Sophie James samples RE lessons at five secondary schools in Berkshire and explores the diversity in approaches to the agreed syllabus
That's right - we've worked well together as a county," says Maureen Beadsley, a head of department for religious education in Berkshire. Like other counties across the nation, Berkshire has grown used to the task of drawing up its own religious syllabus. The 1993 Education Act stipulated that all LEAs must convene an agreed syllabus conference by April 1995. Berkshire was well placed. Traditionally it had treated RE as important, regularly bringing its teachers and religious community leaders together so that they might know each other and share ideas.
From their practical experience of teaching differing communities, teachers knew that they needed to have freedom within the syllabus and even independence of it. Many were afraid that a more clearly defined syllabus at local level would mean more prescription. Yet as many RE teachers are quick to point out, the status and content of RE have changed vastly in the past 10 years. It is no longer about instruction in a faith: it embraces broad philosophical, cultural, moral and social ideas; it responds to the multi-faith nature of British society; it absorbs the whole of human experience. More than any other subject RE turns on personal response between student and subject. Syllabuses therefore become less of a model than a stimulus to teachers trying to devise for themselves a religious education suited to their own schools, pupils and local communities.
Paula Ridgway is head of RE at Brackenhale comprehensive in Bracknell. She is enthusiastic about how to interpret the syllabus in her classroom. A first the students at Brackenhale were not motivated. "I realised early on that I had to re-educate children and parents. There's still a stigma attached. . . they think that RE is about being locked into a religion. I emphasise that it's a humanities course. It's about understanding people. About our culture. The 'Why?' questions. I get the light bulbs turned on that way."
Her lesson aptly illustrates this. The desks have been made to form an imperfect circle and as she walks in the central space and provokes her pupils to discussion, she reminds me of TV chat show's Oprah Winfrey. She is teaching key stage 3, on religion and the environment.
Anecdotal and witty, her lesson is a web of cross-references to familiar aspects of a modern society and religion. Challenges are thrown into the classroom. For instance, "There are many books written on the environment - including the Bible!" Paula breaks off to explain that "these kids are mad on the environment. Religion they are not concerned with. I tap into their imagination and they see the connection".
Her wall-displays on the environment include posters on vegetarianism, the RSPCA, Feng Shui Ying Yang, the children's film Free Willy, ecological news and traditional Indian culture. Beside these on the wall is the children's own appreciation of Buddhism. Says Paula, "In this school RE is a lot about improvisation. My inspection report was bad because Ofsted measures everything by its own set standards. Yet it was one of my best lessons - a spontaneous discussion about death!" Along the road from Brackenhale is the very different Ranelagh, a voluntary-aided Church of England school. Despite the difference in ethos, head of department Maureen Beadsley meets Paula twice a term to brainstorm one application of the syllabus (both have been on the committee in the past.) Yet although they use the same syllabus, RE at Ranelagh is very different. "Our policy is to teach the agreed syllabus and to enrich it. Obviously, as a Church of England school we are not compelled to cover all the content. For example, I want to deliver a really good Christianity course that informs children and allows them to explore their own beliefs. I would not want the academic element to squeeze out the child's spiritual exploration. At key stage 4, for example, we're looking at euthenasia, death and bereavement. "
Ranelagh is a comprehensive but it takes only students whose parents have an allegiance to one of the local Anglican churches. The students come to them with some depth of Christian knowledge.
Maureen Beadsley declares that it doesn't matter if a child is an agnostic or non-believer so long as the opportunity for exploration in the Christian tradition was present.
"I've got such freedom that if the children are producing Murder in the Cathedral, and they want to talk about martyrs, we can."
Another school happy that Berkshire allows them their own authority over the syllabus, is the selective Kendrick Girls Grammar School, recently listed as one of the country's most excellent by Ofsted. Kendrick has a high academic profile, not least in religious studies.
The head of department, Lynn Ridley, is proud that out of 48 girls doing GCSE RS last year, 75 per cent got A and B grades. This intense academic potential is harnessed in the school by the setting of its own targets beside the agreed syllabus. "Of course we develop the subject on Berkshire's guides and content. But religion in our school holds its own against the humanities. It's an academic subject on a par with them. The girls get their teeth into RE this way. " The Castle School in Newbury is a special school for students with severe leaning difficulties. With humour and patience, Pat Broomfield, their form teacher, gave the 20-minute RE lesson to a group of seven 14 to 16-year-olds, mostly Downs. "Twenty minutes is about their concentration span. The syllabus is specially adapted by the school but it's difficult to measure their depth of understanding. They'll talk about Heaven for example and say they're going there. But they don't know where it is - it's a place up the M4 I think!" That day their lesson was on the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. The theological significance was out of the question. Instead, Pat presented it as a story about sharing, generosity and thanking. Jesus became an exemplar of kindness.
Talk ranged around the Sainsburys fresh buns and fish which Pat has placed on the central table; it takes all her wits to reconcentrate the message. Eventually enough of the point has been absorbed and the children enjoy break-time, sharing their food as Pat notes "nicely, if not hygienically".
Because these are mostly children with no inhibitions about demonstrating instant love or instant dislike, RE lessons on such themes as friendship or survival are particularly pertinent.
I carried away at least one reassuring impression from these visits. Some people say that modern children find RE boring. I saw no signs of this at all.