Only one subject tackles the really big questions

12th November 2004 at 00:00
Religious education has always been the curriculum subject with a separate identity. Part of the curriculum but without a prescribed syllabus; a "core" subject, but both pupils and teachers can opt out.

As an RE co-ordinator, I could see people roll their eyes whenever I began to explain that because the syllabus was written locally, the national resources, frameworks, exemplars and schemes would not necessarily work and, at times, were not even relevant. "It has to be different doesn't it," colleagues would say in frustration. I would grin and nod. Music to my ears. You bet it is different.

A colleague of mine was telling of yet another jaw-dropping moment in an RE lesson. He talks of the day he first discovered the second strand of RE as the most formative day of his teaching career to date.

He knew all about "learning about religions". He could deliver cracking "learning about" lessons just like he could deliver superb history or maths lessons.

But then he discovered the second strand to RE; "learning from religion".

He began to consider not just the how and the what and the who, but also the why. More importantly he challenged his pupils to do it. So instead of simply looking yet again at the story of Christmas, he discussed the Christian belief that Jesus was born to be a light to a world in darkness.

Pupils were then asked, "Who do you consider to be a light to the darkness in today's world?" With their answers came awe and wonder in abundance. For example, "Christmas will always remind me of my Grandma. My world has been a darker place since she died. How can I make it light again?" This is why I love RE. It is real. It meets pupils at their point of understanding with the world around them. Good RE encourages pupils to try and answer the unspoken questions about life, the universe and everything.

It shares answers to questions that are not just fashioned by our present culture and setting, but by cultures and settings around the world over thousands of years.

It promotes respect for different answers without bias or prejudice and validates the answers pupils have themselves.

When it comes to ultimate questions, it shows pupils a door with their question on it and helps them open it.

On opening, they find out that they are part of the human race, searching for answers to the same questions as everyone else, with decisions to make that will eventually have implications about the way they live their lives.

The recently published national framework will, I hope, bring more consistency in what is taught in RE. It will allow local agreed syllabuses, publishers and advisory groups more easily to meet needs across the country.

The quality of the RE in the classroom, however, will rely as it always has on good teaching. As today's world struggles to come to terms with modern expressions of fanaticism, the importance of RE in providing a context for the discussion of different answers to life's big questions cannot be over-stated.

While establishing the big picture before an RE lesson, I asked my class what RE stood for. Tom volunteered the answer, "Is it short for REally important?" I couldn't put it better myself.


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