Category Archives: Opinions & Reactions

Staff and research students react to recent education events/research/publications

The Light is shining on Religious Education in England

Imran Mogra is a Senior Lecturer in religious education and professional studies, and a member of CSPACE. He is Departmental Research Co-ordinator of the Department of Early Years and Primary Education. In this post, Imran discusses a recent report proposing a national plan for religious education. Follow Imran on twitter @imranmogra.

Religion and Worldviews The Way Forward A National Plan for RE 2On September 12th 2018, the Commission on Religious Education (RE) launched its final report Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forward: A National Plan for RE, making eleven far-reaching recommendations for the future of the study of RE. The report is an important step in promoting further debate about the purpose, structure, legal framework and organisation of this important subject.

The review was undertaken as a response to major concerns expressed over the years regarding the overall dwindling status, quality and provision of RE in schools. Of the varied and broad recommendations, probably the most significant, innovative, and perhaps controversial, is the creation of a statutory national entitlement for all children in public schools. The Commission conducted a two-year period of consultation, evidence gathering session and engaged with individuals and interested parties, which resulted in the publication of Interim Report.

This important report is welcomed for highlighting some of the issues troubling the RE community, schools and teachers. Its significance ought to be considered in light of the vision it sets out for the new National Plan for RE so that RE is retained as an academically rigorous and a knowledge-rich preparation for life in a world of great religion and belief diversity. The Foreword highlights that the report:

  • Offers a new vision: The subject should explore the important role that religious and non-religious worldviews play in all human life.
  • All pupils should have access to high quality teaching, whatever school they attend.
  • There should be significant investment – finance, teacher development and local structures

It recommends that the name be changed to Religion and Worldviews. This is certainly going to prove irksome for some, but will be welcomed by others. Perhaps it is intended to indicate a new aspirational dawn for RE. However, I am not wholly convinced about the impact that the change might have, should it hinge solely on the idea of being inclusive, i.e. of ‘worldviews’. The QCA 2004 had recommended that for a broad and balance RE, there should be opportunities for all pupils to study secular philosophies such as humanism and many local syllabuses do include secular philosophies. Nevertheless, as with previous questions raised about the breadth of scope in terms of which religious should be included, I see the use of ‘worldviews’ leading to a similarly problematic debate about which non-religious worldviews to include and for what purposes. It is important to ask what the inclusion/exclusion criteria will be.

According to recommendation 2, a national entitlement to the study of Religion and Worldviews should become statutory for all publicly funded schools. Since the beginning of the process, I have found my position in relation to the proposal of a statutory national entitlement moving in a pendulum-like swing. How will such an entitlement guarantee a significant increase in the quantity of high-quality teaching? Is it so with history and geography, for example? On the other hand, it might strengthen assessment and monitoring, which may impact positively on school attitudes to valuing this subject. It can certainly guarantee a curriculum for ‘all’ pupils in all types of schools so that a situation can be created whereby a baseline of religious literacy is delivered nationally. Of course, it is important to temper this with a note of caution. How will such a programme be enforced through Ofsted inspections?

It says that a programme of study should be developed by a national body of a maximum of nine professionals, including serving teachers. The emphasis on professionals appears to be a clear message for the determination of the nature of the subject to be within the confines of education, which is vital for addressing misunderstandings and the myth about RE being confessional and indoctrinatory in schools. The inclusion of serving teachers is also welcomed, as there is the clear potential for the body to be kept informed by insider viewpoints and from those working on the ground. It states that this body ‘could choose’ to take advice from other organisations where appropriate, though some might perceive this as watering down the role of faith communities, stakeholders in this debate?

There has been considerable debate and concern about the removal of the right of withdrawal from the subject. Currently, parents can withdraw their children from RE. The report recommends that the DfE should review the right of withdrawal and provide legal clarification. Calling on the DfE ‘to review’ seems that a softer approach has been taken by the Commission. It presents a clear indication that the removal of this will remain a thorny issue. To alleviate concerns related to withdrawal it expects the DfE to work with school leaders to develop a code of good practice for managing the right of withdrawal. Unfortunately, the report offers very little in terms of evidence and direct voices of those who wish for this right to be retained.

There is much to commend in this independent report: the proposals to raise the profile and significance of the subject, the need for well-trained teachers, improvements and funding in CPD, the continuation of the statutory nature of the subject up to KS4, incorporating the subject into vocational qualifications.

The eleven recommendations are significant for moving this debate on and stimulate a different kind of conversation about this important, yet often neglected, subject. It remains for the government to consider them thoroughly at a time when there appears to be a decline in religious literacy, seemingly in correlation with increasing levels of prejudice, fear, hatred and violence.

The making of a good Muslim Brit

Imran Mogra, Senior Lecturer in Religious Education and Professional Studies at Birmingham City University, explores some of the key findings from a recent review into existing research on societal perceptions from Muslim families.  

The Aziz Foundation, Barrow Cadbury Trust, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and Unbound Philanthropy commissioned Ipsos MORI to review existing research on Muslims. This is a useful piece of research, not least in consolidating existing knowledge and challenging some preconceived notions about Muslims, but also as it assists in identifying the nature and areas for future research. The datasets used in this study were taken from 2010-2016 and the commercial/media surveys from 2015- Dec 2016. This post presents a summary of the key findings from this research.

Population

According to the Ipsos MORI review, the British public hugely overestimates the number of Muslims, leading some to predict that their population will triple. The public thinks that around one in six Britons are Muslim, rather than the correct figure of fewer than one in twenty.

The public’s views about Muslims are mixed and their understanding of Islam is limited. Younger people, however, tend to be better informed and more positive in their attitudes, and knowing someone who is Muslim also makes a positive difference. This demonstrates the need for continued interaction in all sections of society, especially through education and youth channels. Significantly, a third of Muslims are below the age of 15, and half are under 25 years old. This raises implications for society in general and the Muslim communities in particular in ensuring that they have high aspiration and high aspirations for all young people.

Education

Education is important to Muslims. They are much more likely to feel that their level of education is part of their self-identity than are most Britons: 55% of Muslims say their education is important to their sense of who they are, compared to 35% of Christians.

