Out of the shadows

28th February 2003 at 00:00
Student participation can help promote understanding and respect for diversity, says Joyce Miller

Wise words and a commitment to a future full of respect, toleration and working together." This is what you will hear if you sit down with "sensible, sane young people", according to the Bishop of Bradford in the House of Lords in April 2002, the week after he met the sixth form students who make up Bradford's Shadow SACRE (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education). The origins of this initiative - the only one in the country - go back to the revision of the local Agreed Syllabus in 2000-01.

The adult SACRE decided to consult the consumers on their views of religious education - what should be taught, how it should be taught and what principles should underpin its philosophy and practice in schools. We ran a student Agreed Syllabus Conference for a day, which proved so successful that we decided to establish a permanent student SACRE, with the help of an award of pound;3,000 from the National Association of SACREs and the St Peter's Saltley Trust.

We asked each member of the adult SACRE to nominate a "shadow" sixth form student from one of Bradford's schools. We now have 22 student members, although we haven't yet managed a full complement - the Jewish population is ageing and the Buddhist community is small. Nor have we been able to mirror the committee structure of SACREs, though we are working on it.

One of the key aims of the student SACRE is to bring young people from different schools and backgrounds together to promote understanding and respect for diversity. We have representatives from the Baha'i, Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh religions along with students who have no particular religious affiliation.

Time and again the students emphasise that they value the opportunity to meet fellow students from very different backgrounds and talk about topics they believe matter. Noreen Akhtar, from Belle Vue Girls' School, where 98 per cent of pupils are Muslims, said that what she enjoys most is "getting together and gaining insight into other people's religions".

It is also important that the student SACRE should be more than a talking shop - it has to be participation with a purpose. We make sure that each meeting has a specific goal - a press release to the local paper or a letter to the managing director of Education Bradford, for example. The students want meetings for their benefit, an opportunity to develop their own thinking and opinions. A very successful session was Any Questions? when the panel consisted of a young Muslim woman, a male Sikh community worker and the Bishop of Bradford. Questions focused on RE, race relations in Bradford and social and moral issues such as "Who should have the Promised Land?"

The main function, however, is to advise on RE and the students have asked for the next meeting to look at the curriculum. Despite years of multi-faith RE in Britain, these young people still feel that they don't know enough about each other's religions and cultural traditions, particularly religions other than Christianity and Islam. Astonishingly, at our last meeting, most students claimed to know nothing about Diwali. It emerged that they knew the story of Rama and Sita but they seemed not to know the significance of the festival for Hindus and Sikhs.

It is often assumed that there is a simple causal connection between teaching RE and promoting respect for diversity. These young people's experiences warn against such an unsubstantiated viewpoint and should lead all professionals in RE to evaluate their own practice and effectiveness.

As the members of the student SACRE develop in confidence, we hope they will take over their own meetings. We want them to become autonomous and self-determining. That will require continuity, which is why we chose students from the lower sixth and why we will encourage them to remain members when they are in higher education locally.

The funding pays for officers' time, students' expenses and the annual conferences they will organise for their fellow students. But this initiative could be replicated elsewhere, with support from the adult SACRE and an appropriate place to meet (we meet at Education Bradford's Interfaith Education Centre, which has earned the respect of our all local communities).

The idea is quickly gathering popularity nationally and we strongly encourage others to follow suit. It will support and enhance other current initiatives - such as school councils and youth parliaments - to promote participation and community involvement by young people and we believe that there will be many benefits for all who are involved.

Joyce Miller is strategy manager of RE and Citizenship for Education Bradford

Email: joyce.miller@educationbradford.com for more details

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