Religious education is unique - the only subject that is both compulsory in all schools, yet taught by locally agreed syllabuses. Teachers are bound to "take account of the principal religions represented in Great Britain" (1988 Education Reform Act), yet most have little specialist training. It is prescribed by law, yet parents can withdraw their children without explanation. On top of that, says Barbara Wintersgill, Ofsted's special adviser for religious education, "The issues are hard: belief in God, dealing with death, how people tackle the problems of existence. It's not just a pile of facts."
With RE, teachers are on the spot. "What do you believe, Miss?" is a question which should not be ducked, says Bob Jackson, director of graduate studies at Warwick University. Instead he tries to encourage teachers to set their own views in context. "RE is about building bridges." Not as easy as handing out Easter eggs.
There are two strands in RE:learning from and learning about religions. Learning about, exemplified in devices such as poster packs, festival assemblies, trips to places of worship, making special foods and learning the histories of religious groups is easy. Learning from, which means taking on board the importance of some very different views of the world, is harder.
It is no good, for instance, saying, "We don't really like to do the Eid where they sacrifice animals at Eid ul-Adha, marking the end of the Muslim Hajj pilgrimage." Respect does not mean glossing over differences. Blandness can trivialize religious beliefs and practices to the point of incomprehensibility, as in one teacher telling the story of Christ's Passion at Easter: "And then they hung Jesus on the cross and it was not at all nice!" Simply drawing comparisons between festivals that fall in the spring, says Mrs Wintersgill, can "totally camouflage the real meaning and purpose of those festivals within their tradition". That "Eighties' approach" is, she says, "sloppy".
Equally, schools must not feel that by "doing God at assemblies" and noting festivals, they have satisfied their statutory RE obligations. Worship and assemblies may refer to RE, but they are not its vehicles. Festival assemblies offer opportunities to celebrate different faiths, but not to discuss and reflect.
It is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking all religions follow the Christian model. All spring festivals are not about new life. In Judaism, for instance, the Easter story of an incarnated Saviour who redeems humanity through death and resurrection, is not only out of place, but actually blasphemous. A Jewish child would be uncomfortable equating key Christian tenets with Passover's story of the exodus from Egypt, or with the Buddhist desire to gain merit for future lives by releasing caged birds at Vaisakha.
Although ideally set within a whole-school ethos based on understanding of others, RE must be about the child's own ability to make sense of his or her experience of life, the common social experience and living faith traditions.
Promoting any particular religious point of view is forbidden by law (1944) in maintained schools. Teachers do, though, need to aim for a kind of "religious literacy" that will be confident not just in talking about paraphernalia - the Seder meal at Passover, giving Easter eggs, throwing colour, important though they be - but with the big questions at the heart of faiths.
Diversity is at the heart of RE and the most important thing, says Rabbi Julia Neuberger, who has taught RE up to A level, is to celebrate it. After all, if religions were all the same there would be nothing to teach.
Quite a few festivals fall in the spring. Some religious calendars are lunar, though regularly adjusted to the seasons, so dates may vary from year to year. Islam's calendar is wholly lunar, so no Muslim festivals are tied to seasons.
April 5-12 this year
In some ways, Easter begins with Lent, a period of 40 days' fasting and repentance (not including Sundays) which commemorates the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert beset by temptation. This year, the preceding Shrove Tuesday - Mardi Gras, carnival or "Pancake Day" as it is known to non-Christians - fell on February 24. February 25 was Ash Wednesday, traditionally marked in the Catholic and some Anglican communities by priests tracing a cross (made from burnt palm crosses) on to worshippers' foreheads, a solemn beginning to a period of abstinence (often from alcohol, chocolate, meat or dairy products). Easter this year falls in April; April 5, Palm Sunday, commemorates Jesus' processing through Jerusalem, when crosses of palms are sometimes waved; April 9 is Maundy Thursday, the Last Supper; April 10, Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion, and April 12 is Easter Sunday when Jesus rose from the dead. Customarily, hot-cross buns would be eaten on Good Friday and Easter eggs on Easter Sunday. These dates and customs differ for the Greek and Russian Orthodox traditions.
Bonfires are lit, a carnival atmosphere prevails and people throw coloured powder at each other in this Hindu celebration of the power of the god Vishnu. The myth of Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, and his throwing coloured water at the milkmaids, is one of the most dominant stories told.
