By Dawn Cox
The Ofsted RE Research Review (published in May 2021) has huge implications for the way in which RE will be taught in schools. Here, Dawn Cox explores the two elements that RE teachers should focus their attention on: curriculum and assessment.
Putting aside its release at one of the busiest times of year for some colleagues, what might the Ofsted RE Research Review mean for teachers of RE in all curriculum stages?
Its aim is to outline the existing literature to identify what contributes to high-quality RE including curriculum, pedagogical models, assessment, professional development and curriculum time. Whilst it outlines good practice and identifies problematic practice, it doesn’t present one way of doing things; it acknowledges that there are various ways to ensure high-quality RE.
It is a lengthy document (and for some reason not formatted as a PDF to aid with page number references). I do not think the expectation is for all teachers to read it immediately or to ‘action’ things instantly. In fact, it could be argued that the intended audience is subject co-ordinators or Heads of Subject and whole school/MAT leaders, rather than teachers of RE. Many of the issues addressed are systemic and provide a stimulus for strategic thought, for medium/long-term development.
The 246 references contribute to its length, but these are a great resource for those that want to go on to read more about a particular issue. If you want to work on a particular area with a team of RE teachers, then this might provide an appropriate paper or document for reading as a group e.g. in a subject or network meeting. Understanding the theory and research behind the issues raised is as important as making a change in what you do.
Since there is so much to discuss, I will focus on two of the main areas it addresses: curriculum and assessment.
The current Ofsted inspection framework focuses heavily on curriculum, which seems to have had an impact on how schools and subjects are spending time developing their curriculum. The Review identifies that a high-quality curriculum in RE is ambitious, scholarly and focuses on three forms of knowledge that are ‘interconnected and sequenced’.
These three forms of knowledge present a new way of thinking for most RE teachers. Substantive knowledge, ‘ways of knowing’ and personal knowledge, collectively are a good way to ensure that RE is academic, rigorous, and importantly, separate from PSHE, Citizenship, etc.
Substantive knowledge is everything you want students to learn. It is important that we are clear what it is that we want pupils to learn, why they should learn it and when we want them to learn it within a well-structured and coherent scheme. In my department, we are developing schemes of knowledge that list the knowledge we will all teach. This is very specific. For example, we don’t put ‘The life of Muhammad’, instead we list the exact things that should be included e.g. ‘Polytheism in Makkah’, ‘The final sermon’ etc.
This explicit identification means that all pupils, regardless of their teacher, have the same content taught to them; although it is up to individual teachers ‘how’ they want to teach it. At Primary this could be a useful tool to ensure that all teachers know exactly what it is that their pupils need to know and can be used as an informal checklist (but not in a checklist manner!).
‘Ways of knowing’ are often associated with the multi-disciplinarity of RE, as it looks at how we know the substantive knowledge. Some have suggested that we should approach this through the disciplines of Theology, Philosophy & Social sciences, but this is still a matter of discussion. For example, if pupils are studying substantive knowledge from a philosophical perspective, what philosophical ‘tools’ should they use? What does it mean to think, or speak or write as a philosopher?
This form of knowledge is probably the newest for the RE community and teachers are only just starting to consider what it means for their context. Don’t worry if it is new to you, there are more and more resources, blogs and teachers sharing what this might look like!
Personal knowledge is a new way of thinking about pupil ‘positionality’ in RE and we need to be careful to interpret what it means here. I understand it not as students’ opinions on something but the understanding of how their opinion has been formed. We’ve specifically developed the idea of students reflecting on their own ‘lens’ on life and in a lesson, we consider what has contributed to that view over their lifetime and how it might shape their views on things. Helping them to understand that we all have different lenses and that these continuously change can help to them to be aware of ‘their own assumptions and values’.
As a Subject Leader, things to consider:
- Are all teachers clear about what it is that you want pupils to know and understand for each topic/unit/year/key stage?
- Does your curriculum include ‘ways of knowing’ or use the tools of the disciplines?
- How can you make ‘personal knowledge’ explicit for pupils and how does your curriculum repeatedly return to this (without making it confessional)?
Curriculum as the model of progression means that if a pupil is learning what we have planned then they are making progress. The review has a significant section on assessment to address this.
I think that high-quality assessment is one of the biggest challenges that we have as teachers. We are often limited by a whole school system. Also, teachers’ knowledge and understanding of what makes a valid assessment can be limited. The important phrasing used in the review is that assessment should be ‘manageable’ and ‘not excessively onerous’.
The Review is critical of generic assessment models. The aim is for assessment to closely reflect the curriculum that is being taught and needs to focus directly on the learning that has occurred. How can you tell if students have learnt how religious texts can have layers of meaning? Or the critiques of a philosophical argument? Or how surveys can be problematic when finding out how people live out their faith? This is specific learning which can then be assessed.
This approach suggests a moving away from AT1 & AT2 which many locally agreed syllabi still use. Remember that these are often non-statutory so it is up to you and your school how you choose to assess in RE. On this, I am wary of trying to assess personal knowledge; it could easily lead to a confessional approach and whilst pupil opinion is important, it isn’t for us to evaluate their views.
The Review is also critical of using GCSE exam-style questions at key stage 3. Instead, it focuses on argumentation as a possible way to assess composite tasks. I think that this is a great way to assess because it goes across the disciplines and can easily be used to ‘build-up’ skills. We use specific elements of argumentation across key stage 3 which clearly feed into writing at GCSE but goes beyond what mark schemes require. We can easily begin this process at Primary level into key stage 3 to start to write clear arguments which are foundations for use at A Level, undergraduate and/or postgraduate level where appropriate.
As a subject leader, things to consider:
- How do you know if pupils have learnt what you have taught them?
- How can you improve your assessment to make it more manageable?
- If using a generic model, how can you adapt to a curriculum-specific model?
- What elements of argumentation can you develop at your key stage?
It is clear that the report is already having an impact on RE provision. Teachers on social media have shared how their school is now timetabling RE at key stage 4 or how they’re reviewing what they cover in their schemes.
Regardless of your view of the role of Ofsted in education, the review provides clear direction for the RE community. What’s next is for teachers to turn this into a reality for the RE in their school. However, there are no magic, overnight fixes.
This is an exciting time for the RE community to make RE the valued, academic, multi-disciplinary subject that deserves sufficient curriculum time at all key stages. We need to work together as a community to think about what this might look like and share ideas to work towards developing high-quality RE for our own contexts.
You can read the review here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/research-review-series-religious-education
Recommended blogs and resources not mentioned in the report:
Reforming RE blog site https://reformingre.wordpress.com/
Nikki McGee’s blog- Practical, thought-provoking, curriculum posts https://rewithmrsmcgee.wordpress.com/
Joe Kinnaird’s blog – Lots of ideas for high challenge RE using scholarship https://mrkinnairdre.wordpress.com/