The Ipsos MORI review found that Muslim parents have higher educational aspirations for their children than other parents— slightly higher for Muslim girls than for Muslim boys, but in both cases much higher than the national average. 70% of parents with a Muslim daughter said it was ‘very likely’ that she would go to university, and 64% said the same about their Muslim sons, compared to 43% for non-Muslim girls and 34% for non-Muslim boys. This appears insightful especially in relation to the oft purported stereotype of Muslim attitudes towards female education. Though encouraging, it would be interesting to learn about their career destinations.

Identity and belonging

Most Muslims in Britain live in ethnically-mixed areas. Younger Muslims and graduates are also more likely to have diverse friendship groups than older Muslims and non-graduates. Muslims have a strong sense of belonging to Britain and of feeling part of British society. Most Muslims in Britain consider themselves to be “British”, rather than “English”, “Scottish”, “Welsh” or “Northern Irish”, and most feel that this is their only national identity. A majority thinks that more interaction should take place between different religious and ethnic groups. 45% of under 24s said at least half of their friends are from outside their ethnic group.

Religion

Religion plays an important part in the lives and identity of most Muslims, particularly those who are UK graduates. Interestingly, a strong sense of religious identity sits alongside a strong sense of British identity. Muslims are more likely than the British public as a whole to say that their national identity is important to their sense of who they are (55% of Muslims say this, compared to 44% of all adults).

The vast majority (94%) of Muslims feel able to practice their religion freely in Britain, and most believe that Islam is compatible with the British way of life. Five in six Muslims (83%) agree that “it is possible to fully belong to Britain and maintain a separate cultural or religious identity”; and two-thirds (66%) of Britons regardless of religion agree within them.

The report found that more than half pray at least five times a day or engage in worship of some kind. To meet their spiritual and religious need mosques are needed, which goes someway to explain the estimated 1,500 mosques in Britain.

Politics

In terms of political engagement, the majority (64%) of Muslims say that they are satisfied with the way that democracy works in this country, a higher than the satisfaction levels  with the democratic process across the British public as a whole, and more likely to express trust in democratic institutions. Moreover, Muslims are more likely than the rest of the public to believe that being active in politics can bring benefits, although many feel they have little influence over the decisions that affect them.

Community engagement and charitable

Giving is regarded as highly important in Islam. Most British Muslims donate to charity. Three-quarters (72%) say they have given in the last year, with older Muslims, graduates and those living outside London donating more than younger Muslims, non-graduates and Londoners.

Prejudice

Some Muslims feel that there is prejudice and mistrust against them. The majority take the opposite view; and seven in ten (70%) Muslims feel they are treated fairly by the government. Nevertheless, prejudice against Muslims is felt to be increasing, particularly by Muslim graduates and young Muslims, and a significant minority believes Muslims do not get the same life opportunities as others. One in four (27%) Muslims say they have experienced discrimination; this rises to one in three (34%) for graduates and Muslims aged 18-24.

Employment

More than 7% of Muslims are unemployed, compared with 4% of the UK population as a whole. The hostile climate is holding back some Muslims in work places and several barriers have been identified including impact of the rise in Islamophobia as evident in the House of Common Report. These reveal that there is some reluctance to hire Muslim women as they prioritise family commitments and caring duties. Statistics need to reflect this more and, perhaps link it to a wider social attitude regarding the choices and preferences of some. The age demographic of Muslim women with young families, religio-culutral values and affordable childcare or gender discrimination are additional factors.

Social attitudes

Muslims tend to have more conservative attitudes. Close to half of Muslim men and a third of Muslim women agree that “Wives should always obey their husbands”. Most Muslims participate in traditional British cultural practices, even those with explicitly Christian origins. At Christmas, three-quarters (73%) send cards and three in five give presents, and many also send Mother’s Day or Father’s Day cards, and wear a poppy on Remembrance Day. But most do not put up a Christmas tree. I wonder which headline will feature in the newspaper, the former potentially reinforces stereotypes, and the latter reflects contemporary multi-faith Britain. The tendency it seems is to highlight controversial elements which aid in polarising the community and underplay the positive aspect of the community. Indeed, this highlights a broader issue relating to the representation of Muslims in mainstream media, a point to which I return later in this piece.

Terrorism

Across numerous surveys, only a tiny percentage of Muslims have expressed support or sympathy for terrorism. The reports notes that a recent 2016 survey found that on any act relating to violence, there were notably higher levels of condemnation among Muslim communities than for the population as a whole. Indeed, if anything, sympathy for terrorist violence in the general population (4%) was higher than among Muslims (2%). The vast majority (94%) of Muslims say they would report activities supporting violent extremism to the police, only a minority (16%) say they have come across such activities and these were mainly on internet sites.

Public views

There is a mixed picture on how the public as a whole views Muslims – some measures find a broadly positive or neutral view, others a more negative impression – but younger people are consistently more positive. Most (57%) of the British public do not feel that they have much knowledge or understanding of Islam, and surveys confirm that misconceptions are often widespread.

Victim of crime

Muslims are much more worried about being a victim of crime than average. In 2010-11, Muslims were twice as likely as adults in England and Wales as a whole to be very worried about becoming a victim of crime: 15% were very worried, and 33% fairly worried; for all adults the figures were 8% and 27% respectively.

A NUS survey has found third of Muslim students have experienced abuse or crime at their place of study in the UK, with most victims believing it was motivated by Islamophobia. The community is concerned about physical attacks targeted towards them due their skin religion, colour and ethnic origin.

The role that the media have played in perpetuating stereotypes which do little to dispel potential Muslim hate cannot be understated and is worthy of a much more detailed comment than I can give here. In my view, a more principled position on the reporting and depiction of Muslims needs to be taken, and a wider conversation needs to be started on this issue, including that of a definitive definition of Islamophobia.

The Muslim community should continue to strive in nurturing their youth to be good Muslims. The findings suggest a good Muslim is a Good Brit!

Imran Mogra

A ‘future perfect’ for the University

Dr Fadia Dakka, a postdoctoral researcher in CSPACE, reflects on her experience at the 2017 Society for Research into Higher Education Annual Conference, and challenges our perceptions of how we think about ‘university futures’. 

