Chance Encounters

This blog first appeared on #maternityteacher (@maternityCPD).

It is a bit different than my usual blogs to be honest as it is not really about RE!!

I wrote this blog because I passionately believe that maternity/paternity leave can be an opportunity for career development and I want to support the #maternityteacher campaign. Let me explain why….

Very few people can probably claim that their career took off during maternity leave….but this is what happened to me…about ten years ago! So how did this happen? In short it was partly due to being in the right place at the right time…but also due to the incredible support of colleagues who saw the opportunities that maternity leave provided for flexible working from home.

Ten years ago I had a toddler running around, and had a nine month old baby. I had been an RE adviser to the London Borough of Newham for a number of years, but had decided to explore other avenues of work to fit better around my family and avoid a long commute to London each day as we’d moved to Cambridgeshire.

A chance encounter
During my maternity leave I started to run a toddler group; slightly out of my comfort zone as I am secondary trained! However, I required some resources to help me, and whilst in search of these bumped into an RE adviser! She suggested that whilst I was on maternity leave I trained to become a Section 48 (Statutory Inspection of Anglican Schools) inspector. She said I could choose when to undertake inspections and it could work around my children. I took her up on this suggestion and whilst on the training met another adviser who told me they needed a secondary RE specialist to work with schools in Norfolk! My new ‘freelance’ career began!

A networking opportunity
The RE community is strong and vibrant! There is probably some kind of network meeting taking place every week for teachers. There are similar networking opportunities for advisers too, and I decided to pop along to my local group. I was fortunate that my husband was working shifts, so had the children for the morning! It was here that I met Mary Myatt (@MaryMyatt) who at that time was an adviser in Suffolk. Mary saw the possibilities and opportunities! She supported me in my early days as a freelancer by opening doors for project work, and invited me to events to help me network with others. She also always understood the constraints.. there was never any pressure.

A chance to work flexibly
Lastly, a number of organisations contacted me during my maternity leave because they knew I would be based at home! I would have more time to write – apparently! So I wrote articles, I helped prepare a bid for funding, I wrote material for a website, I acted as a consultant for a media organisation… many of these opportunities came about because of the creative thinking of other advisers in my field. Other advisers who did not have time to ‘write’ because they were in schools, had the foresight to provide opportunities for me.

Opportunities for all
In my work as an adviser now there are a number of ways in which I try to support those on maternity/paternity leave, I think partly due to the way my own career has developed. One of my roles now is as Lead Consultant for the TeachRE Course ( This course is distance learning and has many routes and pathways through it. It is completely flexible. We have had teachers complete the course whilst on maternity leave. Want to know more?



A balancing act…

Recently I compared the purpose of RE to a three legged stool! This was at the #REamIbother’d? conference near Bedford. My short five minute input was one of many contributions on the purpose of RE. My own contribution was based on the paper ‘Rethinking RE’ that I have worked on with other colleagues. You can view the full paper here:

When we have a meaningful conversation with someone it is usually (although not always) when we are sitting down. We need a stool or a chair. If the purpose of RE is to enable children to hold an informed conversation about religion and belief, then they need to have a chair to sit on to hold this conversation that does not tip over or wobble…. they need a chair which has legs which are balanced and stable. The easiest way to create balance is to have a three legged chair or stool. Three legs provides a stable equilibrium because mathematically three points determine a plane.

In our ‘Rethinking RE’ paper we suggest that the three legs of the stool are:

three legged stool

The theological

The philosophical

The social


Our paper focuses primarily on the ‘theological’ leg, because at the moment we do not think this leg is long enough. In fact we think it is pretty non existent in lots of RE that we see. So the chair falls over. The ‘theological’ ( I take a broad understanding of this term – see previous blogs) means children engage with the big concepts of religion and belief such as God. Issues of authority and diversity in terms of interpretation of truth or doctrine are grappled and wrestled with. The reason why people do the things they do is at the heart of this. It is about meaning and understanding. I think we rarely see this in schools. So my stool is not very balanced.

The philosophical (and perhaps the ethical sits well here too) is about questions of meaning, purpose and truth; issues such as why am I here? Is morality important? Does happiness exist?…. I think we see this in some schools, but it is not rigorous or challenging, it often descends into what pupils think. This leg definitely exists in schools, but I think it might have wood worm as it is not very strong and robust at all.

