More than just good neighbours

14th February 1997 at 00:00
The Year 1 class had been to visit a Christian church the week before. They are a fine ethnic mix and when I saw them after lunch they were excited after singing Happy Birthday to Rajan who was six. (He had made a gracious thank-you by saying whom he would give sweets to.)

Their teacher Phil Albans turned their minds back to the church visit. The words came - sometimes prompted, sometimes tumbling out: graves, windows, font (with a lid), candles, dark, holy water, even St Lawrence's.Then they showed me their clay models of candles, the font, and even the church, which they were painting with gusto.

This was happening at Little Heath, a multicultural primary in Coventry which shares the same site with a Roman Catholic primary, the Good Shepherd.

Mr Albans is deputy head at Little Heath and also a leading figure in the Professional Council for RE. It's going to be a big year for him and the other members of the council because RE is about to be galvanised. The first RE national festival will be celebrated in the autumn. From October 6-10, schools will hold events, services, and exhibitions. And there will be a major conference in London.

The director of the festival, Savita Ayling, sees it as an opportunity for schools, colleges and faith communities to "celebrate what is good in RE today". She and the PCfRE have given schools ideas on how to celebrate RE and the festival.

Mr Albans is positive about the state of RE in schools. "Before 1988 there were schools where it just wasn't taught. It was a Cinderella subject but now, I'm happy to say, that is no longer the case."

He sees RE as gathering momentum in terms "of status and rigour". He's pleased with the way the locally-agreed syllabuses respond to the needs of a particular community. But he feels that there's room for giving non-specialist primary teachers more training in RE. He praises the PCfRE chairman, Jeremy Taylor, for his forward-looking approach which has helped to bring about such a major event as the festival.

"It's a huge first as it has never been done before. We expect the festival to increase the momentum of development over the coming years, " Mr Albans says. Fine phrases, but what are they actually going to do at his school?

At multiethnic Little Heath, Mr Albans has found that in a Year 6 group 80 per cent of the boys and 84 per cent of the girls regularly attend a place of worship. The children include Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus as well as Christians. Next door at the Roman Catholic Good Shepherd all the children have been to church. So there is a strong religious affiliation in both schools.

Little Heath's headteacher Mick Chilvers wants the schools "to go beyond being just good neighbours. Children and parents of different faiths pass each other outside and we wanted to find a deeper way of sharing. We want to do something more meaningful than just saying 'hello' in the car park".

The shadow of the Office for Standards in Education is about to fall on both schools, so plans for joint action on RE projects have had to be pushed forward to the autumn - which will, however, coincide nicely with the festival. But quite a lot is going on already. Last year the two schools produced a joint Christmas message for parents.

Little Heath pupils get opportunities to visit places of worship - Christian churches, a Sikh Gudwara, a Mosque and a Hindu temple. In the autumn these visits will be shared with pupils from the Good Shepherd. More ambitiously, half of each Year 3 class will swap schools and study the topic of religious journeys together. Exchanges of assemblies will also continue.

Mr Albans has already taken one at the Good Shepherd and told the story of "God in a box", in this case a matchbox. He said: "In it were, among other things, a pea seed symbolising creation; a silver coin signifying our value in God's eyes; and a little heart explaining the love of God. "

For the festival, there will be a joint faith week with local visitors to the schools every day.

The Good Shepherd's headteacher Dominic Collins is keen to break down "the idea that Christianity is an exclusively white religion. We are fortunate in that our parish has two Asian priests".

Going round Mr Collins' school is instructive. The children are reminded in every classroom of their highly specific faith. There is a religious focus in a corner of every room - a statuette of the Virgin Mary, or a crucifix, a vase of flowers, or a Sacred Heart picture. Mass is celebrated in the classroom and there is an alter in the main hall.

The school in its mission statement aims to "foster the growth of children within their own faith" and "to prepare children to become fully participant in the life of the Catholic Church". There are four more secular educational objectives, but a Christian faith is already at the heart of the school. So what can the Good Shepherd gain from the RE festival and partnership with the multifaith school next door?

"We see ourselves as very much part of the local multiethnic community which has an astonishing variety in places of worship," says Mr Collins. "From our point of view the festival will be an awareness-raising exercise - growing in education with our neighbours and the community. "

Details from: Savita Ayling, director, National Religious Education Festival, PO Box 12981, London E17 9UH. Tel: 0181 923 8383. Fax: 0181 923 8844

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