The dust may have well settled on last December’s Society for Research into Higher Education’s Annual Conference (SRHE2017), yet some of its most inspiring messages still resonate in a polyphony of intellectual voices at their finest. As it should be.

Professor Susan Wright (Educational Anthropology) inaugurated the conference proceedings with a thought provoking keynote that effectively set the tone of the event: ‘knowledge ecology or economy’? – she asked, urgently calling for new ways of ‘imaginizing’ and organising the university. After reviewing some thirty years of unyielding critique of neoliberal higher education between England and Denmark, while unwittingly offering the audience a much revered glance at one’s lifetime intellectual and professional endeavour, she articulated her compelling call to arms: time is ripe for action. And for a substantial shift to occur in the way we presently think about university futures, we need to start from the semantic and semiotic aspects of it. Wright suggested a change in root metaphors, calling biology and anthropology to the university’s rescue. Let us imagine waking up from a fever dream to discover (with much relief!) that neoliberalism, academic capitalism, and the knowledge economy had never risen to become the culturally hegemonic, all-encompassing narratives and sole horizons for thinking and action that we have painfully grown accustomed to. Instead, we live in an interactive knowledge ecology, characterised by a ‘sympoiesis of holobionts’: a collective organisation populated by assemblages of diverse species, forming harmonious ecologic units. Let us linger on the metaphor… and shape the contours of the new ontological and epistemological premises of the university as a ‘holobiont’. Sue Wright sees it as a ‘space for dissension’, that progresses through a ‘generous willingness to disagree’ and through ‘thinking with care’. A space, place and time to ‘lead an examined life with troubling questions’.

I left the plenary enthused, intellectually challenged and positively ‘troubled’, trying to connect what I had just heard with a deliberately provoking revival of Wittgenstein’s famous quote: the limits of my language are the limits of my world.

As the conference progressed, aided by glamorous evening drinks and – proportionally to the amount drunk –  what one believed were the absolutely brilliant accompanying conversations with random delegates, I felt that I had sufficiently rehearsed my upcoming presentation on the rhythms of emancipatory higher education.  While reflecting on the ways in which time, space and affect interweave to continually create and recreate the modalities and materialities of our existence within the university, Penny Burke’s paper (Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education, Newcastle, Australia)  – ‘Investment in Time & Space in HE’ – shed light on another crucial yet under-researched point:  time & space (rhythms) in academia are increasingly and worryingly individualised, decontextualized and disembodied. This means that those who do not conform to hegemonic values and practices of space & time are constructed as problematic and lacking capabilities. In other words, not only are these timescapes far from being neutral – indeed they are  multiple, embodied, gendered and racialized; but spaces too (architecture and technology as cases in point),  structure the student and teacher’s experience by making certain forms of practice possible while excluding others. Burke’s stringent critique enlightened me on the necessity of making the politics of rhythms in academia both explicit and radical, by pointing toward a new conceptualisation of time-space in relation to equity and belonging.

As the conference finally drew to a close, my reflections on the past-future-present of the university seemed to come full circle, too, while I was silently engaging with Sue Wright’s ultimate provocation: “There’s no such thing as the individual. Humans are more bacteria than they are human genes.” This should be a starting point for thinking the future University as a sympoiesis (co-creation):  the university of the commons.

Alongside this powerful vision for a re-energized and democratized Anthropocene, I begin to wonder whether the journey toward ‘the centre of the maze’, for a hypothetical university of the future, should not simply be an inward gaze: the aesthetic of absence that historically characterized the myth of the ‘ivory tower’ could be recovered as a space of separation and incubation. As Masschlein and Simons (2017) remind us, the Greek philosophical and historical conceptualization of schole can be simultaneously defined as study, free time, rest, delay, discussion, lecture, or school building. In creating a suspension from the dominant (time-space) economies that have produced it, the university can and should reclaim the freedom to ‘suspend’ hegemonic time-space and allow becoming. In connecting past and future to our everyday, I therefore suggest a new ‘tense’ for higher education: the future perfect.

Dr Fadia Dakka is a post-doc researcher at CSPACE. Her research interests interface between political/economic/ cultural transformations of the contemporary university, university futures and the rhythms of emancipatory (higher) education.  

Parenting in the digital age – what age should children have a smartphone?

In this second post of the series on ‘Parenting in the digital age’, Dr. Jane O’Connor continues  to explore the relationship between children’s rights and digital technology.  

Young people and mobile phones

I recently had the following conversation with my soon to be 7 year old son that I think will sound familiar to many parents with children of a similar age:
‘Mum can I have a smartphone for my birthday?’
‘No’
‘Why not?’
‘Because you’re too young.’
‘When can I have one?’
‘When you’re older,’
‘How old?’
‘Oh I don’t know, twelve, maybe ten.’
‘That’s ages away.’
‘Well you are not allowed to have one until you are ten…it’s the law.’

It isn’t the law of course, but I’m beginning to wish it was.

Limiting our children’s access to digital technology is beginning to feel more and more akin to King Canute trying desperately to hold back the waves, and the ubiquitous presence of smartphones in ever younger hands makes it increasingly difficult to justify resisting the trend. On average, children are getting their first smartphones around age 10, according to the research firm Influence Central, down from age 12 in 2012. According to a recent survey of parents by Internet Matters the vast majority of children aged 8 to 11 in Britain now own a smartphone, with Newcastle and Nottingham having the very highest rates of ownership in this age group at 90.5% and 90% respectively. Many schools now ban smartphones from lessons and playgrounds, but the issue is still a pertinent one for parents to navigate, weighing up the pros and cons of the peace of mind of being able to be in constant contact with their children, with the attention grabbing and potentially disturbing diversions of the phone. The following quote from the US based Common Sense media website summarises why the decision to give your child a phone is not to be taken lightly and deserves careful thought:

when you hand your children cell phones, you’re giving them powerful communication and media-production tools. They can create text, images, and videos that can be widely distributed and uploaded to websites instantly. Parents really need to consider whether their kids are ready to use their phones responsibly and respectfully’.