The sociological ( and the anthropological) is about the lived reality of beliefs in the 21st Century; issues of plurality and diversity are explored. This aspect is seen more in schools, but is often not actually about the lived reality of religion, but the ‘construct’ of religion or a ‘textbook’ or ‘chocolate box’ approach. There is no engagement with plurality within or between expressions of belief. This leg is exists but is perhaps from the wrong chair! It is too short and the wrong shape.

I like analogies and pictures, and I know this one has flaws. However, in order that our religious education is effective we need to ensure that it is balanced. Our ‘Rethinking RE’ paper is one contribution to helping rebalance the stool again by ‘firming up the theological leg’. However, my concern remains that the stool is still currently unbalanced…

Are we speaking the same language?

After the Making a Difference? (2014) report was published I spent some time trying to grapple with the what was meant by ‘thinking theologically’ or ‘theological enquiry’. Having been one of the survey team, it seemed important to me that I actually tried to work out what was meant by terms used in a report that I had in effect contributed to!!

As a Diocesan Adviser, I knew that teachers would want to know what this meant, and what they needed to do to support this approach effectively in the classroom. So where did I begin?

I began by looking at various definitions of theology. Yes, I know this is not the same a thinking theologically or theological enquiry ( I’ll come to that in another blog)… but it seemed to me a good place to start, as the roots were likely to be the same. I didn’t spend hours on this, but I found these quite useful

‘reason and discussion concerning the deity ‘( Augustine)
‘discourse on god’ ( Plato)
‘Systematic and rational study of concepts of God and of the nature of religious truths’ ( wikipedia)

There are many others, but I liked these because they reminded me of what I had done in theology myself. I had reasoned, and discussed. I had undertaken a rational study, I had explored the nature of religious truth itself. This was a subject that was robust, academic and challenging. That was the kind of religious education that I felt the Making the Difference? report was calling for.

I then reflected on what I had actually done in my own theology degree, which was in a secular university over 20 years ago. I realised that my own theology degree had included a number of different disciplines. I undertook textual criticism, systematic theology, philosophy of religion, sociology of religion, church history, pastoral theology and ethics… there may have been more but this is what I can remember! I then talked to teachers about using different kinds of questions ( e.g. sociological, philosophical, theological, historical, anthropological…)to deepen the learning in RE. I called it theological thinking because it was based on my own experience of theology.

To me, therefore, theology is much more than studying the doctrine of the church, and it is certainly not about passing on revealed truth. This may (or may not) be what takes place in some theological seminaries or in bible college, but this is not the discipline I studied at University. This is why the theology described in a recent blog ( seems to be using a language that is unfamiliar to me. To me, theology is not something that only happens inside a religious community. I think this may be a particular characteristic of theology in the UK, which is distinct from perhaps theology in places such as the USA. In fact, when I studied theology, there were members of all faiths and none on my degree course. The University of Oxford makes this point on their website too:

While Theology is an ancient intellectual discipline, no-one can doubt the momentous social significance of religion around the world today. Study of the subject provides an understanding of the intellectual underpinning of religious traditions, and of the social and cultural contexts for religious belief and practice. Engaging fully with the questions that scrutiny of religions elicit will require you to become something of a historian and a philosopher, a textual and literary critic, and a linguist. To be able to employ these disciplines effectively will not only make you a scholar of religion but equip you to embark on a wide range of careers.

Hence, my question ‘Are we speaking the same language?’, because I actually think although coming from different perspectives, the recent blog and my own views are trying the say the same thing, but are just using different language. We all come from different perspectives, none of us are impartial or neutral and this will have an impact on how we use language. Our own experiences will also shape how we perceive the world, and in this case religious education. I know I make choices in what I read and who I listen to, how I interpret what I read and how I internalise what I hear…. I am sure we all do… that is why I don’t think we can ever be truly impartial or objective in our study of religion and belief. It is because of this that I disagree with the final sentence in the aforementioned blog.

However, I welcome the critique of my ideas of theological literacy because I feel it helps to clarify my own thinking, and to challenge it. The analysis of the recent joint paper (see link below) which I contributed to is helpful because there are aspects of it which the blogs refer to that were perhaps ambiguous or not clear, or that needed to be challenged.

Most importantly, I do think we all agree that our children and young people need a balanced diet in religious education. We want to see better and improved pupil outcomes in terms of children and young people being able to have an informed conversation about religion and belief. If this, is the core purpose of our subject, then we may after all be speaking the same language, and I believe that theological enquiry will be an important part of this….but more of that in the next blog….

