Does God go home for tea?
Time Together Books 1 and 2, By Jim Green, Collins Education Pounds 18. 99 each
Terence Copley reviews some aids for teachers who are stuck for answers to infants' awkward theological questions.
Deep theological questions sometimes arise when Class R is busy in the sand-pit: Is God real? Does He go home for tea? Jesus didn't really die, did He?
Teachers, pressed to deliver the national curriculum and perhaps unsure of themselves in religious education, have sometimes provided a less than thorough framework within which infants might develop these thoughts and questions and learn about religions. It's tempting to leave RE until they're older. Not only is that illegal, in that RE is an entitlement of the child, it's also a cop-out, because it can be done well, as many infant departments and a growing stream of resources and Office for Standards in Education reports can testify.
Infant RE claims to provide carefully planned units of work with differentiated activities, integrated assessment suggestions, coverage of six religions and support for the non-specialist teacher.
The teacher's books contain lesson plans, background information and photocopiable activity sheets. The line drawings are attractive and clear. There are 12 laminated, colour, A2 size posters to accompany each year's work. Religions are treated thematically. Year 1 units are Myself; New Life and Special Books. Year 2 units are Special Times; Special People and Special Places.
Religions are used as exemplars: Hinduism for "My Family", Islam for "My Day", Sikhism for "Belonging", etc. The danger is that, by returning to a secular base after each exemplar, "Me", the child will not see the vitality and force of the religions that have been so conveniently sliced up - and perhaps not even realise that "I" might not be at the centre of the universe.
The writers anticipate this in stressing religion-specific elements in their Learning Outcomes: "All should know I "; "Some may be able I"; "A few may be able I". There is an appendix illustrating how the six religions have been covered across the two books' themes.
The course is not personal and social education masquerading as RE. The lesson plans are clear and helpful. The posters are attractive - and it is good to see a young female vicar in a line drawing of a Christian harvest festival instead of the stereotypical benign, bald, middle-aged man. She looks very young, so clearly the Church of England is depicted getting its role models right.
Poster photographs of family religious occasions such as Shabbat are delightful. The exceptions are a tepid colour drawing of a tree grove as "A place for prayer" (aren't there any real trees left to photograph?), a Bible in Latin (which is unintelligible to key stage 1 children) and a grim Easter morning Old Master of the empty tomb. Terrifying and dark - but at least with its X Files image, a cut above bunnies and chocolate eggs.
Time Together is part of a series on "Religion, Education and Life" with picture packs and story collections. It "takes a Christian approach but also draws widely on other major faiths". Each book provides 18 lessons and there are photocopiable sheets.
Before each lesson a "Will you help me with ...?" sheet is sent home to the parent or carer. It's a sort of homework in advance, designed to show the parent what's being done in RE and in so doing raise the status of the subject. Whether over-busy parents will want to face these questions every week is itself a question.
At times the information supplied for teachers is careless: Christians did not, as the text says, choose Sunday for worship because it was the best way to start the week. It was the day of Resurrection. Muslims going to the mosque "to listen to somebody reading from their holy book, whenever they want to" looks amazingly casual - even though the text goes on to explain why Friday prayers matter. The Shema is not named in a section on the Mezuzah which quotes it. However, the lesson structures are clear and .provide help for the non-specialist teacher.
Both these series build well on the growing strength of key stage 1 RE in many schools. RE is no longer PSE, "caring and sharing" and Christmas. It is religious education, with a world religions base. Clear lesson plans have been provided in both schemes for the majority of infant teachers as non-specialists.
But I am left wondering whether Kenneth Baker and the other architects of the 1988 Act know what a mess they have left RE in, outside the national curriculum in the undefined "basic curriculum" and with local syllabuses.
A national syllabus, even with a locally determined element, would have made RE far easier for these writers, because instead of having to address six religions at each key stage to cover local variations, they could have addressed two or three. That would have made for better resourcing and better teaching. National curriculum re-writers for the year 2000, take note.
Terence Copley is professor of RE at the University of Exeter