Takeaways from Primary RE

Over the past three terms I have had the rare privilege of being able to rewrite our school’s RE curriculum from scratch. The curriculum is still a work-in-progress and it will remain a work-in-progress long after I have finished writing each individual scheme-of-learning. This blog post comes partly out of the big picture planning which I have been doing on that curriculum and partly as a reflection on Christine Counsell’s keynote at the 2020 Historical Association entitled History curriculum planning: at KS2 and 3.

In her excellent talk Christine posits an important question for any subject, at any stage: what frameworks / schema do we want students to have at the end of our time with them? To phrase this more specifically to primary RE we will ask: what RE frameworks / schema do we want students to have at the end of KS2? These are the takeaways which I am going to talk about in this post.

What is the importance of the end of KS2?

As a Year 6 teacher I spend a lot of time thinking about transition and, as a Year 6 teacher who was a secondary school teacher previously, it is something I feel I have experienced from both sides. In other subjects teachers can rely on the National Curriculum for some guidance as to what students will have learned by the end of KS2 and what students will learn in KS3. For RE, sadly, this is not the case, we have Locally Agreed Syllabi of course but these are patchily adhered to and vary from area-to-area. The idea that we can rely on them is diluted further if either the feeder or secondary school is a faith school or if either has academised and chosen the option to digress from the LAS (as we have). All of this is to say that, in RE, the end of KS2 is the end of our certainty and control over what our students know in RE so it is the best time to stop and take stock of the effectiveness of our curriculum.

What is a takeaway?

It is easier to start with saying what a takeaway isn’t – it is not memorised knowledge. Christine Counsell rightly says: do not start with a knowledge organiser. A knowledge organiser, by its very nature, is a collection of facts but our aim for our students should not be that they simply take away a collection of facts. I am reminded of The History Boys and Hector’s outrage at being told that his lessons were providing gobbets for the boys to trot out in the Oxbridge exams – “every answer hung like a Christmas tree with the appropriate gobbets” – RE has to be more than mere gobbets. This is why I have always preferred the term ‘cultural literacy’ over ‘cultural capital’ – we should empower our students to be able to interact with culture and future learning in a fluent way – we should not be teaching them merely to store and recite gobbets in order to impress or influence.

Our takeaways should be predicated on the idea that our curriculum is knowledge-rich not knowledge-heavy. A takeaway does not come from memorising a knowledge organiser but from having moved through a story in detail and with analysis, from having encountered visual beauty or literary power and from having thought through some of the questions which the facts present. Memory, after all, is the residue of thought.

What makes a good takeaway?

A good takeaway is a rich schema which is developed in students’ heads – it is not just full of facts but also filled with visual and literary allusions, historically and culturally important stories and an understanding of their own context – nationally and locally. It may be essentialised but it points to complexity – it provides an opening for further, deeper study (crucial at the end of KS2) and it provides the framework for a student’s own thoughts and reflection.

Let me give more of a concrete example. I would like our students to reach KS2 with an understanding of Islamic art and architecture. The reasoning behind this is that it gives them a richer understanding of the religion of Islam, that it will allow them to engage in the future with both the study of Islam but also with museums and galleries and with the built environment around them. Of course they need to encounter the visuals of Islamic art but our curriculum also looks at both the historical and geographic roots of Islamic architecture and the theological connections between Islamic art and Islamic beliefs about God and shirk. They know what a mosque looks like, they can recognise the kind of visual archetypes used in mosque architecture, they understand the practical and theological reasons for the fountains, the mihrab, the minaret ,the dome, the prayer hall etc. All of this links together to provide a rich schema – the beginnings of a full religious (and cultural) literacy.

As Christine Counsell says in her talk: don’t start with the knowledge organiser. Start with an idea in your head of conversations you want your students to be able to have at the end of KS2 then work backwards to unpick the schema needed to facilitate those conversations.

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