Year 8 at Waldegrave School for Girls in Twickenham are studying Christian parables. But they are not simply reading them and they are doing more even than writing them. To today's lesson they have brought the draft parables they wrote for last week's homework and they are reading and commenting on one another's as a means of improving on their own. By putting the girls first in the role of critics and assessors, the aim of the lesson is to make them better and more engaged writers.
They begin by looking at three examples of parables written by former Year 8 students, out of which they concoct their own criteria for what makes a good parable. Then they swap exercise books with each other.
"I think Kate's parable is really good because it's very detailed, it's got lots of speech and she's got a good message. It's a bit like Cinderella, but she has made it her own," reflects 12-year-old Bryony Bower. "I'm probably going to put more speech into mine now because it makes hers a lot better."
Peer-assessment leads on quite naturally to self-assessment and, with a little prompting from their teacher, Amy Fiske, the girls decide on their goals for redrafting.
"I'm going to build my parable up more gradually and maybe make the moral a bit clearer," says Eve Kekeh, 12. "When it's the teacher telling you what you should do, it's just written down. But if it's your friend, you can talk about it and you can understand what they're telling you to do."
Assessment has been a problematic issue for religious education in recent years, and in 2003 was declared by Ofsted to be weaker in secondary RE than in any other subject. Part of the reason for this, according to Lat Blaylock, editor of RE Today, is that "the Government has not supported assessment in RE in the same way as in national curriculum subjects like geography and history".
The new national framework for RE, introduced in 2004, makes a substantial contribution to assessment, he says, but because local authorities still determine their own local RE syllabus and revise it only every five years, this non-statutory document will be slow to take effect.
RE teachers in secondary schools all too often suffer from assessment overload, many of them seeing 500 to 600 pupils - plus exercise books - for one lesson a week. Their assessments, says Lat Blaylock, have tended to over-assess the factual aspects of the subject - learning about religion - at the expense of its more reflective side - learning from religion.
"Too many teachers have given up on assessing engagement and reflection in RE because it's harder to do," he says. "But that is where RE's capacity to motivate children is mostly located."
In an attempt to produce some good models of assessment to help RE teachers, last year Lat Blaylock devised and ran an Assessment for Learning in RE action research project. With funding from the St Gabriel's Trust, six RE teachers from primary and secondary schools took part, meeting for a total of three full days to compare notes and try out new ideas. Their findings will be disseminated through RE Today, and a publishing deal for key stage 3 material is in the pipeline.
"We wanted to explore ways of pupils showing their reflective skills through well-structured activities," explains Lat. "We wanted to encourage pupils to bring their own insights to their work, rather than parrot back five facts about Muslims or Hindus."
Amy Fiske first became interested in assessment for learning when Waldegrave School introduced it across the curriculum in 2003. She went on to complete an MA on assessment for learning in RE, and then took part in the action research project.
"When the school began focusing on assessment for learning, I thought this could be a way of engaging the pupils a bit more in RE, making learning a bit more fun and getting pupils to understand what was expected of them,"
As a result of her work, the school's assessment strategy in RE has been "transformed", says head of RE, Paula Gray. Not only has the project furnished Waldegrave with plenty of new ideas for lessons, including starter activities, plenary discussions and more interactive tasks, but the school has a new RE assessment policy, which features self and peer-assessment once every half term for all classes. Teachers share lesson aims with their pupils, pupils are encouraged to redraft their work, and a new "assessment de-coder", devised by Amy and shared with pupils, makes clear how they are progressing as well as reducing marking time for teachers.
"We're putting more emphasis on RE skills such as comparing, evaluating, expressing and justifying your own views," says Paula. "We weren't examining the full range of skills before and we weren't so explicit in our teaching objectives."
The apparent success of today's lesson will be tested next week when the girls hand in the final drafts of their parables. But Amy is confident that, in general, the new approach "has made them think a bit more deeply about their work". Research evidence shows, she says, that formative assessment boosts pupil performance, "but for me it's pupils' engagement in the lesson that's important."
This is an approach to religious education that focuses not only on what gets written down in books but on what is going on in pupils' hearts and minds. And the girls of Waldegrave School are clearly feeling the benefits.
"There are lots of chances in RE to find out what everybody in the class thinks, so you know about how other people feel," says Bryony Bower.
"You don't just copy stuff in RE, you can have class debates and we do presentations," adds Kate Cheetham, 13. "We do this more in RE than in other subjects because there's a lot to talk about."