This summer, Year 9 pupils from an outer London secondary school played football with maroon-robed Tibetan Buddhist monks from the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in India. The monks held mandala workshops, chanted mantras and engaged in debate. It was an unforgettable experience for the pupils. Other year groups visited the Turkish Suleymaniye Mosque in London and attended workshops with Sufi groups (a discipline of Islam) as part of an innovative approach to understanding other religions at the Coopers' Company and Coborn School, a non-denominational Christian secondary in Upminster, Essex.
So what is the thinking behind this approach? "A lot of RE does tend to be top heavy, more learning about religion in textbooks. How pupils learn from religion is more scarce," explains Barbara Usher, head of RE at the 11-to-18 comprehensive.
Not all schools embrace religious education with such vigour. Recent Ofsted reports have criticised state-funded faith schools for poor teaching of other religions. And in October, it condemned independent faith schools for using biased and incorrect textbooks to teach other faiths.
But pupils in non-faith schools are also sometimes fobbed off with ill-informed syllabuses or textbooks. At worst, the sections on world religions are inaccurate. More commonly, RE only covers what a mosque, a church or a synagogue looks like and identifies some of the artefacts and religious symbols, festivals and rituals.
There are ways around this. "Textbooks are a support, but no one is sitting working through a textbook. We use many other resources, including YouTube," says Ms Usher. "We invite faith speakers from their own communities so we are getting the authentic voice, and so that pupils have the opportunity to talk with them."
Pupils are so enthused by this approach that the entire year does the short GCSE in RE, 40 per cent go on to do the full GCSE and half of that cohort achieve an A* grade.
Despite the fact that RE is one of the fastest-growing subjects at key stage 4, inspectors say it is among the least well taught. "RE is worse off than other subjects in terms of trained specialists. There is a chronic shortage of RE specialists in all phases of education," says Dave Francis, of the National Association for Teachers of RE and national subject lead.
Many teachers lack confidence to teach about other religions so that pupils often acquire only a superficial understanding of other faiths.
"There is a lack of religious feeling generally in today's children and I wonder if it's because they learn about all religions and don't understand what's really behind them," says Alan Shaw, head of the Moriah Jewish Day School in Pinner, London, an Orthodox Jewish state primary that admits many non-Orthodox Jewish pupils as well as looked-after children of other faiths.
Four hours a week is timetabled for RE, including Jewish studies. Other activities, including multi-faith festivals and visits to places of worship take up time on top. The school has links with other faith schools, including a Hindu and Sikh primaries.
"We don't teach details of other faiths; we don't have time to do them justice or the expertise, but we teach respect for them. We invite people in. We invite other schools. They will be other children enjoying their faiths and practices and talking about it," says Mr Shaw.
The number of faith schools has burgeoned in the past five years to about 21,000 in England, of which 6,850 are state funded. There are also 395 state-funded faith schools in Scotland and 263 in Wales. Most state-funded faith schools are primaries, with some 600 faith secondaries also in the state sector, the vast majority of them Anglican and Roman Catholic. Almost 40 schools are Jewish, seven Muslim, two Sikh, a Greek Orthodox and a recently opened Hindu primary.
Although there is no legal requirement to include other world religions in its teaching, most state-funded faith schools are committed to doing so. Some, such as the Gatton School, a Muslim state primary in Wandsworth, south London, have been praised by Ofsted for its excellent RE and teaching of other faiths. Inspectors privately observe that the newer state-funded faith schools tend to be much more open to teaching other faiths than longer established ones.
Reverend Janina Ainsworth, chief education officer at the Church of England, acknowledges that there is room for improvement: "Our inspection reports may show there is some good practice but there is some way to go. There is far more work to be done so that pupils are not just learning about externalities but about people's beliefs."
The sheer gamut of beliefs makes a fully comprehensive religious education difficult to fit into the curriculum, so many teachers simply have to skim over ideas. The result is many teachers shy away from the subject altogether.
"RE often talks about religion as if all religions share similar ideas. What we try to do is to offer windows on other religions. We recognise it will only be partial and that there is a lot more," says David Hampshire, county adviser for RE in Cornwall.
