If this time last year someone had told me my students would be called to present to MPs at Westminster I would not have believed them.
It is not that I didn’t have faith in them (quite the opposite), but even for the most ambitious teacher something like this would have seemed a little too adventurous. How wrong I would have been.
As a young, inexperienced teacher I always valued the hour a week I got to spend with my year 8 class. I can still picture the scene now: we would spend 50 minutes on the set scheme of work before I’d hear the weekly cries of: “Miss, can we do some year 12 work?”
The pupils knew this was RE at AS level and relished the opportunity to think they were tackling some of the concepts that the 6th formers were writing about.
There in that classroom something special happened. Those pupils began to develop what would become a school-long commitment to religious education. They were already committed to opting for the subject at GCSE and AS level. They now tell me this was because of the way it challenged them to think and question everything they thought they already knew. They realised the way this subject was enhancing their spiritual, emotional and academic development.
In spring 2013, I came across an advertisement for the Religious Education Council’s (REC) Young Ambassadors scheme. Before then I knew very little about the REC’s work.
What I did know was that the advertisement could have been written for my (by now year 11) pupils. In order to be chosen as Young Ambassadors it would be necessary for us to demonstrate a commitment to and enthusiasm for RE and explain why we thought it was important to learn about other people’s values and beliefs.
When we first applied, it was because I already felt our team was acting as ambassadors for the subject in our own school and I welcomed any recognition they could get for that. I also felt that they had natural talent to nurture and that what had been achieved in school could be beneficial elsewhere.
Always striving to be original, we produced a video rather than a paper-based application. Filmed over three gruelling after-school sessions we chose not only to explain the significance of learning about other people’s beliefs but also provided a summary of the work we were already doing to promote the value of RE at the school.
This included projects such as the Philosophy Society and the RE Leaders project (a simplified version of the Young Ambassadors scheme). We were, of course, delighted to hear the news that our application had been successful.
The Young Ambassadors scheme has certainly helped to raise the profile of RE at the school and in our local community. The students presented to all of our teaching staff as part of an INSET day. This involved them filming and editing a vox-pop about our staff’s understanding of the value of RE.
They devised a whole-school campaign based around a “myth-busters” concept in order to challenge misconceptions about the subject. This was well received and many members of staff welcomed the opportunity to learn more about what actually happened in RE.
I was also fortunate enough to accompany our team in teaching year 5 pupils at a local primary school about the dangers of prejudice and discrimination.
Before long, the REC was inviting our team to present at high-profile events, including to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on RE when it held a summer reception at Westminster as well as at the REC’s own annual conference.
Most recently, they were called to give evidence to the APPG about how good-quality RE can contribute to community cohesion. At this event our ambassadors weren’t there in a celebratory role, but as young experts with valuable contributions to make. The evidence they provided is not just alluded to in the published report; some of the points made by our pupils are there on the front-page summary!
The ambassadors’ involvement in local and national projects has also led to a great deal of media interest. At first we gave pre-recorded interviews for local radio, but as pupils became more experienced we were trusted to give live interviews on breakfast shows. In fact, one of our local presenters now refers to the pupils as “RE correspondents” and regularly calls upon them to comment on national developments in the subject.
We were also honoured to be featured as part of a BBC Radio 4 news package about the lack of funding for trainee RE teachers. The frequency of these opportunities has actually allowed pupils to develop the skill of dealing with potentially stressful situations calmly and effectively.
The way the Young Ambassadors scheme has had an impact on the students’ personal development is really quite incredible. I have been staggered, and if I’m really honest, at times reduced to tears, by the way five initially inexperienced students have approached the major task of preparing for their ambassadorial work.
To see teenagers stand up and address politicians or speak live on air about the future of a subject they feel passionately about will remain a highlight of my career. I have been privileged enough to watch them as they realised that if something is important enough to you there are no limits. It doesn’t matter where you are from or how old you are, people will listen if you are consistent with your message and deliver it in a professional manner.
The scheme has also provided a welcome opportunity for RE to cement itself as a high-profile humanity at the school. This is of great importance given the current national context for RE.
Our involvement in the project has been consistently supported by Jason Byrne, our head of faculty. To see a middle leader who could have easily become pre-occupied with geography and history (given the status of the English Baccalaureate) support us both in and out of school has been extremely encouraging.
I have no doubt that his influence has contributed greatly to our Young Ambassadors’ sense of team spirit. To know there is support beyond the RE department has been a crucial aspect of their success.
The REC has led and managed the scheme in an exceptional way. The application process is rigorous enough to identify those pupils with a genuine commitment to RE without requiring anything too arduous from already busy teachers.
Once appointed the level of communication from the REC is admirable. Whenever we have attended an event our principal has received a letter thanking him for giving his consent for our involvement and informing him about the success of the pupils.
Our bond as a team continues to strengthen; our current team’s status as ambassadors will endure into year 13. Our next ambitious project is to establish a Young Ambassadors network in Nottinghamshire.
We are in the process of implementing succession planning in order to appoint a new team. This way, it is hoped the scheme will provide a positive experience for as many pupils as possible and will continue to thrive at the school long after the current ambassadors have left for pastures new.
Lynsey Wilkinson is head of RE at The Redhill Academy in Nottinghamshire, whose five Young Ambassadors are Hannah Morley, Ryan Hutchings, Charlotte Hart-Shaw, Jake Chaplin and Holly Walker.
CAPTION: Giving evidence: The Redhill Young Ambassadors at Parliament where they gave evidence to MPs as part of an inquiry into RE. Also pictured are the school’s head of RE Lynsey Wilkinson (centre) and head of faculty Jason Byrne (far right)