True to the spirit
Rarely can an idea have found its moment so precisely. With MPs shrieking from one television studio to another for education to be enriched with added morality, the Charis Project arrives on cue. Taking as its starting point the 1994 OFSTED discussion paper Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development, it promotes "moral and spiritual development" not in RE but across the whole secondary curriculum.
Thus its first four publications (reviewed below) are A4-sized, spiral-bound books combining teachers' notes and photocopiable student sheets for key stage 4 English, mathematics, French and German plus (in the case of the last two) cassette tapes and pages which will make overhead projector masters.
We've been somewhere close to this before. In 1967, John Dixon's seminal Growth Through English was concerned (like the Charis Project) with "the whole child". But then the emphasis was on maturation through language development. In 1996, the Charis Project offers overtly Christian materials. When it sets out to provide pupils "with knowledge and insights into values and beliefs"; when it encourages them "to consider life's fundamental questions" and to make moral decisions, it is doing so from the particular standpoint of the Association of Christian Teachers (ACT).
Thanks to media coverage, ACT is sometimes seen unfairly as a one-issue organisation: full of people who get upset about witches, broomsticks and pumpkins in primary schools at Hallowe'en. ACT members do, however, subscribe to the belief that Jesus Christ is "the only and all-sufficient ground of salvation" and are prepared "to be ruled in life and thought by the Bible". While it is ecumenical (Catholics are among its members), it probably appeals most to those with an evangelical or Bible-based faith.
ACT has been able to publish the Charis Project thanks to the Jerusalem Trust, one of the Sainsbury family trusts which is linked to former Tory Foreign Office minister Sir Timothy Sainsbury. Over the years, the Jerusalem Trust has made a number of grants to Christian educational organisations and has been in discussion with ACT for some time about the production of Christian materials.
Richard Wilkins (ACT's general secretary) remembers pointing out that, in this context, "Minds immediately turn to RE - RE is seen as the moral conduit. " But then, as Dr John Shortt (director of the Charis Project) recalls, "A number of us had a vision for doing something specifically Christian across the curriculum."
The outcome is these first four resource files. Next year will see the publication of a second quartet of books for the same subjects together with the first science book, while there are further plans for key stage 3 and a cross-curricular book for key stage 2.
The name Charis, incidentally, results from a failure to create an appropriate acronym and a reluctance by modern linguists to have an English title. "So we went to Greek and Hebrew. Somebody said 'Charis' and we realised how well its idea of grace and giving fitted in with our concerns."
John Westwell, one of the teachers who have contributed to the mathematics unit, has written that one purpose of the project is to "enable pupils to learn mathematics, while at the same time reflecting on 'human issues'". So does this mean that, in each discipline, the subject must be subservient to the spiritual?
The editor of the English file, Christ Akhurst, believes not. "What we try to do is to comprehensively cover the aspects of the text required for GCSE. " But he adds: "We consciously focus on aspects of the text that are in danger of being neglected." The result, he admits, is that teachers and students, might have to use "other aids".
So who is likely to use the Charis Project? Dr Shortt says that it is intended for "the typical state school", not church, independent or "new Christian" schools. He hopes the publications will be "acceptable to teachers of wide faith backgrounds or none", noting that, for example, Muslims have welcomed them because "it's clear where they're coming from; we're not claiming to be neutral".
That said, Chris Akhurst is perhaps more pragmatic when pressed as to whether non-Christian teachers will leap at the materials: "The short answer must be no."
Charis, Stapleford House Education Centre, FREEPOST, Wesley Place, Stapleford, Nottingham NG9 7BR