Perhaps it is not about the age of the child after all, but about the kind of child they are and how they want to use their phone? I know my son just wants to play games on it, and so feel no compunction about delaying the acquisition of yet another screen based distraction, but clearly ownership is becoming the norm for children not much older than he is now. As well as protecting children, as parents we also surely have a responsibility to try and ensure that our children are not left out and are socially included. Furthermore, is it not hypocritical in the extreme for adults to use smartphones for ever increasing amounts of time and reasons and yet not want children to emulate that behaviour?

The historian and mythographer Marina Warner takes a broader view of the futility of trying to keep childhood and adulthood separate by restricting children’s access to the adult world. In her essay ‘Little angels little devils: keeping childhood innocent’ she argues that:

Children aren’t separate from adults…they can’t live innocent lives on behalf of adults…Children are our copy in little…in affluent cities of the West, they’ll wail for expensive trainers with the right label like their friends.'(1994: p48)

And today, clearly, they’ll wail for their own smartphones.

This desire to hold on to childhood innocence seems to be at the heart of parental concerns around children owing smartphones, but is that innocence, as Warner claims, simply a myth?

Young person and mobile phone

Related links and publications
https://www.commonsensemedia.org
http://influence-central.com/
https://www.internetmatters.org/
Warner, M (1994) Managing monsters – The Reith Lectures. London: Vintage.

Jane O’Connor

Dr Jane O’Connor is a Reader in Childhood Studies at Birmingham City University and is currently leading ‘Technobabies’, an international research project exploring parents’ perspectives on the use of touchscreen digital devices by 0-3 year olds. Jane started her professional life as a primary school teacher and moved into research due to her interests in constructions of childhood and children’s relationship with the media. Jane’s research interests include children and technology and children and celebrity.

BERA September 2017: looking again at teaching and learning – Gert Biesta’s food for thought

This year’s BERA conference took place at Sussex University outside Brighton.  As ever it was a busy event – there were more applications than ever to present and that competition was as a result more fierce than ever.

The diversity of papers and presentations was exciting and provided a lot of space for discussion and interaction.

The final keynote was a high point. Drawing on a range of insights from his work and in particular his new book, The Rediscovery of Teaching, Gert Biesta talked about learning and how it has been hi-jacked by a policy view that draws on neoliberal human capital theory. In other words, the current focus on learning is learning for a purpose connected to skills and productivity: an economised version of learning.

For Biesta, learning has now become a problem. He connects this also to certain kinds of learning that involve ‘meaning-making’. In the worst cases, this becomes ego-logical – i.e. the (isolated) individual making sense for themselves (although he acknowledged that Freirean dialogical learning is collective rather individualised).

His provocative response to this situation, embedded in his philosophical position, suggests a return to a dynamic curriculum in which students and teachers stop learning. Learning spaces then become classrooms in which the world can be listened to. He presented the issue by posing these questions:

If we are sense makers – can the world speak to us in its own terms and on its own terms?

If we are just meaning-making beings, how then can we be taught?

There was a sense in this that the cultural and economic emphasis on individualism and entrepreneurialism that is having such an impact on our ways of living and on our world needs to be checked. Otherwise, learning will only support the further deterioration of our planet and jeopardise our collective attempts to achieve a good life for everyone.

Other than referring to Levinas, Biesta didn’t elaborate on what stopping learning might mean in our classrooms, but he did assert the importance of doing something other than focusing on the transmission of ‘bodies of knowledge’. He also developed the idea that we should try to ‘bracket’ learning to open up different ways of being in the world: a ‘non ego-logical’ way of being in the world.

For Biesta then being in the world in our times is filtered by the desires that shape who we are. There is a question about the provenance of many of these desires in our commercialised and commodified world. The suggestion is that the desires created for us by the forces of marketisation and commodification are displacing desires that could be more meaningful. Out of that thought emerges the fundamental question:

Is what I desire, desirable?

While he didn’t offer any pat answers to this last puzzle, Biesta cited Spivak and her idea of the individual ‘non-coercive rearrangement of desires’ as a way forward.  Education he viewed as a space in which such a rearrangement could occur to support “grown-up ways of being in the world”.

There is something in that final phrase that brings us back to earth with a bang when we consider the current ‘common sense’ views on education that we are confronted by and also, occasionally, the level of debate.

Rob Smith

Dr. Rob Smith is a Reader in Education at Birmingham City University. His body of work explores the impact of funding and marketisation on teaching and learning in further education settings. He has researched and written extensively in collaboration with FE and HE practitioners. Currently, Rob is involved in the FE in England: transforming lives and communities project with Dr Vicky Duckworth (Edge Hill University). This is a national research study focusing on the transformative qualities of further education. He is also developing an interdisciplinary research project looking at HE space and time focusing on the design and architecture of HEIs and their situatedness with urban settings.

Follow Rob’s publications on researchgate.

The good, the bad and the ugly: Religious Education at a crossroads

The good, the bad and the ugly: Religious Education at a crossroads

In this post, Imran Mogra, Senior Lecturer in Religious Education and Professional Studies, reflects on the recent publication of a report from the Commission on Religious Education. Note the link at the bottom of this post to join the debate on these important issues. 

Religious Education for All coverLast month the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) published its Interim Report Religious Education for All. The CoRE wishes to engage the public in developing their thinking on Religious Education over the next academic year. The future of RE, it believes, is in the balance and they conclude that a timely intervention is necessary if RE is to continue making its significant contribution to pupils’ education. The Commission has made recommendations in four key areas which they believe will reinvigorate the subject. The consultation is open until 9.00am on 4th December 2017. In this article, I reflect and react to some of their proposals.

Whilst there will be points of departure with some of their recommendations, nevertheless, the first point to make is that for anyone passionate and concerned about RE in schools, the stark warning by the Commission, who were unanimous in their view, that “RE faces a perilous future without strategic, urgent intervention”, should welcome this report.

The interim report makes for some fascinating and encouraging reading. For example, in the 2017 GCSE exams, Religious Studies was the fourth most popular subject, after English language, English literature, and mathematics, and just ahead of science. Nearly 300,000 pupils took the examination. This is a clear demonstration that the subject is considered relevant, valuable, interesting and worthy of study by many youngsters.

