A New Settlement?

Following the launch of a new report with recommendations for a “new settlement” for RE on Monday, Charlotte Vardy writes…

I confess to being TIRED.  It is not just the time of year, the combination of examination atmosphere, sultry weather and looming September-stress, it is much bigger than that.

Education is a juggernaut that is almost impossible to control, yet politicians are held responsible for controlling it.  Being responsible for doing something you can’t do is very stressful; stress often leads to irrational behaviour. Stressed politicians go to irrational extremes to get control of the education-juggernaut; they lose sight of the bigger picture, and start to see demonstrating their control as an end in itself. The juggernaut veers off-course… short-lived celebrations before a sickening crunch indicates that they did indeed control it… into the pier.

The scream of rhetoric suggests that the Captain of the DfE is well into losing sight of the bigger picture.

  1. The narrow-minded focus on PISA tests
  2. ignoring the CBI and Universities, claiming that anybody who draws attention to reductions in choice wants to deny children the choice of academic subjects and getting a good job…
  3. talking up textbooks, pre-prepared resources
  4. undermining teacher autonomy and professionalism
  5. effectively forcing schools to stop Arts education,
  6. shutting parents out of taking responsibility…

…it all suggests that captain has forgotten where the juggernaut was supposed to be headed in their desperation to show-off their mastery of the waves.

Many head-teachers find themselves in this position; I wonder how many of you recognize the following tried and tested recipe for tackling a failing/coasting school…

  1. Choose your measure of success carefully, with more of an eye to how and how quickly it might be achieved than whether it should be achieved,
  2. Attack anybody who dares question your strategy by suggesting that they don’t have childrens’ interests at heart.
  3. Buy in an expensive “solution” (from a multi-national company with files of paid-for research & slick marketing materials)
  4. Blame the teachers as and when the expensive solution fails to deliver the promised results immediately
  5. Cut back on any perceived “extras” to free up more time and money to invest in making the solution work…
  6. (If you haven’t managed to get another job by this point) start to blame the parents or some other social ill for the failure of your plan…
  7. Retire to take up property developing / consultancy work (delete as applicable)

Compare the two lists above and you might see where I am coming from.

As I see it, the battle we have been fighting in RE and RS only makes sense in relation to the whole war.

The DfE has chosen PISA tests as their preferred measure of success. In a period of austerity, rising demand in education and increasing employment costs, improved PISA rankings have to be delivered for progressively smaller per-capita annual spends. This makes the decision to focus on core academic subjects (EBacc) which relate directly to PISA and are generally cheaper to deliver a no-brainer.  With learning focused on a small number of subjects, class sizes can be maximized through KS4 and KS5 and a number of expensive, inflexible specialist teachers can be eased out.  Why spend money on an Art or Drama department that yields no statistical benefit?

Pushing teachers towards becoming facilitators starts to make sense.  To the DfE, putting subject-matter-experts in the classroom seems wasteful – just a handful of recent graduates working at Pearson head-office can produce “learning resources” that can be delivered by thousands of lower-paid fully-flexible facilitators around the country.  Why hire a specialist to deliver 28/40 bespoke lessons when you could hire a fully-flexible facilitator to deliver 35/40 quality-assured lessons a week… Bespoke lessons aren’t always good… with the add-water and stir / quality assured / off the peg variety you know what you are getting.  A bit like SMASH potato… hardly michelin starred pomme-puree, but guaranteed no-lumps and very cheap too.

Where does RE and RS fit in?  Consider…

  • Both RE and RS demand time and, more significantly, highly trained, specialist teachers… they cost real money
  • Neither RE nor RS lends itself to being taught effectively by untrained facilitators with textbooks or software and is difficult to assess automatically
  • Neither relates directly to PISA tests or fit into the EBacc measure designed make schools more efficient.
  • Neither are staples of window-dressing and neither offer frequent and/or demonstrable marketing advantage.

RE DOES NOT FIT IN… AND NEITHER DOES RS.

To my mind, the idea that the government was ever likely to include RS in the EBacc and is likely to change its mind was and is a red herring.   Look at the bigger picture and it is clear that any subject which requires a large number of specialist teachers, is expensive in time and/or money, is difficult to assess, automate and/or reduce to a list of facts, is inherently controversial, is not directly related to the PISA tests (and related skilled-workforce tables in The Economist which might attract inward investment) is up for the chop in this administration.

Let me explain the process from here…

  1. The attempt to conflate RS (GCSE and A Level) with RE can now be pronounced a complete success.  Long-term debates have been conveniently forgotten. Dedicated RS specialists, NATRE, the expert authors of the New Settlement report, experienced education journalists now talk about GCSE RE and A Level RE without the flicker of an eyelid.  Like shipwrecked sailors RE grabbed hold of RS, seeking to benefit from its league-table results, academic credibility, popularity etc. RS grabbed hold of RE to benefit from statutory protection & a privileged position in GCSE options in some schools.
  2. Whereas RS was an academic subject preparing for university courses in TRS, through the process of “reform” it has been pulled towards trying to fulfill statutory obligations and social-engineering objectives as well… Whereas RE was a very special subject, about much more than rote learning, it has been pulled towards trying to compete with History & Geography, denying its own nature and value.
  3. With RS and RE rolled together their fates are inexorably related.  In trying to encompass RE, reformed GCSE/A Level RS is likely to lose the popularity it once enjoyed plus close to zero academic credibility and no independent future.  In trying to include RS RE fails to offer the breadth, balance and unequivocal “British Values” message that it should; trying to ram students through GCSE RS in an hour a week a year early sometimes positively fosters the ignorance & bad attitudes RE is designed to address.
  4. If KS1-3 RE is now re-defined as RME and defined in terms of a list of agreed National Curriculum content then it suddenly becomes a lot easier and more financially viable for Pearson et al to develop resources to support non-specialists in teaching it at KS1-3. Once this is done, without Assemblies or any link between RE and SMSC there is no need for specialist RE teachers, even an RE co-ordinator, and the whole lot can be rolled into the PSHCE remit.
  5. Without the call for RE teaching / coordinating, running assemblies or writing SMSC policies At KS4 and KS5 the existence of Religious Studies specialists becomes an expensive luxury.  Faith schools and the few schools sufficiently large and/or privileged to be able to offer a wide range of subject options will retain RS as a minority option… others will phase it out.
  6. The minimum standard will become the gold standard…
    1. At KS4 EBacc subjects will extend to cover the full 7-8 GCSEs that most students will be able to take.  The statistical regime, the demise of AS level and consequent focus on GCSE grades by universities, funding cuts… all push schools to offer a maximum of 8 EBacc subjects to ensure best performance and best options going forward for both school and students.
    2. Add to that the funding squeeze at 16-19, the channeling of all university offers to 3 grades and the 2+ facilitating subjects measure and, in the rush to 3 subjects not 3.5 or 4, preferring “facilitating” subjects and those which can be delivered by core EBacc teachers… RS A Level ends up on the scrap heap as well.
    3. Once GCSE and A Level has gone in a critical mass of schools the last reason not to roll RE into PSHCE at KS3 goes; schools will follow the herd.
  7. All schools need is another fat policy document and they save the cost of at least one specialist teacher and 5% of precious curriculum time…

Very sadly, RE and RS are a legacies of a bygone age in which education was about more than politics, about more than money, about more than how well people can be shown to jump through arbitrary statistical hoops, designed without reference to children or the process of them becoming fully human.

Forgive the tortured prose… as I said, I am TIRED of all this.

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