Social Sciences lens would be easily adopted and had been looked through before. The one that filled most people with dread was the philosophical one. It has long been my view that most modern philosophy is purposefully opaque – indeed, one of my old lecturers refused to use the microphone in a large and crowded lecture hall – so it has been one of those fields that most people don’t ‘play in’ naturally. Lots of RE teachers know stories from sacred texts and can look at them closely. Lots of teachers have looked at the impact of belief on ‘real-life’. But not many teachers have asked ‘is this a reasonable belief to have?’ It almost feels offensive, but these things are instinctively what children do. Children famously ask ‘why’ all the time and want to talk about those ‘difficult’ ideas. Most want to discuss the reasoning behind belief and need a hand to learn how to navigate through a respectful but rigorous debate on religious issues.
When I saw ‘Is belief in God reasonable?’ under the suggested questions in the Norfolk Agreed Syllabus I knew two things: 1. I was going to have my work cut out and 2. I was home.
In taking those few exciting steps – or giant leaps – into changing your RE curriculum it is essential to plan for the progression of knowledge and skills.
- Know where the children are going during each stage, as they move through the school. Think of this progress like a narrative; title the year to give it a clear focus and ‘chunk’ these skills together.
- Approach your local NATRE regional ambassador, support network, or SACRE to find out about training if you struggle with a particular lens – or even if it just needs a bit of polishing.
- Find a thread; something you want to communicate, something you can get all scholarly about and become an expert. Then you will have taken that thread and made it golden.