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Thanks be to the godless

You don't have to be a believer to teach RE and help a subject struggling with staff shortages. Graeme Paton reports.

Kevin Norwood is a self-confessed atheist - a non-believer who says children should not be force-fed religion. But he is also head of religious education at a Hertfordshire secondary school.

The 27-year-old is one of a new breed of RE teachers being sought from unconventional backgrounds to ease crippling staff shortages in the subject.

Mr Norwood believes being divorced from the archetypal Sunday-school image of RE teaching gives him a more objective approach in the classroom. A philosophy graduate, he now works at Hemel Hempstead school, a specialist arts college.

"I am not from one of the six main world faiths," he said. "I believe I am more objective. I challenge children to think about the subject. Pupils learn about Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism, but those with no faith can also question the existence and relevance of religion.

"I have not studied many of these subjects in the past, but it doesn't mean I can't question them and talk in an informed way about them. If I need information on something I haven't taught before, I look it up in a textbook."

The school says pupils do not suffer from a lack of specialist knowledge.

There are around 180 pupils in each year group, and they are all expected to study RE. Last year, 70 per cent achieved at least a C-grade at GCSE.

Alan Gray, headteacher, said: "When Kevin came for interview he said he had no fixed opinions about any religion. In the past we interviewed people who had been church ministers and then decided teaching was for them.

"If you are a wise head you need to look carefully at the teacher's emotional and personal qualities. You have to ask yourself if they will be able to light that fire and inspire pupils. It is not just about having a religious belief."

A new campaign by the Teacher Training Agency encourages students - even those with degrees in subjects such as psychology, sociology and philosophy - to consider teaching RE. Two newspaper advertisements aim to convince would-be teachers who have not studied theology or religious studies that RE is an attractive option.

The TTA said: "Our campaign will I help to dispel the myth that you have to have an RE degree to teach the subject".

David Bell, the chief inspector, said last year that RE was taught by more non-specialist teachers than any other subject. In September, only 588 people started a postgraduate certificate in education with an RE focus, down on the estimated 704 new RE teachers needed.

The shortage has been compounded by increasing take-up of the subject in secondaries. The number of pupils opting to take the subject at GCSE rose by 6.6 per cent from 2003 to 2004, partly due to the introduction of a new short-course GCSE.

Advertisements targeting other shortage secondary subjects - including languages, maths and science - went out last September in the TTA's pound;12 million recruitment campaign.

This follows the launch of 10-week booster programmes at universities last summer, designed to give non-RE graduates a "knowledge rush" before starting a specialist PGCE.

Dick Powell, of the Culham Institute, which promotes and supports RE and faith schools, denied that targeting students with other subjects would harm RE. "Over the past decade, we have not had enough theology or religious studies graduates to fill vacancies for RE teachers, so it makes sense to look to other subject specialists," he said.

Last month, the Graduate Teacher Training Registry recorded a 30 per cent increase in the number of students applying for secondary PGCE courses in RE, in part due to campaigns run by the CulhamInstitute and teacher- training colleges.


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