Celebrating the new Staffordshire Agreed Syllabus in RE

The new Staffordshire Agreed Syllabus replaced the previous AS in September 2016. It was circulated to schools in time for the new school year, though the official launch did not take place in fact until 31st January this year. By then, the Syllabus was already being enthusiastically acclaimed by teachers for its up-to-date educational content and for its practicability and teacher-friendly character. Two other SACREs in the West Midlands are now planning to adopt Staffordshire’s new AS for their own schools.

Because of severe financial constraints, the drawing up of the new Syllabus had had to be carried out on a shoestring budget “in house”. A writing team of three people*, supported by a small reference group, achieved the writing of the AS in less than half a year. Remarkably, the team has succeeded in producing an impressive and compelling Agreed Syllabus which is coherent, dynamic and innovative, and is hugely relevant to the challenges facing pupils, schools and society in today’s plural world.

The Syllabus states at the start that the role of RE in schools is to prepare and equip all pupils for life and citizenship in today’s diverse and plural Britain, through fostering in each pupil an increasing level of religious literacy. In consequence, the aims of RE within the Syllabus are that pupils should acquire:

(1) An increasing core of insightful knowledge …..by exploring beliefs, teachings and practices ….; (2) A developing capacity to engage with ultimate questions and to formulate their own sense of identity and values ….. by engaging with fundamental questions…; (3) A growing range of the social, spiritual and emotional skills and dispositions appropriate to living well in a religiously plural and open society….. by reflecting on the reality of religious diversity and on the issues raised by living in a diverse world……

RE practitioners will readily recognize that the first two of these aims correspond quite closely to the familiar themes of “learning about” and “learning from” religion. The third aim is innovatory and radical, in that it goes beyond the idea of RE as a private personal quest: in the Syllabus, pupils are encouraged to move out of their comfort zones and to prepare for the realities of the public arena. There is an existential urgency about this; pupils cannot disengage from the impact of diversity on their own inner thoughts and reactions and lives. So the third aim might well be expressed as “learning to live within religious diversity”.

The three aims of exploring, engaging and reflecting may also be summarized as being in turn about THEM, ME, and US. What should I know and understand about the different THEMs around me? (Exploring) Where is the ME in this picture, and how can I articulate my sense of self? (Engaging) And how can all the THEMs and MEs become a cohesive and collaborative US, sharing the same public space, the same citizenship, the same aspirations and the same future? What values, attitudes, skills and dispositions would best achieve this? (Reflecting)

The Syllabus provides a framework of six key dimensions for studying religions and beliefs, plus an associated schedule of programmes of study to enable teachers to deliver the Syllabus in the classroom. Guidance is given on the selecting of religions and beliefs for fuller study: one religion alongside Christianity in Key Stage 1, and two religions alongside Christianity in Key Stages 2 and 3. At Key Stage 4 all pupils should follow an accredited exam course. A steer is given that Islam should feature throughout a school’s RE curriculum, as well as Christianity. Opportunity should be taken throughout the RE curriculum to draw also on material from a wide range of religions and beliefs.

Another innovation in the Syllabus is the scheme for assessing progress in Religious Education. In place of the obsolete eight levels of attainment, and in keeping with curriculum developments elsewhere, the Syllabus provides a sequence of statements of expectation for each year (Primary) or for each Key Stage (Secondary), for each of the three aims. This assessment scheme of age-related expectations in RE was devised independently from scratch; it may well be the first of its kind for Religious Education in England and Wales.

The principles lying behind this Syllabus have implications going beyond the RE classroom. If religious literacy is an essential element for living constructively and capably in today’s plural society, then this must be affirmed and practised at an institutional level as well: schools themselves must consciously promote a culture of religious literacy, and embed this in public statements, within the school’s environment and ethos, and in staff development programmes. Religious literacy must be seen to be for everyone.

At a national level, work needs urgently to be carried out on developing a shared narrative which accepts and embraces diversity as its starting point, and which is inclusive of all members of society. It is human instinct to feel more comfortable or authentic when one is part of a smaller group defining itself as different from others in particular ways. It is far harder to transcend this instinct and to create a satisfying shared narrative around diversity. In seeking to draw pupils out of their comfort zones into engaging with the reality of diversity, the new Staffordshire RE Agreed Syllabus will be helping to shape that shared narrative.

___________________________________________________________________*The writing group consisted of Emma Jardine-Phillips, Education Consultant, County RE Adviser and Advanced Skills Teacher in RE; Mary Gale, former CE School Head and Anglican Schools Inspector, Senior Education Consultant; and Rev. Prebendary Michael Metcalf, Chair of Staffordshire’s SACRE and Agreed Syllabus Conference, former Senior Lecturer in RS and Diocesan Director of Education.

Pupils at the launch demonstrating the video clip they had made about their experiences of RE.