For Catholic schools RE is a core subject, yet for a number of years there has been a divergence of opinion on how it should be taught. This week the bishops of England and Wales entered the fray, publishing what has been described as the most important document on the subject for 20 years. Elaine Williams reports on a concerted effort to move faith to the top of the agenda.
The nature of religious teaching in Catholic schools has in recent years provoked acrimonious debate between traditional and liberal factions of the faithful. In particular, it has been alleged that schools are selling the church short with woolly, non-doctrinal, and frankly non-Catholic accounts of God and faith.
These criticisms have been gaining increasing prominence, regardless of whether they are shared by parents and teachers; newspaper pundits are no kinder to "progressive" faith than they are to "progressive" education.
The Catholic bishops of England and Wales are concerned, not least because some of their number share the scepticism. This week they made their collective response: an attempt to improve the academic rigour as well as the clarity of religious education in their schools. The Curriculum Directory for Religious Education in Catholic Schools has been described as the most important document of its kind to be published in the past 20 years. It is certainly the first time the bishops have agreed the content of religious education teaching in such detail.
Margaret Smart, director of the Catholic Education Service, says: "There was a feeling that RE, which for us is a core subject, needed to be as academically challenging as any other subject. There is also a concern in the church that, while we must deal with the pastoral needs of young people, we must not abandon the basic tenets of the faith."
Father Andrew Faley, national co-ordinator for catechesis (instruction) and religious education, who helped to produce the document, says it both provides a framework for schemes of work and is an affirmation of good practice. It will, he says, push forward the debate about what should be taught: "It expresses clearly the opportunity for study, investigation and reflection which should be offered to pupils, and the knowledge and understanding which should be acquired."
The directory, which covers all four key stages in primary and secondary sectors, is split into two parts. Part one presents RE as lying at the heart of the Catholic school curriculum and explains how it must intertwine with evangelisation and catechesis. Part two provides programmes of study in four areas rooted in the catechism and the four key documents of the second Vatican council: revelation - teaching on the Trinity; the church; celebration - liturgy, sacraments and prayer; and life in Christ - living a Christian life.
Philip Grice, head of RE at St Cuthbert's Catholic High School in St Helens, Merseyside, who was consulted on the directory, believes its publication is timely and expects that there will now be a national initiative to create new schemes of work.
He says: "This gives us a framework on which we can build progression and development; it is a clear guide with which we can address ethical, spiritual and theological issues, ensuring that what we are teaching is within the context of the Gospels and the teaching of the church. I believe we are in an age where young people are seeking for something spiritual in their lives. The directory gives us a framework to address that."
The anxiety that standards of RE in Catholic schools have slipped is exacerbated by the shortage of specialist RE teachers. As a result it is thought that schemes of work such as Weaving the Web, which has been in place for the past 10 years, have been slavishly followed in a way that was not intended. Weaving the Web and Here I Am, another such scheme, are child-centred - they start from young people's personal and cultural experiences. They h led to furious criticism from traditional Catholics and endless correspondence in the Catholic press.
Catholic commentators and writers such as Piers Paul Read and Oxford-based William Oddie believe Weaving the Web undermines core Catholic beliefs and presents a "liberationist" picture of the Church - a Left-inspired view of faith that often disregards the authority of Rome. William Oddie has stated that child-centred education is "disastrous" in a subject such as religious education, which should be about the passing on of the Church's teaching.
"There is little that is transcendental or sacramental in its presentation of faith," says Piers Paul Read. He believes the new directory might be a step in the right direction.
Clear and authoritative as the new document may be, it is unlikely to satisfy everyone. For example, Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, an organisation which aims to promote "truth" in Catholic schools, upset Cardinal Basil Hume at its conference last year. Delegates passed resolutions that bishops should personally inspect the textbooks.
Daphne McLeod, the group's chairwoman, maintains that schemes of work fail to teach about the divinity of Christ. Bishops, she says, have lost touch with what is being taught.
"Failure to teach doctrine has led to an alarming fall in Mass attendance among young people," it was claimed at the Pro Ecclesia conference.
It might take more than good RE to reverse that particular trend.
*SALFORD'S SCHOOL DOCTRINE
Dissatisfaction with many of the schemes of work currently available has led the diocese of Salford and archdiocese of Birmingham to produce their own, tied more closely to church doctrine. Catholic RE is, ultimately, based on the authority of the local bishop.
One of their arguments is that academic and doctrinal rigour go hand in hand, and that the religious life of a school is enriched in the process. Stephen Jones, head of RE at Our Lady's RC High School, a comprehensive in Oldham, uses the Salford guidelines, which carry programmes of study around six themes - God; Jesus; scripture; worship; church; humanity - as part of a return to the more traditional teaching of RE on a liturgical basis.
The GCSE syllabus which the school follows, NEAB syllabus B, carries specific reference to Catholic tradition and ties in with Salford's six themes. All children from the 1,100-strong, wholly Catholic school are entered for GCSE, with an average of 65 per cent gaining A-Cs. Forty out of a sixth form of 135 this year have gone on to study for religious studies A-level; 20 in the past five years have gone on to take further studies in theology; and four members of the school community are studying for the priesthood.
Inspected by Ofsted last year, Our Lady's was described as "Catholic education at its best". Not that the school is opposed to a wider understanding of faith. For example, it runs a course on feminist theology in the sixth form.
"We don't fudge issues," says Mr Jones. "If issues have to be discussed we discuss them."
*A HEALTHY CLIMATE IN HARTLEPOOL
The office of John Hughes, headteacher of The English Martyrs and Sixth Form College, Hartlepool's only Catholic secondary school, is opposite the chapel of the martyr Nicholas Postgate, executed in York in 1679 for his ministry to Catholics.
The school's Catholic credentials are impeccable. All pupils are entered for RE at GCSE, and as many as 28 are taking RE A-level in the sixth form.
Yet its religiosity is expressed as much in its open and friendly environment as in the crucifix in the classroom. After the school's recent inspection, Ofsted stated: "The supportive ethos and the very good relationship between pupils and teachers . . . promote a purposeful climate for learning and progress."
The school is oversubscribed, but Mr Hughes is keen that non-Catholics, who currently make up 25 per cent of the school roll, should