`It is about creating an ethos where you value diversity'

Help religious pupils feel safe in sharing their faith, experts say

Teachers are being urged to do more to support pupils with strong religious beliefs, who can feel isolated and confused, and even become victims of bullying as a result of their faith.

Creating a culture where faith is openly discussed can help to reduce feelings of alienation, according to psychologists. Lisa Oakley, a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University specialising in spiritual abuse, said that children with strong religious beliefs often felt isolated from their peers.

"At one point, most people in this country had some kind of faith and it was quite normal for children to talk about their views, but we're not there any more," she said. "Often children feel like they're part of the `other' group; they're misunderstood and they can't share their faith. It can affect children's emotional development if they feel there is a significant part of themselves they cannot share."

The call comes as a prize-winning film examining the impact of fundamentalist religion on impressionable young people is out in cinemas. Stations of the Cross depicts the struggles of 14-year-old Maria, who is attempting to reconcile religious belief with life in a secular society.

In a pivotal scene, Maria refuses to take part in a PE class set to "demonic" music. Her refusal is met with bewilderment by her teacher and bullying taunts from her classmates.

Such scenarios - where faith prevented young people from conforming to the behaviour of their peers - were a common source of isolation, Dr Oakley said. "If you are a teenager and you don't agree with drinking, or you have decided not to have sex until you have got married, that may not be something you feel you can talk about," she explained. "There is a lot of self-monitoring that goes on and inevitably some bullying."

Michael Hymans, an educational psychologist and former teacher, said schools needed to be aware of issues arising from children's faith, especially during secondary education when teenagers were struggling with their identities.

"There is a risk factor if a highly religious adolescent goes into a school that doesn't have a religious ethos," he said.

Children whose beliefs were different from those of the majority were vulnerable to bullying and schools needed to deal with it in the same way as any other incident, he added.

"It is about creating an ethos where you value diversity, and teachers need to get the message across that just because someone has different beliefs it doesn't mean they should be victimised," Dr Hymans said.

Schools are under increasing pressure to advocate religious tolerance. Those involved in the alleged "Trojan Horse" plot in Birmingham were strongly criticised for promoting a narrow Islamist ethos.

Changes to GCSE RE, meanwhile, will ensure that all students, even in faith schools, will have to study at least two religions in depth for the first time.

Although some schools were good at allowing pupils to talk about their faith, others should do more to foster a culture where it was OK to ask questions, Dr Oakley said.

"We need to create an atmosphere of openness where children can talk and it is all right for them to disagree about what they believe," she said. "It is about not being afraid to discuss it and teaching that we all deserve self-respect and helping people understand that having a faith can be a very positive thing."

`There is always a gap you can't bridge'

Stations of the Cross was awarded the Silver Bear for best script at this year's Berlin International Film Festival. Its director Dietrich Brggemann says the story was inspired by his own family, who were part of a fundamentalist Roman Catholic society.

"You develop a two-faced personality: at home your family buys into this whole set of beliefs where you are the chosen few, but outside you need to blend in," he explains. "You learn not to talk about religion in the outside world and automatically you don't get that close to your friends.

"There is always a gap you can't bridge."

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