Let’s get deep and meaningful… about RE…

A response to the latest Ofsted subject report on RE

On 17th April 2024 Ofsted published its most recent subject report on RE ten years on from the previous inspection report ‘Realising the potential’ (October, 2013). Although Ofsted recognises at ‘its best, RE can help pupils to make sense of a complex world where aspects of religion and non-religion hold different places in the lives of its citizens’ (p. 3) it is also open to acknowledge there is much unrealised potential as ‘[t]here is much to do to ensure that all pupils have access to a rigorous and challenging curriculum’(p. 4). As such, ‘[t]en years later, and although much of the educational landscape has changed, the problems and challenges facing RE persist’, (p. 7). So where does that leave teachers delivering RE day to day? How does your RE stand up to the findings?

In this blog Dr. Simone Whitehouse-James summarises the report’s findings and poses questions to steer your response.

So what’s changed? The Key Findings

The report states that the quality of RE is not defined by the type of school offering it, but on a range of other factors: strong teacher subject knowledge; access to professional development; regular time for RE lessons; a well-organised knowledge-rich curriculum which deepens pupils’ understanding incrementally.

The Curriculum

‘The RE curriculum offer lacked substance to prepare pupils to live in a complex world. The RE content selected rarely was collectively enough to ensure that pupils were well prepared to engage in a multi-religious and multi-secular society’.

The places that we live in are becoming more diverse, with the world becoming a ‘smaller place’. And yet this smaller place is more complex than ever before. How is Religious Education aiding pupils to navigate this world?

Religious Education needs to support pupils’ understanding not only of each other, but of themselves so that they are able to have knowledge and understanding of how to deal with and live a good life. This is of course much more than the imparting of knowledge within a curriculum, but rather its aims, vision and perhaps most importantly – the so what? To equip pupils with the skills to navigate, converse and discern. In essence, how are you developing pupils’ religious literacy? What will your pupils be doing in RE with the super diverse range of traditions or worldviews they are exploring? How will these be encountered? What will they do with this knowledge? How will they use it?

And so to my further prompts at the end of this first section:

  • Are your aims for RE explicit?
  • Are there a range of traditions within your curriculum?
  • What skills are key in your curriculum? Key for your pupils?
  • Here at SFE we are able to offer a range of consultancy provision to meet your needs

Teaching and Assessment

‘A superficially broad curriculum does not always provide pupils with the depth of knowledge they require for future study. In most cases, where the curriculum tried to cover many religions, like equal slices of a pie, pupils generally remembered very little. In cases where the curriculum prioritised depth of study, pupils learned much more’.

Back to one of my first questions then, are there a range of traditions within your curriculum? It is important to explore traditions, beyond the main six and also to afford equal respect to religious and non-religious traditions. Pupils should be exposed to the depth of knowledge whether that be case studies, revisiting material over time within a spiral curriculum. Pupils need to be able to have time to grapple with the complex in order to be able to answer the questions your curriculum asks and for living beyond the curriculum. For example, exploring the Sikhi practice of Kirat Karni (earning an honest living) and the Jain concept of Asteya (not stealing through though, words or action) offers both knowledge and understanding for and beyond the curriculum.

  • Are there a range of traditions within your curriculum? (I’m asking this question again now with your focus of looking at the depth of the traditions offered).
  • Are you assessing your skills and not just the ability for your pupils to repeat knowledge?
  • How will assess in a meaningful way?

‘The RE curriculum really enabled pupils to systematically build disciplinary knowledge or personal knowledge’.

‘Build’ I see as the key term here. A spiral curriculum which enables learners to revisit prior knowledge and to build on that provides a firm foundation for the next steps of learning. This is essential in order for the previous knowledge to be activated, remembered and renewed. What will inform your choice of content which also allows for progression to be made through the next set of blocks to be laid (if we continue with the building analogy).

  • How will pupils be encouraged to develop personal knowledge?
  • How will you encounter different disciplines to increase this area of their learning?
  • How will these aspects of knowledge interrelate?

‘The content of some secondary curriculums was restricted by what teachers considered pupils needed to know for public examinations at the end of Key Stage 4. In a significant number of cases, teachers taught examination skills too prematurely. This significantly limited the range and types of RE content taught’.

Although there may be some overlaps with specifications, teachers would be remiss not to do so, right? But what we haven’t got to do is miss the opportunity for creativity of exploration through other topics which engender an interest and passion before the subject becomes more ‘funnelled’ with a specification.

