Education: questions and answers about speaking

Can you spare an hour - or two?

"A non-theist world view, for example, Humanism" is on the Agreed Syllabus for RE in all Local Authority schools in Derby and Derbyshire. CofE schools also use the Agreed Syllabus.

Most schools welcome speakers representing different belief systems as part of RE - and sometimes as part of Philosophy & Ethics or General Studies further up the school.

Speaking is not teaching - that's what teachers do and they have the Agreed Syllabus to follow and resources to assist them.

However, most teachers recognise that for young people there is nothing better than the chance to meet, listen to and question, people whose views and beliefs they may never have encountered before. During their school career it is hoped that students get a chance to meet representatives of the widest possible range of religious and non-religious beliefs.

How much time is involved?

A school lesson normally takes between 50 and 60 minutes and you have to allow time to travel to and from the school. So, realistically, the minimum time would be two or more hours.

Sometimes we are invited to speak to a year group of perhaps three or four classes. Some of our volunteers are happy speaking to a large group of 120 pupils while others feel it is much better to talk to one class at a time - this allows much more time for questions and discussion.

How often would I have to do it?

That depends on how much time you can spare and how many invitations we get.

We appreciate that many people are at work and perhaps they would be willing to give up half a day per term to speak in schools.

Others may be enjoying retirement and, when not swanning round the world or walking in the Peak District, can make more of their time available.

What age ranges would I speak to?

Whichever you feel comfortable with.

Some people don't feel comfortable with younger pupils ("ankle nippers" as some teachers fondly call them), others would not be happy in the more formal atmosphere of a college or university debate.

We have:

  • given assemblies in infant schools,
  • helped with lessons in lower junior school,
  • given talks in upper junior school and secondary school,
  • taken part in "World Faith Days",
  • taken part in panel discussions and debates higher up in secondary school, colleges and Universities.

Do I need a CRB/DBS certificate?

No - but you may be asked for one. See "How we work with schools" on the speakers page.

The older Criminal Records Bureau check has been replaced by the Disclosure and Barring Service check.

Schools have an obvious duty of care towards their pupils and no-one may work unsupervised with young people without a DBS check.

When CRB/DBS first came out a number of groups, including musicians and authors of children's books, protested about plans to make such checks compulsory for everyone - including someone who might attend a school only once for a performance or talk. The general rule is that anyone without a DBS check may visit a school, by invitation, as long as they are supervised at all times by a member of staff.

However, many schools are confused about the rules relating to supervised visitors which are clearly laid down in "Keeping children safe in education." Section 54 states:

"In a school or college, a supervised volunteer who regularly teaches or looks after children is not in regulated activity."

The final decision about who is allowed into the school, and under what conditions, remains with the head teacher.

Do I have to make a pre-visit to the school?

It is always worth offering to make a visit to the school before you go to speak to pupils. This gives teachers the chance to meet you and to assess what you plan to say.

What do I talk about?

You will probably be invited to talk about your personal beliefs so your presentation must be personal - things you believe in.

We don't have holy books laying down the rules (that in itself is something you might like to mention in your talk) so there is no "party line" to be followed and atheists disagree with one another on all sorts of topics. You can pick age-appropriate examples, such as abortion.

We have created a list of topics that speakers have covered over the years - you are free to use them, leave them out, modify them or add your own.

We like to keep this list up to date so please let us know what works for you.

When it comes to questions you should tell the group whether you want to take questions as you go along (which can sometimes set you off on a time-consuming tangent - so be careful - you can always say "that's a really good question - remind me of it when I get to the end of my talk so we can discuss it") or at the end. Don't expect too many questions at primary level - but lots in year 10 and above.

What about sensitive subjects?

Religion is a sensitive subject anyway - at some time you will probably step on someone's emotional or intellectual toes.

We don't in any way set out to cause offence (what's the point?) but sometimes we may say things that will differ greatly from what pupils have been told by their parents or religious leaders.

We support the right of anyone to believe whatever they wish - as long as they cause no harm, don't try to impose their views on others and don't expect to be funded by taxpayers.

At the same time we make it clear that we respect people (not ideas) for what they do in life - not for what they say or claim to believe. A good example of people we respect is Medicine Sans Frontières. We reserve the right to criticise all ideas, including religious ideas. We are not offended if anyone challenges our ideas (in fact, we quite enjoy it!) and we are more than capable of discussing ideas without making it personal.

Teachers, and pupils, are fully aware that they are engaged in a subject where people have different views - and they are usually very sensible about it as long as you point out that "this is what I believe, other people may believe something completely different."

How do I pitch things at the right level?

Obviously presenting ideas to a year 5 class (9/10 year olds) is very different from presenting it to a sixth form (17/18 year olds). We can help with this - see the next question.

Can I get some help preparing my talk and trying it out?

We can help in two ways:

  • The BHA runs one day courses for volunteers willing to speak in schools.
  • You don't have to go on a course - we can arrange one-to-one meetings to help you put your material together and go through dummy runs.

How do I get invitations to speak?

We will pass on any invitations we receive. However, the best way is to make personal contact with schools. To avoid multiple approaches to the same school please keep us informed of what you are doing.

Some schools are very open and they invite a wide range of speakers to talk to pupils. In other schools students may get to the end of the sixth form and never have been addressed by someone with a non-theist world view. Religious schools, "faith schools", rarely invite Humanists to speak or to debate/discuss at sixth form level. We hope this will change.

The most obvious thing is to go along to your local primary and secondary schools, speak to the school secretary and ask if religious speakers are normally invited into school. Explain who you are, ask for the name of the person who is responsible for RE and leave your contact details - along with a covering letter and perhaps a suitable flyer. We have an A5 flyer you can use and we hope the BHA will be producing one for use nationally.

One personal visit is worth 20 letters! It puts a face to your name.

If you hear nothing within the next few weeks don't hesitate to follow up - perhaps with a phone call or an email. You can ask why the school is not willing to have speakers - it may be that they have a blanket ban on religious speakers or it may be that they favour some over others - a policy you can certainly challenge - with or without our help. You may not get an answer - but it is worth asking.

To move further afield you can send letters and flyers to the "Head of RE" (secondary) or "RE Coordinator/Lead" (primary). Most schools have a web site and this may enable you to find the name of the person responsible for RE; even better, just phone the school and ask - a letter addressed to a named individual is more likely to receive attention than one addressed to a job title.

You should contact the Clerk of your local Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE) - ring up the council office and ask for contact details. You can send some copies of your letter/flyer and ask for it to be raised at the next SACRE meeting.

If you have difficulty getting into a particular school, which you know invites religious speakers to talk to pupils, you should certainly raise this with the SACRE - it is their legal responsibility to define the RE syllabus and to monitor its delivery. Part of that role is to ensure that no single religion or belief dominates RE teaching.

Is it scary? How do the pupils react?

No, it's not scary - it is fantastic fun!

As an outside speaker you will find that pupils behave extremely well (and there is a teacher present just in case) - they are more than willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, they will be interested in you as a human being (they will judge you by what they see, by what you say and by how you say it) and they will ask questions - as long as you don't bore them to tears!

You will be nervous for the first visit or two - then you will find that it becomes one of the most enjoyable and rewarding things you have done in life. You are talking to young people, most of whom will have open minds (unlike most adults) - they are finding out about the world and you are part of that learning process. There is nothing better. That's why teachers become teachers.


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