Popular beliefs

7th April 1995 at 01:00
Chris Arthur applauds a people-centred primary religious education series.

BRIDGES TO RELIGIONS, The Warwick RE Project, By Margaret Barratt, Judith Everington and Robert Jackson Heinemann. Teacher's Resource Book Pounds 19.99 0 435 304 011. Pupils' Books Pack Pounds 17.99 0 345 30407 0 for five titles Hardbacks available singly Pounds 7.50 each.

One of the best ways to make learning about religions boring is to ignore the fact that they are made up of people. It is no accident that one of the least boring studies of human religiousness, William James' classic The Varieties of Religious Experience, looks at personal religion rather than at ecclesiastical organisation, systematic theology, doctrines or history. As Wilfred Cantwell Smith, one of the major figures in modern religious studies, once put it, if we are to get anywhere in this subject area we must remember that fundamentally it has to do not with religions but with religious persons. This may seem too obvious a point to need stating, but it is one which those working in this area, at whatever level, have been slow to accept, with sometimes disastrous educational consequences.

The way in which the Warwick RE Project quite deliberately focuses on individuals rather than religions is one of the principal factors which make this series so appealing. It offers five to seven-year-olds an admirably well conceived introduction to the subject. The books for the pupils take the "a day in the life" approach to five children from different faith communities, looking through their eyes at what happens as they go about celebrating Easter, The Buddha's birthday, Shabbat and so on. These are not the colourless one-dimensional characters thought up in those little fictions sometimes ineffectually tagged on to laboriously factual approaches as a kind of afterthought, but real boys and girls, with whom pupils can identify, photographed in their own homes, among family and friends, and in places of worship.

Both the text and the colour photographs in the books for pupils are appropriately gauged for a primary audience. All written by Margaret Barratt, rather than by representatives of each of the faiths covered (Judaism, Christianity - Anglican and Catholic - Islam and Buddhism), they manage to maintain that uniformity of tone, level and quality which is so important for a fair and coherent approach to religions and which is so difficult to achieve with multi-authored works.

The Teacher's Resource book is excellent. A chapter is devoted to each story in the pupils' books, showing its implications and explaining how they can be used to maximum effect. A longer version of the stories is given, designed to be read aloud to classes and also identifying for teachers key ideas and possible topics for discussion which can link the material to pupils' own experience. Useful background information is provided for each of the faiths referred to and there is a wealth of workable ideas about cross-curricular links. Far from offering the sort of approach which tries to force classroom procedure on to the narrow tracks of a tedious formulaic approach, the structures for learning offered here contain enough ideas to facilitate a variety of approaches.

Surprisingly, for what is otherwise a very thorough treatment, the teacher's book is less than meticulous about properly referencing books mentioned outside the project's own literature. A short bibliography would have been helpful.

It is refreshing to find an approach which is methodologically sophisticated, well written and aware of curricular and classroom realities. Given such handling of RE at key stage 1, expectations will be high for the KS2 titles due in the autumn. The Warwick RE Project has set itself a high standard and appears likely to maintain it.

Chris Arthur is a senior lecturer at the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Lampeter

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