It is no surprise to me to find that the last six weeks have been extremely busy in my new role as Chair of the REC. I have written blogs, been filmed, met government ministers, chaired meetings, participated in conferences and, of course, dealt with hundreds of emails and phone calls. There are two sets of activities in particular that have required a great deal of time but both have been extremely important and have had very positive results.
The first was our presence at all three major political party conferences, in collaboration with RE Today and NATRE. This was the brain child of the joint PR committee which has proved to be an outstanding example of co-operation between RE organisations.
Staffed by volunteers from all three organisations and ably supported by our political advisors, PB Political Consulting, we had a stand illustrating our work with free copies of several publications to give to people who visited us. At all three conferences, we generated a lot of interest from MPs, prospective candidates, local councillors, party members and fellow stand-holders. We also ran fringe events at which a panel of speakers – RE professionals, MPs and invited guests such as Ted Cantle – participated in an ‘Any questions’ session. Again, these were well supported and a wide range of questions, from the purpose of SACREs to events in Rotherham, provided challenge to the panel and the audience alike.
There will be a formal evaluation of our participation in the party conferences carried out in due course but the informal feedback demonstrates clearly that they were very worthwhile and gave the opportunity to raise the level of interest in and understanding of RE by political activists, and that can only be to our benefit. A few weeks later I had a conference call with the secretary of state about GCSE criteria (more of that below) and it was good to be able to thank her for visiting our stand – an informal connection that appeared to made a positive impact on her.
The second set of major activities this term have related to the appointment of a new Chief Executive for the REC and I am delighted to day that we have offered the post to an excellent candidate. As soon as the contract is signed, we shall make a formal announcement and we look forward to working with him. We expect him to take up post at the beginning of February and we are pleased that Sarah Smalley has generously agreed to remain until then. There will be opportunities to give our thanks and say our farewells to Sarah in the coming months.
The summer and autumn months have been extremely demanding for our Qualifications Committee and, in particular, its Chair, Deborah Weston. She has worked with the Department for Education to facilitate the development of criteria for GCSE and A level examinations to go out for consultation this week. The document is long overdue and is the product of a sensitive and complex process. We hope that our member organisations will respond to the consultation document, as the REC will, so that the best possible final criteria are created to enable interesting, relevant and challenging learning opportunities for students in our schools and colleges. Deborah has given most of her summer holiday to this process and we have been impressed by the commitment and energy of ministers and senior civil servants. The product, of course, is a compromise and still open to change after the consultation. Several members of REC organisations, as well as officers, have had the opportunity to speak with ministers on this and I hope that this increased co-operation between the Department and us will continue.
We have, of course, had some welcome political announcements in the last few weeks, notably the restoration of bursaries for trainee teachers of RE though we note that trainees in some subject areas receive larger amounts than RE trainees.
Bursaries was one of the topics we were able to raise in meetings with Nick Gibb, the minister for school reform and his civil servants. John Keast and I had an unscheduled meeting with him in August when we were in the Department to see officials and then Deborah and I met him in early September to talk further about GCSE criteria in particular and RE in general. It was good to hear a government minister talking of the need to raise levels of religious literacy! We are pleased that Nick Gibb has accepted our invitation to speak at the next Council meeting in November.
Had he been unable to attend, we had planned an activity to give member organisations the opportunity to learn more about each other and to identify areas for further collaboration. At a recent Board meeting we received information from a survey that Sophie Agrotis has carried out about our activities and we were delighted to learn that more than 50% of our member organisations are represented on our committees and their reference groups. This is a high degree of participation but we want to make sure that opportunities are not being missed for work with and between our members. Perhaps the opportunity to do this will arise at the next Council meeting.
We are planning to measure the amount of time that is given on a voluntary basis by the members of the Board and our various committees and I want to thank all of them for their willingness to work on our behalf. I also want to pay special thanks to our member organisations who have generously paid their subscriptions. A new pilot system has operated this year when a sliding scale was introduced. The minimum is £99 and we recognise that for some of our small organisations that is a considerable sum and we are very pleased that they continue to support us. Some of our larger organisations have made very significant contributions and we are extremely grateful for their support. We thank you all. We have an on-going issue about funding (is there a charity that doesn’t?) and we have to face the reality of that fact and work very hard together to find a way forward so that we can not only survive but thrive. One of these ways is what is being called ‘a theory of change’ and over the next year we will be carrying out a thoughtful process of defining and creating our future, in collaboration with some of our funders. Alongside that, there will be the task of electing a new Chair, a new Company Secretary and several new Board members. Please let us know if you’re interested in standing for election in May 2015 – we need to begin such conversations now.
Here’s to the future!