What would you ask God? The philosopher Bertrand Russell, asked what he would say if he met God after his death, replied: "I'd ask him why he gave me too little evidence in life to believe in him." But the National RE Festival, which took place in October, did not confine such questioning to philosophy professors.
Jenny McClaren, l0, was one of more than 10,000 pupils prompted to write about this topic by the National RE Festival Questionnaire, devised by the Professional Council for RE. She wrote: "If I could write a letter to God, I would ask him to write back, so I would know he is really there. I would also ask him what it is like in heaven, and if he could have three wishes, what would they be? I would ask him to care for all the heartbroken humans on the earth."
The questionnaire contained l0 questions for primary pupils, and 12 for students aged 11 to 19. Take-up was surprisingly high - hundreds of schools returned bundles of questionnaires to the festival office. More parcels arrive daily.
Claire Clinton, head of RE at Davenant Foundation School in Essex, says: "It was amazing to see pupils settle down to spend almost an hour writing about their beliefs." Around l,000 11 to 19-year-olds were involved, and they all had something to say. Ms Clinton says: "The questions were very accessible. Year 7s wrote very well about perfect worlds, but the older students got into debate about God. The most exciting part was walking around school for the next week hearing young people talking about God, life after death and religious experience instead of the Spice Girls, Chris Evans and shopping.
"The RE festival came after a difficult time at school. There have been several incidents of bereavement close to the school community this year, and it took a bit of bravery to ask weighty questions about death, but actually the pupils had no problems with the asking, it gave them freedom to write and talk about death without being in a crisis."
The Office for Standards in Education recently identified two problems in RE. In primary school "too few opportunities were given for extended writing which would give pupils an opportunity to develop an idea or explore an issue in depth". And in secondary "there were weaknesses in pupils' abilities to relate what they had learned to their own experiences, and their ability to make reasoned judgments using evidence and argument". Where RE sometimes consists of little more than reprocessing of information, the PCfRE wanted to stimulate pupils to think for themselves, and perhaps surprise some teachers with the depth of their insight into key religious questions.
The questionnaire asked about God, prayer, religious experience, human nature, peace and conflict, life after death and about pupils' perceptions of RE itself.
At Greetlands School in Halifax, Yorkshire, headteacher Margaret Earnshaw and RE co-ordinator Christine Sutcliffe talked with colleagues about various ways of using the questionnaire. Some staff were wary of the personal questions involved, but said afterwards that pupils gained more from the activity than could have been imagined.
Ms Earnshaw says: "We set up the work carefully, with input to the RE programme from two local Christian ministers. Children valued the opportunity to put their ideas and insight into words. In an ordinary county primary school like this, RE provides a focus for the spiritual. Year 3 pupils tackled just one or two questions, and eight-year-olds compiled group answers after discussion. But pupils in Years 5 and 6 managed the questionnaires well. Even those who struggle with their literacy had plenty to say."
The pupils' writing also gave a useful snapshot of progression in RE, showing the best achievements of individual pupils and year groups as a whole. Holly Collinge, l0, put her questions about God from her own perspective. "Dear God," she wrote, "how shall I start? Oh, I know. I have always had an image of you in my mind. You have blue eyes and brown curly hair, and you are wearing a long brown robe tied at the waist. Have I got the right image? I could be seriously damaging your reputation. As you may have gathered, I believe in you deeply. But I find it hard to understand how you decide who is going to die before their time. I know you'll have a perfectly good reason for taking them away, but I don't understand."
Other replies revealed the extent to which children wondered how God's existence mirrored our own. One 10-year-old asked: "Do you have any hobbies? Can you sing. Do you cry?" The questionnaire tends to confirm that pupils often think more deeply about belief than RE resources and programmes of study presume. Given the chance to do some extended writing, pupils of all abilities had much to say. Ms Clinton was surprised. "One question made us a bit scared," she says, "asking if pupils had ever experienced a presence or power different from their everyday self. Some simply said no, but some wrote remarkable accounts of their experience of what I suppose we must call a transcendent dimension to life."
One of the questions for seven to 11-year-olds noted that religions often gave a vision of a perfect world. It invited children to draw or design a symbol for their dream of a perfect world.
The British and Foreign School Society National RE Centre at Brunel University will house the questionnaire returns. Director John Logan highlights the value of the information. He says it provides "a snapshot of young people's responses to spiritual and religious questions".
Lynne Scholefield trains RE teachers at St Mary's University College, Twickenham. Her students will be involved in analysing the questionnaires. She says: "One colleague used the questionnaire with adolescents at a school for pupils with educational and behavioural difficulties. It provoked amazing, profound and thoughtful work. It is potentially one of the most exciting research opportunities for RE, because we've never had these kind of data available before. The questions connect pupils' own lives with the core concerns of RE."
The PCfRE is to publish Faith in the Future: an Anthology of Young People's Spiritual Writing in 1998
Lat Blaylock is an executive officer at the PCfRE