RE teaching is in need of modernisation. But not at the expense of good, old-fashioned accuracy, writes Terence Copley
In a society in which it is easy to see religion merely as one leisure option among many - less enticing even on Sundays than the national pastimes of shopping and car boot sales - the established approach to teaching religions may be in need of an overhaul.
Believers and non-believers alike may be in favour of an approach to RE which questions the mind-set that places "Me" at the centre of the universe and deifies material things. Straightforward conducted tours of religious heritage - "On your left Jewish synagogue worship; on your right Islamic dietary rules" - don't face up to this issue. Nor, in the tendency of some RE teachers to sanitise religion, are religions presented as living, developing traditions that challenge the state of the world.
Junior Steps in RE concentrates on four religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism. The pupil books are lavishly illustrated in colour, and all four religions appear discretely in each book. The teacher's books contain photocopiable worksheets: God is depicted - an offensive act to some believers and an impossible one to others - as are bald angels, presumably to show there's hope for bald reviewers like me. Heaven is also pictured, rather unattractively, and overall the collection disappoints visually.
The written text is not without problems. There are proofing errors such as "principle religions" - perhaps the ones that satisfy the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's moral values forum? - and the placing of Amritsar in India on one page and Pakistan on another. There are also misleading statements about religions: John Wesley is presented as "a vicar". Jesus rises from the dead, whereas in the New Testament God did it. The parable of the Good Samaritan is presented as being about helping people in need, rather than recognising that even your enemy or persecutor is the "neighbour" of the commandment. While Roman Catholic priests are properly "he", so are Methodist and Baptist ministers. Only Anglican clergy are allowed to be "he or she".
The aims in relation to Christian material seem sometimes more confessional than educational: "To explain that God was responsible for the whole of creation" is one aim for Jewish material. The Year 3 book is the weakest: God is written about as indisputable fact, the religions are approached through their distant and sometimes difficult-to-reconstruct past, a six-day Creation is implied, and the early Genesis chapters are presented as authentic history. The books improve towards Year 6.
The layout and visual appeal of the pupil books are strong, and pupils will enjoy looking through the photographs. "Things to Do" are suggested at the end of each section. The teacher's books try to provide more background information and suggestions.
The series raises an issue for agreed syllabus planners and publishers alike. Now that we've moved beyond the confusing thematic breakdown of religions in RE, which in some ways is like trying to study a pig by using a slice of gammon, we've got to decide how we approach religions accurately, sensitively and relevantly. The sacred and the secular can be in dialogue - even in Year 3.
Terence Copley is a senior lecturer in religious education at the University of Exeter