How a broad approach to RE can help pupils gain respect for all religions. Diana Hinds reports
Deborah Weston's A-level RE class at the Mulberry School for Girls is studying verses from the Qur'an (in Arabic as well as English) that bear on Islam's approach to other religions. The girls, all Muslims, are discussing whether individual surahs (chapters in the Qur'an) are exclusivist (believing Islam is the only true way), inclusivist (seeing commonality with other religions of the book) or pluralist (encompassing religions not of the book, such as Hinduism).
They are finding a mixture of all three, with a stronger leaning towards an inclusivist approach - encompassing Christians and Jews - than many members of their faith might expect.
Deborah is the new head of humanities at the school, a state community secondary in Tower Hamlets, east London. It is not a faith school, but the intake is 98 per cent Muslim. Not all are practising, but RE plays a big role in the school.
The class has already completed units on Islam and developments in Christian thought and is now comparing and contrasting the way Islam and Christianity approach other religions, as well as developments such as feminist theology. This unit, though challenging, produced excellent A-level results at the school last year, with 88 per cent gaining grades A to C.
"Most of my friends are exclusivist," says Rabia, 18, at the end of the lesson. "But then they don't read the Qur'an that much. Before I started A-level, I used to read the Qur'an in Arabic and didn't understand a single thing. But now I've learnt a lot about Christianity too and I love reading the Bible. I like the fact that I've learnt to respect other religions."
"Many people are ignorant about religion and take their views from the media," says Sakina, 17. "But this A-level widens your perspectives on different religions. Mrs Weston makes us think. She makes you question your faith. For me, this has strengthened my faith."
Deborah has been teaching RE for 24 years, the past 20 of them at the Mulberry School. She is also chair of the National Association of Teachers of RE, formerly the Professional Council for RE, and has concerns about the paucity of specialist RE teachers nationwide.
"The problem for many RE teachers is training. It can be difficult to get on courses, especially in schools where RE is not seen as a priority," she says.
When she started out in the days of the Inner London Education Authority, extra training was plentiful, with full-time RE advisers readily to hand.
Now, many primary teachers have as little as three hours' initial training in RE, and many secondary schools do not have an RE specialist. But all six RE staff at the Mulberry School are specialists, as is the headteacher. It is one of the school's highest-performing subjects, and in the sixth-form there are two AS-level sets.
Deborah feels that coming from a faith perspective is an advantage rather than a blindspot. "The pupils come to the lessons with a certain amount of confidence about their faith," she says. "They are not overly defensive but more open to an analytical, critical approach. And they have a degree of religious literacy - so you can take them further."
But the school is mindful of the danger of a lack of different viewpoints, and so runs interfaith projects with local Catholic and Jewish schools
Find more on the National Association of Teachers of RE at www.natre.org.uk