A class of children watch as their teacher prepares to show them something very special. Without speaking, she takes off her shoes, covers her head with a scarf and washes her hands. Then, from a high shelf, she takes down a large object covered with a clean white cloth. The children are silent in anticipation. At last she unwraps the cloth to reveal a copy of the Koran. An RE lesson has begun.
This kind of approach enables children to experience the sense of awe and wonder that lies at the heart of any faith. Artefacts provide an unrivalled entry point into the world of belief. Religious objects are strange and mysterious and they carry a charge of meaning which enables children to move from the concrete to abstract notions of reverence and ritual.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority schemes of work contain many suggestions for using objects from different faiths to encourage first-hand learning. It's good child-centred stuff, but religious artefacts aren't quite like other teaching resources and using them throws up two big questions - where to get hold of them, and how they should be handled.
Most resource libraries will loan religious artefacts to schools. In authorities that don't provide this service, there's a useful website which will help teachers find what's available in the area.
The RE directory (www.theredirectory.org.uk) is a database of organisations and resources to support the teaching of religious education. It's comprehensive and easy to use. Type in the name of your authority and it gives a list of local contacts to follow up. Technophobes can achieve the same results by tapping in to the advisory network.
The first point of call is the local authority's RE advisor, but curriculum specialists are thin on the ground these days, so the next option is the diocesan RE team. Diocesan advisers don't just concern themselves with teaching Christianity. They work closely with representatives from other faith communities and they can point you in the right direction.
If funds are available, there are several excellent educational suppliers who provide boxed collections, together with guidance on the use of different objects (see Web below). Better still, try the ethnic shops in the local community. Assistants are often very knowledgeable and will gladly offer advice and background information.
Religious artefacts should always be treated with respect, and teachers need to think carefully about how they are introduced into the classroom.
Sue Smith, headteacher at St Peter's CE Primary School, Chippenham, Wiltshire, says: "The way the teacher handles the artefact will affect the children's attitude to it." She suggests older children should be involved in devising ways of showing that the artefact is special and should be handled with care. For example, they might decide to place it on a cloth on a table. Or they could place it on a sheet of paper, draw a circle around it and add a symbol to show that this artefact is not to be touched.
There are certain conventions associated with artefacts from different faiths. In most religions, holy books are treated with great reverence. The Koran is always placed higher than other books, wrapped carefully in a cloth. Users must wash their hands thoroughly before taking it down. The Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, is held to confer holiness on the gurdwara, the place where it rests. The Jewish Torah is seldom seen outside the synagogue, where it is read with the help of a yad, or pointer to preserve it from the touch of a human hand.
If in doubt, says Julie Grove, chair of the Association of RE Inspectors, Advisers and Consultants, ask parents or children belonging to the relevant faith. She believes respect is the key and that doesn't just apply to the treatmentof artefacts while they are in use in the classroom. It raises issues about storage too. Many Sikhs would be distressed if they thought their religious objects might come into contact with alcohol or tobacco.
Representatives of other faiths dislike seeing objects from their faith mixed with those from other religions, so they're better stored in faith-specific boxes, rather than in year-group collections. "Teachers should at all times treat religious artefacts with the same care they would show if a believer was present," she says.