Sizing up a toothless lion
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Sacre may sound like a French swear word, but it's the acronym for Standing Advisory Council on RE - a body each LEA in England and Wales has been legally obliged to provide and resource since the 1988 Education (Reform) Act. Before 1988, Sacres were optional.
The Sacre advises its LEA on RE and collective worship in community schools and in non-religious foundation schools, initiating the five-yearly review of the agreed syllabus. Included in a Sacre are various panels - teachers, LEA-elected members and officers, and members of all local faiths.
Sacres have little legal power. They were created as toothless lions - they can growl and occasionally roar, but not nip. However, they can have a significant influence, in RE provision within the LEA and in support for the work in schools. Ofsted has produced a report based on 19 Sacre inspections across LEAs of different complexions. With the reduction in RE advisers and advisory teachers caused by the financial attrition of LEAs, the burden falling on Sacre to support RE at the local level has increased.
Some have been proactive in stepping into the gap created by the loss of advisory posts, but others have not.
The Ofsted report makes uncomfortable reading. Many Sacres work on the margins of their LEA and most have not offered advice in recent years - neither have they been asked for it. Few Sacres were found to be adequately resourced, yet funding was found to be a key factor in determining a Sacre's effectiveness. Another success factor is the active support of a senior LEA officer.
Some Sacres have undertaken rigorous development work, but the work of many was not known outside their own membership. They had not focused on raising achievement or improving quality. They were not challenging their LEA in areas of non-compliance and RE teacher shortage. They were good at considering requests for "determinations" (legal excuses from compliance) on collective worship provision.
Ofsted found that "a few" Sacres provide effective support for RE and build on their multifaith, multiethnic and multicultural composition. Sacres are advised to train new members, set targets and use specialist RE professionals, and to be strong advisers to their LEAs.
A few Sacres get medals, including those that have links with schools in their LEA and help them with matters such as post-inspection plans for RE.
Teachers' conferences, meetings on faith-community premises and production of classroom materials featured in the "good" Sacres. In setting up the syllabus conference, Sacres can exert considerable influence on RE support and provision, even in these days of centralised RE and the National Framework.
Successful Sacres, such as Devon, Leicester, Redbridge and Newham, are supported by their LEAs, enjoy the services of a specialist RE adviser, train members who are outside education, and are proactive. But with the trends towards centralising RE nationally, the local may be squeezed further - and Ofsted reveals that some of it is very creaky already.
A few schools still don't deliver legally compliant RE because the headteacher objects. Who will deal with this minority? In this respect Ofsted has more teeth than the Sacres. But the best practice in this document offers a way forward for Sacre self-evaluation. Whatever happens in the centralisation of RE, the local will always be important. It is the home of particular faith communities, of non-religious stances, and of the children whose education this is all about.
Terence Copley is professor of education at the University of Exeter