An extensive Ofsted report on Religious Education, released in May 2021, has identified that nationally RE teachers’ subject knowledge is weak. Fewer than a third of the 633 trainee secondary RE teachers in this academic year have a degree in Theology or Religious Studies, and during PGCE training, on average only a day or two is given over to RE. For a subject which is heavily knowledge-based this is far from ideal, so at Paradigm measures have been in place for several years to make sure teachers have the knowledge and support they need to teach RE effectively.
One of the main ways Paradigm ensures its RE teachers have an appropriate level of expertise is by providing subject knowledge enhancement. Before each topic is started, teachers in each year group from across the Trust will meet together to go through the plan and talk about all the misconceptions that might surface around it. The RE lead for that year group then goes through the core knowledge required for that topic to ensure everything is covered, and there is a quiz at the end of it to see whether there are any remaining gaps that need to be filled before teaching begins.
Another tool used by Paradigm is the bonanza day, a big event consisting of workshops on different areas of subject knowledge. Teachers from across the Trust come together and are able to pick and choose which workshops they attend, so they can address any areas where they feel they are lacking knowledge and get the training they need. For example, at a recent bonanza there were workshops on Judaism and one on how to use artefacts in the classroom.
At every school there is an RE lead at each school whose duties include visiting the classrooms and getting involved in lessons, modelling effective practice and providing constructive feedback. Paradigm also encourages teachers to record their lessons, so they can be watched back and gone through with the RE lead or other peer, allowing them to see the positive aspects and identify areas for improvement.
As Religious Education has no statutory curriculum, Paradigm has developed its current curriculum by taking the best parts of the Tower Hamlets syllabus and the Suffolk syllabus (the two authorities which Paradigm schools fall under) and combining them in a way which reflects the Trust’s ethos and values.
RE is taught systematically, so each child studies each chosen religion – Christianity, Hinduism, Humanism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism – twice in their primary career, first establishing their initial knowledge, then building on what they’ve learnt when they revisit it later (Buddhism is added at KS3). To ensure the children make progress there is a different focus enquiry in each year. For example Year 2 will look at how and why the religions celebrate festivals, when they reach Year 5 they will explore what it means to follow a certain religion in Britain today. This way there is no repetition when children revisit the religion.
By structuring the curriculum in this way, teachers can be confident about the learning in previous years, and they have good subject knowledge too. There is a consistency so they know what the children have been taught previously, and this allows the teachers to make comparisons between religions for the children and themselves. It also facilitates spaced practice.
Paradigm takes a ‘whole school’ approach to teaching religion; every year group from 1-6 will study the same religion at the same time. This has several benefits, the first being it evokes a community sense in the whole school. By learning the same subject at the same time, siblings from different year groups will be able to discuss the same issues at home, albeit at different depths. When festivals come around the entire school can take part in the celebrations.
This approach is not only effective for learning, it also allows for greater efficiency when it comes to staff training and the organisation of resources and visits. RE is a very artefact-rich subject and teachers always bring in items from the religion, such as Bibles, kippahs and patkas, to enrich the children’s learning.
Another useful teaching tool which is used in Year 1 is a persona doll, which teachers use with the children every time a new religion is introduced. The doll brings with it a bag in which it has all the relevant artefacts, as well as other things such as a toy car or colouring pens. The doll becomes a member of the class for the time they are learning RE, and is brought in every lesson so the children can relate to it, and the teacher can use it as a frame of reference, asking questions such as ‘this doll is going to church, what might we do if we went with her?’.
The Trust arranges for external parties to come in and run workshops on different religions, and this works far more effectively when the whole school is studying the same religion simultaneously. The children also go out and experience religion in their community by taking a visit to a different place of worship every year, so in their primary career they will have experienced a workshop on every religion, and visited every place of worship too.
In present day society religion and beliefs have become more visible in public life locally, nationally and internationally. Religious education allows Paradigm particular opportunities to promote an ethos of respect for others, challenge stereotypes and build an understanding of other cultures and beliefs. This contributes to promoting a positive and inclusive school ethos that champions democratic values and human rights. It provokes challenging questions, encouraging pupils to explore their own beliefs, enabling pupils to develop respect and understanding for others and finally it prompts pupils to consider their rights and responsibilities to society, and helps them understand themselves. RE supports all three Paradigm values of integrity, excellence and community.