Reva Klein visits a primary school where children from different faiths are encouraged to work together while they develop their individual understanding of spiritual and religious concepts. The minute you enter Wrotham Road Primary, you get the feeling that this is a school which gives children the space to think, to make connections for themselves and to express their feelings and thoughts. Adorning the wall in the entrance is a selection of essays written by 10 and 11-year-olds on the theme of "God is...".
Not a load of waffle about peace, love and angels these writings, but rather a creative working through of ideas. "In a way God is a leader but does not order people about but leaves you to make your own choice about things," writes Kit. "He is trying to stop things like wars in Northern Ireland and Rwanda and is sending Americans to try to stop it in Rwanda but the Americans' leader said they can't fight, just protect the city." Danny takes a scientific line. "God is like a second ozone layer guiding us through life."
Yet another tack is followed by a cautionary boy, Trypit: "People that think they're God - don't believe them." Under the headship of Pat Jones, the staff of the rambling Victorian school in the lacklustre Kentish town of Gravesend are tackling religious education and collective worship in a multi-ethnic community with imagination, enthusiasm and resolve.
Of the 300 children in the infants and juniors, 45 per cent are from ethnic minorities, mainly from the Sikh community but also some Muslims and Hindus.
Among the white indigenous children, there are several evangelical families, some churchgoers and some of no faith. Pat Jones' emphasis, in religious education as in all areas of the curriculum including the very ethical fabric of the school, is on "shared values. Our motto was 'caring and sharing' before any political party got hold of the slogan. In RE, our main thrust is on celebration and looking at the similarities between faiths".
RE is delivered in discrete lessons in the juniors and, in both schools, throughout the curriculum, cropping up in English, history and elsewhere as a natural progression of events and discussions. It also has a place in assemblies and "hymn practice," the latter being singing sessions drawing on denominational songs from different religious groups as well as non-denominational songs that carry positive values and are, in Ms Jones' words, "very jolly".
The day I visited them, the juniors, congregated into one of the school's several outbuildings, sang songs on the theme of light in recognition of the concurrent festivals of Diwali and Chanukah. The songs themselves come from the Christian and Jewish traditions and embrace the notions of fraternity and understanding.
As a natural extension to the songs, a teacher (Quaker, as it happens) does a presentation on Chanukah, telling the story and showing how the special candelabra looks. This leads on to the lighting of advent candles. It sounds like a mishmash, an RE hurtle through different observances. But it is, in fact, a lesson in the commonality of basic imagery by different faiths. And feeling those common threads goes far beyond fulfilling the national curriculum: it engenders a sense of shared experience between children of different cultures.
Not that the national curriculum isn't taken seriously. A recent HMI inspection yielded positive feedback on the school's serious commitment to the spiritual development of its children and teachers' holistic approach to religious education. The syllabus set by Kent education authority offers clear guidelines on how to convey "a good, solid understanding of different faiths, " according to RE co-ordinator Sue Cave. To help with the execution of those guidelines, she has been participating in a 20-day inset course funded by the Department for Education. The idea is that RE co-ordinators take part in the course and bring information and ideas back to share with other staff.
While religion-related issues and themes are used as a vehicle for a lot of the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development in the school, "when it comes to the actual teaching of religious education, we do it almost as we would teach history," says Sue Cave. The juniors look at the faiths separately. "Otherwise, it's too much information at once and they get into a muddle. "
An important adjunct to classroom teaching of RE is visits to religious institutions in the community. As well as trips to the local gudwara (Sikh temple), mosque and churches, each reflecting pupils' faiths, the children are taken to the synagogue in nearby Chatham (there isn't one in Gravesend), although there are no Jewish children in the school. There have been no withdrawals from collective worship, although the Jehovah's Witness child chooses not to play during the collective worship session.
In deference to his family's views, his class is doing a Christmas play on The Snowman rather than on any religious theme. In the past some Baptist parents were concerned about the school's staging of the Ramayana, fearing there would be prayers in it. Ms Jones invited them to rehearsal. Once they saw that no religious proselytising, overt or otherwise, was going on, their fears were allayed.
With religious education such a vexed problem in other schools, Wrotham Road, with its mixed community, is a model of staff getting on with it with enthusiasm and intelligence, supported by a helpful LEA that has put together a user-friendly, if dense syllabus.
For Sue Cave, the bottom line is what the children get out of it in the end. "If we can put some interest of religion into the children, we'll have done something important, we'll have done our job."