Barbara Wintersgill on what it takes to make RE a success story rather than a statutory obligation in secondary schools
The man stood pinned to the wall, his neck clasped in an arm-lock. Dean was holding a screwdriver to his throat. "Give us the money, or the teacher gets it," growled Dean to the Year 10 GCSE RE group. He demanded Pounds 100 for the teacher's release. They could only raise Pounds 1.86, but Dean let him go anyway.
Not, as you may think, another example of pupil violence to teachers, but a carefully staged drama to illustrate the Christian doctrine of salvation, in particular the concept that Jesus, through his death, payed a ransom for the sins of the world. The pupils talked about what they would be prepared to give up to save someone's life. The teacher talked about what if felt like to be "ransomed", and his feelings towards those who paid the price for his liberty. By the end of the lesson, a difficult piece of theology was understood.
This incident was part of a lesson seen by HMInspectorate in one of five secondary schools recently. The schools had little in common but all have RE deparments identified by inspectors as successful.
One factor that contributed to the success of RE in these schools was that pupils liked it, and where the subject was an option for GCSE, three or four groups were ususally found in Years 10 and 11.
Pupils attributed this to the quality of teaching and the challenge of the curriculum, often finding it difficult to separate the two. Their preferred subjects ranged from Old Testament Prophecy to a study of Hinduism, with religious ethics an overwhelming favourite. Pupils praised their teachers' knowledge and the quality of explanations, many of them regarding RE as their most interesting subject.
Pupils' work showed evidence of reading, writing (short answer questions, interviews, essays, poems and stories), graphical work (posters, charts, diagrams, spidergraphs, illustrations, symbolic designs and collage), research (including the use of CD-Roms) and using music and art to understand and express feelings and beliefs.
Oral work, a favourite with pupils, was of a very high standard. Discussion, debate, role play, drama, presentations and circle-time featured in the schools visited. In every school, pupils were encouraged to think clearly, support their views with evidence, and discuss their ideas. Pupils making presentations (on, for example, the case against abortion on demand) were interrogated: "Why do you say that?"; "What's the technical term for that?" The demand of the subject, the pace of lessons and teachers' high expections all figured highly in the pupils' evaluation of RE.
Many pupils thought RE would be useful to them in their career and as a preparation for life "because it helps you understand and respect other people and their beliefs". An A-level student hoping to study law said: "It helps me analyse and look at things critically and has given me enormous confidence to speak up and support my arguments."
Others spoke of how RE helped them clarify and develop their beliefs. A "nominal" Christian recalled how her class began studying Christian baptism with a homework to find out what they could about their own baptism, or that of a friend.
Whole families became involved in finding old photographs, baptism certificates and baptismal candles. A bright Year 10 Muslim boy taking GCSE attracted nods of agreement when he said: "I take my other subjects because I have to do them to get a job. I take this subject for me."
Support from senior management and governors was also a key factor in the success of these departments. All pupils at key stage 4 followed a certificated RE course, and in the schools with sixth forms, all pupils did some RE. Perhaps the most significant message from these schools is that there are many ways of providing statutory RE for all at key stage 4, and that to claim lack of time is no excuse.
"Non specialists" in these schools were volunteers with a genuine interest who valued the training given by the department. They spoke of appraisal which identified their needs, and of team teaching with the head of department, especially when learning how to cope with difficult issues, such as death, in the classroom.
Mutual observation of lessons featured regularly. Heads of department monitored pupils' work and teachers' marking. There were clear guidelines in the departmental handbooks and information packs on specific aspects of teaching. Heads of department were keen to stress that meetings were used, not for administration, but to exchange ideas and develop new teaching strategies. The "non specialists" had often become specialists, taking on departmental responsibilities.
The quality of relationships was a key feature in many lessons, showing itself in a remarkable balance of respect, openness, easiness and trust. In two schools, the RE department had enforced "Chatham House Rules" for specific activities, and this was understood by the pupils, enabling the discussion of highly sensitive topics. The degree of responsibility and maturity shown, even by younger pupils, was remarkable.
All the headteachers valued their RE staff as making a key contribution to the school, especially to its aims for the spiritual and moral development of pupils. They recognised their hard work, especially of the departmental heads, praising meticulous planning, team leadership, and the quality of handbooks. Heads confirmed the high status of RE in their schools. They talked of parents and colleagues with memories of poor RE lessons who responded positively to "modern RE". "Every year we get parents saying they wished that they'd done this in RE when they were at school," one head said.
Heads and pupils recognised that the success of the RE teaching lay in the careful balance struck between teaching about religion and making it relevant to the pupils' lives. This depended on the skill of the teachers, which one head summed up as "the ability to take an academic approach, enter into the most personal of discussions and at the same time keep your distance. It's very difficult to do".
There were no signs of complacency, and all departments were working on targets identified following inspection. One was reviewing A-level teaching styles, criticised for being too didactic, and on the day of the visit a sixth-former made a confident presentation.
Another department was looking at the GCSE short course as a means to meeting the needs of non-GCSE pupils, another developing new assessment techniques, another trying to raise standards of attainment among pupils with special needs and the most able in mixed-ability classes.
Religious education is not an easy option for pupils or teachers, but there is no reason why it should be the Cinderella subject in any school. Neither is there any excuse for non-compliance. Those who do not comply with the legal requirement might consider the moral implications of their position. The message to young people is: "Keep the law when you agree with it, or when it doesn't cause you problems." The dangers of this message are obvious.
In the schools visited, the issue did not arise. RE was being taught not just to comply with the law but because of its contribution to pupils' education.
Religious education in these schools, and many like them, gives pupils knowledge, understanding and skills which they perceive as of direct use to modern life. As one Year 8 boy said: "Whatever you do in life there'll be a bit of RE in it."
Barbara Wintersgill is the specialist HMI for religious education