Matters of life and death

Taking Issue BBC2, Wednesdays, 11.40-12.00. From January 8. Age range 14-18.

Even for the best of RE teachers, key stage 4 is hard. Almost invariably, their subject is squeezed both for resources and for time. Outside the GCSE short courses it tends to get either a minimal one-lesson allocation, or a token slot in PSE.

Too often the message to students is: "It's the law, you've got to do it".Unhelpful and unconvincing, but at least better than the politicians' absurd contention that religious education is there to make them good.

Yet we know that the subject is important. In countless schools good teachers have demonstrated that it can touch the minds and hearts of adolescents in ways that the rest of their learning seldom does, not least by encouraging them to be open about the uncertainties and fears that crowd upon them.

But good teachers, especially in RE, need good resources - material that stimulates both recognition and response and signals, by reference to Christianity and other faiths, the universality of our concerns and our humanity.

Given the pressure on RE specialists in schools, it needs ideally to be material that other teachers can use easily as well. The new Taking Issue series is an outstanding example of the best of such resources.

The five 20-minute programmes focus conventionally enough on some of the questions that lie at the heart of all religion and much morality: does God exist? Is there life after death? Is euthanasia ever right? How do we know what is right from wrong? The quality though, is in the content and presentation.

Each programme leads with a remarkable true story - a moment of discovery told partly straight to camera by the person involved and partly (and convincingly) by dramatic reconstruction. There is no commentary - the stories are too interesting to need it - but each event is followed by documentary-style case studies showing how people of different beliefs answer, or fail to answer, the questions that arise.

The series starts powerfully, with the gun shots that killed 15-year-ol d Billy McCurrie's father in Belfast in 1970. We see newsreel of the funeral and watch Billy as he is today describing how, in his lust for vengeance, he joined the paramilitaries, became in turn a killer, was arrested and served 10 years in prison.

A prison visitor talked to him about the great paradox of Christianity: the worship, as God, of a man whose body was broken and reviled. In that moment, he said, he felt "an overwhelming sense of guilt". It led him to faith, and to the Christian ministry that he now serves.

In the sequel, we meet a different prison visitor, a saffron-ro bed Buddhist monk, who brings a sort of freedom to men in Wandsworth jail with the quiet message that "no one saves us but ourselves". There is ample material here for discussion and reflection, and the dawning of religious thinking.

The same is true of the other programmes, featuring as they do a post-operative near-death experience, a homeless teenager arrested for stealing bread, the mother of a desperately brain-damaged baby, and a bewildered pub landlord on trial for locking up the man he caught red-handed in the till.

Each comes with its own distinctive code: a Hindi medical student, a Christian professor turned Glasgow social worker, a Jewish doctor, a wealthy Sikh, a Muslim community taking action to clear prostitution from its streets. The shared convictions and connections are clear and challenging - as indeed, are the actions of the other players in the cast. Look, for example, at how the midwife, the nurse and the hospice doctor treat their patients. It's riveting - real education.

The series comes with a 40-page booklet from the Christian Education Movement, with excellent notes, GCSE extension material and class suggestions.

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