RE is a subject that permits unusual lessons. One of my passions is getting past what I call the tyranny of the Big Six (the main faiths of the UK) and exposing children to world views, philosophies and faiths that they may otherwise only stumble over in death metal lyrics and hastily deleted Google searches.
Because of the unique position RE occupies in England (statutory but non-national curriculum), and because of the absurd fact that the syllabus is locally agreed, curricula can vary, as can their mileage. Which gives an old escapologist like me just enough wiggle room to work myself free from the straitjacket of the must-be-taughts.
One of my favourite detours from the Big Six is Wicca, or paganism more generally. A demonised faith, literally witch-hunted into a mythical marriage with satanism and evil, it died of natural causes/crucifixion many centuries ago, only to enjoy a modernist revival by well-meaning people looking for somewhere to put their faith. You should see the pupils when I wheel out the pentacles.
In a decade of my looking at this subject, no one has ever complained, mainly because there are no grounds to, unless your faith position is so paranoid and fragile that you’d object to Harry Potter (which many parents I’ve met have done, incidentally).
Fortunately, RE isn’t designed to proselytise, and it certainly isn’t aimed at keeping snowflake parents happy. At its best, it is an academic study of religion, faith, ethics and everything touched by these factors. Taught well, it’s worth its weight in manna. Taught badly, it’s the biggest waste of time you can imagine.
Bursting misconceptions of other cultures, faiths and countries is one reason why I get out of bed in the morning. Some of them are relatively harmless but uncomfortable, and lead to greater horrors: the number of kids I teach who mysteriously think Jewish people keep money under their hats is astonishing. Where do they get that from? Anti-Semitism is rarely openly expressed in the classroom, but when it is, it’s as shocking as someone lighting up in an intensive care ward. I make it my holy mission to dismantle such ideas if they rest on factual errors (like 9/11 conspiracies), or to cluster-bomb them if they simply demonstrate callousness.
Why do Rastafarians wear dreads? Why are they called dreads? Is it racist against white people? Aren’t Sikhs terribly violent, given that their symbol is three drawn swords? (When this comes up, I usually just remind pupils that the cross is a method of torture.) Are the Paris terrorists Muslims or not? (Cue lengthy discussions of jihad, the slaughter of innocents, and the semiotic juggling act of martyrdom.) Every terrible crime on the news stands is an unhappy example of things we need to understand more. You want engagement? You want to see students talking with passion about something they’re interested in? Ask them about refugees. Ask them about Charlie Hebdo. Teach them as much Middle Eastern history as you can. Draw their attention to what the Koran actually says about charity, mercy and umma (community). Stop using the phrase “Muslims think” and replace it with “Some Muslims think”.
RE is in a bit of a mess these days; if ever a subject needed reinvention, it’s this one. It’s been protected by a force field for decades, one that few politicians feel the need to breach. It’s a junkyard of yesterday’s ambitions when it could be an engine of extraordinary importance – a crucible where human thought can be analysed, criticised and understood. Instead, we often bury our heads and design posters about Easter bunnies. A world where the Paris attacks can happen needs something more.
Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert
This column appeared first in the 27 November edition of TES. Read the digital edition of TES on your tablet or phone by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents.