Religious education represents a major teaching challenge in the primary sector. Clare Richards looks at helpful resources
The child-bride Sarah Cooke has been making the headlines, not least because she seems so easily to have espoused the faith of Islam. A letter in the Independent caught my eye and stirred any misgivings about the way we introduce young people to the great world faiths.
In it a Mr John Gay wrote that his grand-daughter, just a little older than Sarah, had commented: "Sarah would know nothing about Muslims, because you don't do that until the third year."
We "do" world religions, and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has decided what should be covered in each of the six major faiths listed in the 1988 Education Reform Act. Today our primary children must learn about the six of them before the age of 13.
This is not the place to question the educational wisdom of such a broad faith curriculum. Enough to say that our primary teachers need all the help they can get to deliver the impossible.
In Christine Howard and Vida Barnett they have the very best. Hindu and Sikh packs are new additions to the Articles of Faith collection of religious artefacts, and are accompanied by teaching packs comprising a number of useful information cards for photocopying, carefully written and simply illustrated.
Teachers would expect this from Vida Barnett, a respected, experienced adviser in multi-faithmulti-cultural education over many years.
The Hindu and Sikh artefacts are colourful and certain to interest young children. The catalogue points out that "the culture and economic status of these people are reflected in their artefacts, which may differ in style, taste and finish to those from developed countries".
The Krishna statue, for example, is plastic, and looks fragile for little hands. Artefacts in other collections are more robust, like the finely-detailed Dragon Buddha made in resin.
But faith education is all about respect for one another, not about artistic preferences. Moreover these artefacts have not been artificially produced for schools; they are the actual religious objects currently being used by Sikhs and Hindus in their religious worship and practice.
As a teacher, I am aware that the most difficult area in the entire school curriculum is the exploration of attitudes, beliefs, morality and religious understanding underlying the practice of faith in different cultures and traditions.
Religious education cannot be satisfied with mere facts. It must deal with living faiths and with real people. Tread carefully, teachers - we are entrusted with an awesome task.
But have courage. In Investigating Artefacts in Religious Education, Christine Howard has shown us the way forward. She writes with sensitivity and clarity. Two things about the book stand out: her respect for all religious traditions and her sense of optimism about teaching.
She writes: "Primary-aged children are eager to explore the religious dimension in life, unfettered by the doubts and scepticism of teenage and adult years. It can be a privilege and joy to learn with them."
Advice and ideas abound. The author describes six tried-and-tested approaches to the use of religious artefacts and even offers lesson plans.
The book is practical and reflective. Every primary school should have a copy.
In the end of course, good artefacts and plenty of encouragement won't be enough. The best of artefacts will only be as good as the teacher who uses them. But how lucky the children who have been taught by Christine Howard.
* Sikh Artefacts Teaching Pack and Hindu Artefacts Teaching Pack by Vida Barnett, Pounds 9.99 each. Hindu Artefacts, Pounds 28.50 (+VAT) Sikh Artefacts, Pounds 33.50 (+VAT)Investigating Artefacts in Religious Education: a guide for primary teachers by Christine Howard.RMEP, Pounds 6.95Articles of Faith, Resource House, Kay Street, Bury BL9 6BU. Tel: 0161 763 6232. Stand PV155