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RE in schools, parents’ role … and girls in engineering

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Blog - RE in schools, parents’ role … and girls in engineering

Tuesday 16 October 2012

The last week or so since the last posting have been very busy, both in school and beyond.  Incredible that this long, eight week half-term is almost over – next week is a slightly shorter week with the autumn holiday starting on Friday, and the school’s annual Founders’ Day celebrated on Thursday.  This year we have the (relatively) new Dean of Rochester Cathedral coming to lead our service.

I have just this morning been speaking on Radio Kent about the national crisis surrounding RE as a subject in schools.  What follows is a summary of the points I made. Although RE is thriving here at Bennett, because of the importance we attach to it and the investment we have put behind it, more widely up and down the country it is under enormous pressure.  There is a range of reasons for this.  One is certainly the pressures of the ‘EBacc’ – the group of subjects which schools are encouraged – strongly! – to ensure as many students as possible do in years 10 and 11.  These are English, maths, at least two sciences, a language and either history or geography.  RE is not one of them.  Keeping enough space in students’ timetables for the other optional subjects, for example art, music, drama, design technology and so on means that RE as a GCSE in lots of schools is squeezed into a small minority.  The second reason is to do with finding the right teachers. At Bennett we are able to recruit RE teachers quite well, but that is because they are joining a large, diverse and thriving team.  In schools where RE is a minority, there may be only one RE teacher, teaching and embattled and pressurised subject.  That is not enticing as a career prospect.  And of course with so much teacher training now going on directly in schools, there are fewer and fewer schools where RE teachers can train as part of a large and supportive team.  The third reason why RE is under pressure is to do with what people think it is.  It is in fact a broad umbrella subject covering ethics, philosophy, world religions as well as a focus on a particular faith, in our case Christianity.  It is not the rather narrow ‘religious knowledge’ or ‘scripture studies’ which many people of my age will remember from school.

Marginalising RE is a bad thing for a wide range of reasons, but let me just highlight four.  The first is that faith plays a huge role in the lives of the majority of the world’s population, and is a major factor in world affairs.  Young people need to understand the background to that.  The second is that ethical questions, for example those surrounding the start and end of human life, are complex and difficult, and big issues for us today.  Students need the concepts and language to form their own views on these.  The third is that RE is a subject which, well taught, encourages and enables debate and discussion and helps young people to learn to listen attentively to different views; it encourages and develops empathy and tolerance.  And the fourth is that, despite the decline in the West (though not necessarily elsewhere in the world) of organised religion, there is a deep interest exploring questions to do with the meaning and significance of life, and RE, in its full sense, is a very good opportunity for such questions to be explored in school and for young people to grow personally as a result.

So the NATRE (National Association for Teachers of RE) is right to highlight the marginalisation of RE as a cause for serious national concern, and we ought to be debating nationally how we address it.

Another national story which caught my eye over the weekend should come as no surprise, but is in many ways a challenge for us all.  The gist of it is: parental support makes a crucial difference in young people’s success at school http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-19923891 . In fact, supportive parents who show an interest in their child’s education and crucially inculcate a sense of the value of education can outweigh many other negative factors, including occasions where schools are not as good as they should be.  That is certainly a challenge for parents, but it is also a challenge for our society, because it is most important for the children who have the weakest parental support to be in the best schools.  Unfortunately, the way things work out, that has not always been the case.

Finally for now I had a letter recently from a former parent of the school whose daughter, having left here back in 1991, has made a very successful career in engineering.  She sent me her daughter’s company newsletter in which she is interviewed about her work.  This was prompted by recent news coverage of the dearth of women and girls in engineering and physics courses in schools, and therefore also in universities.  I hope that Lucy Littlewood (nee Mandeville) and her success in this field might help inspire other girls at Bennett and elsewhere to see what a rewarding and enjoyable career can be there for them in engineering.  The interview is available here.