Reflections of a Religious Studies head

Neil McKain

Neil is a head of RS in Buckinghamshire and currently serves on the executive of the National Association of Teachers of RE. He graduated in Theology and RS from the University of Leeds in 2002 and has an MA in Philosophy and Religion from Heythrop College, University of London. He completed a Farmington Fellowship project in 2012, exploring the use of formal debating in RE. He is an educational adviser for TrueTube and maintains a great interest in the effective use of digital technology in RE. He blogs at The Cursed Fig Tree.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about these words in the last month or so. Having been head of RS at a boys’ grammar school for the last seven years, I’m taking up the same role at an independent girls’ day school in September. Eliot’s Little Gidding, from which these words are taken, is perhaps his most theological poem. Themes of time, death and incarnation pervade the work and he ends by quoting the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich:

“And all shall be well and All manner of thing shall be well.”

As I end my explorations and arrive where I started what has changed? Do I think I’m leaving the department in a place where all things shall be well? What would I have done differently? Here are my reflections:

Curriculum

I’m leaving my role just as major GCSE and A Level changes hit. I’ll be dealing with them in my new school too. But the current GCSEs in RS did need urgent reform. I’ve thankfully never had to teach Community Cohesion (where’s the theology?), but I have taught Religion and the Media which is assessed by such gems as “Explain how Christians might respond to the way violence is shown in the media”, and my personal favourite “Sex should never be shown on TV. Discuss”. We have access to over two and a half thousand years of western (and eastern) theology and philosophy. We should be doing better than this for our young people.

"It can be difficult teaching a subject where children are naturally full of questions."

I’ve taught short-course GCSE at KS4 on an hour a fortnight. Is this a good thing? I’m not convinced it is. It can lead to superficial understanding and a caricatured view of religion, with religious ethics in particular being reduced to issue X matched to bible quote Y. The reason we do this, in part, is to fulfil our legal obligation to ensure all students get their statutory entitlement to RE. I believe more and more that taking this away at KS4 would be a good thing and making RS an option after 14 would improve the quality of teaching and understanding.

KS3 – When I took over I tried to include all major six religions and some humanism and philosophy across three years at KS3. I think this is too broad and that actually learning less in more depth is what matters. This is a challenge I leave for my successor. On that point…

Staff

I’m very lucky to be handing over the reins to the excellent Emma Le Neve Foster. Well I would say she’s excellent as I recruited her as a GTP (remember them?) and then appointed her as an NQT. Succession planning is something that really mattered to me, and I’m very lucky that it’s worked out. A head of RS is also likely to have the job of managing teachers of other specialisms (they are not non-specialists!) in their department. I’ve managed others (including my current headmaster) and it hasn’t always been easy. People rightly have other priorities and it can be difficult teaching a subject where children are naturally full of questions that you might not have the answer to. Subject knowledge matters and that’s why we need to recruit more RE specialists into the profession.

Technology

When I started seven years ago I didn’t have a smartphone. As I leave the school every student and teacher has an iPad. The pace of technological change in the last seven years has been remarkable. I had the privilege of working with and learning from Daniel Edwards, and like him realised that technology is a teaching and learning tool. When used well it can be incredibly powerful. When used poorly it can be disastrous. Training for both staff and students is vital. However, the key technological development for me has been social media. Without joining Twitter I wouldn’t have had the chance to meet and interact with such outstanding colleagues. It is the best CPD I have access to, and I wish more of my colleagues would use it.

Final thoughts

"Technology is a teaching and learning tool."

As a subject teacher I impart knowledge and wisdom unto my students. I teach them stuff they didn’t know because knowledge matters. In the space of two lessons I can go from teaching year 7 about Moses and the Ten Plagues to teaching year 13 about Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic. I can’t teach them empathy or make them kinder or more tolerant in an hour a week or a fortnight. It is the job of the whole school and every subject to embody the values and ethos of the institution and to model the virtues they wish their students to develop. Yes I’m an Aristotlean! I am traditional in the sense that I believe first and foremost schools are places where students come to learn things.

However, a recent talk by Dick Moore to our lower sixth gave me pause to reflect. Dick is a former teacher whose son committed suicide. You can read Dick’s story and about his work here. Everyone who heard him speak was deeply moved by his honesty and his reminder to staff and students that we have a duty of care to look after each other in school communities in order that we can teach and learn in order to (as Aristotle would say) flourish.

Do you teach Religious Studies? Share your experiences here.

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