Keep the faith

14th May 2010 at 01:00
If RE is to make a contribution in our pluralistic society, it has to be creative and challenge prejudice and parochialism, says Lat Blaylock

Lots of pupils think that religion is a cause of war, and sometimes it is. Lots of believers think that their religion brings them peace, and sometimes it does. RE is different: it enables pupils to be reasonable about religion and weigh up its contributions to respect and cohesion, as well as the tensions it can exacerbate.

The duty on schools to promote community cohesion - now coming under close scrutiny from Ofsted inspectors - is partly about what is in the curriculum and how it is taught. Good, creative RE can make a difference to the grades schools achieve and, more importantly, to the ways pupils look at the world.

On top of this, schools are now being asked to look out for pupils who are at risk of being radicalised. Such pupils are supposed to be referred to the Channel project, part of the Government's anti-terrorism strategy, although many teachers are reluctant to get involved, for fear of damaging relationships both in the classroom and in the wider community.

The issues are not the same everywhere. Imagine a small rural school of 90 children where there is no ethnic diversity and the only religious diversity is between atheists, agnostics and a small proportion of Christians. The challenges there are not the same as those faced by a large comprehensive school where there are more Muslims than Christians.

But both faiths are outnumbered by young people who say they are "spiritual but not religious". Both these schools, and all those in between, need to enable good learning about ethnic, religious and other kinds of diversity. Both need ways of presenting the challenge to pupils that will enable them to develop ways of living with diversity that are tolerant or respectful, rather than ignorant or prejudiced.

Different starting points may be needed, but some common curricular approaches will help in every case. Surely each school would like to get comments like these, taken from a recent Ofsted inspection report: "Pupils' outstanding spiritual, moral, social and cultural development arises from the whole ethos of the school and from the commitment shown by each staff member. Pupils develop an extremely good sense of right and wrong, and gain great insight into other cultures through visits to contrasting schools, and through their lessons. They have untold opportunities to reflect on their lives, the world and higher matters."

The inspection of community cohesion issues, in the context of spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, is a really important way for RE to contribute to whole-school priorities and makes a forceful case for the subject to be a development priority - not just when inspection is due.

If RE is going to contribute towards cohesion and respect, then at least four things are needed from teachers: accurate teaching about the plural society; challenging religious prejudice when it occurs; moving pupils' horizons from the local to the global; and providing creative activities that get children exploring respect and diversity.

Often teachers fulfil all these, and in some ways the new duty reinforces something RE has done well for four decades. Still, a clear fresh focus can always improve learning. An "all-white" school might need to do more of the factual teaching first, but the plural setting might make the policy of challenging prejudice when it raises its ugly head a central part of the school's work.

Heather Marshall, an RE teacher in Liverpool, has about 40 per cent Muslim pupils in her school. This puts a lot of emphasis on challenging misconceptions. "I was teaching a lesson about jihad," she says. "The assumptions which some pupils had linked jihad to violence (`Aren't all Muslims terrorists, Miss?') I challenged this by explaining that terrorism is a wider issue: not just for Muslims."

Her work is inspired by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who says: "The question is not why some Muslims are terrorists, but why most are not, and could not conceive of being so."

The aim here, to increase pupils' resilience to prejudice, is achieved through a variety of methods, including philosophy to help them understand the reasons for false prejudices, thinking skills activities that focus on empathy, and work to enable understanding of the positions from which others see the world, particularly religious positions.

Ms Marshall's success is shown in many ways. She cites two Somali Muslim boys who initially refused to participate in a Year 7 visit to a local church and were generally hostile to religious education. Through the school's work on teaching about other faiths, by the end of Year 9 they had become members of the school council and they organised a multi-faith day in school.

"Through an open, discussion-based RE we have been able to develop respect and empathy," says Ms Marshall. "These boys got more engaged when I gave them responsibility in Arabic afternoons. Leading RE lessons has given them a sense of identity and helped them to understand the importance of respecting others."

This sort of approach can extend beyond her own school, she says. "My understanding of community cohesion is that it is the glue that holds communities together. A major part of this glue is religion and belief."

She says that RE provides a place where ideas, beliefs and understanding can be critically and safely debated.

"It has the knowledge base, the toolkits and the intellectual capital to know and understand what communities are and how they work, enable a process of community cohesion, and even to counter the processes of radicalisation."

Samreena Kamran, head of RE at Somerville Primary in Birmingham, believes that RE's community cohesion mission often "works by saying nothing". Teaching children about issues in the news can foster respect for other faiths and cultures, without always making it explicit.

"The way a teacher behaves, with respect to different religions, can be more powerful than what is said in a lesson. So teachers should show that they value all the religions."

A Muslim herself, Ms Kamran believes that RE needs to focus on good, accurate, interesting learning about Islam or Christianity or Sikhism as a starting point for the task of promoting respectful attitudes. In a discussion on looking after the environment from a religious point of view one Year 3 pupil said: "Everyone should care for the world and not think about the differences in religion."

Ms Kamran says teachers need to build on this approach. Rather than focusing on the differences in religion, we should see where we can work together and make the world a place where we all can live.

"Perhaps it is through the eyes of children that we will all understand religion as it should be understood," she adds.

For some, identity needs to be examined before questions of diversity are addressed. Claire Parkinson, student services leader at Ashton Community Science College in Preston, wanted to explore English identity with her pupils, on the basis that those who explore the roots of their own identity are best placed to resist building defensive walls against those who are different.

It looks surprising that schools find this a difficult question to handle, but for many it is such a tricky topic that they do not handle it at all.

Ms Parkinson wanted to explore the idea that it is all right for the English to celebrate St George's day, and that English identity is very fluid and diverse, so she organised a competition for pupils to plan and take a photograph that expressed the idea of "Englishness".

The winning photograph showed a diverse group of English pupils. One child wore a fluffy top hat emblazoned with the cross of St George, and everyone ate chicken tikka masala and chips and sipped tea, in the rain, under an umbrella.

The aim of the day was to explore the story of St George, to encourage pupils to think about their English identities and to recognise that there are as many ways of being English as there are people in England. It also provided an opportunity for pupils to explore their identities: one essential element in community cohesion work in RE.


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