The Ofsted Review of Religious Education – a personal response and some ideas for the way forward.

In this blog post I will share my reflections on the recent Ofsted research report from Richard Kueh[1] which examines the factors that contribute towards a high quality RE curriculum.  This is not supposed to be a substitute for reading the report but rather it is the interpretation of somebody at the chalk face.  The original report is long (but definitely worth reading in full) and so I suspect this blogpost will be too and so you might want to grab yourself a brew and a few biscuits.  My intention is not to summarise the report but to give examples of how I am or could in the future meet the high bar that is set in this report.   

In the interests of full disclosure, I am the RE lead at Inspiration Trust and have the joy of carrying on Richard Kueh’s work of creating an ambitious, scholarly, knowledge rich and inter disciplinary curriculum.   I have been in post for about 8 months and would describe that experience as an intense crash course on curriculum design and so I am sharing what I have learned from that experience rather than claiming to have all the answers or exemplary practice.

A theme running through the report is the 3 types of knowledge.

The 3 types of knowledge

Substantive knowledge being a plain speaking lass from Blackpool I call this “the stuff”.

Disciplinary Knowledge – the tools that we use to study religion, the methods that we use to gather knowledge.

Personal Knowledge   – The attitudes, experiences and assumptions which shape the way that students experience the religious and non-religious.  Part of this knowledge is being aware of how this is changing over time and why. 

The Substantive

The report encourages us to think about the resources we are using as teachers and whether they are giving students an accurate and nuanced picture of religious and non-religious worldviews.  The recent Insight report[2] regarding the teaching of Hinduism was for many of us a watershed moment in knowing that we could do better.  For me this means a direct line between university departments and classrooms.  We need to be reading scholarly works and using them in an age appropriate way.  In addition, when selecting texts, we have to ensure that they include insider voices so that they have authenticity. 

By the end of key stage three the substantive should not be limited just to specific examples of religious and non-religious worldviews but also to the categories of religion and non-religion as well.  For example we have a key stage 3 unit of work that uses Pascal Boyer’s “Religion Explained”[3] to examine why humans appear to be drawn to religion.

The Disciplinary

As a head of department in Dorset we used the Norfolk Agreed Syllabus and the “Balanced RE”[4] Audit tools[5] [6]to review our curriculum.  I had never previously given much thought to the disciplines of RE but I quickly realised that this could be a transformative way of creating a curriculum[7].

Firstly, by looking at our curriculum in terms of a disciplinary balance we spotted immediately that although we were teaching a range of religions our curriculum was constrained in a theology straightjacket.  This was a problem for multiple reasons but mostly because it meant that we tended to stop studying religions within a few hundred years of their emergence.  It also meant that our RE curriculum was too focused on beliefs and not practices and experiences. Since that point I have changed my definition of breadth to include studying Abrahamic, dharmic and non-religious worldviews, using a variety of disciplines which include theology, social sciences and philosophy. I don’t think it is realistic to cover all the big six and non-religious worldviews on an hour a week over three years. I do think it is realistic to look at Abrahamic, dharmic and non-religious responses to big questions using those 3 disciplines.

The disciplinary approach also helped me move away from general units of work that were basically everything I know about a topic crammed into 12 lessons.   My units of work now have a tighter focus because they are driven by a disciplinary question, this has in turn made assessment a more straightforward process.  I think a disciplinary approach works from key stage one in terms of the giving a framework to a unit of work and a breadth of approaches across the key stage. From key stage two I think that students can start to explicitly talk about using the different tools of theology, social sciences and philosophy.

By the time my students finish key stage three I want them to have an understanding of the methods used by each discipline, the questions they would ask and their limitations.  For example, in a year nine unit of work we look at how classical anthropologists have created a template though which all other religious traditions were viewed and often judged.  I would also have a discussion with the students about the appropriateness of the  term theology when applied to the dharmic traditions.  When examining the limitations of a discipline it is necessary to look at the methods that they use.  In a year nine unit on religious diversity our students will look at the flaws of the censuses carried out in India by the British in the 19th century.  I hope this will prompt a wider discussion about whether data of this kind reflects or creates a new reality.  In the same unit of work, they also look at the promotion of the Manusmriti by the British as a text that spoke for all “Hindus”.  This also creates a discussion about whether you can ever get an accurate understanding of religious tradition by just studying a text.  That brings me back to the importance of a disciplinary approach for creating a nuanced understanding of what it is to be religious and non-religious.

