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Going off pop

07 June 2013

Dennis Richards reviews his pick of the latest educational literature

JOHN SAXBEE's Religious Education at the Heart of the Curriculum? (Grove Books, £3.95, (£3.55)) is a cerebral and readable response to a fast-changing agenda. Described as akin to a "fanatical personal trainer" at the recent National Association of Head Teachers' conference, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is certainly setting an exhausting pace. It is also a baffling one.

First impressions would suggest an arch-traditionalist, wedded to an old-fashioned curriculum and anything else with a public-school, 1950s feel. Yet his attitude to RE - about as traditional a subject as you could name - is glacial at best, and dismissive at worst. Why? Perhaps he doesn't recognise the name. Chaps used to call it Divinity, you know.

The timing is also odd, given that the numbers of those studying A level RS are at an all-time high. Admittedly, the National Curriculum is under review, and the English Baccalaureate Certificate has now been abandoned, but neither had any place for RE.

Dr Saxbee's important pamphlet does not waste too much time bemoaning RE's fate. He simply gets on with the task of redefining it in a fast-changing world. As a former chairman of the C of E Board of Education and the National Society Council, he knows whereof he speaks. The pamphlet is brave and innovative. "I am allergic to religion" is his starting point - somewhat reminiscent of Lady Runcie's famous claim that "Too much religion makes me go off pop".

In a superbly written chapter, the author explores the difference between religion and faith. He describes the attempt to defend religion, on the grounds that in the end it does more good than harm, as "a grubby self-serving calculus". Anglicanism, at its best, he says, "has the good grace to forswear the rules and regulations of religion so as to give some space for faith to be fanned into flame without being stifled by the demands of dogmatism and over-zealous border controls".

Religion is, for the author, merely the formalising of faith - and a right mess we make of it. I can imagine him, writing as a retired bishop, looking back on a lifetime of endless PCCs spent discussing the width of hassocks and the length of cassocks. While not going so far as to describe religious aficionados as "mad, swivel-eyed loons", he is excoriating about allowing the "formalising functions of religion to become ends in themselves".

His proposals are beautifully clear, as the best suggestions often are. Having clearly drawn a distinction between religion and faith, he goes on to apply his thinking to the curriculum: he suggests that schools retain religious studies as a vehicle for exactly what it says in the name. Students need to be well-informed. Religious literacy is more vital today than it has ever been. That's the "religion" bit.

But religious education becomes something on a far wider scale, especially, but not necessarily only, in church schools. In short, RE becomes a "servant subject" and imbues the whole curriculum. This is the "faith" bit.

The author may have set the agenda for RE in church schools for some time - certainly while Mr Gove is still around.

Helping Children Think About Bereavement, by Heather Butler (Routledge, £22.99 (£20.70)), is a good example of how Dr Saxbee's thinking could be applied, especially in a church-school context.

Reminding us that some 3000 young people die every year between the ages of one and 19, either through illness or accident, Butler, writing with 30 years' teaching experience behind her, remembers feeling inadequate and unprepared when dealing with a bereaved child for the first time.

It is estimated that up to 70 per cent of schools could have a bereaved child on their rolls. There is nothing overtly Christian about this volume, but it is a practical, helpful resource, and church schools could happily endorse it and add to it.

It answers the questions that we all want to ask, but are uncomfortable about: should we use the word "dead", for example. Although it includes advice for dealing with bereaved children, that is not its primary focus. The key to the volume is its focus on preparing children for the idea of death and loss.

The material is adapted for different age-groups, and is based on a charming four-part story. It is an excellent resource, but prospective purchasers may wish to note the rather prohibitive price for 150 pages.

Long-serving church-school heads, who have reached the "there's only so much you can say about Ash Wednesday" stage, will breathe a sigh of relief when they come across There is a Season: Celebrating the church year with children by Margaret Pritchard Houston (SPCK, £12.99 (£11.70)). They know that they must make a special effort for a special day, but feel that they have said it all before.

Houston provides eight "off-the-shelf" liturgies for the main Christian festivals, and helpfully aligns the Church's year with the academic year. Head teachers especially appreciate this kind of resource. Parents, staff, and even the OFSTED inspector will compliment you on the thoroughness of your planning, and the inventiveness of your ideas.

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