In search of real meaning

14th September 2001 at 01:00
Far from being in need of inspiration, religious and moral education is in fine shape and new materials on the way will boost it further, says Mike Kincaid

The item on "Schools make faith a lottery" (TESS, August 24), covering the HMI Standards and Quality report on religious and moral education, makes gloomy reading. Having read the first column you could be forgiven for concluding that there was hardly any point in reading further. RME, if we didn't already know, is in pretty poor shape.

And if you did decide to read on you would only have found, if you had been reading carefully that is, a few tiny phrases that might have led you to believe that perhaps, and just perhaps, RME could be saved from complete ineffectiveness.

According to the writer, HMI makes it clear that religious and moral education is "badly in need of inspiration". I can't find this anywhere in the report and in any case we can all benefit at times from inspiration, even education journalists. The piece goes on to claim that the report's main theme is the "substantial amount of improvement required". I don't agree.

In the summary, there are seven key strengths described and six areas for improvement. The article quotes in full the paragraph from the foreword describing the areas requiring improvement but does not refer to the preceding paragraph that describes the key strengths. To say that "few of the 76 schools inspected...are rated very good in any aspect of their work" is misleading. In the word scale used by HMI, "few" means up to 15 per cent. The percentages involved bear close comparison with other subjects.

What the report reveals overall is that teaching of religious and moral education has improved dramatically since HMI published its first survey in 1986 (Learning and Teaching in Religious Education). The overall standard of attainment in RME at S1-S2 was judged to be good or very good in 50 per cent of schools. In modern studies, standards of attainment were good or very good in 55 per cent of schools while in history the figure was 60 per cent.

None of this is intended to skate over the fact that HMI has identified a number of areas that require improvement. The most important of these, affecting pupil attainment at S1-S2, is personal search.

Evidence from inspections has shown that teachers find the personal search aspect very difficult, and that many school programmes do not cover it satisfactorily. The three outcomes relating to Christianity, other world religions and personal search are often taught separately. Important links between the pupils' study of religions and their own personal search are not being made.

Last year Learning and Teaching Scotland was awarded a staff development contract by the Scottish Executive Education Department to produce staff development materials relating to personal search. The materials, which are about to be published, consist of two books. One relates to the national guidelines for religious and moral education 5-14, and the other to religious education 5-14 for Roman Catholic schools.

Staff development activities are aimed at helping teachers become more familiar with personal search and focus on practical skills in areas such as questioning, discussion and assessment. The associated reading offers a definition of personal search, explains why it is important and suggests a model for teaching it by exemplifying a four-stage process of preparing the way, finding out, making connections and thinking it over.

During late September and early October, Learning and Teaching Scotland will host four seminars in different parts of the country to introduce the materials. Nominations to attend have been sought from local authorities and teacher training institutions. It is hoped that the materials can have an important and positive impact.

Mike Kincaid is an education consultant and an author of the LT Scotland materials. His e-mail address is mike@eltconsultants.co.uk.

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