Essential issues of faith

5th December 1997 at 00:00
A modern and reader-friendly journal is offering sixth-formers a chance to explore the moral and religious context behind contemporary topics. Victoria Neumark reports on Dialogue.

With only 5,000 candidates for RE A-level in the United Kingdom, the market for publications exploring the religious and philosophical context of contemporary topics has been largely ignored by mainstream publishers. But as the experience of John Waters and Jeremy Hall shows, it is a market ripe for exploitation and expansion.

Mr Waters and Mr Hall are the editors of Dialogue, a bi-annual magazine for sixth-form RE students, now in its fifth year. Snazzily produced, with pull-out quotes, sharp cartoons, bullet-pointed arguments, discussion points, summaries, references and bibliographies, it is an inspired halfway-house between the GCSE textbook and full-blown discussion texts.

Recent topics covered include abortion, types of theism and varieties of atheism. And contributors include such heavyweights as A-level textbook authors Professor John Hick and Peter Vardy, A-level chief RE examiner Diana Hayden, and Bernard Farr from Westminster College, Oxford.

By setting out its articles in a way that indicates and elucidates the process of reasoned thought, the editors have illuminated the developmental task facing sixth-form RE teachers - taking pupils on from the short, semi-formulaic answers of GCSE to the longer essays needed for A-level.

The pair met five years ago when they were both teaching at the independent King's School in Ely, Cambridgeshire. Mr Hall, who'd been taught at Exeter by Terence Copley, now professor of RE at Exeter University, and Mr Waters, who had studied at King's with Andrew Wright, are deeply involved with RE on a professional and personal level. Fired by their joint enthusiasm and the lack of suitable materials for questioning 16 and 17-year olds, they hit on the idea of a periodical that would render ideas into a digestible form without over-simplifying them.

It was crucial to find writers of the highest quality. It was also imperative that the essays, of about 3,000 words each, tackled the concerns of young people, and that the product was well laid-out and reader-friendly.

Mr Waters, now head of religious education at the state Parkstone Grammar School in Poole, Dorset, and Mr Hall, who is completing a doctorate, and teaching at independent Hutchesons' Grammar School in Glasgow, display the same degree of professionalism and enthusiasm in their teaching practice. In five years at Parkstone, Mr Waters has raised participation in RE from 70 to 200 in the two GCSE years, and at A-level from 10 to 50. In Glasgow, Mr Hall has 50 Higher and SCOTVEC religious and philosophy students where previously there was none. Students are going on from Parkstone and Hutchesons' to study theology, philosophy, or combined philosophy and arts degrees at Oxford, London and Lampeter.

Parkstone was inspected by the Office for Standards in Education in 1996 and revisited this year for the sake of "good practice". So Dialogue has the strongest of all roots in classroom practice. Its three strands - current moral and ethical issues, theology and philosophy and New Testament studies - echo the RE A-level syllabus but also cover their own interests and preoccupations. It is, says Mr Waters, "existential without being confessional". Mr Waters' own teaching style, he claims, is not too academic, allowing room for spirituality to develop through the questioning of relationships, on the model advocated by David Pascal, ex-head of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

Adolescents' constant questioning of who are we, when are we, and why? is given space but put in the context of centuries of debate. Issue eight's article on abortion, for instance, discusses the positions of a variety of Christian churches, gives a sociological and intellectual history, offers comments from ex-Liberal leader David Steel and Archbishop Habgood of York, lists the legal history of British abortion and offers glossary and reading lists. But the style is upbeat and personal while remaining properly reflective, and modern.

Such jolly features as a brain-teasing crossword and a comic strip add to the contemporary flavour. The late-night conversations out of which the magazine was born seem still to be sparkling through each issue. Issue 10, out next spring, promises debate on genetic engineering. Coming features will cover the interfaces between rationalism and empiricism, utilitarianism, science and religion. The dialogue often spills over to succeeding magazines, so Peter Singer writing on the sanctity of life is followed by Joe Houston in response - Keith Ward urging the marriage of science and religion is side-by-side with Peter Atkins on science without religion.

Next summer, one-day Dialogue teacher conferences will take place in Manchester, Bristol and London. Conducted by Peter Vardy, author of the popular "Puzzle" series, the courses will offer in-service training at a reasonable price. Teaching RE can be "a lonely job" says Mr Waters and people need genuine support. So there will also be Dialogue "teachers' specials". One of these will look at what examiners want, with contributions from OFSTED and the chief examiners; others will cover ethics, the hot topics in medical ethics, and the philosophy of religion.

So far, the two editors have resisted attempts to buy them out, fearing it would compromise their engagement with their subject and its teachers. "We are," says Mr Waters simply, "RE teachers and we genuinely believe in RE. " But when teachers ask the duo: "How do you find the time?" they are right in sensing the dedication behind Dialogue. Although contributors are unpaid, it is, Mr Waters says, "a great joy that no one approached has ever refused".

Dialogue's editorial board, with Terence Copley, Martin Bacon from Peterborough and Peter Cole from Worthing sixth-form college, meets once a year, similarly motivated by burning interest in the subject.

All of this commitment shows. And with two issues a year available in packs of 10 for Pounds 60 including postage, Dialogue is far from over-priced. It is certainly a lot cheaper, in time and money, than buying massive university-level books on philosophy and ethics and breaking them down for sixth-formers.

Articles such as a recent one on the redactive criticism of the gospel of Luke are models of tightly argued and informative essays. It is not just stimulating debate, but also, as Mr Waters says, "giving pupils the tools to think about issues for themselves".

For more information, write to John Waters, 4 Shelley Close, Abingdon, Oxfordshire OX14 1PP. For booking the teachers' conferences, tel: 0956 934984

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