Is God more like an eagle or a lion?" asks teacher Ruth Robinson. Her Year 11 class is asked to move into one of two camps and she asks why they've made their choice. Their responses are clear and thoughtful: "A lion controls others." "An eagle hovers, not like a lion that's always in one place."
Next question: "Is God more like a mother or a father?" Only three boys think he's more like a mother. Why? "Mothers have more responsibilities. They care for their children." "If you think of all the suffering in the world, a mother wouldn't allow that to happen to her children," says a boy in the father group.
Ruth Robinson is head of a humanities department and this class is one of the religious education GCSE short course groups that she teaches. They are among the 170 students who have opted for the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board course which they attend once a week and which will give them half a GCSE credit when they complete the course. Only 30 in their year group are studying the full RE course. Their school, Ninestiles Grant Maintained Technology College, an 11 to 18 comprehensive in Birmingham, is unusual in carrying out the national curriculum requirement for religious education to be taught as a compulsory subject until 16.
Lat Blaylock, executive officer of the Professional Council for Religious Education, says that it's hard to get an accurate national picture "but it appears that between one third and one quarter of schools are not offering religious studies at key stage 4".
Despite this, the subject has been slowly resurgent in the past 10 years. Lat Blaylock undertook his own survey to see what the take-up was, and found that whereas a decade ago there were 87,000 candidates taking GCSE religious studies, last year there were 118,000 taking the full course, the largest number ever, with an additional 11,000 taking the RE short course, the highest entry for any short course. He estimates that this year there will be slightly fewer going for the full course - 110,000 - while an astonishing 75,000 will be completing the short course, which amounts to 11 per cent of the year group nationally.
Lydia Kirby, head of RE at Ninestiles College, believes that the introduction of the short course has turned RE around from top to bottom at her school. "Religious education has risen in status and credibility since the GCSE short course was introduced in September 1996. It's made us look at key stage 3 even more closely to ensure that there's enough rigour to prepare students for the short course."
While the short and full courses are similar in terms of teaching and learning styles, both using discussion, simulations and paired learning, the short course has less emphasis on rituals and customs and more on philosophical and moral issues. "We look more at the students' own values, drawing on issues that are relevant to their lives."
Ms Kirby has been using a range of techniques to explore the nature of God, including drama, music and mime. "There's more scope for interaction and for having fun than there is in the more structured course," she says.
Last week she led a class that looked at moral absolutism and relativism in terms of crime and punishment. This week, the subject was temptations and feelings, drawing on the story of Adam and Eve. Students were putting together a storyboard, using photographs of fellow students' expressions of remorse, jealousy and greed for illustrations taken with a digital camera.
Do students see the short course as a cushy option? There's no doubt that there is less of an emphasis on coursework than there is on the full course - always a great pull for students. But judging from the enthusiasm of students I talked to about the content of the course, they see it more as a challenge than as an easy way to spend an hour.
one 16-year-old boy said: "You go deeper into moral issues, things like euthanasia, abortion and capital punishment. You can discuss things here in a way that you can't in other classes."
the girl sitting next to him added: "In other RE courses, it's either yes or no. Here, there's no right or wrong. We're learning more about God and about other points of view, and we're thinking and talking about how issues affect us."
Clare Clinton, an RE teacher at Davenant Foundation School in Essex, who was on the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority working party that developed the short courses and is co-author of a short course textbook, thinks a great bonus of the courses is that "the philosophical elements help to shed light on the reasons behind the ethical views. If you understand how Muslims see Allah, you can better understand why they see euthanasia and abortion in the way that they do".
But most of all she thinks that the approach of the short courses is attuned to the direction that young people's minds are moving in. "Adolescence is a time of discovery about whoyou are as an individual. Getting away from pure know-ledge and getting into philosophical questions is much more where young people of this age are already."
For teachers, too, she believes that the short courses offer something satisfyingly different. "Instead of taking a group to visit a Sikh gudwara, for example, you can use it as a point of departure to ask 'have you ever had a sense of wonder?' " And because of its philosophical and ethical foundation, the short course is eminently suitable for teaching by non-specialists who have had somein-service training. What it requires, more than in-depth knowledge of customs and rituals - which can be gained from training and support from specialist colleagues - is creative thinking, a lively interest in spiritual and moral development, and the ability to engage students in provocative, questioning debate. But the bigchallenge is finding teachers to meet the demand.
Lat Blaylock is optimistic that the short courses are giving an ever growing number of young people something that they aren't getting elsewhere in the curriculum. "It offers more space for teachers and pupils to explore questions of values, ethics and identity than other more curriculum-loaded subject areas. And, at its best, it can be a vehicle for the exploration of emotional intelligences as well as of spiritual and moral development."