Making a Difference? (2014) A Review of Religious Education in Church of England Schools

The blogs referred to can be found at:

The joint paper mentioned can be found at:

I have found the following text helpful in clarifying the relationship between theology and religious studies:

Dinham. A and Francis. M (ed) (2015) Religious Literacy in Policy and Practice Policy Press Bristol

Guest blog by Ben

My son aged 10 has written ( his first ever) blog about the purpose of RE. This came about because he asked me what I had been doing all day ( in my study) and I said I had been trying to work out what the purpose of our subject was! This is what he says:

‘RE should be in the school timetable because it will make you wiser when you are older. It will help you in your job. It will help develop the wise and clever part of your brain. It will help your knowledge, skills and concentration. It will help you get a better job because you will be wiser and know about different religions, and about human rights’.

Reflections on my Rome Retreat – Part 2

This is the second part of my reflections on my Rome Retreat, this one focuses more on RE.

Firstly, it struck me in Rome that there is an explicit entwining of society and religion. Like Thailand (see a previous blog!!), the religious is part of the everyday. As Revd. Canon Richard Watson ( one of our retreat leaders, @RichardFWatson) put it whilst we sipped Limoncello next to the Pantheon (!), religion is respected, expected and connected. The expression of religion is respected by people. This might be one reason why priests could openly engage with people on the streets and invite people to pray. It is also expected, so it is not unusual to see expressions of faith. It is not seen as something that you just do in private, there are public expressions of faith everywhere. In many ways there is no division between the sacred and secular. People express their beliefs through the material i.e. through ritual, symbolism, music, art and so on. Lastly, people feel connected to the church, there is a strong sense of a living tradition. This unites people and provides a strong sense of belonging to a community. In RE, we need to enable children and young people to gain some understanding of how in many places in the world religion is not ‘inside a box’ or a ‘private thing’.

Secondly, Rome reminded me of the diversity of expression within one Christian tradition. Even within the Roman Catholic tradition itself we saw a huge range of different types of church practice. We witnessed the pilgrimage of many as part of the Holy Year, the contemporary worship of young priests out on the streets, mass being sung and said, confession being offered in many languages, candles being lit, prayers being written on post it notes… in RE I think we sometimes give a rather bland view of the expression of Christian faith. We need to show the colour and diversity of different traditions much more ( and not just in Christianity).

Thirdly, my time in Rome made me think about ‘the missing aspects’ of the usual RE curriculum, particularly in terms of Christianity. Some of the most interesting (and often moving) aspects of the retreat for me were exploring the persecution of the early church, the martyrdom of many of the saints and the way in which pagan traditions stood alongside Christian ones in the 1st Century. The visit to the scavi ( beneath St Peter’s Basilica) was probably one of the highlights in relation to this. I wonder sometimes if we avoid some of the most powerful narratives in RE… perhaps it is time to reintroduce a bit more early church history….?

Reflections on my retreat in Rome- Part 1

Reflections on my Rome Retreat- Part 1

The chapel where we were staying.
The chapel where we were staying.

I have just returned from 5 days in Rome with headteachers, senior leaders and advisors from a Church of England Diocese. This blog is the first of two reflections. This one focuses on the benefits of retreat for those in senior church school leadership, the second I hope in a few days time, will focus on RE.

If I am honest, I had questioned whether it was a wise idea to take time out of my busy work schedule to go on a retreat, it did also occur to me whether headteachers should be doing this. I shall never question this again! These 5 days have shown me so clearly that retreat should be an essential element of church school leadership, development and support. So what has convinced me…

Building a community of support
We (those of us in educational leadership roles) need community. We need one another. One headteacher reflecting on the retreat said to me, ‘I have never laughed so much’. On a one day conference or network meeting we meet, we talk about work, we move on. However over 5 days outside of the usual working environment friendships were created, support mechanisms set up, listening ears provided, openness generated; leaders were nurtured, encouragement was given…. We also had time to see one another as real people and not just headteachers or leaders. I learnt that some have amazing singing voices, play the organ, have an amazing array of headwear or can drive a hard bargain at the market. Building these relationships means that future working with these colleagues will be more effective because we have shared often deep personal stories with one another.

Creating connections with a faith tradition
Not only did the retreat build a sense of community with one another, but also an understanding of our part within the community of faith. The retreat allowed the headteachers to connect with the Christian faith in a way that was sensitive to their needs. We all gained a deeper understanding of the roots of the Christian Faith through engagement with Christian pilgrimage sites and monuments e.g tomb of St Peter, churches of Christian martyrs and saints. Connecting with the past encouraged us all to see the relationship of this with the present and future. It enabled us to understand our place within the Christian tradition and how our work now relates to this.