Unlike inner-city areas, pupils in Cornwall have little contact with pupils of other faiths and limited opportunities to visit a temple or mosque. Meanwhile, inviting local religious groups is not always the answer.
"There are some religious groups that put forward things as if they represent the tradition," he adds. "Children and young people want to know about religion because it is now very high profile. But a lot of RE departments are looking at philosophy because they feel ill-equipped to teach world religions," Mr Hampshire says.
Others rely on textbooks, or even unvetted internet resources, both of which can be unreliable. For example, available resources on Sikhism tend to be about Khalsa Sikhs, who make up only about 10 per cent of all Sikhs. Resources on Judaism, meanwhile, frequently portray only the ultra-Orthodox.
The Jewish Board of Deputies says it monitors books and resources, contacting publishers if it identifies inaccuracies, but errors still slip through. It develops its own resources for schools, but this is a huge undertaking for a small group.
Local authorities try to counter these problems by agreeing a syllabus for non-faith schools worked out with representatives of the main religions in the area. By law, each local authority has a Standing Advisory Council on RE (Sacre), that draws up teaching guidelines. Most of England's 151 Sacres try to cover the six main religions.
Many of the local syllabuses are excellent, but teachers in some areas complain they are too vague to be useful. Others say there is not enough time to cover so many religions adequately.
The non-statutory recommendation for non-faith schools is that 5 per cent of curriculum time should be spent on RE. "But this is rarely the case," says Mr Francis. "Not all schools provide sufficient time for RE in the curriculum, so they have problems."
In most state-funded faith schools, RE takes up 10 per cent of the timetable. That also gives pupils more time for other religions.
There is an argument that faith schools may be better than its mainstream peers at teaching faiths other than their own. "A lot of our secondary schools have a big RE department, which is a prestige department. The big advantage is that faith schools take RE seriously. Non-faith schools don't do it seriously because they don't feel confident," says Reverend Ainsworth.
England's first state-funded Hindu primary, the Krishna-Avanti School in Harrow, has a small marble temple on its purpose-build site. There are meditation areas, an atrium and each classroom has a garden. The atmosphere is astonishingly calm for a primary. RE is timetabled a minimum of two hours a week and 50 per cent of that time is spent on other religions.
"The key thing for us is that our teachers are informed about other faiths so that they don't shy away because they are afraid of offence. They are so confident in their own faith that they are not worried about other faiths," says headteacher Naina Parmar. "Parents come to me and say thank you for celebrating Christmas. We do not avoid the Nativity or anything like that."
The school also uses the local Sacre guidelines, although it is not obliged to. Coopers' Company and Coborn School devotes two hours each fortnight to RE and spends half of that time on world religions.
Even the time spent on Christianity looks at the religion around the world, including Africa and Asia. "We are voluntary aided, but there are no diktats from any church and no diocesan guidelines. We do look at Sacre because it is important to know where the kids are coming from in primary, but we do not follow any local syllabus. Our syllabus is flexible," explains RE teacher Daniel Hugill.
Meanwhile, a small inner London church primary with a large proportion of Muslim pupils takes a thematic approach to religion. At Holy Trinity and St Silas Church of England school, all Muslim pupils attend church, for example. "Parents are allowed to withdraw their children from RE and church, but no one does. The different faiths and philosophies are given equal weight," says headteacher Annie Williams. "We do it better (than non-faith schools) because we are starting from a basis of faith."
The RE curriculum is drawn up in consultation with the parish priest and local diocese, but it is flexible and often thematic. For example, pupils examine the role of water in different faiths.
Unfortunately few schools match up to these outstanding examples. "There is patchiness in RE in both (faith and non-faith) sectors," says Brian Gates, chair of the RE Council for England and Wales. "There are excellent departments and programmes in some faith schools. In both there are disappointing features."
Whether the school is faith or secular, what makes the difference is the time and enthusiasm devoted to RE as a subject. In both, with so much inflammatory information on different faiths available, equipping pupils with a critical awareness of other religions should be the priority
- National Association of Teachers of Religious Education: www.natre.org.uk
- RE resources for teachers and pupils: www.reonline.org.uk
- Religous artefacts and symbols: www.articlesoffaith.org.uk.