The value and benefits of RE are widely conceived by the Commission itself. They state that RE continues to be a vital academic subject for education in the 21st century. It gives young people

  • the knowledge, understanding, and motivation they need to understand important aspects of human experience, including the religious, spiritual, and moral.
  • RE gives insights into the arts, literature, history, and contemporary local and global social and political issues.
  • It provides young people with a space in the curriculum to reflect on their own worldview and to engage with others whose worldview may be different.

This standpoint is apt as it allows students to understand themselves, the subject itself, intercultural issues and to engage with global dynamics.

Crucially, it gives voice to young people who articulate an instrumental role of RE. They said that “RE enables them to have better friendships, and to develop greater respect and empathy for others.” The views from employers are also welcome. The Commission reported that “RE is highly valued by many employers, who increasingly understand that, in a globalised world, understanding others’ world-views and their impact on people’s lives is essential to success” (p.3).

The evidence base of the report is wide and being independent gives confidence. The report is based on the knowledge and experience of the Commissioners and on oral evidence from 53 individuals and organisations at five evidence-gathering sessions in Birmingham, Exeter, London, Manchester and York, though East Anglia could also have featured. They also received 1,377 responses to an online survey, and 49 submissions by email.

Some of the findings are unsurprising. In outlining the variable standards and some persistent low standards in many schools, the report noted that where RE was good or better, it was a result of strong support for RE from senior leadership and governors, effective training, and good subject knowledge on the part of teachers. By contrast, poor standards were often the result of a lack of confidence on the part of teachers, inadequate ITT and CPD, and the high proportion of lessons taught by non-specialists at Secondary and non-teachers at primary.

The Commission should be congratulated for recommending that pupils in Key Stage 4 who do not take Religious Studies at GCSE should have their work accredited.

They endorse minimal entitlement for RE which is also advocated by several key organisations. Pragmatically, this is appealing in the current political and educational climate. All schools could be held accountable in meeting their legal obligation and in making appropriate provisions. ITT may have clearly defined parameters. Heads would be able to show how their vision and mission is in line with national entitlement. Professionally, in a climate of academisation and the increasing autonomy of individual schools, it will provide a single reference point for the subject, increasing the prospects of accountability, which is also a key recommendation of the report. However, faith communities hitherto less prominent, humanist, and other groups have been campaigning for more time and space within RE provision. On top of this, the role of local authorities in determining the syllabus of RE is also under consultation. Thus, there are various stakeholders poised to make their viewpoints and be considered in these debates.

The report leaves me with some questions:

  • Who will translate the entitlement into a detailed programme of study?
  • What will the outcomes be?
  • Changing the name is being proposed, what impact will this have on the quality of provision, if any?
  • It recommends a minimum 12 hours’ initial training for RE. Should this be accepted, how will other subjects square up with this?
  • As an option, it sees funding for SACREs to come from the Department of Culture, media and Sport or the Department of Communities and local government, what about the Department of Education?

There are some recommendations which are controversial. Resolving these may prove challenging:

  • Removing the right of withdrawal from parents.
  • Faith schools’ ability to teach their own confessional syllabus should end.

In summary, the report highlights the good, the bad, and the ugly elements of RE. The time is ripe for a discussion on RE and its structure, aims and outcomes, accountability, syllabus, funding and legal issues. It identifies specific gaps and offers reasonable propositions in the unfolding landscape of education. It has several features which are impressive and there is much to commend. It also appears to be defensive in some respects and rightly warns against some fears which resonate with some in the RE community regarding the subject.

The call for evidence is available here: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/CoREConsult1

Join in this important debate and highlight the issues emerging in your context.

A PDF of the full set of questions, can be downloaded here to allow you to think about your responses before filling it in online, if you wish.  You are not required to answer all of the questions.

 

 

Opinions: The Dangers of Pay-to-Play

Pac-Man is an international game symbol like no other, having remained in our popular consciousness since the early days of arcade games. In this thought provoking post, Dr Alex Wade explores the broad societal impact of ‘pay-to-play’ mechanisms. With this in mind, we might therefore what the implications of such structures might be for an increasingly marketised education sector? 

Yellow. Eyeless. Endlessly hungry. Pac-Man might seem an unlikely cultural icon but, over his 40-year career, he’s morphed into various versions of himself, starred in more than 30 games, spawned an animated TV series and created a million-selling single.

This kind of staying power doesn’t spring from nowhere. Toru Iwatani, the great Japanese game developer and creator of Pac-Man, purposefully set out to make a game that could appeal to women and men in equal measure, a radical aim in a games landscape dominated by the militaristic, even masculine, pursuits of shooting and defending the world from alien attack. But Pac-Man’s enduring popularity and sunny nature hides something darker: its pay-to-play model speaks to our times. Everyone’s invited. Everyone can play. It’s fun. But there’s a cost.

Iwatani’s desire to broaden Pac-Man’s appeal can be seen in its design. The grid-like patterns are evocative of the mazes of early-modern England and ancient Greece, supposedly a ‘safe place’ where the role of women/the feminine is often essential to success. For example, in Athens’ labyrinth, Ariadne weaponises Theseus by giving him a sword to kill the Minotaur. Ariadne also provides Theseus with a ball of thread so that he can find his way out. In doing so, she provides a literal and literary escape from the maze and from the monster’s monomania.

 As players munch their way through the 240 dots that comprise the Pac-Man maze, they encounter four power-pills that enable our hero to chow down on scared blue ghosts. Players are urged to escape back to a safe place with their lives intact, echoing modern fairytales: like Ariadne’s ball of thread and Pac-Man’s dots, breadcrumbs are used in the fairytale Hansel and Gretel to guide the siblings to safety. The eating of the breadcrumbs by other animals demonstrates the difficulty of staying safe in a literal and literary state-of-nature. The experimentation and adventure which Hansel and Gretel toy with, a theme common to the safe places of games, can, in itself, border on the gamble of stepping outside of the normal boundaries of everyday life and into the maze which permeates these narratives and structures of games.

