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Reasons to believe

Instead of a subject called religious and moral education, schools need to start putting time and teaching into beliefs and moral decision-making, says Ewan Aitken.

WALKED into St Ninian's primary School in Edinburgh two weeks ago and was greeted by four teachers doing what primary teachers seem to do to Olympic standard: staple a frieze to a wall. Only this was no ordinary frieze; it was a Lenten tree. Switching from councillor to minister in less than a sentence (something I do regularly), I enquired about the roots of the Lenten tree tradition (pun intended).

The frenetic activity stopped briefly as the teachers involved explained that its liturgical roots went back to their staff meeting the previous week. They had been discussing the success of their Advent tree and were looking for a similar project to engage the children in exploring Easter.

So the Lenten tree was created. The children take a Gospel passage each week and explore it. They then respond to that by committing themselves to some activity of service. This is written up on a leaf and stapled to the tree, which grows each week toward that tree which is at the heart of the Easter story: the cross of Christ. This was poignantly and powerfully expressed in silhouette at the end of the frieze.

Three things struck me as I reflected on this experience. First, the creativity of teachers continually to find new ways of engaging young people in the education experience.

Second, that one of the important resources Catholic schools have to create the kind of ethos that sees them often deliver very disciplined and hard-working schools is that everyone knows what they believe in. We might or might not agree with it or believe in it ourselves, but everyone knows where the values of that school are rooted.

Third, if ever there was a time for enabling young people to rediscover not just what they believe but what it is to believe, it is now. I am not just talking about September 11, although that is a driving force. I believe that we are, as a society, going through a serious and significant moral realignment - but with few foundations or moral frameworks on which to build society.

This has led to many conflicting messages about the parameters within which decisions are made about what is right and wrong. Internationally, we have Slobodan Milosevic on trial for war crimes and yet it would appear that other countries can drive tanks down village streets and blow up peoples'

homes with impunity.

In the world of science, there are claims being made daily about the potential to clone human beings with little apparent reference by those who make those claims to the morality of that aspiration. Our DNA has been mapped but what we do with that knowledge seems to be lost in a debate about who pays.

In the media, we have a television series about manufactured fame (Pop Idol) which polls 8.3 million votes with little discussion as to the morality of creating a "perfect" image. And the conflicting messages given out about drugs, sex and sexuality by so many different institutions just don't bear thinking about.

Outside faith communities, other than in places like Catholic schools, what we believe is neither clear nor articulated. The solution, however, is not more faith schools. In fact, I want to argue the opposite. We need less talk or even teaching of religion as a separate subject or boxed into "faith" schools and much more education and exploration about belief in all our schools. We need to move from avoiding debates about what we believe for fear of offending anyone to making those debates and their conclusions central to the education experience.

And to do so we need to stop teaching a subject called "religious and moral education" which we can use to avoid reflection on belief and values in any other place, and start putting time and teaching into what I would call "beliefs and moral decision-making".

As those pupils in St Ninian's were discovering, everything we choose to do is a result of what we believe, even if we believe in nothing. As educators we need to take real time to work with our young people on what it is they really believe, why they believe, and how that affects their life choices. Religion, organised and otherwise, would be part of that exploration. It would break down the assumption that all discussion about belief has to focus on religion so that, if you are not interested in religion, what you believe doesn't matter.

his is in no way a criticism of RME teachers. In fact, I am sure that they will already have done much of what I describe. But until we can place the debate about belief, as opposed to religion, at the heart of our education experience, then their role in school will continue often to be much more peripheral than it should be.

The irony about all of this is that the school system we have in Scotland is the consequence of people acting on what they believe to be true. John Knox, that Catholic priest turned reformer (and one time Sunday golfer, would you credit), believed that mass literacy was imperative so that the people could read the word of God in their Bibles.

His vision then made real of a school in every parish, many would argue, was the basis of the Scottish Enlightenment which, in turn, was the beginning of the end of the church as the sole definer of what we believed to be true. But the Smiths, Humes, Adams, Scotts, Burns, Watts and others at least had something to replace the truths which they challenged. Today we do not and we are all, young and old, the poorer for it.

Ewan Aitken is the executive member for education on Edinburgh City Council.

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