By By David Levien, retired teacher and Voice member (personal view)
On 22 May 2019, I attended The National Association of Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (NASACRE) Conference in Manchester.
The key themes underpinning this year’s Conference focused on how contributions from the world of religious education can serve to help facilitate cohesive communities and effective partnerships – near and far.
I thoroughly enjoyed the presentations delivered by the two keynote speakers:
- Peter Bull, Head of Religious Education at Alsop High School, Walton, Liverpool; and
- Professor Julian Stern – York St John University. Julian is Professor of Education and Religion at York St John University.
Speaker 1: How Can SACRES transform schools to become Beacons of Hope?
Peter Bull shared several good practice examples taken from his experiences and expertise as a Head of RE in a Liverpool school, working collaboratively with local community partners and stakeholders.
The projects highlighted clearly had both the encouragement and support from the local SACRE (Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education) as well as from other stakeholders and interested parties.
Peter passionately enunciated the idea that a SACRE working in partnership with schools, as well as with other local and even wider relevant interest groups, can aid the encouragement and support of schools aiming to become ‘Beacons of Hope’ in their respective communities.
Peter offered some directional thoughts for embarking on these kinds of initiatives. On starting on something of this nature, the following need to be taken into account:
- A Planning Group: It is essential to set up a planning group. Being part of a planning group can be a highlight, too. It is a mix of people who do not usually talk to each other but are united by a common focus. Once the group has been set up, decide on the best way to communicate and share ideas within the group.
- Partnerships: The initial questions you should be asking are about how it would look and who to get on board (for example, a theatre group). In the case of Hope – a 2016 example described by Peter – they worked in partnership with local churches and partner primary schools from the outset. They gained the support of their diocese, their local Jewish Representatives, the local SACRE, housing associations and the City Council.
- Community Activities: A community mapping exercise is a good idea at this stage, particularly with a focus on youth activities. Work out what is already happening in your area and see if you can build on these initiatives. For example, you could encourage a group of students to participate in an organised visit to a care home.
A fully functional SACRE which is also fully engaged in these types of initiatives and approaches can, according to Peter, based on the evidence presented around the work he is involved with in Liverpool, can very well indeed help to transform schools to become Beacons of Hope.
Speaker 2: “Uncertainty and Mortality: the two stubborn particulars of Religious Education for cohesive communities”
Professor Julian Stern eloquently and cogently argued that there are two stubborn particulars of religious education (RE) for cohesive communities – uncertainty and mortality.
In an education context in which knowledge is seen as “powerful” and as having “impact”, RE is – or should be – at the forefront of understanding how teachers and students are, and will always be, living in uncertainty, whilst also searching for truth. Professor Stern suggests that truth and uncertainty are good companions – indeed the best companions. Uncertainty without truth is confusion; truth without uncertainty is stale.
Although we may be living in uncertainty, there is one certainty: that of our mortality. And, happily that certainty is addressed – along with all our uncertainties – by the best RE.
Professor Stern went on to present a rather academic, comprehensive and detailed paper presenting our concepts of uncertainty and mortality as two “stubborn particulars” of post-secular, non-confessional RE: its distinctive features and its distinctive contribution to the curriculum. More than this, the RE that recognises these stubborn particulars will also contribute to cohesive communities – whatever they are.
Professor Stern concluded his address as follows:
“Religious Education is attractive to me, incidentally because it requires a recognition of disagreement – disagreement that will not be resolved. I commend it to you for the same reason.
“Celebrate disagreement, building, and work together notwithstanding disagreement.
“SACREs are some of the finest examples – from any society, from any period of history I have studied – of working together in unresolved disagreement, building the house of RE together.
“They are better examples of what I would like to see ‘community cohesion’ meaning than most others, and than most of what I see …….. in other policies on communities and on cohesions.”
This is very much a topic for future discussion and debate.
It was a real privilege to represent Voice at this national conference. This experience also offered afforded precious time and space to catch up and share with colleagues from across a wide range and diverse set of SACRE bodies spread out across the country.
I had the privilege of being a group member of Paul Smalley's (Chair of NASACRE) workshop, with a focus on how SACREs fulfil their monitoring role effectively.
Paul shared an important letter recently received from Neil Lawson at the Department for Education Curriculum Policy Division and also supplied us with an extract taken from the Ofsted School Inspection Handbook published in May 2019. The key takeaway from both these items is that SACRE work is vitally important and recognised by national policy makers who seek report backs of facts on the ground through Ofsted.
As Peter Bull would suggest, policy makers and key others need to keep valuing and supporting these bodies and, by extension, the RE teachers they connect with across our local authority networks.
At their best, SACREs do make a contribution and add value to our educational system and the communities they serve. They truly are Beacons of Hope – helping to transform schools rooted in their local communities.