But if you’re quick and clever and eat your power-ups at the right time, you can vanquish these ghosts and monsters with adroitness of thought, feminine maturity and child-like inventiveness. Tucked up in bed, listening to the story of loss in Hansel and Gretel, the place where we feel safest is also the arena where we look to challenge the boundaries of that safety. Usually (but not always), there is a happy ending, akin to the experience of Pac-Man operating in the face of insurmountable odds, limited resources and hostile environments.

Here’s where Pac-Man becomes something more – consider Cold War capitalism in the West. A rise in living standards was closely allied to the development of microprocessor technologies used in everything from missile guidance systems to magnetic resonance imagers to arcade games. The Minotaur of Communism was held in check by spending on the warfare state. This thread of global protection against the threat of global destruction was weaved into individual safety nets in Western European countries in the shape of the welfare state. It provided protection to the populace of Western countries against the everyday threats of disease and destitution. This was seen in state spending on universal education, health services and shelter for all.

Yet this came at a price. If you want to get a high score on Pac-Man, you’ve got to follow the game’s rules and objectives. As Martin Amis notes, the “longer a player can play, the more points he can earn, and the more clout he has in the competitive social environment of the arcade”. This notion of competition attained through thriftiness and skill applied equally to the wider social, ethical and political system.

And where better to see the ultimate results of that competition than that post-Cold War capitalism’s spaces of consumption, the mall? While the space Pac-Man occupies is classical in its structure and narrative, it has an equal and parallel orientation towards the modern world. Frictionless and contactless, the smooth spaces that allow Pac-Man to move around the labyrinth away from monsters and spectres resemble the happy, mapped-out shopping centre with its wide concourses and smooth, shiny spaces floors. There is no natural light here, and no time, though there are many signposts telling you where to go to buy. You become something akin to Pac-Man on a power pill, temporarily and irrepressibly able to munch through goods and crunch through credit with the end, both entrance and exit, hidden from the consumer’s view.

But the comedown can be hard to face. It’s easy to get into a shopping centre, but hard to leave. The satisfaction of shopping is almost always accompanied by the slight niggle that, like the classical labyrinth itself, there is something mortal left in the centre of consumption when the red thread of money, or of blood, runs dry.

The means to play Pac-Man mirror an economic model with a high price to pay. In the amusement arcades of the 1980s, where, with tenacity and dedication, one coin could be made to last all day, hard work was rewarded by extended play. (‘I got a pocketful of quarters and I’m headed to the arcade/I don’t have a lot of money but I’m bringing everything I made’, run the opening lines of Pac-Man Fever.) For the children who grew up in the arcades of the 1980s, this is normal and normed behaviour. Want to play? You have to pay.

But for the late 1990s meritocracies of Europe and America, where these children became adults, the pay-to-play economic model was adopted wholesale: a necessary bargain of citizenship were that rights and responsibilities were in check and balance. If you have no job, you have to work at getting one. You have a right to smoke, but a responsibility not to in public. The idea of the umbrella protection of the welfare and warfare state was left behind. Everyone had to eke out that pocketful of quarters and if you didn’t have enough, tough luck: you clearly wasted them elsewhere. Less was more. More must be done with less. This pay-to-play model has had a permanent and tragic legacy, the results of which are being felt today and stretch far into the future.

Now, in our current state of post-Cold War capital, many of the mazes of consumption are open only to individuals who have the code to enter them. Like the initials on a high score table, only those with enough currency to Insert Coin have access to the games that reward the pay-to-play model found in the exorbitant fees of higher education, healthcare plans and private pensions. The enjoyable, if empty, thrill of the modern-day power pill – clothes shopping, the absent amnesia of online purchasing, the post-splurge latte – all these are obtainable by consumers with the requisite credit rating and zeroes in their current account.

For others, who do not possess the code or currency of pay-to-play, there are other mazes to explore. These are not smooth, or easy to move through. There are the endless grids of forms to be filled out for benefits applications. The phone mazes to be negotiated by employment support ‘candidates’. The mesmerising morass of payday loans and the monster-like enforcement of debt repayment.

Most pertinent are those mazes of social housing. That idea, founded at the beginning of the Cold War where the doctor could live next door to the baker, the barber next to the coroner, soon found itself abandoned by the individual pursuit of wealth and state neglect on an industrial scale. The pedestrian-friendly paths became rat-runs for drug dealers: Pac-Men chomping on pills, erratically avoiding the ghostly blue police: the wide open green public spaces a site for the fly-tipping of refuse. Detritus is most widely distributed where money is not. Most chillingly are those spaces between the rich and the poor: the cavities in the cladding where flames are free to channel, but people, trapped in a labyrinth not of their own making, could not escape from.

These are the pay-to-play models where no amount of currency can buy abstinence from the systematic failure of every one of us to Insert Coin into the slots of poverty. These are the spaces that are a shame to us all. There is no happy ending at the end of this maze. Instead, there is the realisation that by not fulfilling a responsibility that we all have to each other to provide safe places for everyone, we have created dangerous spaces from which there is no exit.

Iwatani’s motivation for Pac-Man was to make the game as inclusive as possible, irrespective of age, race, religion, gender. All were invited. The cost was the pay-to-play model. The question we must ask ourselves is, as those labyrinths of despair are cleared from Kingston-on-Hull to Kingston-on-Thames, what game do we go to next? Will we be haunted by the ghosts of the pay-to-play past, or create a safe place of a better tomorrow?

Alex Wade is Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of Health, Education and Life Sciences at BCU. His book, The Pac-Man Principle: A User’s guide to Capitalism is to be released by Zero Books at the end of 2017.

Educational Excellent: Freedom or Straight Jacket?

Written by Ian Axtell, Subject Leader for Music Education, Secondary Partnership Coordinator, @IanAxtell

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There is some very powerful rhetoric in the Education White Paper: Educational Excellence Everywhere. Who cannot warm to the ideas that educational excellence is for everyone and that schools and teachers should have the freedom to teach in the manner which is most appropriate for their pupils? But, how can you ensure there is excellence for every pupil if teachers and schools have the freedom to teach how they like? The answer in the White Paper is to make sure that teaching and learning can be measured using easily quantifiable outcomes. The processes of teaching and learning, the pedagogy underpinning how we make subjects accessible to pupils, no longer seems to be important as long as pupils can pass the test. Schools and individual teachers will be held accountable for how well their pupils pass these tests, tests that have been devised by the government.