Developing an understanding of spiritual leadership
Whilst on retreat I was reading a book called Streams of Living Water by Richard Foster. This book explores the different traditions of the Christian faith. I was drawn to the last chapter about the incarnational (sacramental) tradition, as it seemed to me that it might be helpful in understanding the importance of retreat for headteachers. This tradition stresses that God is in the ordinariness of life. This gives meaning to work- particularly the work of leaders and headteachers in church schools. Richard Foster puts it like this,

‘If ours is God’s world, any true work for the improvement of human life is a sacred undertaking’ ( Foster 1999 p.224)

In addition, in terms of worship this tradition focuses on using the physical and material to express the spiritual. So physical objects such a crosses, candles, bread and wine and so on, help the worshipper to become closer to God. This is why many churches place an emphasis on the sacramental e.g. the Eucharist. I wonder if this is why that when speaking to some of the heads, the most moving moments during the retreat were linked to sacramental experiences – the compline, the Eucharist, the lighting of a candle, singing in St Cecilia’s Church, walking the footsteps of Christian martyrs…

Providing inspiration for teaching and learning
We had just come out of the Sistine Chapel when one headteacher said, ‘Just think of the many things you could use the Sistine chapel for in the curriculum!’. As we passed a display of different crucifixes and crosses, a headteacher talked about a project she is leading where every child is creating their own cross. Professional learning happened in the coffee shops, in churches and walking along the streets of Rome!! Colleagues discussed introducing daily staff reflections, prayer spaces, exploring Christian diversity more in RE, the purpose of RE and even SIAMS inspections.

A view of Rome
A view of Rome

So, this is why I believe space and time for retreat is invaluable. I feel privileged to have been able to take part, and hope it won’t be the last time.


Reflections on being a pupil again….

So my last blog was about maths… this one is about skiing!!! It is a bit of fun really…

Last week I went skiing in France. I’ve been a few times now, so would class myself somewhere around intermediate in terms of competence! I still need lessons!! You could say I haven’t mastered the art of skiing yet…

So here are my reflections on being a pupil again, and on the form of teaching and assessment which was used. Each morning we got up for 2 hour lessons. I apologise in advance for the use of the word ‘level’ but that is how the ESF lessons are defined in terms of standards.

Firstly, we had a rather lovely class. Some of us knew each other from last year (!) and we were all roughly the same age. There was an instant group feeling.

Lesson Number One: Relationships are key. Nothing new there then!

Secondly, we had a good instructor. He was highly skilled and spoke excellent English which was a relief (I did German GCSE a long time ago, my French is pretty non existent!).

He assessed where we were at on the first day. He ‘let us ski’. He took us down some fairly easy runs to build our confidence and to encourage us. He spent half the first lesson revisiting what we had learned in the previous level last year.

Lesson Number Two: Know the starting points of your pupils. Prior knowledge is key to setting the right pace for learning. I had had my doubts about moving up a level, but now I was confident I was in the right class. All too often I still think we don’t do this in RE. I can imagine being a pupil who was still doing the ‘previous level’, I’d be frustrated and bored… sometimes we need to put ourselves back into the pupil seat…

Thirdly, he then showed us what we would ‘be able to achieve’ by the end of the week. The focus was short turns down steep slopes! This was a challenging task, but not unachievable I felt!

Lesson Number Three: The success criteria or learning outcomes were very clear from start. The level of challenge was right. So the lessons during the rest of the week aimed to enable us to achieve this.

So, each day we did short turns on slightly steeper slopes. On the Wednesday, we did a pretty challenging one, but our instructor said he was confident we could all do it. We had taken little steps along the way to successful learning.

Lesson Number Four: The lesson structure was designed to enable us to achieve the outcome.

Lastly, the instructor didn’t always stick to the plan! He allowed time for us to admire the amazing views from the tops of mountains. The weather played its part too! Some days the weather meant we could not ski on the planned route as the visibility was too poor. Yet on another day, the snow conditions were superb… so our instructor said… let’s just ski today and enjoy it!

Lesson Number Five: Sometimes it is good not to stick to the plan! Go Off Piste!

Sometimes it is good to reflect on being a pupil again, particularly when the teaching is good.

And most importantly, did I enjoy learning? Yes I did.