Religious Education adviser Simone Whitehouse-James, from Services For Education, played an instrumental role in the creation of the new Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education in Birmingham.
In this article, Simone discusses the rigorous process of agreeing the new syllabus for Religious Education and some of the key changes that schools need to note.
With the backdrop of the CORE report and the bigger pedagogical discussion about the teaching of worldviews, on 8th February this year the Cabinet of Birmingham City Council adopted the new Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education.
RE is locally determined. That means that every Local Authority must make a response to how RE is taught for local authority schools. However, there are some huge benefits for Academies who can choose to adopt the Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education too.
First, let’s explain how the Agreed Syllabus came into being…
Agreed Syllabus Conference
Every five years the City Council must convene what is known as an Agreed Syllabus Conference (ASC).
An ASC must be constituted of four representative committees of a SACRE (Section 390, Education Act 1996; DSCF, 2010).
Some of these volunteer nominees were nominated because of their knowledge of their faith and others because of their curriculum experience.
At the culmination of agreeing the syllabus, each committee has a single vote as to whether they agree to the syllabus being recommended to the City Council.
This could indeed be seen as a near impossible task for 47 people of different opinions and perspectives.
Representatives from local faith communities, city councillors, teachers and for the first time non-religious groups, meet to agree an approach to teaching RE.
This is one of the key benefits to teaching the Agreed Syllabus – religious education is taught in a way that local communities have agreed, rather than by a scheme delivered off the shelf that doesn’t have a local response to the communities in the area.
What was Services For Education’s involvement?
It is customary for Agreed Syllabus Conferences to employ the skills of an adviser to support the work of the drafting secretary and Conference members. This was my role at the convening of the 2017 Conference.
However, following the resignation of Dr. Marius Felderhof, I was asked by the chairs of the Conference to step up and to continue the work as drafting secretary.
What followed in the coming months was a series of meetings, culminating in the development of an updated, dispositional approach.
A Dispositional Approach
A previous conference in 2007 agreed to teach through dispositions, rather than topics like “places of worship” or religions.
These dispositions, or values, were agreed by faith groups in Birmingham, thinking that if these values are shared human values, lived out in faith groups, children and young people could encounter them from learning how religious traditions and non-religious worldviews think of them.
In doing so pupils would also be cultivating these values too.
The dispositions are concepts such as ‘sharing and being generous’, ‘being accountable and living with integrity,’ ‘remembering roots.’
Birmingham’s Religious Education enables pupils to understand Birmingham’s varied citizens and know each has their own principles, values and beliefs.
They will learn that citizens of Birmingham have much more in common than they might have otherwise thought. And they will be able to understand how and why people may differ sometimes.
Most of all, through Birmingham’s RE teaching, pupils will have thought about their own qualities ready to take into their adulthood in order to lead a rounded and fulfilling life.
Let’s turn to look in more detail at the new syllabus. Whilst the dispositions are staying, other things needed to move on. Imagine three layers drawing together to make this approach…
These basics are about the human condition and in Birmingham, they are summed up in 24 values or dispositions. (See page 11).
People from faith and non-religious traditions have been involved in devising, updating and voting for the new syllabus, which is still centred on teaching through dispositions; now expanded to take into account the changing landscape of belief.
That’s valuable in itself. It has a local flavour which is owned by the communities in which you teach.
We have added to the attainment targets, and each disposition is encountered through the following dimensions for learning, in an age-appropriate way…
2. Dimensions of learning
In addition to the old attainment targets (Learning about Religious Traditions and Learning from Faith) Learning from Experience and Learning to Discern have been added.
- Learning from Experience: going from where pupils are, it’s the general understanding of the disposition from pupils’ experiences. What do they know, where are they?
- Learning about Religious Traditions already existed – a question to prompt the acquiring of knowledge and understanding of the religions and to which we added non-religious perspectives, where appropriate to the disposition. This is the content to learn about.
- Then from that Learning from Faith: a question opening up the opportunity to respond to the religious and non-religious ideas explored in their widest sense – to develop pupils’ in a behavioural way, so that they are affected by what they are learning about.
- And finally, Learning to Discern: it’s a question enabling a critical (or critically aware) and reflective response to religious and non-religious traditions presented. In learning to critically interpret and evaluate the content that is presented, pupils will grow in their ability to discern.
Pupils will be encouraged and challenged to reflect and evaluate, to think critically about what they have learned.
In doing so, pupils will begin to understand that the interpretation of these sources can be used both legitimately or inaccurately, to support a particular point of view.
They will learn how individual aspects may conflict with each other.
This will involve reflective and interpretative skills, as well as the ability for pupils to examine themselves in the light of the information encountered.
Don’t worry – we’re not expecting all of this by the end of Year 1, but these skills can be unpacked and taught in an age-appropriate manner, to be returned to and taken a step further next time.
3. Religious Traditions and Non-Religious Worldviews
The nine Religious Traditions of the 2007 syllabus remain (Baha’i, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Rastafari and Sikhism).
In addition, to take into account the growing number of people nationally and locally who do not have a religious tradition…
- The new syllabus also exemplifies the dispositions through a range of established non-religious worldviews, regularly used examples include: Agnosticism, Atheism, Humanism and Secularism.
- We also decided to recognise in the syllabus the growing number of people ascribing to no religious view with only a small proportion identifying with any of the established non-religious groups. Typically, those of ‘no religion’ are identifiable by making up their own minds, issue by issue, without regard for organised traditions, either religious or non-religious.
So in brief, that’s the process of arriving at the agreement of the syllabus and the changes made in the 2022 Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education in Birmingham
A long process and frankly there are easier ways of developing a curriculum, but would this have the ownership of the communities living within it?
It’s also not ‘just’ about learning a comprehensive set of factual information about religious and non-religious traditions that do not have any connection with our lives; it’s about being given the tools to be able to understand others and to be able reflect on your own stance – whatever that may be.
If you’d like to see a little more, this video outlines the main changes from the Conference.
For any dedicated support across the Religious Education Agreed Syllabus, take a look at our range of expert services, including:
- Understanding the 2022 Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education – an Overview
- Deep Diving into RE
- Understanding the 2022 Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education – What do Governors need to know?
Or feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Simone Whitehouse-James - Adviser, Services For Education
Simone qualified with a PGCE in Religious Education following a Bachelors degree in Theology. Simone went onto lead RE in two demographically differently schools in Birmingham before working for the city’s advisory service.
Simone works in two areas: Religious Education and Early Career Teachers. Working in Religious Education Simone engages with faith groups and advises the Standing Advisory Council for RE (SACRE) on RE and Collective Worship. She has worked with others to design lesson plans for the Faith Makes a Difference website to support schools to implement the Birmingham Agreed Syllabus. She has worked on drafting the new Agreed Syllabus.
Simone also works with primary and secondary teachers and school governors. Working on behalf of the City Council as the Appropriate Body for ECTs Simone works with senior leaders and tutors to support their ECTs through induction.
Simone has recently been awarded her PhD – demonstrating her love of learning and Religious Education!