Is this real freedom?

The WScreen shot 2016-04-06 at 11.43.29hite Paper indicates that the focus will be on embedding existing reforms to the accountability measures in education. This might come as a relief to those of us who have been in education for over 30 years where the standards debate has seen a gradual increase in the pace of reform. However, recent reforms have further emphasised accountability measures, linking them to pay and conditions and restricting pupils to the range and scope of subjects with which they can engage. Is this in the interest of teachers and pupils? Schools and teachers will now be held accountable for the number of children who pass academic subjects highlighted in the Ebacc. In effect, the White Paper supports the idea that:

Being academic (focusing on theory) = educational excellence.

It is interesting that the place of theory has been questioned when it comes to teacher education (DfE, 2010) but appears to be the priority when it comes to pupils’ learning. Focusing on academic education addresses the assertion that “knowledge matters” and

“the ability to think demands a basic knowledge of the thing about which one is thinking”(Woodhead in Kitchen, 2014: xi)

but in many tests the focus is on knowledge recall rather than promoting thinking. Knowledge and knowing go beyond recalling facts. Testing facts can provide a limited and even distorted picture of what a person knows and understands. Measuring the recall of facts consigns people to think in a particular ways about particular knowledge suggesting compliance and conformity rather than creativity and individuality (worryingly compliarb5255_Education-SecondaryArtnce and conformity underpin many forms of extremism that exist in our world today). Testing facts looks backwards rather than forwards and ignores the potential for pupils to contribute their own creative thinking. Pupils need access to knowledge but they also need opportunities to share their own personal perspectives, experiences, aptitudes and capabilities related to that knowledge.

We have always had tests and always will. They can provide a helpful snapshot of what a person might know at a particular time in a particular place but there are other forms of summative assessment. The most rewarding teaching experiences I have had are when knowledge is used as a catalyst to promote thinking. It is more difficult to measure thinking but infinitely more engaging for the learner:

“the unexamined life is not worth living for the human being” (Socrates from Plato’s Apology in Hetherington, 2012: 31).

Thinking is: “the highest and perhaps purest activity of which men are capable” (Arendt, 1958: 5).

If pupils are just taught how to pass the test rather than to use knowledge to promote thinking then they become automatons that expect to be told what to do and say. They lose the potential to develop a sense of their own individual identify. The process of acquiring knowledge through thinking is engaging and empowering. When this thinking involves metacognition it can provide the skills and aspiration to acquire further knowledge:

“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking” (Dewey, 1916, p.181).

This is real freedom.

References:

  • Arendt, H. (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education. New York: MacMillan.
  • DfE (2010) The Importance of Teaching: The Schools White Paper 2010. London: Crown Copyright.
  • Hetherington, S. (ed.) (2012) Epistemology: Key Thinkers. London: Continuum.
  • Kitchen W. H. (2014) Authority and the Teacher. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

 

 

Pupil Premium, Academisation and Governance

Written by Dr. Rob Smith, Reader in Education, @R0b5m1th

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Rob spoke on Radio WM during Adrian Goldberg’s show on the 30th March 2016 8am about pupil premium in the light of recent Perry Beeches. BBC WM

The pupil premium policy provides an example of tensions that are at the heart of English education policy at the moment. To start with there are the market structures of competition between different schools. With this marketisation comes a centralised model of governance through data (see for example, Ozga 20
09
). Schools are required to produce data so that their “pData1erformance” in relation to other schools can be compared. As we know, the consequences of this emphasis on performance data include a narrowing of the curriculum consequent on teaching to the test and the gaming of data. The problem with marketisation is that we may expect schools to be run public-mindedly, in the spirit of meeting all students’ needs, with a public service ethic, but the landscape in which they operate forces them to focus their efforts on being a viable financial institution with a staff drilled in the production of favourable performance data.

The academisation of all schools by 2020 is a further consolidation of the same policy of marketisation. The principle underlying this is that competition “is the rising tide that lifts all boats” (Willetts) – in other words the unfounded notion that competition is a like a force of nature that raises standards in every institution. In my view, this is a wildly one-sided view of the impact of marketisation. But it is important to note that academisation facilitates a more direct funding relationship between schools and central government.

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Within this marketised policyscape, the pupil premium policy is a redistributive policy that acknowledges the link between household income and educational attainment (see Lupton and Thomson 2015, here). In other words, the pupil premium policy is designed to address social justice in education. Pupil Premium is an amount of money (around £1000 per student p.a. in secondary) that is paid to schools based on census data they gather about the househoMeasuring1ld income of individual students’ families. The implication is clear: schools with additional financial resources are in a better position to meet the needs of those students and in so doing to address the inequality in attainment that currently seems to exist.

Now here’s the tension:

What happens when a policy that seeks to tackle social injustice is nested within an overall cultural environment of institutional self-interest?

In the last few weeks, we may have been provided with some answers in the Perry Beeches saga.

Perry Beeches was a shining example of the success of Free School and academisation policies. The principle underlying these policies are that academy chains provide a better template for raising student attainment and that local authority governance of schools needs to end. The performance of Perry Beeches 1 and 2 appeared to provide evidence for this claim. It was only with the poor inspection result of Perry Beeches 3 last summer that the success story started to unravel. This was followed in October 2015, by allegations to the Education Funding Agency (EFA) that Perry Beeches the Academy (Perry Beeches 1) “had recorded pupils on the annual census entitled to receive FSM where no entitlement existed” (EFA 2016, 3). This resulted in an investigation and a report.

I think the report speaks for itself. But I think it should also be read in conjunction with the Ofsted report for Perry Beeches 2 that took place in April 2014. In this report the school was deemed outstanding for leadership and management. Pupil premium was mentioned specifically:

“Over half the students are eligible for the pupil premium, which is well above average. This is additional funding for students known to be eligible for free school meals, those in local authority care and any with a parent in the armed services.”

