The article below appears in the latest issue of RE Today. Details on how to subscribe can be found here
If you haven’t already heard of it, SAVE RE is an indispensible platform for sharing ideas and best practice. It is a shining example of how social media can revolutionise the way we interact with our fellow human beings – and I am a recent convert. But my enthusiasm for the group began to sour when I noticed the number of qualified teachers using it to ask – without so much as a please or thank you – for free resources. Annoyed by people seeming to take, take, take, I thought I’d conduct an experiment to see what happened when someone offered to give, give, give – so I posted the above, too-good-to-be-true, offer.
The response was interesting and shocking. Some people picked up on the fact that I was clearly joking. But many people posted request after request for lessons, resources and even whole schemes of work. Despite not knowing my credentials or me knowing the contexts of their schools and students, it was felt by some that the offer of someone doing their job for them was just too enticing to refuse. Now, I am no saint. I have throughout my RE travels begged and borrowed (never stolen!) resources from colleagues and mentors. But I wouldn’t dream of posting anything like this:
Anything on Sikh attitudes to abortion?
(No ‘please’. No context, such as the nature of the group or key stage being taught. No reference to prior learning or intended outcomes.)
I’m being observed tomorrow. Has anyone got anything good and fun on Christian parables?
(It’s 10pm – no one can help you now. The fact that it is an observation shouldn’t matter, but this post not only indicates a lack of time for planning, but a lack of quality support from Heads of RS and a lack of overall planning skills.)
At best, these kinds of posts point to an ebbing of confidence among RE teachers; at worst, they smack of desperation. This is not what SAVE RE was intended for – but it does highlight some worrying traits among the RE teaching community.
Created in 2012, SAVE RE is the brainchild of Pete Edwards – Head of Religion, Ethics and Philosophy at Bristol Cathedral Choir School. He is as surprised as anyone about the popularity of his Facebook group – especially as it was set up purely so that he could share a letter he wrote to Michael Gove after the then Education Secretary announced that RE would be omitted from the EBacc. ‘It was only ever meant to be short-lived; I wanted to highlight the potential damage this could do to the subject and to young people’s education as a whole,’ Edwards tells me. He shared his letter with a selection of friends and colleagues, but, as is social media’s wont, the group’s presence snowballed – and it quickly became clear that there was a real need for a forum among RE teachers for sharing ideas and resources.
Today SAVE RE boasts more than 2100 members. Edwards thinks the reasons for the group’s popularity are twofold. ‘RE departments are often small – sometimes only one person, and possibly not a specialist – so the opportunity to discuss the teaching of RE and share resources is very limited. But also the pressures of modern teaching mean that there is very little time to think and collaborate effectively with others.’
As head of a department of, er, two, I fully understand these pressures. Defenders of the group have told me that, because they are the sole member of staff teaching RE in their school, the group is their first (and sometimes only) port of call for advice and resources. But there must be a line somewhere between sharing and encouraging ideas, and admitting that as RE teachers many of us are winging it, or taking advantage of others’ good nature. I asked Edwards how he, as the group’s moderator, feels about about this problem.
‘Planning great lessons is a wonderfully creative and engaging process, and people should not think ‘off-the-rack’ lessons will ever replace it,’ he says. “I have intervened in the past when there was some quite heated debate about people asking for entire lessons for observations – but I tried to make the point that someone else’s resources or lessons are unlikely to be as good as those that the individual has created, or adapted to suit their students and their style of teaching.’ Having said that, he does believe the group has metamorphosed into something generally very positive. ‘We have all needed help from time to time, and if SAVE RE can provide support to RE teachers across the country, that can only be a good thing.”
Do I still engage on the forum? Yes. Do some of the posts continue to frustrate me? Yes. But only because I care passionately about the quality of RE in this country, and its future. I worry that some teachers are isolated, and lack support from middle leaders and senior management in their schools. Many seem to be working on a day-to-day basis without schemes of work or any dedicated time available for long- and medium-term planning. Many seem to have emerged from their degree courses and teacher training without the necessary skills to research information or to plan lessons with confidence. The major changes coming our way, thanks to GCSE and A Level reforms, are going to mean teachers across the country will be planning completely new curricula. How can we support each other to plan and share best practice? When we ask for help, should we also offer something back in return? The growing membership of SAVE RE means it is likely to be a major force in support and CPD for teachers for the foreseeable future. The final word of hope comes from Edwards: ‘The best way to ‘Save RE’ is to teach brilliant RE, so that students love it, learn lots and we get their support and that of their parents.’ It falls to us as teachers to make sure we use SAVE RE positively and professionally. Only then can we SAVE RE, not from meddling politicians, but from itself.