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Scenes set for a good story

RELIGIOUS EDUCATION FOR ALL By Erica Brown, David Fulton Pounds 12.99.

This book is the product of the first Fulton Fellowship, which was awarded to Erica Brown in recognition of her work on religious education with pupils of special educational needs. It is further endorsed by the Centre for the Study of Special Education at Westminster College, Oxford.

The emphasis is on learning about and learning from. It aims to set the scene for children's learning through providing focal points for attention and suggesting activities which invite their interests.

A great deal of resource material is packed into these 112 A4 pages. All of it will be familiar to RE specialists but probably not to special needs teachers. The introductory material outlines the provisions for RE within educational legislation and places emphasis on OFSTED's search for the spiritual and moral dimension within schools.

The specifically religious content is contained within nine study units from which teachers will select. Across the nine units there is suggested material from the six principal religions to allow for choice according to local needs.

My problem - and I hasten to state that I am an RE specialist and not a special needs expert - is that I not only failed to find what was special about either the content or the recommended approach, but that I had been over this same material, for use with non-special needs pupils a hundred times since 1988 and what I was most expecting was missing.

I had to wait until page 89 for a detailed examination of story. Up to this point there had been a great concentration on concept formation and learning, surprisingly little on creativity and imagination. At last I came to a chapter which began with the statement that story has always been held in high esteem. "Plato applauded it, and the greatest teachers, including Jesus, acknowledged the worth of stories as aids to understanding," it continued.

Jesus Christ didn't just tell stories. He is the story. The myths of the great religions are extremely simple. This is what I would have thought made them comprehensible to special needs pupils. They are also the most profound. I was surprised therefore, that while Erica Brown lists nearly two hundred admirable titles from the world of children's literature, religion here is hardly ever taught through its stories.

I cannot help thinking that the street children of the Middle Ages got a better deal, whatever their cognitive abilities, by following the wagons through the lanes of Wakefield, York, Chester and other towns when the great mystery plays were being performed. Their education started with imaginative involvement and may be the concepts came later. Have we reversed the order, which was that of the founders themselves, and are we right to do so, both religiously and educationally?

Dr Jack Priestley is principal of Westhill College of Higher Education, Selly Oak, Birmingham

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