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RE: Why The Two Should Unite!

The transition between KS2 and KS3 is fundamental to success in RE throughout secondary school

Words by Gemma Papworth

How many Secondary school teachers honestly know what happens in their subject in Primary school? I would hazard a guess and say that most of us have an inkling but we don’t really know a lot. And why would we? We teach different Key Stages. However, we are wrong to think this way. Understanding what is taught in Primary schools can deepen and enrich our own lessons, enabling students to be more successful and knowledge-rich as they move through KS3 and beyond.

Up until I was given the opportunity to sit with a Primary School Council about 18 months ago, I was of the impression that I understood what went on in Primary school RE. I thought my KS3 curriculum was robust enough to support the array of knowledge and skills that students would enter into Year 7 with in September.

But how wrong was I!

I had been asked to discuss the RE curriculum with the School Council and to ask any knowledge questions about what they had learnt. I had seen on the scheme of learning that Year 5 had been learning about Christian practices so I asked them to describe the Trinity to me, knowing this is quite a complex question. What followed made me question all I thought I knew about KS3 RE.

The boy who answered gave me a detailed explanation of not just what it was but what it meant to Christian believers. He even went so far as to describe transubstantiation (without using the word) to me. After the meeting I asked if he happened to be a particularly bright student, in case this was a one-off, but the teacher said no. She then showed me the work of students from different classes across different years and I was amazed. I realised I was de-skilling my students at KS3.

For many years I have seen schools and colleagues teach Christianity by drawing story boards and designing churches. I was not embarrassed that this was what we were offering, until a 9 year old boy had described the Trinity better than the majority of my Year 10 class. I had de-skilled them, stopped them from deepening their knowledge and failed to see I was the one to blame. So I started to re-think my approach to the RE curriculum.

Not all Primary schools are consistent in their delivery of high-quality RE, especially with the added pressure on delivering Literacy and Numeracy and the lack of a National Curriculum in RE to guide the development of knowledge and skills from EYFS to KS3 and onwards.

These can make it more difficult to plan for progression. However, we should know from our “Curriculum Intent” what we want our students to achieve. So maybe now is the time to have a think about reassessing what we do and how we can enable our students to be more successful.

There is some truth to the idea that students like to think but only when they don’t necessarily realise they are doing it.

I have recently had the opportunity to develop a new RE curriculum in my new school and I decided to practice what I preach. Year 7 started with the seven dimensions of religion and what is meant by belief. We then went into looking at Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” and Hume’s Empiricism. The students rose to the challenge telling me why Descartes was wrong or why Hume needed to think as well as use his senses.

I had colleagues astounded that 11 year olds were studying Descartes and that Year 8 were learning about Natural Law and Utilitarianism. But the reaction from the students, the quality of their ideas and written work was incredible.

Students now stop me in the corridor to tell me about a story they have read or an idea they have had. I also included a number of Oracy activities, allowing students to spend time discussing ideas with their peers and me. One game they enjoyed the most was Beat the Teacher where they had to debate with me on the lesson topic until there were no more arguments. While this was going on, the rest of the class had to think of an argument to go against me and then would have the opportunity to use it once someone else had finished.

Praise and the promise of a postcard home meant I was never short of someone who wanted to debate with me. But they were excited by learning and this demonstrated to me that they had risen to the challenge.

A colleague in another school had a discussion with me about up-skilling her students and, from our discussions and research, she adapted her curriculum to include a unit on “Do women have a place in religion?” and “Do wars save lives?”

Controversial questions indeed, but they grabbed the students’ attention and up-skilled them through KS3, to KS4 and beyond. I believe it is not about teaching to the exam but teaching around it so that students have a plethora of ideas, beliefs and teachings they could use, making their answers more unique and attaining higher scores.

In these current times, time is tighter than ever with adapted timetables and days that are different to ‘normal’. Use this time now to think about how you can up-skill your students. Will a Year 7 student really benefit from drawing out Genesis 1 as a storyboard or designing their own Church? I would say no as I know they do this in KS1.

Secondary Heads of Department for RE should know what is included in the Primary Agreed Syllabus for their area even if they are part of a multi academy trust (MAT). Feeder schools will not all be part of your MAT so you need to know what they are learning so you can prepare. The key word for me is ‘up-skill’ and should be our main focus.

Critical thinking, modelling and questioning all come into play here, enabling students to continue their RE journey. Equally, Primary schools should have a knowledge of what students will continue to do as they enter KS3 so they know what they are preparing them for. It should be a relationship between the two that support students, not two separate entities doing their own thing.

My interest in Primary RE has been sparked and I am trying to spend as much time as I can observing and learning from Primary colleagues so I can support my students throughout their journey: a 12 year journey, not 7 years and then 5 years.

It will take time but believe me when I say, it is worth it!

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