Religious Education lessons in secondary schools

An Article from the Saros Autumn 1996 Newsletter

I was educated in a Catholic school where Religious Education (RE) was compulsory to exam level. My memories of RE lessons are probably similar to those of other people my age or older - i.e. RE was in actual fact 'Biblical Studies!' I got to grips with Mark's gospel for my 'O' Level, and delved into the other Synoptics and John's gospel for my 'A' Level. We debated issues of nuclear war, abortion and world poverty at 15 years old (all from a Christian/ Catholic perspective, of course!), and discussed more philosophical issues such as the problem of evil, the existence of God and religious language at 17 years old. The discussions were very interesting, but it was not until I reached University that I was given the chance to explore other religions.

I actually have no regrets about my religious education at school, since without the compulsory nature of RE at that time, I might have missed my vocation in life. However, as a teacher of RE at the moment in Leeds, about to embark on the position of Head of Department further north, I feel I am in another world (larger and more exciting), compared to that of my own RE teachers.

We see so much on the News about unruly teenagers, the rise in school exclusions, and the increase in juvenile delinquents. The Church is trying desperately to increase its numbers and target the youth, while the government is forever debating ways in which schools can instil morals into their pupils. In our recent government inspection (OFSTED), my school was inspected on the 'spiritual, moral, cultural and social dimensions in the curriculum'. Of course, the RE department is expected to play a large part in ensuring that these dimensions are covered, yet in most schools an RE department consists of one teacher who sees every pupil in the school for 30 minutes a week, if she's lucky that is! (NB female pronoun used to fit in with the stereotypical view of an RE teacher as a 50-year-old, Christian spinster!) Hardly long enough in which to mould an upright, honest society of the future, brimming with integrity.

Do the youth of today have a moral instinct? Are they ever made aware of their environment and the life in it? Can teenagers be expected to understand and relate to the deeper levels of life?

In an increasingly technological and scientific age, I find myself fighting a battle to open up the myths, symbols and experiences of religion to pupils aged between 11 and 18 who are surrounded by facts, formulas and theories. Yet it is not an impossible task. In fact, I believe it is more of a probability than a possibility, that pupils can become aware of a spiritual dimension in life, given sufficient and appropriate opportunities.

From the age of 11, when I first receive the pupils at my school, to the age of 16/18, when they leave, the aim of my department is to awaken pupils to the different perspectives on life. Unfortunately RE still gets a bad press, so it is essential that pupils are excited, challenged and stimulated as soon as possible. Taking the theme of 'religion as a journey', we use stories and symbols, art and literature, to introduce 11-year-olds to the variety of religious experience. We do cartoon strips of the Hindu story of Rama and Sita; we watch an animated version of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress; we do imagination exercises on the relevance of Light; and use IT programmes to cover important religious symbols of the journey such as the spiral, tree, maze and mountain.

Once pupils have developed a sense of direction and seen deeper meanings in what they initially think of as 'fairy tales', we move on to study Judaism in as much detail as possible in two terms. A whirlwind tour of a variety of religions may be fun, but pupils don't develop a real feel for a particular tradition. They need to know some of the scriptures, understand the beliefs and, if possible, 'experience' the religion itself. Our pupils visit a Reformed Synagogue in Leeds, sample the Passover foods, and listen to an Orthodox Jew discuss her role as mother and the importance of family life in Judaism. We do our best to make the religion come alive for the pupils.

These are only a few examples of a wide range of experiences our department offers. In Leeds we are legally obliged to cover Christianity and two other world faiths. We have chosen Judaism as the great source for Western religious tradition, and we also study Hinduism to offer an Eastern perspective. Our 'experiential approach' encourages pupils to use poetry (haikus, acrostics, cinquaines, etc.), music and art. We use guided fantasies as a technique to develop the imagination of pupils and to aid their memory. One recent GCSE question was to describe the Sacred Thread ceremony in Hinduism. After the exam one 16-year-old told me he'd remembered it all from the guided fantasy we'd done in class last year! We take pupils to places of worship, and invite speakers in to lessons, ranging from Christian staff at the school to Hare Krishnas and Rastafarians. For the older pupils who have decided not to take GCSE, we keep their interest through multi-media techniques using IT, radio programmes and documentaries. Our recent unit of work looked at religion through film, where 'Dead Poet's Society' formed a basis for discussion on Buddhist principles with the key phrase 'Seize the Day'.

Capturing the pupils' interest at an early stage also is beneficial for the school, since over 100 pupils are entered for GCSE each year. This leads on to a healthy sized 'A' Level group each year in the Sixth Form.

This May I ran a Lower Sixth residential weekend on the theme of Religious Experience. Using the concepts of light, dark and communion, we listened to music, read texts, did imaginative exercises, chanted and danced. The weekend culminated in the pupils creating a piece of art (using clay, paints, or collage) to reflect on something particular that had struck them. Phrases such as Meister Eckhart's 'the eye with which I see God is that with which he sees me' sparked off a whole range of creative ideas.

For me, Religious Education is thrilling and exciting. The potential for spiritual development is always a central feature. Realistically, I don't expect the majority of teenagers to take up a personal faith, and I don't think that the lessons will necessarily make a big difference to their lives. However, I believe that RE is essential in schools to develop an awareness and tolerance of religious life. For some pupils we are 'opening a window' which they may at some stage venture to look through. This is enough to fire my optimism and enthusiasm in my work.

Hermione Jackson

This page, and all contents, are Copyright (C) 1996 by Saros. The material may be used freely providing the source is acknowledged.