At a recent professional learning event for primary and secondary teachers at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity, the question was asked: how do you teach religious and moral education (RME) meaningfully at all levels of education?
The aim was to promote the informed teaching of stories from religious traditions as one way of doing this, and to provide resources for hard-pressed teachers to use with confidence (bit.ly/StoryReligion).
While some activities were separated into different levels, many were not, and the stories and questions for discussion were left to teachers to use as they thought appropriate for their classes.
Can one story – say Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16), or the Buddhist story of the Monkey King – be taught meaningfully in the nursery class and in a Higher curriculum?
Anecdotally, it was noted that the Good Samaritan may make an appearance many times in a pupil’s progress through school, often with the same activities attached (drama, anyone?).
Is there a need for better communication across academic years, so that pupils encounter different stories in P1 and S3?
Certainly, a better understanding of what is actually being taught in primary and secondary RME by teachers who will meet the same pupils at different stages would be helpful.
While transition is increasingly being recognised as important, RME rarely features in the projects that facilitate it. And its perceived marginal status may mean that there is little communication between primary teachers and RME teachers in secondary schools.
Even more promising is an approach that takes seriously the nature and power of narrative, and allows opportunities for critical thinking about sacred stories applicable to all levels.
A child in P3 might enjoy the pantomime contrasts of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, for example. But a young person in S3 might question whether the story promotes rather than challenges poverty in this life, with the promise of security in heaven; and ask just what did the rich man does so wrong that he cannot be offered a second chance (and nor can his five brothers).
Then other biblical texts might be considered, to set this story in a wider context, such as those parables in which the poor are treated with extravagant generosity in this life, or in which the authority figure welcomes back the one who has gone astray.
Stories allow and encourage wide speculation that need not challenge a respect for particular religious traditions.
Equally, at some levels, they may allow a space for hard and critical reflection, especially if the master/father/judge figure is associated with God.
And that is when teaching well-resourced RME becomes especially interesting – and potentially meaningful, for teacher and for pupil.
Dr Alison Jack is a lecturer in bible and literature at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity