Everyone a theologian?

All schools should explore ways of extending pupils’ ability to think theologically and engage in theological enquiry as part of their learning in RE

(Making a Difference: A Review of RE in Church of England Schools p.31)

In the last year, there has been discussion about what this might look like in Church of England schools. There have been many different suggestions and so here are my thoughts. I need to stress that these are not fully formed or researched. They represent my current thinking- which is subject to change!

I decided I needed to get some thoughts down on paper after hearing an excellent contribution to the debate from Mary Hawes, National Going for Growth (Children and Youth) Adviser, at a recent Diocesan RE advisers conference.

I have tried to represent my thinking in a diagram. Let me explain it!

Screenshot 2015-07-29 09.06.09


Everyone has the ability to think theologically and to participate in inclusive theological enquiry

This will depend however on one’s view of theological enquiry!! So here it is… this is what I think theological enquiry means:
going beyond the mere collecting of information about religion and belief
enabling children and young people to encounter and wrestle with fundamental questions about God
engaging children and young people with the core beliefs, ideas and concepts in religions and worldviews ( in my particular context as a Diocesan adviser this often means a focus on the Christian faith)
involving children and young people in exploring inner meanings and interpretation of ‘texts’ and more broadly the meta-narratives of the world of religion and belief

This means going deeper with the learning experience and in my view will involve strategies like:

-interpreting sacred texts
-using different ‘lenses’ to explore ‘big ideas’ and perspectives
-engaging with members of faith and belief communities
-using strategies like close reading and double entry journals
-embracing the tricky issues
-using ‘I wonder’ questions
-encouraging extended writing
-creating a hypothesis and testing it

This understanding of theological enquiry or engaging in theological thinking is represented by the blue circle. It means that anyone can do this kind of theological thinking, most importantly it does not take a perspective from within a faith tradition. It brings together many disciplines, many of which I used when I did my own theology degree.

This form of theological enquiry, in my view, supports religious literacy as the primary purpose of RE.

My thinking does not assume that humans are predisposed to asking theological questions, rather that theological enquiry is about the development of skills to support an in depth knowledge and understanding of religion and belief. It is about effective pedagogy to enable effective learning in RE to take place.

Theology is also done from within a faith or belief tradition.

In my diagram, Christian (or any other religion or worldview) theology sits within the wider understanding of theological enquiry. Every pupil in the class will have a faith or belief perspective, even if it is that they claim to have none. Therefore within the circle of theological enquiry, there are theologies that represent a range of world views- these are in a sense numerous and unlimited. I have represented these by red circles.

When a pupil sits within a particular faith or belief perspective they are in a sense ‘doing theology’ from within. They are bringing their perspective to bear on the larger theological enquiry. This might mean that they bring certain perspectives, perhaps certain skills or approaches to their learning that are grounded in their own belief system. Some might bring for example a particular reading of a scriptural text to their learning experience, or they may bring an experience of attending a certain festival which they ‘interpret’ from within. This is represented by the yellow arrows pointing out of the red circles. Theological perspectives from within, bring a richness and diversity to the RE classroom. Different ‘theologies from within’ may also interact with each other. So that one theological perspective may learn from another….theologies might change, be formed or transformed as a result.

The broader theological enquiry will, by its nature interact with the theologies within the red circles. This means it may comment on the theology, it may challenge it, it may critique it and analyse it. This is the job of theological enquiry. This interaction is represented by the green arrows.

My assertion here is that to ensure theological enquiry in Church of England schools is inclusive, we need to be clear about the interaction of theological enquiry and Christian (and other) theology. The two are not the same. My thinking suggests that Christian theology sits within the wider frame of theological enquiry. My diagram allows for diversity within and between ‘theologies’. This means that Christian theology will be explored, analysed and interpreted within the context of broader theological enquiry. This is what the National Society Statement of Entitlement for RE states as some of the outcomes for pupils in church schools.


The views expressed here are my own and do not represent any organisation that I work for.

Click to access statement%20of%20entitlement%20to%20re%20in%20ce%20schools%20(3).pdf

Lessons I’ve learned from lesson study

Just before the end of summer term last year, we launched a new approach to professional development in the Diocese of Norwich. This was primarily motivated by the (at the time expected) outcomes of the ‘Making a Difference’: A review of Religious Education in Church of England schools report which was published in September 2014.

The approach was basically to stop offering ‘one off’ twilight INSET sessions to schools, but rather to encourage schools and clusters of schools to book a series of twilights (or afternoons) over at least one to two terms. The first one or two sessions explored and unpacked the nature of enquiry in RE. As the schools I work with are primarily Church of England primary schools we particularly focused on the idea of theological enquiry. We also touched on assessment beyond levels and the idea of ‘digging deeper’ in our learning. The second session then set up a lesson study approach where teachers focused on one aspect of the enquiry, or a particular area of RE where they felt less secure. These ranged from developing questioning, focusing a concept, creating better ‘express’ tasks to show knowledge and understanding and so on. The final session allowed teachers to share both the positive outcomes from the lesson study, as well as areas they still felt they needed to develop further.

So what have we learned through this process?

It works!

Here are some of the outcomes from lesson studies that took place this year:

  • teachers have benefited from working with one or two other colleagues and focusing on a very specific aspect of the RE enquiry process
  • a safe environment for improvement was created so that teachers were willing to take risks
  • teachers have openly said they feel more confident and that the lesson study approach is something they will use again
  • outcomes, particularly for Early Years practice have been excellent. For example, teachers embedding RE into all area of provision; some outstanding use of questioning (by teachers and children) were developed so that 4 year olds talked about the Trinity and the Word of God with understanding
  • practice has been transformed. The expectation of feeding back to the rest of the group ensured that lesson study was carried out and reflected upon. The teachers have embedded practice between the INSET sessions
  • improved use of learning outcomes, so that tasks at the end of an enquiry express clearly the knowledge and understanding of pupils
  • increased depth of learning, so that pupils engage with big theological ideas such as the existence of God, suffering, incarnation, covenant…
  • development of an RE ‘working wall’ in the same way that this was used in a school for English and Maths
  • teachers giving more time and space for deeper, more complex philosophical and theological questions to emerge in discussion; having confidence to challenge and also allow for silence

So, I am delighted that I already have eight schools ready to take part in the same approach next year!

Useful links:



Click to access making%20a%20difference%20a%20review%20of%20religious%20education%20in%20church%20of%20england%20schools.pdf

The challenge of knowing what to teach!

I see outstanding teaching, but not outstanding teaching of RE….

This is a paraphrase of a comment made by Alan Brine ( former HMI) at a Church of England RE leaders conference last month. He was referring specifically to the primary phase. HIs comment has stuck with me because in my experience it is true.

For example…

Recently I observed part of a lesson, it was outstanding. It provided high challenge, pupils were asked to discuss questions about a concept. Pupils critically engaged with their own life experiences deciding which were most important to them. The task pupils were asked to complete provided excellent links with values and were imaginative and innovative in their delivery. All in all, an outstanding lesson. The difficulty for me was that this outstanding lesson was timetabled as RE, and I didn’t think it was RE. It was perhaps PSHE, at best it was philosophy, but it was not RE.

The teacher demonstrated outstanding practice, but this was not outstanding teaching of RE. The main reason for this was that the outcomes were couched in terms of values, not in terms of knowledge and understanding of religion and belief.

My previous blog was on the importance of getting the purpose right, and this issue of ‘knowing what to teach’ in RE is tied up crucially with purpose.

Teachers want to know what to teach…. and unless they know what to teach they don’t always actually teach RE!

Recently I also shared my thoughts on assessment beyond levels with colleagues. The same issue arose…. If we are to adopt a mastery approach to assessment then we need to know what to teach in each year group…we need clear end of key stage expectations that are linked to content.

The agreed syllabi that I work with don’t really provide content. I take responsibility…. I was the adviser for one of the them! In Norfolk, we provided some non-statutory guidance on key concepts in each religion and worldview that members of these communities felt were important to learn about….but we did not unpack these in terms of what had to be taught. We did provide levelled questions based on these concepts to ensure progression but we didn’t hang any content on these questions…if we had…this might actually have been the most important thing we ever did…!

So the biggest challenge I face, not as a teacher, but as an adviser is how do I support schools in devising a curriculum where no content is specified… Where they look at the agreed syllabus and wish it was simple and straightforward like perhaps the National Curriculum for Science (and I know many will say this isn’t perfect!)

