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Injection of moral values

Drug addicts, devoutly religious people and an anorexia counsellor all spent a day describing their lives to add to a school religious education programme. Elaine Carlton listened to them.

A couple of drug addicts, a woman in love with an alchoholic, a religious Muslim, a pair of devout Christians and an anorexia counsellor. Put them all together at Highworth Grammar School for Girls and what have you got?

With luck, a day of spiritual and moral education for 16 to 18-year-olds according to Elizabeth Pope, who heads the school's RE department.

It might sound bizarre but in a bid to fulfil the legal requirements for fostering moral and spiritual development, and for teaching religious education to pupils who may not want to study it, schools are looking increasingly at weird and wonderful ways to bring the subject into the curriculum.

"Some schools don't have regular lessons and some don't teach it at all, " says Mrs Pope. "RE isn't the most popular subject among pupils in school and having a whole day devoted to it gives us a chance to make it more interesting. "

Mrs Pope, who kicked off the idea of spiritual conferences two years ago, chose addiction as the day's theme. Looking at the subject broadly and with impetus from the girls she concentrated on drugs, drink and food and called in a number of religious and secular experts to give their views.

Gareth, a drug addict "in recovery" struck a particular chord with the girls. Gareth started taking drugs at 15. It took him 30 years, up to the point where he was on the brink of becoming homeless and destitute, to stop.

"My house disappeared up my arm or down my throat," he says. "I'm an addict. I was born an addict and will remain one, but at the moment I'm just not taking any drugs."

Gareth and his friend Tim were just two of more than 10 speakers who addressed pupils during their spiritual and moral addiction day.

Sitting in their common room, watching two self confessed drug addicts reveal their darkest secrets was a surreal experience, for the pupils. They were not quite sure what to make of these two men who offered to answer the most personal questions about their lives under the influence of the hardest of drugs.

They were however impressed by this unusual show of openness.

"Didn't you care about getting HIV?

"Weren't you worried about the people you were hurting?" "Did you encourage your friends and family to take drugs too?" A barrage of questions shot out of the mouths of the more confident girls while the others remained in a sort of stunned silence.

The top two years of the school, almost 200 girls, had been split into groups of 20 for the day. Each had a fixed schedule and moved easily around the school from session to session.

Not all the speakers went down as a well as the drug addicts, however. Pupils felt that Eileen, the anorexia counsellor, was not on their wavelength.

She explored reasons why people might eat more or less food - out of loneliness, fear of failure or insecurity. But they were irritated by her refusal to agree that anorexia can be prompted by a desire to be slim.

"You can be insecure about your weight, but if everything else in your life is OK, you won't worry about it," she told them.

Students said they felt unable to relate to her and would have preferred to hear an anorexic woman speak.

"It was brilliant to hear from real addicts," says Dani Jones, 17. "They weren't speaking to educate you, they were just talking from experience about themselves and it wasn't at all patronising."

Even Mr Talib Sidiqui, a practising Muslim who supports younger followers in the area provoked interest.

"He was very clear about not wanting to offend anyone, but just wanting to explain his religion," says Clare Willmore, 18. "He told us that if a Muslim admits to being an alcholic they are punished and if they steal they'll have their fingers chopped off."

Liz Pope said: "The aim is to increase their knowledge and understanding and hopefully they'll take something away from the day which they'll relate to their lives afterwards."

She admits however that she had not heard any of the speakers before the conference, which cost the school more than Pounds 500 and had relied on the recommendation of each organisation.

"It's very hard to know where to start, I've not yet found a book which lists all the different organisations which have speakers who give talks in schools and we desperately need that," she says.

For the few weeks following the conference the school's counsellors have been put on red alert. They have been warned that the day is likely to trigger hidden feelings among those with anorexic tendencies or alchoholic parents.

"One girl told me that hearing Peggy the woman in love with an alchoholic was like hearing the echo of her mother," says Mrs Pope. "It looks as if the conference has touched some nerves and stirred things up a bit."

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