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A feeling for all faiths

Links with local communities help schools to fully know their pupils, says Victoria Neumark.

Can we wear our school uniform in the video? Because since we failed that OFSTED thing people have kept dissing our school. We want people to see the good things we do."

A secondary school pupil in Croydon talks about his pride in his faith community and in his school, as part of a project exploring the contribution which religious education can make to school efficiency. This young Muslim boy was one of many who felt their self-esteem rise when contacts between local schools and traditional faith communities were developed. Joy White, RE and citizenship adviser for Croydon, says: "For many pupils, faith is so important that they need to bring their home community into school - and their school needs to be aware of their home faith community."

Croydon has 51 ethnic identities and strong religious participation among Anglican, Seventh Day Adventist, Jehovah's Witness, Islam, Hindu and Sikh communities, with many other smaller groups. Eighteen months ago, Ms White began working with Brunel University on activities to develop the role of local faith communities within schools, and so promote schools and schooling within those wider groups. She says the idea crystallised for her one day after working with some Year 5 children in school. She saw them half an hour later trooping in to the local mosque for religion lessons, dressed traditionally and holding their copies of the Koran. "I wondered whether school teachers really understand what happens to those children in that half-hour shift," she says.

Understanding is pursued as a two-way process; the project funds visits to school from local religious dignitaries, and visits to places of worship for participating schools, with two faith events. About 10 schools so far have been involved in visits, which range from regular pastoral work by the Methodist education officer to teachers building up good relations with the Muslim imam at the local madrassah (religion school). One local school, Gilbert Scott Junior, held a weekend afternoon to celebrate religious diversity. More than a dozen schools have joined in the filming of a video.

The video is aimed at showing the dynamism of faith communities in real life. Children have proved eager to share their beliefs with their neighbours, and to show how, even if in the textbooks all Sikhs observe the life prescriptions of the "5Ks" or all Muslim women wear hijab (the veil), in real life things are more complex.

"I am sick of people thinking my dad is in the Taliban," says one girl. Another states: "I want to wear hijab. Often people think I have been forced into it. This is my way of explaining."

With so many different faiths within a predominantly secular society, there is a lot of explaining to do. In some areas of Croydon, racism is rife. Pupils from "bad" schools can be stigmatised, with respectable places of worship saying, flatly, "we don't cater for children like that".

In turn, schools which the OFSTED has diagnosed with weaknesses tend to retreat and cut back on RE visits; although nearly all the pupils in Croydon do the short-course GCSE RE. Joy White believes that schools have neglected awonderful resource in faith community links, both for the academic understanding of RE and for building a strong spiritual, moral, social and cultural ethos in the school. "Schools tend to see comments from the faith perspective as a problem instead of as sharing," she says, instancing one Ethiopian refugee mother who found her son's school intransigent about his religious change of name when he turned 13. "It was our faith that got us through those awful times in Ethiopia. Our religion is our way of life," she had said, in tears. Establishing relationships with faith leaders can transform both a school's understanding and the pupils' experience.

Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, says Joy White, may be seen by schools as "difficult", withdrawing children from assemblies and celebrations. The situation was improved by a teachers' conference, attended by representatives from more than half of Croydon's 100 schools, which heard the Jehovah's Witness education officer explain how best to meld state education and believers' needs.

Again, with a relationship established with the Croydon mosque, it is easy for teachers to ring up and ask if it is true, as pupils may claim, that they are not supposed to do homework in Ramadan. It is not true. And, says one teacher: "if we do not take pupils to the local Gurdwara (Sikh temple) when they are attending school, then the chances are they will never go inside for the whole of their life and instead they'll be suspicious of what goes on in there". Suspicion can also colour the attitudes of more secular children.

When Joy White worked with some Year 6 children on attitudes to religion she found, through a simple word-placing exercise, that the words widely attached to church were "fear" and "anger", rather than, as she had expected, "boring" or "peaceful". These pupils had rarely been inside a church for anything other than a funeral; they had also only picked up ideas from television of churches as places where dead bodies lay and relatives mourned. Yet these children will be sharing their school lives with those children for whom their faith means life, joy and strength.

Brandon Schmack, head of Gilbert Scott Junior School, says he was struck by how whole-heartedly the school community, including parents, embraced the idea of diversity when an event was held one summer afternoon in 1999. Participants wrote their ideals inside an outline of a dove, and pinned the dove shape on a "wall of peace". Then a representative of every faith within the school - which covered all the major world religions - lit a candle.

"The people were moved by what seemed to be a real sense of the spiritual," says Mr Schmack. "Members of minority faiths saw their religion affirmed by the whole school community."

As the project continues, Brunel University and Croydon will continue to develop strategies to suit different schools, offering supply cover, developing the video and other resources, deploying the adviser and building a wider knowledge of RE. Such work is, believes Joy White, absolutely vital to children's wider education in today's multicultural world.

"To know the whole child, you've got the know the faith tradition the child comes from," she says.

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