  • What does your KS3 curriculum look like?
  • What is the aim of this curriculum?
  • If you were to map the traditions/worldviews and content – what would be found?
  • Is it meaningful to your pupils? If not – why not?
  • SFE’s RE expert has worked extensively on a range of curriculum offers for schools is able to facilitate your KS3 curriculum revision.

‘Where RE was weaker, the knowledge of traditions specified for pupils to learn was overly simplified and uncritically compartmentalised. Sometimes, pupils were presented with over-simplistic assertions about religious traditions, which were often based on visible entities, such as places of worship’.

Knowledge needs to be accessible to your pupils but it also needs to develop to stretch them. It needs to prompts your pupils to think, reflect, question, evaluate, discern. I would argue that there is nothing simplistic about learning about a place of worship if the visible entitles are presented in such a way that promotes pupils to think, reflect, discern… A shallow look Quaker meeting house might limit pupils’ responses in terms of just being about a sparse place of worship but it could open up exploration into creating a space for silence against the activism of the Quaker movement which is far from simplistic. Having written this, I get what the report is pointing towards and there is much more to traditions than their places of worship.

So back to your curriculum aims and content choices…

  • Is your curriculum limited by the content?
  • Could the content be used in a different way?
  • Do you give pupils the opportunity to make critical responses?

‘There was a profound misconception among some leaders and teachers that ‘teaching from a neutral stance’ equates to teaching a non-religious worldview. This is simply not the case’.

For some the teaching of non-religious worldviews is still within it’s infancy. At the root of this concern is a lack of understanding as a result of access to professional development, with planning not making it clear what a non-religious viewpoint is and the provision of adequate examples in order to facilitate this teaching. We worked  alongside non-religious colleagues which allowed dialogue and discussion around this area. We decided to use humanism as the examples in our resources. Understanding Humanism has many examples and resources to incorporate into your planning.

  • How will you ensure the teaching of non-religions in your curriculum is not neutral?

Systems at subject and school level

‘Although a few teachers had received subject-based professional development in RE, the overwhelming majority had not. Given the complexity of the subject and the kind of misconceptions that pupils were left with, this is a significant concern’.

Access to professional development remains a concern across the board. With diminishing school budgets and pressures on teachers’ time at a premium, it is difficult to see what will ‘give’ in order to allow this development to take place in an adequate manner. The proliferation of blogs, webinars and podcasts, which have emerged since the publication of the last Ofsted subject report, offer some light through the mizzle. Although not a coherent offer of support, teachers can dip into what they need and on their own terms in order to access support.

I’m sure you will have heard of, if not already downloaded:

The RE Podcast

Panpsycast Philosophy Podcast

Heart and Soul

Beyond Belief

What I believe

To conclude…

So where does this leave us in responding to this decade’s report? There is still much to think on… but isn’t that why we love RE? This report and the questions it poses (I’m sure that you have many more as do I) must drive forward individual school’s and departments’ responses. Here at Services for Education, we can support you moving forward in delivering these questions and responses into impact, and ensuring that your RE is both deep and meaningful.

For further information about consultancy and courses:

About the Author

Simone WhitehouseDr Simone Whitehouse-James - Adviser, Services For Education

Simone's journey in the field of education is nothing short of remarkable. Armed with a deep passion for Religious Education, she has not only excelled in her own academic pursuits but has also dedicated herself to the betterment of the education system.

From her early days as a Head of Department leading RE in schools in Birmingham to her current role as an Education Advisor at Services For Education, Simone has constantly pushed the boundaries of her knowledge and expertise. Simone has also worked as a visiting lecturer on the Birmingham University RE PGDip course. Her commitment to the field is evident in her decision to pursue a PhD, delving into the unique approach to teaching RE in Birmingham.

But Simone's impact goes beyond just Religious Education. Her extensive knowledge of ITT and the Early Career Framework has allowed her to support teachers, school leaders, and governors in their professional development journey. As an Induction Manager and facilitator for the Best Practice Network, she plays a crucial role in shaping the next generation of educators and school leaders.

Simone's dedication to her craft is unwavering, whether she's engaging with faith groups, acting as the drafting secretary for the Agreed Syllabus Conference, advising on curriculum development, or delivering nationally recognised CPD as part of the NPQ suite of qualifications. Her passion for education is truly inspiring, as she continues to push boundaries, challenge norms, and lead by example in the world of education.

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