Passover or Pesach
April 11-18 this year
Jews celebrate the Exodus from Egypt, as recorded in the Bible. At the start of the festival a communal Seder meal is held in the home and the story of miraculous deliverance told. On the table are salt water, for the tears of the Israelites, and unleavened bread (Matzo) because they could not wait for the bread to rise as they fled.
April 7-10 this year
This Muslim festival marks the end of the period of pilgrimage (Hajj). Pilgrims sacrifice animals in remembrance of Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his son Ishmael (mythical ancestor of the Arab peoples). Muslims who can afford it do likewise and share meat with their relatives and the poor.
TWINNED SCHOOLS EXPLAIN THEIR APPROACH TO RE
Whitefield infants school, Nelson in Lancashire, has 290 pupils, 96 per cent of them Punjabi. The school has a legal determination to be excepted from collective worship of a "wholly or broadly'' Christian character. The school piloted the Lancashire agreed syllabus.
Headteacher Ethna Cummins says: "The most important thing is understanding the faith background of your pupils.'' The school has invested much time, money and training in RE.
RE highlights this term: Ramadan, Buddhist New Year and Easter will all be looked at in the context of community (Reception); God, me, others, the world (Year 1) and worship (Year 2). Common themes - what it means to be a better person, how to become one - are traced across the traditions and, where appropriate, in festivals (Easter for atonement and forgiveness, for instance). Comparisons between religions are not drawn, however. "You might think of looking at Lent and Ramadan as both fasting, but they are just not the same at all," Mrs Cummins says.
Story is used all the time with young second-language learners. There are speakers from mosque and church and staff share their experiences and feelings - for example about who is fasting and how it feels. As Mrs Cummins says, "We learn from listening to other people."
Laneshawbridge County Primary School, based inColne, rural Lancashire, is twinned with inner-city Whitefield school. It has 140 pupils, more than 99 per cent of them white. Pupils from Laneshawbridge go on twice-yearly visits to Nelson, which serve multi-cultural, moral and spiritual curricular purposes, as well as those of RE.
Headteacher Eileen Bleasdale says, "We have to try hard to fill in the gaps in our pupils' awareness.'' Laneshawbridge pupils have joined in Whitefield's Eid celebrations, made cards, Mehndi hand patterns and dressed up.
RE highlights this term: "We've taken the festivals more or less out of the RE syllabus and look at them in collective worship," says RE co-ordinator Di Smith. For infants, Holi is a focus for craft and art work looking at forms of gods and myths. For juniors, the Sikh Baisakhi might provide a stimulus for research work into the founding of the religion, and allied geography and history. Easter will be studied, Mrs Smith says, "If it fits in, not because our RE follows the Christian year.'' Pupils in Years 3 and 4 are studying founders and leaders of Islam and Sikhism, and Years 5 and 6 life as a journey in Hinduism and Christianity, with visits and discussions with representatives of different faiths.
Says Mrs Smith, "Festivals are about respecting multi-cultural values, but RE is about learning different traditions and, for older children, finding a basis for making decisions later on."
TIPS FOR TEACHING RE
* Involve all the faith communities represented in the school
* Use festivals as a way in to different faith traditions, but remember that "doing" festivals does not mean that you have "done" the religions.
* Create regular family assemblies which inform about and celebrate religious traditions: these will not be worship
* Invite guest speakers from different traditions and give them clear guidelines on school ethos and etiquette
* Involve families in activities such as cooking, learning songs, textile technology
* Use drama and act out important stories from faiths
* Visit local places of worship on a regular basis
* Build up a resource bank of books, posters, videos and artefacts. Encourage families to donate or lend items
* Use support services and advisers
* Be open to other points of view and do not view strong beliefs as a threat
* Be willing to state your own position and do not see it as a threat to the beliefs of others
* Encourage children to state their own beliefs and admit disagreements without threatening or feeling threatened by the beliefs of others
KEY CONCEPTS IN MAJOR RELIGIONS
* For Islam, the oneness of God and human submission
* For Judaism, the law as covenant between God and the chosen people
* For Buddhism, attachment and enlightenment
* For Hinduism, the sacredness of everyday life, reincarnation and the workings of karma (moral law)
* For Sikhism, the community as the will of God
* For Christianity, personal experience of the incarnated Saviour