The sixth commandment

9th December 1994 at 00:00
RE provision for all sixth form pupils in maintained schools is still a legal requirement. More than that, argues Lat Blaylock, it is at this age that the subject becomes most relevant to young people's lives.

The chance to learn about religion, and from religion, in the sixth-form years is often limited to the small number of students who pursue examination courses to A or AS-level in religious studies. This seems ridiculous in one way, because it is exactly when young adults develop their own perspective on "life, the universe and everything" that they might find ransacking the treasures of the world's religions most challenging and meaningful. Some schools have found that courses which enable their students to learn from religion in an open and user-friendly manner have gained rave reviews from participants.

To the surprise of some, a school which does not provide RE for all 16 to 19-year-old students is not only missing an opportunity, it is also outside the law. The 1988 Education Reform Act made no changes to the requirement from 1944 legislation that county schools must provide a programme of RE (as specified in a locally agreed syllabus) for all pupils on their roll. In controlled and aided schools, RE for all in accordance with the syllabus that applies to them is required, and while grant-maintained schools can choose an agreed syllabus from anywhere in the country, they are still required to provide RE for all students, including those in the sixth form.

Since the Further and Higher Education Act (1992), colleges governed by that Act, rather than through local authorities, are also required to provide RE, but only for those "persons attending the institution who wish to receive it".

The wave of newer local authority syllabuses which followed the 1988 Act has been given a new impetus by the requirement to review the syllabus every five years, which came into force with the passage of the Education Act (1993). These syllabuses often specify aims and attainment targets for students in the 16-19 age range, and sometimes include a programme of study as well.

Is any notice taken of this legislation? RE departments, often hard pressed to provide specialist staffing for examination courses because of shortages of qualified staff, struggle to achieve much in response to the law. The recently published Office for Standards in Education booklet on RE, which summarised the findings of the inspectors with regard to the subject in 188 secondary schools during 1992-93, found that the law is widely ignored: "In most of the schools, sixth-form provision for RE was inadequate, and very many made no provision at all."

As is often the case, though, there were pockets of good practice to be found. The same report notes that "some schools used visiting speakers to make valuable contributions to general studies courses, and others provided an annual day conference. When appropriately challenged, sixth-form pupils showed interest and made good responses".

One of the routes out of the difficulty commended by OFSTED is to run a day conference for a whole sixth form. This is an easier starting point for schools with no current provision than running a year-long course, and has the advantage of giving students one high quality experience rather than a course which runs weekly, but has low stays. Highdown School in Reading used this model, with lots of workshops and seminar sessions, and panels of experts from six different faith communities answering students' questions.

Head of religious studies at Highdown, Ruth Johnson, says: "It was an absolutely fantastic day, which put religion at the top of the agenda." Students welcomed and hosted the guests from the different faith communities, and tackled issues about suffering, conflict, body image and death from different perspectives.

At Alderman Newton's School in Leicester, the RE department has been running day and half-day conferences for students for the past four years. The students have had a choice about which activities they follow, though the day itself is not optional.

This choice has led to more positive responses from students, who evaluated the day with comments such as "I thought about it all the way home" and "for once, I considered ideas both logically and thoughtfully".

Activities at day conferences have included debate ("religion is bad for you"; "faith is unreasonable"), visits to Jain, Sikh, Hindu and Christian places of worship, sessions of meditation, or the overlap between science and religion. Local secular societies can also contribute. ("Write your own commandments" was one workshop title.) Students have had the chance to make links between their chosen activities and their main A-level studies, for example by working with a theatre company which presents Christian material, or on issues of belief and value in biotechnology.

Others have prepared a lunch for the whole sixth form which takes account of all the dietary requirements of six different faiths! This picks up the idea found in the A-level syllabus for religious studies issued by the London board, which allows students to present coursework on "the relationship of religious studies to another subject studied by the candidate at advanced level".

Links with media studies, English or theatre studies have used films such as The Mission, Jesus of Montreal, Dead Poets Society, Let Him Have It, or Salaam Bombay to provide open inquiry into the profound questions which agreed syllabuses identify as suitable material for sixth-form RE.

As well as using day conferences, other schools are imaginatively delivering RE to sixth formers through the GNVQ structure, or as part of a general studies framework which is being examined as an extra A-level, or through other core-studies programmes taken by all students.

It is strange that as yet the Department for Education seems to have taken little notice of the issue of 16-19 RE. The Professional Council for Religious Education, which represents around 2,000 RE specialist teachers, would like to see the department commission some work in this area, to assess the possibilities for quality teaching and learning in the field and to disseminate good practice, so that schools can learn from each other.

According to Adrian Brown, PCfRE executive member and assistant head of sixth form at Ecclesbourne School in Duffield, Derbyshire, this issue is part of the general problem of low status that RE faces: "If Cinderella is invited to the ball, someone must provide a ballgown. If 16-19 RE entitlement is to be taken seriously, a real long-term injection of resources into training specialist teachers who can deliver a relevant curriculum is essential."

It seems doubtful that the Government will contemplate a change in the law in this area, so perhaps the DFE might contemplate ways of enabling schools to apply the law that would enable all sixth-form students to enjoy their entitlement to learn from the treasures of world faiths.

Lat Blaylock is executive officer of the Professional Council for Religious Education, Royal Buildings, Victoria Street, Derby DE1 1GW. Tel: 01332.

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