On a wing and prayer

10th December 2004 at 00:00
School funds are so scarce that even holidays are based around buying RE artefacts, writes Dawn Jones

Problem. What do you do when you realise that the capitation allowance you have been given for the year works out at pound;1.20 per pupil? Answer: be inventive. Be very, very inventive.

It is not that the senior management team are frittering away the money.

They do not drive to school in suspiciously large cars, nor is the head's office redecorated every six months and bedecked with old masters.

The fact is I teach in one of the worst-funded schools in one of the worst-funded counties in Wales. In our recent Estyn inspection we were graded as outstanding for the way resources were managed. There is no excess fat to trim. Politics aside, it is a simple truth that if my school were in England it would be considerably better off.

Every penny that is allocated to my religious education department has to be carefully managed. GCSE textbooks are an essential, even if we are sharing them out one between two.

I have become an accomplished negotiator, playing one bookshop off against another in order to get the most favourable discounts. But this does take a considerable chunk out of the funds, leaving little over for artefacts.

Bearing in mind the new drive towards, visual, audio and kinaesthetic learning, it is essential for the pupils to be able to handle religious objects, rather than looking at them in pictures. In a bid to add to our artefact collection, I have become an addict of ebay, the internet auction site. Where else would I have access to the riches of the world's religions?

To date I have bought two saris, one statue of Ganesh and a Jewish mezzuzah. I was just pipped at the post in my efforts to buy a Jewish marriage certificate.

I reassure myself that my habit it under control - even I was not tempted by the bottle of Jordan water (starting price pound;3.50). Nor did I place a bid for the cheese sandwich bearing the image of the Immaculate Conception.

Family holidays are booked with their religious artefact buying potential very much in mind. Objects bought at source cost a fraction of those on sale through educational catalogues.

I went on a cruise last summer that was an RE teacher's dream. In all ports in Portugal and Spain I was off scouring the tat in the shops in my search for Roman Catholic objects of faith.

It was the talking point of my dining companions. What would I bring in to show them each evening? The "scary Marys" and plastic saints became the stuff of legend. In Algiers I was able to haggle a trader down to pound;10 for a Muslim prayer mat. Every time I look at the back of my classroom I have that memory of the trip hanging on the wall.

Local faith communities have been most generous in their support. On hearing that we were unable to afford to replace our tatty copies of the Bible, one local church paid for a 100 Good News Bibles. Muslim parents have donated copies of the Qur'an. No one likes to go with a begging bowl, but needs must.

No opportunity is wasted. A chance remark from a colleague that her son had been invited to a Jewish wedding means our department now has a Hebrew order of service. My wedding dress, my daughter's baptismal gown, a friend's first communion certificate - all have found their way into school as props.

There is, however, no truth in the rumour that I married the son of a retired vicar just to get my hands on his father's chalice and dog collar.

Photocopying costs have soared out of control since staff in the department became information and communications technology-competent. Now we all produce our own worksheets, the quality of teaching materials has improved but the bills from resources have risen.

In desperation we now charge GCSE pupils pound;1 for the revision booklets we have prepared for them. Not a huge amount, I know, but whatever happened to comprehensive education that was free for all?

I also know that we are not the only department which subsidises the school out of our own pockets. Felt-tip pens, coloured card for displays, sweets to distribute as prizes and end-of-term treats - it may not sound like much, but the costs soon add up.

We all give excellent value for money. How much more could schools achieve if they were fairly funded? I look in envy at the quality textbooks, fabulous ICT equipment and exciting software out there that is way beyond our means.

Pupils in Wales are being sold short and teachers are plugging the gap.

Dawn Jones is head of RE at Prestatyn high, Denbighshire

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