That is my challenge for 2015-16. I want to see outstanding teachers, teaching outstanding RE. I want to equip them to be able to do this so they become confident in not only how to teach, but also what to teach so their pupils make outstanding progress.. because after all that is what matters.
The views expressed above are my own and do not represent any organisation I work for.

Why clarifying purpose is essential….

Like many colleagues I have read the Westminster Faith Debates report A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in schools (Clarke and Woodhead) with interest. It has in fact been the inspiration for writing my first blog! Although the report explores collective worship, faith schools and religious education, this blog post focuses on the latter.

Working for a number of different organisations means that they all bring different perspectives to the report. This is a strength, in that it allows me to try and see clearly where my own professional views lie. It means I consider a range of opinions and rationales. However, it has also been extremely hard, as there are tensions between some of these organisations in terms of the outcomes they want to see as a result. I have had some internal wrestlings!

However, after a couple of weeks of trying to work out what I really think, something became very clear to me last week whilst working with teachers in different contexts. There is something to be said for the reality of the ‘chalkface’.

So for me, it all comes down to purpose. Yes, I know this has been said before…but I believe this even more strongly now than ever before.

I have enjoyed reading the various blogs about religious literacy in the last month via #blogsyncRE Within these blogs there is a variety of views about what we mean by religious literacy, but this is a healthy debate. My own view, put very simply (I find most teachers like a straightforward definition!) is that RE is about:

understanding the nature of religious language
understanding the reality of religion and belief in the 21st Century
understanding the impact of religion and belief on people
enquiring into religion and belief i.e. asking questions, exploring the nature of religion itself…

(My paraphrase of Ofsted: Realising the Potential 2013)

The definitions of instruction, formation and religious education in the report ( p.33-34) are helpful I think. However, as someone who works in many Church of England schools, I also believe that RE (as defined on p.34 of the report) can sit within a wider context of formation i.e the Christian ethos. However, this context of formation must be articulated in such a way that it is not exclusive, but is inclusive of all. I have created a powerpoint about this for church schools in Norwich Diocese (see the link below).

The RE defined on p.34 is one I recognise. It stresses criticality, dialogue and enquiry in terms of pedagogy. This is why the suggestion in the report that religious education should become Religious and Moral Education ( RME) sits uncomfortably with me. I am not sure why this would be ‘more accurate’ as the report claims. RME suggests values and SMSC development, not RE as I see it! I think most likely this would cause more confusion and misconceptions. I think a term like religious studies, might actually be more accurate. Although various other suggestions have been made…!

Most of the rest of the report, to me, comes down to this single question…what is RE about? What is it for? I realise this may be a simplistic view! However, until we have clarity of purpose as an RE community the following questions….will I fear remain questions…

Questions about a National Curriculum for RE depend on agreement about purpose, because unless we know what the purpose of RE is we will not be able to agree on its content. My personal view… I agree with a National Curriculum of some kind, but it needs a clear rationale.

Questions about the function of SACREs or a National SACRE depend on agreement about purpose because unless we know what the purpose of RE is we will not be able to make a clear case for change in terms of how the curriculum is agreed and how it is monitored. My personal view.. I am not convinced by a National SACRE, but not convinced about local ones either!

Questions about the right to withdraw… depend on agreement about purpose because then a clear message can be given to all stakeholders about why it is important that all children and young people study RE; a universal understanding of the subject is created. My personal view… I think the right to withdraw should be abolished at the earliest opportunity.

Questions about RE at KS4 and 5 depend on agreement about purpose, because this will shape what and how the subject is taught. My personal view…I have mixed views on this one….and shall reserve judgement currently!!

We must get the purpose right. It must be right for all. Not easy, but I believe perfectly possible.

The views expressed above are my own and do not represent any organisation I work for.

Useful Links:

Click to access A-New-Settlement-for-Religion-and-Belief-in-schools.pdf


Click to access February_2015_RE_and_christian_ethos.pdf

Lessons from my world

My world includes my family, friends, teachers, schools, faith community leaders, academics, pupils, students, trainee teachers, governors, advisers, charities, PTAs, universities….

We are all learning. Each day seems to bring something into my life that causes me to question, reflect or ponder! Often my thoughts are not joined up or comprehensive, but to me this doesn’t matter. This blog is one way of reflecting on my own learning journey, more like a journal I suppose. For me, as Peter Senge says, ‘The journey is the reward’. Most posts won’t be long, although some might be(!), but they will reflect my own personal and professional internal conversation!