Passionate convert

29th June 2001 at 01:00
Reva Klein meets a dynamic enthusiast for RE.

Religious education and passion may not be words that everyone would associate with each other. But Dave Bennett, head of humanities and RE teacher at Babbington Community Technology College in Leicester, believes that "if you don't have a passion for it, it can be the worst experience possible".

A history teacher for eight years, he so enjoyed teaching the RE short course for GCSE that he decided to "sharpen up" his practice. He took an MA in religious education at Warwick four years ago, with support from the school, and since then has been teaching RE very happily, and successfully. The popularity of the subject has grown at Babbington since he has been teaching and so have the standards.

Last year, before the full GCSE course was introduced, RE students got the best results in the school for the short course: 46.2 per cent received grades A to C, as opposed to the school's 20 per cent A to Cs across all subjects. Next year, around 80 have opted to take the full course.

Dave Bennett's success in injecting dynamism and enthusiasm into the subject, as well as into the rest of the school, has won him a nomination for the National Teaching Awards.

The deputy head at Babington, Elizabeth Needham, says: "RE isn't a trendy or easy subject, so to get the results that he is getting is exceptional. We're a school that is in 'challenging circumstances', which makes this achievement even greater."

In Dave Bennett's classroom, there is never just chalk and talk. "We use a lot of drama - role-play and hot-seating. For example, when we look at what different Christian groups think about women priests, I take the role of a traditional Catholic and then someone from a Church of England perspective, and they fire questions at me. Other times I get them to write in different formats reflecting a particular belief. They wrote a parable on the theme of 'money isn't the main thing in life'. They've also written radio plays and news reports on religious events, such as the birth of Jesus."

He even manages to bring sensory stimulation into his lessons. When he trundles out his religious artefacts, it is not just a show-and-tell activity but a touchy-feely one, too. He puts them one by one in a box with holes in it, through which pupils put their hands to discover what it is.

A board game that he created and that the pupils constructed for themselves, called The Great Battle, shows the different interpretations and rewards attached to good and evil. And to help them learn the branches of Christianity, pupils are asked to make a cardboard model of a tree with the different branches emanating from it.

He also invites representatives of different faith communities to visit the school and "set things in context". It is so much more immediate, he says, to hear someone talk about how they combine going to the gurdwara or mosque with their other daily activities than to read about it in books. "I use textbooks for visual evidence but often, they're not where the best learning is."

His approaches serve as a catalyst for discussion. "The whole basis of RE should be a three-way dialogue between the teacher, students and the religions you're looking at. There has to be lots of discussion and debate and challenges for the pupils to think through.

"While I'd never actually say I was teaching philosophy, when we discuss the existence of God and why we're here, of course it's philosophical."

The school reflects the multicultural mix of Leicester, but few of the pupils are actively religious. A practising Christian, Dave Bennett believes "the challenge and the fun of teaching religious education is in getting young people hooked up to something they've previously thought was irrelevant".

Students seem to welcome the challenge. Paul Agrave, aged 15, says: "Mr Bennett's lessons are never repetitive. And he makes you think about everything."

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