Thorny issues draw out a dilemma

8th June 2012 at 01:00
Just because it's a faith school don't think you know what to expect, cautions Jo Brighouse

"If my class put Jesus in the tomb, will yours get him out again?" Overhearing my phone conversation with a colleague a few weeks ago, my husband started sniggering. "What's the matter?" I asked as I put down the phone. "Have you listened to yourself recently?" he said. "You say the most ridiculous things." I had to admit he was right, but to me it's a normal question. A question you'll hear only in a faith school at Easter time.

Teaching in a faith school you often find yourself doing and saying bizarre things and thinking it's normal. As well as frantically marking and panicking about Sats, at that time of the year we're also likely to be out in the back garden at midnight looking for twigs to bend into a crown of thorns for an eight-year-old and panicking in case Pontius Pilate's cough gets worse and he's off sick on Friday. Lent is always crammed with chocolate cake sales and you can never find a tea towel in the staffroom in December.

Humanists hate faith schools. They say they create social disharmony. They're dead right. I was at a faith school myself and still have vivid memories of the infighting that ensued when the headteacher's niece was picked to crown Our Lady in the May Procession.

When you've taught in a faith school for a while, you forget that not all schools are the same. While prayers and fielding questions such as "is my hamster in Heaven?" are all in a day's work for us, for non-faith schools religion can be an even thornier issue.

I realised this when I went on an RE course and was surprised to hear some RE coordinators in non-faith schools admit that they envied me. "You're lucky to have such cohesion and be able to say what you want in assembly," one of them told me. Apparently, trying to find stories and songs for a whole year that inspire awe and wonder and moral values without reference to any deity is no mean feat. These teachers said that if they spent too long studying any one religion, they had parents complaining. If they focused on one religious celebration and missed out another, they had parents complaining.

I pointed out that they didn't have an extra inspection but had to admit that being able to add the line "What would Jesus do?" to a telling-off without fear of reprisals did have its merits. And they're probably right about the cohesion. Even when we have multi-faith weeks, we're quite likely to have the parish priest popping in to watch an assembly on Sikhism. However, I recently found the question of religious cohesion being put to the test.

Because of the emphasis on RE we have more than the usual amount of support materials for planning and assessment in the subject. In theory this is helpful, but in reality you're often left struggling with a lesson plan thought up by an 84-year-old nun in 1972.

Most of us get round the woollier suggestions by ignoring them and planning our own lessons. But in the middle of a particularly hectic week I decided I'd give them a go and set my children the task of drawing Heaven. They seized upon the challenge, happy to be doing anything that didn't involve writing and where their gel pens could get an outing, and soon copies of the old Philadelphia cream cheese advert were springing up in exercise books all over the classroom.

Doing the rounds, I noticed one of my girls still had nothing on her page but the date and title. "Why haven't you started your drawing?" I asked her. "It's a bit difficult, Miss," was the reply. "You see, I don't believe in Heaven." This was a new one for me and I paused to consider my reply. I imagine the correct response in the past would have been "drop and give me six Hail Marys" but this didn't seem quite appropriate. Nor did, "Well, it's a valid point of view. A lot of people would agree with you."

"What do you believe in?" I asked her, playing for time. "Just things like science and stuff," she told me. "Maybe you could draw some Heavenly gates with a scientist outside them" was my cop-out of an answer. She gave me a slightly pitying look.

"OK, miss." Shaking her head slightly, she drew exactly what I'd suggested. I gave it a tick, then added: "A thoughtful piece of work."

Jo Brighouse teaches at a primary school in the Midlands.

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