When Hampshire, Portsmouth and Southampton began the review process, two years ago, for a new agreed syllabus in religious education, one of the questions put to teachers was, would they like the syllabus to address how to teach the subject? A staggering 98 per cent replied, yes, they would.
"That gave us the opportunity to say, let's make this syllabus focus on how you teach religious education," says Clive Erricker, county inspector for RE in Hampshire. "RE has never developed an idea of what is the appropriate methodology for learning in the subject, in the same way that, for instance, history has."
One of the reasons for this, he believes, is that RE, traditionally, has been too taken up in defending its place as a curriculum subject. Under the 1944 Education Act, religion in schools was "confessional", rather than academic. Although this began to change in the 1960s, through immigration, as well as the emergence of the first religious studies departments in universities, it was not until 1988 that the law attempted to reposition religious education in relation to modern society.
From then on, RE concerns became focused not on how to teach the subject, but on what should be taught: which world religions, how many, and when? This in turn led to criticisms from Ofsted in the 1990s that pupils were learning about, rather than learning from, religion.
Religious education is a national legal requirement for children up to the age of 16, but the syllabus is drawn up not nationally, but locally, by each local authority, together with its Standing Advisory Council on RE (Sacre). Subject numbers are up, by 6.6 per cent at GCSE from 2003 to 2004, and 13.8 per cent at A-level.
However, Sacres have been under attack in recent months. An Ofsted report last November criticised many locally agreed syllabuses, and said "very few were of high enough quality throughout to make a consistently sound basis for good planning, teaching, learning and assessment".
The launch of the first National Framework for Religious Education, in October last year, was an attempt by the Government to raise the profile of the subject, and set out national standards and expectations to improve the level of RE teaching and learning. The framework is non-statutory, and complements rather than replaces the work of Sacre, but the Government has not ruled out the possibility of making the framework statutory later on.
Meanwhile, Hampshire, Portsmouth and Southampton have been hatching their own ideas about the best way forward for RE. After extensive consultation with teachers, the new syllabus, "Living Difference", came into force in schools last September, claiming to be "the first agreed syllabus in England and Wales to propose a specific methodology for teaching and learning in religious education".
What this methodology revolves around is a new emphasis on conceptual inquiry. At different key stages, pupils are introduced to different concepts, including those common to religious and non-religious experience (eg, remembering, duty, justice), concepts common to many religions (eg, God, worship, symbolism, the sacred), and concepts particular to specific religions (eg, Trinity, moksha, Torah).
Much of the religious content, relating to six world religions, has been drawn from the previous syllabus, but the new approach is via a methodological "circle" (see diagram). The learner might, for example, begin with "enquiry" into religious or non-religious concepts, move on to "contextualise" the concept in specific religious practice and belief, then "evaluate" each concept, "communicate" their responses to it, and, coming full circle, "apply" their own beliefs and values to situations in their own and others' lives.
Another lesson might begin with pupils "communicating" their ideas, and travel round the circle to end with a process of "evaluation".
Philippa Hughes, RE subject manager at Fair Oak Infants' School, near Eastleigh, Hampshire, began trialling the new methodology in January last year. "In my view, it's absolutely excellent. This is the first time it has been written down in such a clear way for RE in a syllabus."
Application and evaluation of concepts, as stressed by the methodological circle, are vital aspects of learning, she believes, but aspects which teachers need to think harder about. She likes the concept-led approach to units of work.
Thus Year 2 children hear the story of Jesus stilling the storm as part of their exploration of the concept of authority: "When you come to contextualise, the religious content has more meaning for the children, because of its relationship to a concept they already have an understanding of. It means religion is not seen as a separate thing."
Rebecca Costambeys, advanced skills teacher in RE at Costello Technology College in Basingstoke, finds the new syllabus "very exciting". "It is explicitly concept-driven, and this is giving us a greater rigour, a greater element of challenge, and a definite awareness of progression."
A discussion of freedom, for example, might start with a picture or an object. Once the pupils are engaged by the ideas, the teacher might move into a more detailed consideration of the Hindu concept of freedom, "moksha".
"You don't leave the concept until you have completed the circle," she says. "This means you don't leave anything half understood, and you don't water down the religious element at the expense of a student-centred approach, which is what tended to happen before."
The circle, she says, helps teachers "steer a path between the two RE danger zones" - the Scylla and Charybdis of too much content or too much student-centredness.
Training days have been set up to introduce teachers to the demands of the new syllabus, and specialist teachers in four development groups are preparing units of work which will eventually form a handbook to accompany the syllabus.
In some schools, the new approach has already prompted a radical rethink of the place of RE. Park Community School, in Havant, Hampshire, for instance, plans to use the syllabus as a "skeleton" for a wide-ranging programme of "values education", to encompass assemblies, tutor programmes and regular Citizenship, Community, Arts and Philosophy (CCAP) days.
The idea, according to Mark O'Brien, assistant head, is to make the programme "multi-disciplinary, and more attractive, so pupils can relate real values to real world situations".
* The Living Difference syllabus is available for pound;20. For more information Email: firstname.lastname@example.org