Personal Knowledge

I am still wrestling with personal knowledge, it fits very well with the windows and mirrors approach that we take in our primary curriculum but most of our discussions as a team have been about the substantive and disciplinary.   Dawn Cox[8] has written about using a lens analogy to help students understand the filter through which they experience the world.  I was also impressed with the animated resource from the Theos thinktank[9] that helps students to understand what we mean by a worldview.  Both of these could be a useful starting point when considering personal knowledge.  Understanding that individuals do not have a fully objective experience of the world is a threshold concept in RE and therefore personal knowledge is important in creating that nuanced understanding.

 I am considering having a lesson at the start of each year in which students create their own lens at home with a piece of writing that unpacks their influences and attitudes to religious and non-religious ideas.  We can return to this at various points of the year and if they keep their books throughout a key stage they can look at how their worldview develops over time.  However, it is important that when students return to their personal knowledge that this is driven by the curriculum so that we do not return to the view that RE is just opinions.  An important aspect of personal knowledge is what they have learned previously in RE (and other subjects) and as the report says this helps secondary teachers in particular build on prior knowledge.

I think that students become aware of their own worldview when they are exposed to a diverse range of very clear worldviews. For example, when studying the Exodus story, they could do this through the lens of a black or womanist theologian. They could study the story of The Fall or Muhammad from a feminist perspective.  They can also study people whose views on religion have been shaped by their own life experiences such as Ambedkar.  This also means that students will be doing personal knowledge in a “knowledge rich” way. They are not just making bland uninformed statements but thinking deeply about how they are responding to important ideas.  

Dealing with the negatives of religion

I was interested to see a recognition that not all religion is “loving religion” and the need to be reflect this in the classroom.  We need to deal with what Phyllis Tribble called the ”texts of terror”[10] and the practices that at best fail to allow humans to flourish.  This means we need to include a diverse range of voices in our curriculum, some of which will be critical of religion.  We also need to be aware of who is creating the materials that we are using in the classroom.  I recently created a scheme of work looking at developments within dharmic thought, in light of the recent Insight[11] report I spent time thinking about how to deal with the topic of caste.  Should I ignore it all together?  I made the call to include the topic in the unit but to draw on a wide range of texts, some of these were critical of dharmic beliefs and practices and others highlighted the role of colonisation in creating a caste system that we then criticise. This did take weeks of reading and research to create resources for a few weeks of work and I will return to workload and time for reading later.  

Thematic or discrete teaching of religion

The report raises a concern about the superficial and confused knowledge that can result from teaching themes such as “festivals” however there is also a danger that the discrete teaching of religion fails to acknowledge the blurred boundaries between faiths and traditions. In my experience exploring big ideas though the Abrahamic faiths and dharmic traditions creates a rich nuanced level of discussion in the classroom.  It also contextualises the faiths in terms of history and geography and gives them an understanding of what is happening in the world today.  My year 7 students have a real sense of the story of the Abrahamic faiths precisely because they have studied them together, they have that super narrative that I have often found to be missing in GCSE students.

Sequencing the curriculum

I like to think that I am a creative person and I used to get my creative kicks from planning whizzy activities, the problem with this approach was that often they remembered the activity more than the material I wanted them to engage with.  Now I get my creativity from sequencing and interweaving concepts and stories to create a beautiful tapestry of religious and non-religious diversity.  The research report places a real emphasis on a carefully sequenced curriculum and I think that this is especially important because our lack of curriculum time means that we have to make the most of the knowledge that the students already have.  This could mean revisiting concepts or big ideas within and across key stages. For example, at key stage one they could dip their toes into the concept of incarnation and salvation by learning the Nativity and Easter stories.  Very young children can understand the concept of an unexpected saviour though the use of familiar stories and then asking what is unexpected about Jesus as a saviour.  At key stage two they might return to these concepts and look at the story of Jesus’s baptism which would get them to revisit incarnation as part of the trinity.  At key stage three they might look at different models of atonement and salvation, perhaps making a historical link with the reformation.  At key stage four this understanding of incarnation and salvation might help them have a more nuanced understanding of some of the ethical issues that they study.

We also need to use knowledge that has been learned in other subjects, many of which have more curriculum time than us.  For example, a philosophy scheme of work at key stage two might draw on knowledge about the Greek and Roman empires from history.  An ethics scheme of work at key stage three might draw on the students’ knowledge of the industrial revolution to give a background to utilitarianism.  It is therefore important that curriculum leaders have time to talk to each other.

