The BBC launches World of Belief this term, a five-year schools television project for religious education. Gerald Haigh reports
The words "Cinderella" and "religious education" have appeared so often in the same sentence over the years that the cliche almost writes itself. In the days before the national curriculum, although RE was (thanks to the 1944 Education Act) the only compulsory subject, it was also, paradoxically, the one most likely to be skipped over or subsumed - usually fatally - into cross-curricular humanities.
There were always honourable exceptions - schools which became beacons of excellence - but the fact that these were invariably associated with the presence of a trained and enthusiastic specialist teacher simply underlines the fact that such people have always been in desperately short supply.
Now schools are being pushed into giving religious education priority. We have seen model syllabuses from the School Curriculum Assessment Authority, directives intended to ensure its timetabled existence as a distinct subject, and the coming of short-course GCSEs. And underlying all of this has been the hugely increased awareness of religion brought about by the increasing presence and confidence of people of faiths other than Christianity.
Nonetheless, there is still a shortage of specialists, and a dearth of good resources, which is one reason why BBC Education has decided to catch the tide and make its biggest investment in RE in the form of a group of new television series, and support materials, covering all key stages.
Carrying the overarching title Worlds of Belief - RE from the BBC, the project is planned to develop over five years. Next year there will be new television material covering all four key stages, and the existing Watch for five to seven-year-olds has already had new programmes last autumn, with more to come next year.
New RE series for this year include Pathways of Belief, five programmes on Christianity for sevens to nines, Belief File, ten programmes, five on Christianity and five on Islam for 11 to 14-year-olds, and RE Collection for 14 to 18-year-olds, which answers a wish commonly expressed by teachers to have access to excerpts from mainstream programmes such as Everyman and Heart of the Matter. These are grouped under headings such as "Forgiveness" and "Racism" and supported by extensive notes.
Importantly, the whole project is very clear about the need to go beyond descriptions of practice and tradition, and to home in on the notion of religious belief. As BBC Schools executive editor Geoff Marshall-Taylor explained, "We are recognising that RE isn't simply about communicating knowledge - it's finding out about believing communities - what it means to belong to a community that cherishes the Qu'ran, or baptises in a font. "
Related to this, of course, is the fact that as Rachel Gregory (a former RE adviser who gave advice on the the programmes) pointed out, television, properly used, can take pupils into areas which might otherwise be inaccessible.
"They can see worship in the home, for example - and although a class can visit a place of worship they will usually go to an empty building. With television they can move in and share with the people when things are happening."
This emphasis on entering the faith community and seeing it from the inside runs all the way through. Pathways of Belief, for instance, looks at Christianity from the view of young people in different denominations, and discusses key Christian concepts centred on creation, Easter, the person of Jesus, the Church and the Bible.
A similar approach, through the views and attitudes of young people is seen in the five-programme unit on Islam in Belief File. There has a been a deliberate decision here to make this unit quite different in feel and approach from the one on Christianity - underlining, as Geoff Marshall-Taylor explained, that "We are not in the business of saying that all religions are the same. In fact we are celebrating distinctiveness."
Khadijah Knight, of Islamic Consultancy and Information Services, who advised on Islam for the series, expressed great satisfaction with the way the programmes on Islam have turned out. "Because you cannot, for example, show images of the prophet, it's all been done in a amazing way with layering of abstract images. Teachers will find it a very exciting resource to use. "
She appreciates, too, the emphasis on young people talking about their faith. "They are so convinced and positive, in the way they apply their experience of being a Muslim to their everyday life in Britain. It will show that it's not something for hot faraway places, but is capable of being practised wherever you are in the world. It tackles some controversial subjects and gives a very fair view of Islam."
The expectation is that schools will use the materials in whatever way seems appropriate. Rachel Gregory pointed out that "Each agreed syllabus will be different, but there's general agreement about what makes good RE, and the programmes have something for everybody."
Each of the programme series comes with full support by way of printed materials. Geoff Marshall-Taylor explained that this is due partly to collaboration with other agencies. "We haven't up to now been able to supply a lot of support at secondary level but in this series, because of work with, for example, Culham College Institute and the Christian Education Movement, for the first time we have support booklets right across the age range."
Geoff Marshall-Taylor emphasises that although World of Belief is planned to develop over five years, and further new material will emerge: "It isn't signed and sealed in detail beyond the second year." He looks forward to feedback from teachers and faith leaders about this. "We are wanting responses to the early programmes - we really are keen to know whether we are providing the right material in the right way."