Furthermore, governance was praised in this area:

Governors ensure pupil premium funding is used effectively to provide additional teaching and support staff, for intervention and enrichment support for the students for whom the funding is received.

Since then, the Chief Executive of the Perry Beeches Academy has resigned from his post but intends to continue as a head teacher. The academy chain is to be taken over by another academy chain. The failings of OFSTED to do anything other than affirm the school as a shining example and early adopter of the government’s academisation policy needs to receive greater attention.Measuring2

As for Pupil Premium, the episode provides yet another example of the worrying effects of the colonisation of educational cultures by a market mentality that is championed by the current government. While bowing to the forces of colonisation may secure funds for schools in the short term, this can lead to a distortion of the truth of the kind we are familiar with in commercial culture.

That can not provide a sound foundation on which to construct a world class education system.

Personal reflections on the 2016 London Mayor’s summit on music education: wants and needs

Written by: Martin Fautley, Professor of Education, Birmingham City University

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On Tuesday 22/3/16 I attended the London Mayor’s summit on music education, a prestigious event held in the equally prestigious surroundings of City Hall, on the banks of the Thames, overlooking Tower Bridge. Nice! It was, however, a curious event in many ways in my opinion, and I shall try to explain why here.

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My role was to be on a panel concerning CPD and teacher development. I, and some of the BCU music education team, have been working on evaluating the Teach Through Music programme in London (read the reports here), and I was happy to talk about it, as I feel it has been a good thing, and made a differencScreen shot 2016-04-02 at 14.25.37e. But more on that later…

The day began with an address by Nick Gibb, the Minister of State for Schools, which can read here . This opener set the tone for some of the overall oddness of the day. NG didn’t mention the white paper ‘Educational excellence everywhere’, which had come out the previous week, at all. What he did talk about was a music education which seemed to me to be almost entirely to be about learning to play an instrument, and/or singing. Screen shot 2016-04-02 at 14.17.31

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OK, yes, he did mention the National Curriculum, but seemed to think it was about performing and listening only, composing never got a mention. But then neither did universal academisation, which has the potential to make the NC nugatory and otiose, so maybe the omission of composing is how those at DfE towers want to think of music education? Some nice children singing madrigals, and playing some Purcell and Bach will be very pleasant, won’t it? I don’t move in the rarefied atmosphere of the upper political echelons, so don’t know if it is normal for a politician to do his stuff then go (‘eats, shoots, and leaves’!), but there was no opportunity to ask questions at all.

One primary school teacher heckled from the floor “no forced academisation!” but that was as interactive as it got.

Read the teacher’s own reflections on the day here 

Then there were a series of panels, presenting on various aspects of music education. Then a rather nice buffet lunch, with a chance to talk to people. Networking, and getting a feel for the zeitgeist, is an important part of such days, I always think.Mayor Music 8

Screen shot 2016-04-02 at 14.16.20Following this, in the afternoon sessions, something began to bother me quite a bit, this was a mounting feeling that, as the late, great, Yogi Berra said, “It’s like deja-vu, all over again!”. Music Excellence London (MEL) had just spent a shedload of money on music education in the capital (that’s another issue, I know, especially as I’m writing this in Birmingham), and yet I got the feeling that people in the audience who maybe weren’t teachers didn’t know about this, hadn’t read the work on MEL and evaluation that Trinity Laban, Music Mark, Sound Connections, Alison Daubney and I had done, and didn’t seem to have engaged with what a longitudinal CPD programme might entail. There seemed to be a lot of “well, we can offer a splendid Chinese nose-flute CPD session for teachers”, rather than a joined-up, clearly articulated, research-informed programme, which MEL had entailed.

Now I know I am getting old, but parading one’s ignorance of history used to be something that was looked down on, now it seems to be something that is celebrated. If we had worked like that in ancient times, every few years or so someone would say “look, I’ve invented the wheel”. It struck me that a number of people there from the floor, as it were, were either thinking out loud in public, or making observations that betrayed that either they or their organisation had something to sell, or that they had little conception of what life is really like for a busy classroom music teacher. Alongside this, there seemed to be little knowledge or conceptualisation of what has gone before. When one of the contributors mentioned he had been taught by Brian Dennis, I wondered how many people had read his ‘Experimental Music in Schools’ book of 1970? Or, sadly, I also wondered how many have read, or even know about, the important music education book published the same year by Paynter and Aston, ‘Sound and Silence’? It struck me then that what might be termed the ‘institutional memory’ of music education is in real danger. I said in my mini-talk “we have to both know stuff, and know how to teach stuff”.

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This, for me, is important. And “knowing stuff” includes stuff that we have done before. Whilst we need – and want – new entrants to music education, we also need – and want – them to know something of what has been done in the past. So, the thought that was bothering me became crystallised – why do we seem to be still asking the same questions, ignoring the all the work, research, and words that many people have written (especially my words, I put a lot of effort into them!), and trying to start again?

I had been hoping that the summit would be a high point, a pinnacle, literally, a summit, to look back upon the achievements of MEL, which are, from my perspective as one of the evaluators, very highly significant indeed. Instead it felt to me like we were down at base camp bickering about whether we wanted Kendall Mint Cake or Lucozade, whereas in my view we want – and need – both!

It also reminded me that in teacher education we used to run sessions on philosophy, history, sociology, and psychology of education, but they have long gone. And now as government thinking seems to be that learning to be a teacher involves basically “sitting with Nellie” (which, incidentally, is describeMayor Music 3d nicely and pejoratively by Oxford reference here http://bit.ly/1RCRXqt), there will be little chance of inducting people into the rich community of practice of music education; which is a shame, as both Gove and Gibb have cited Matthew Arnold’s notion of “the best which has been thought and said”, and there is a lot in music education which falls into this description. But then Gove dismissed me and my ilk as “the Blob”, so maybe this is just my blobby thinking!

Anyway, in conclusion, this isn’t meant to be a criticism of the organisation, or of the arrangements, which were all fine, but just the feeling of “here we go again”. I think this is a worry, not just for music education, but for education generally. There is a lot that has been “thought and said”, and it ill behoves us as a sector to ignore, downplay, or negate this. After all, as Burke said “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”!

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