Terence Copley finds a stimulating group of texts for short-course GCSE
The take-up for the GCSE short course RE has increased by something like 500 per cent in the past two years. To old pros like me, it simply confirms what we know: children are fascinated by religions and religious questions - provided teachers don't try to ram their own answers down their throats. In many schools, the short course has replaced that graveyard of RE teachers, statutory non-exam RE in key stage 4. More good news.
For publishers this presents an opportunity and a problem. Do you rehash full GCSE texts and claim that they'll do for the short course or do the different syllabuses and nature of the course require their own books?
Hinduism from the Beliefs, Values and Traditions series is a very clear, full text, evidence that the course may be short, but depth has not been sacrificed. Good colour illustrations appear with specimen questions. There are four pages on reincarnation which should help football coaches.
The Road to Somewhere crosses the "big six" religions thematically and is written mainly with the SEG syllabus in view. The pupil's book could be used at key stage 3, but the teacher's book takes the topics into more depth for GCSE. The danger in this cut and paste approach is that it presents religious material under themes like Life and Death, Religion in Action, Planet Earth etc. Religions are not emphasised as inspiring world views in themselves, but only as ladders into spiritual development.
Christianity in Today's World is presented in detail that reflects its diversity - though sometimes in such a small font that it isn't easy to read. Treating moral issues within one religion gives the pupil more chance to understand the religion itself, as well as the shorter term aims of understanding the ethical and moral issues for SEG and other syllabuses.
Catholic Christianity Today concentrates on one bit of one religion, although Orthodox and Protestant Christians are not excluded. Awkward issues, such as whether Christians should try to convert members of other religions, are not ducked. Pure mischief on my part urged me to switch one homework task from "Explain how being brought up as a Catholic may make some people believe in God" into "may make some people disbelieve in God" but I must have been a difficult pupil. This was one of few texts that claimed to address full and short-course GCSE, although I'm unconvinced that one book can do both equally well Would we be more likely to hear a secondary RE teacher discuss sex than God? Thinking about God addresses head-on an amazing taboo in some RE - that everything in religion can be discussed except God. There are plenty of discussion questions to encourage children to philosophise and theologise and a good third of the text is devoted to moral and ethical issues in the light of belief.
If a theme runs through all these books, it is that writers and publishers have tried hard to produce attractive, examination-related (but not dominated) texts and that they are sometimes difficult for the average or less able pupil to access. At this stage in the early history of the short-course GCSE, this is a much better weakness than not to be stimulating enough.
Religious education has sometimes sold pupils short by reducing religions to an easy read, which far from challenging them has reinforced a complacent secularism. That is not something that this range of books can be accused of.
Terence Copley is professor of religious education at the University of Exeter