Sarah Farley talks to the creators of a series about introducing the major faiths to key stage 1.
Start Up Religion: Belonging; Celebrating Harvest; Gifts at Christmas; Jewish Faith; Visiting a... Church; Gurdwara; Mandir; Synagogue; Mosque Evans Pounds 10.99 each. www.evansbooks.co.uk
Visiting a place of worship can be a novel experience for many children.
Even if they are regulars at their own faith's meeting place, they may well never have set foot inside other spiritual centres. For children from families where religion is not a part of life, the concept of an act of worship may be unfamiliar. Others will have been members of a particular group since birth, with religion at the core of family life.
Such contrasts make delivering the national curriculum's requirements for key stage 1 RE difficult, as teachers are faced with finding ways to help children learn about various faiths in a way that is factual, does not promote any faith, and is not patronising.
A new series of books introduces five to eight-year-olds to key words and concepts in the major faiths in Britain today, as well as looking at more general themes such as "belonging" and "celebrating harvest". The Start Up Religion series, published by Evans, aims to describe the important elements of different religions in a way that is interesting and accessible but will not offend or mislead. Written by Ruth Nason, advised by RE specialist Jean Mead, the books contain lively photographs of people taking part in services, at home, or out and about.
"The main message I wanted to give in the books is what children can learn from religions, as well as learning about them," explains Ruth Nason. "We are not trying to persuade anyone to join a religion, and we do not make any value judgments. What we do suggest to the children is ways to learn from the different faiths. For example, in Visiting a Church, we say some children found the church peaceful, and the teacher could ask the children where they go to feel peaceful. Similarly, the book looking at the Jewish faith follows a family through a Friday evening, so you could discuss with the children what special times they have in their families."
Thoroughly checked with members of the religions so that the faith-specific details of each text are accurate, the books are written in a clear, uncluttered style.
Dr Anne Punter, language consultant for the series, says: "We have pitched the vocabulary at the appropriate linguistic level for children to read themselves and to explore the text and pictures in a way that is fun. There is a key vocabulary list and a range of activities suggested at the end of each book, with website addresses and linked resource suggestions."
Some schools, such as Crabtree Infants and Junior School, Harpenden, arrange to teach RE in a block over a week. On a visit with her class to High Street Methodist Church, which is featured in Visiting a Church, teacher Jane Fletcher explained: "We find it more meaningful to teach about religion in one week rather than trying to slot it into topics. We will usually visit a church and meet the minister or vicar, and we also invite people in to talk about their faith, such as the mother of a Jewish pupil.
But Crabtree is not a multi-faith school, it is predominantly Christian, and most children will have been to a church for a wedding or christening, but will have little experience of other faiths, so this series of books introducing different religions and cultures will be helpful."
Several schools have helped in preparing the Start up Religion series, including the Grove Infant and Nursery School, Harpenden, where children were involved in the Celebrating Harvest book. Headteacher Sandra Bird has experience of the difficulties of pitching RE at the right level for KS1.
She welcomes the books, for example, Visiting a Gurdwara and Visiting a Mandir, looking at the Hindu and Sikh religions.
"There is information out there but it isn't expressed in appropriate language for this age group. I like the way the Start Up books pose questions which we can use as starting points to find out what the children know or don't know, and, through more questions, we can be guided about what we need to look at next. For a non-specialist, that is very helpful.
It is also possible to link to other areas of the curriculum, such as the page that asks where we might have seen the symbol of the cross in our own community, and we could make a map of the town showing the churches.
"The children don't have a problem with understanding that other people have different rules, it's rather like seeing how other families do things differently when they visit each other for tea, but it does help enormously if they can relate concepts to their own experience.
"These books show real people in real places, so they are easy to relate to. They also deal with themes we cover that are relevant to all, religious or not, such as celebrating harvest and belonging. I think these are the closest I have seen to what teachers actually say when they are trying to get over a difficult concept."