I am also a fan of using the same story repeatedly to explore different concepts and beliefs, this means that the students get that experience of revisiting a text and looking at it with a different focus or lens.  In addition, you are also reducing cognitive load so that students can focus on the concepts because you are only introducing one new thing at a time. For example, students might use the story of Arjuna and Krishna to look at ideas about the dharma and atman but we have also used this story when looking at functionalist explanations of religion because it is trying to dispel a fear of death. Stories such as the Good Samaritan and The Parable of the Sheep and Goats are key stories that are often familiar to our students and can be used in multiple ways across a curriculum.  Time spent with your team discussing which stories can be used in this way would be time well spent in my view.

The challenges

This way of planning a curriculum offers significant challenges, I am lucky that I have studied theology, philosophy and psychology at degree level but it was a long time ago and even with that background I have needed to do a lot of work on my subject knowledge.  For me this is an enjoyable but a never ending part of being a teacher.  Schools need to think about how they are going to create that time for teachers to work on their subject knowledge. I know there are also discussions with higher education institutions about how we can build connections between academics and schools.  I have been helped by the webinars from Chester[12] and Newman university as well as academics who have answered my queries on twitter and helped me build CPD resources for our team.  I am also fortunate to be part of a trust curriculum team with dedicated time away from the classroom, I have two days a week when I mostly get to live and breathe curriculum.  I can remember the pressure of being a head of department in a standalone school and I just did not have the capacity to do what I do now.  One answer to this could be a national entitlement which would enable more shared planning and resourcing.  For trusts like mine a centralised curriculum will solve some of the issues but we will still need time for teachers to develop the subject knowledge to deliver that curriculum. This becomes a more acute issue at primary level where we seem to be expecting a subject specialism level of knowledge across all subjects.  In larger primary schools or a cluster of schools across a trust it might be possible to have subject leads but for a standalone small primary school this must feel like a huge challenge.  Local networks are going to have an important role to play in supporting primary teachers in particular.

A further challenge is the one that the RE community keeps coming back to and that is time. Too many schools only have an hour a week and whilst interweaving all of the above is not impossible, it is a challenge. When you take a disciplinary approach you are increasing the substantive content.  The students have to learn the language and the methods of each discipline.  I often begin a unit of work by talking about the discipline at hand, reminding them of its conventions, assumptions and methods.  I also need to create time in my packed curriculum to give students the opportunity to reflect on what they are bringing and taking away from our lessons in order to develop that personal knowledge.  Add into the mix the number of non-specialist teachers[13] and split classes at secondary level and it is clear that RE is in need of clear investment and attention[14].  I hope this research report prompts the conversations between subject leaders and their line managers that triggers that investment of time, money and expertise.


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/research-review-series-religious-education/research-review-series-religious-education#fn:145

[2] https://insightuk.org/hinduism-in-re

[3] Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer (Basic Books 2001)

[4] https://balancedre.org.uk/

[5] https://dioceseofyork.org.uk/uploads/attachment/3999/self-evaluation-audit-primary-sept-18.pdf

[6] https://dioceseofyork.org.uk/uploads/attachment/4000/self-evaluation-audit-secondary-sept-18.pdf

[7] A  video of me talking about the advantages of a disciplinary approach can be seen here https://screencast-o-matic.com/watch/crebc3VcKIX

[8] https://missdcoxblog.wordpress.com/2021/02/15/how-using-lenses-in-re-supports-countering-misconceptions/

[9] https://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/comment/2021/05/12/worldviews-film

[11] https://insightuk.org/hinduism-in-re

[10] Texts of terror: literary-feminist readings of Biblical narratives by Phyllis Trible  (Philadelphia : Fortress Press, [1984].

[12] https://www1.chester.ac.uk/theology-and-religious-studies/schools-engagement/trs-chester-level-webinars

[13] https://www.natre.org.uk/uploads/Free%20Resources/Teacher%20Recruitment%20in%20RE%20final.pdf

[14] https://www.natre.org.uk/news/latest-news/time-for-the-government-to-address-the-consequences-of-their-neglect-of-teachers-of-re/

Published by rewithmrsmcgee

I have been teaching for about 15 years in schools in Greater London, Wakefield, Blackpool and for the last 10 years in Dorset. For much of my career I have worked in pastoral roles but in 2016 I took over as the Head of Philosophy, Religion and Ethics at Lytchett Minster School. I see myself as a traditionalist, believing in strong discipline, high expectations of myself and my students and a knowledge rich curriculum in which the teacher is sharing their expertise rather than being a guide on the side.

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