Only connect. Reflections on London RE Hub conference 2016

Only connect!

Way back in the last century, my own RS teacher encouraged us constantly to make connections during our A levels. She explained: you need to realise the whole of your intellectual life is about grasping that each piece of knowledge and understanding is like a hook, and you need to make the connections, within and without your subjects. It’s a piece of advice that I’ve remembered and I try to live by. I’m working on a whole school cross curricular project as I write. It’s exciting. Watch this space.

But, yeah, connections. I think there’s never been a better time for RS teachers to make connections. I attended the London RE Hub on Saturday and it’s striking how connected up the RE community is. Twitter and other social media has connected many of us, but it’s so refreshing to meet face to face. ‘Ah! It’s you! I thought it might be….’ I feel more connected to my colleagues across the country than I ever could have imagined would be possible when I first qualified.

But what of the academic connections? RE teaching is, excuse the pun, a broad church, and there is an incredible array of specialisms amongst my colleagues. The very concept of specialism perhaps implies a certain narrowness. However, the new specifications are forcing many of us out of our comfort zones, and for the most part, I think this is a positive thing. That’s why I wanted to go the London Conference this year; I need to broaden my knowledge of Islam in particular. I enjoyed especially the session by Deborah Weston and Juber Hussain on Worship in Islam. I have to confess, Juber bamboozled me at first, but I left his session with genuine fresh insight into Muslim worship and, shock, actually wishing I could go away and learn some Arabic. Maybe I will? His deep understanding and love for the beauty of the text of the Quran inspired me to drill down deeper into the meaning of the words in the text. His passion connected with the prose, or to put it better, the poetry of the text. His talk was audio recorded, and I hope his slides will be available. Do take a look and a listen. I feel like I was really starting to make connections to and understand a world faith that has previously been outside my area of specialism in this session. That’s why knowledge focused CPD events like the London hub offer are so very important.

I read yesterday on Twitter that some teachers left the conference keen for an exclusively Catholic RE teachers hub. I can see why this would be popular, Catholic schools have a unique quality to them. And they have a like minded agenda. It makes sense. Nevertheless, a part of me was a bit saddened that people left the conference with an initial thought that they wanted to go back to their own corners. What I really like about the London hub is its grassroots teacher inclusivism. I loved the fact that there were a variety of sessions to choose from at one great conference. I think it’s better when we connect as teachers of RE, in our varied and splendid ways. I think it’s terrific. I see a mixed picture nationally for RE. That is to say, there is excellence in pockets, whilst the subject is becoming sidelined elsewhere. Because what we need to ‘Save RE’, as I see it, is not for RE to be amazing in church schools and a ‘mixed’ picture elsewhere. RE needs to be good everywhere. And faith school colleagues are needed most especially in pursuit of this aim. Where RE is valued there are big departments and all the support and encouragement that goes with this. Often where RE is not valued there are individuals struggling as the lone subject specialist. Events like the London hub draw the one woman/ man department into a wider fold, which is a good thing. I also think that to draw a distinction between the type of RS one might experience in a faith school and in a non faith school is not altogether helpful. RS is not the same as collective worship after all. RS is for everybody, regardless of their faith or lack thereof. My biggest fear for the future of the subject is that RS will end up a niche subject, going the way of Classics, swallowed by sociology, or citizenship or PSHE, or even philosophy, and only really flourishing in its own right in church and independent schools. This would be a tragedy. I think RS teachers of all hues need to stick together as much as possible and draw strength, support and encouragement from the diversity of our settings. I’m not saying don’t have any meetings at all with colleagues from within our own sectors, but I guess I’m calling for RE teachers to have a greater sense of common purpose and, dare I say it, a national strategy for good RE provision everywhere.

The day ended with an exhortation from Mark Chater for colleagues from outside London, they were numerous, to go forth and multiply into local hubs of their own, with support from Culham St Gabriel’s and Natre. There’s a need for the type of CPD and expertise shared in London to be shared widely across the country. I agree wholeheartedly. These connections are starting to blossom and this is to be encouraged. I need to get on with this in my corner of Surrey. (I will, I promise. It’s just been a bit hectic.) I’d like to work towards greater connections across sectors, independent and maintained, primary and secondary, on it goes. There’s lots to think about there. I’ll say it again. There’s a need for a national strategy for RE to ensure that RE is good everywhere for every student.

But wait, no, the day didn’t end there. It ended in the pub connecting with a friend from the conference I hadn’t seen for 20 years. And what a joy that was. It’s never to late to renew old connections.

This EM Forster quote popped into my head on my way home. It’s apt I think. In terms of new RS specifications with an emphasis on religious text, and in terms of a community of subject professionals growing stronger in their connections:

“Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer.”

Thanks so much to Andy and his team and everyone at East London Mosque who made us so welcome and helped us connect.

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