THE school is welcoming a group of French exchange students.
Their teachers instruct them to watch the evening news "to learn
about the ways of the English". It is King Richard III week. They
do their best to understand.
It would appear that an English king has died in mysterious
circumstances, and has been buried in a car park - under a space
marked with an R. The year is 1485. His body has been identified by
the DNA of his cousin, who lives in Canada, and made the coffin.
The students have never heard of "Lezzter".
Next on the news is the story of somebody called Jeremy. Why his
botched dinner arrangements are national news is not immediately
They are delighted by the double-decker buses that bring them to
school. They are amused by the ingenious ways in which our students
interpret the requirement to wear a school uniform, and appalled by
the fact that the lunch break lasts only one hour.
AND they are bewildered when observing my RE lesson.
I blame the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7. Every year, I set
off with enthusiasm to change my students' perception of Religious
Studies. I am handed the syllabus for St Mark's Gospel, and the
The students are initially relieved to hear that this Gospel is
short. They like the way that Jesus gets stuck into the rich, and
applaud his direct action in the Temple.
They are mildly surprised to discover that Mark has little to
say about sex, when, to them, the Church seems to talk of little
else. Punch-ups with the religious leaders go down well, as does
its attitude to women, the dispossessed, and the sick. I make a
tactical decision to omit Wrede's Messianic Secret.
Realised eschatology is probably a no-no as well for students
whose idea of heaven is a One Direction concert. We get back to the
Syro-Phoenician woman, whose daughter is demon-possessed, and to
the debate about dogs and crumbs. I have my explanation ready. But
still the wheels fall off. And some sadistic examiner will include
her in the GCSE exam. She comes up every year.
Casually, I ask my French colleagues for their opinion. They
tell me that, in France, I would have been arrested. Admittedly the
students' attention had wandered a bit, but their judgement seemed
a bit harsh, even by Michael Gove's standards. The French system
is, of course, rigidly secular. While English head teachers are at
the school gate checking skirt lengths and top buttons, their
French counterparts are on the lookout for crucifixes and
headscarves, which must be removed before entering school.
WHERE better to pursue what is becoming an animated discussion
than a meal in a typical English restaurant. We take them to a
chippie. On a lovely spring evening, there are people outside
eating fish and chips wrapped in paper. Ah yes, English
They smile knowingly at each other. Inside, they are offered
mushy peas, which they assume to be some kind of delicacy. On the
drinks menu they spot dandelion and burdock. Unfortunately, a
dandelion is pissenlit in French. They draw the line at
We are aware from our discussion that both countries are having
to deal with religious extremism. In Britain, we saw an off-duty
army bandsman assassinated in the street; and in France journalists
for an obscure satirical journal were killed in cold blood. In
France, millions took to the streets. We set up a working
As a result, a ground-breaking change has been slipped in. From
2016, GCSE Religious Studies must require students "to
demonstrate knowledge and understanding of two religions". It has
taken decades, but we have seen Christian fundamentalism wither on
the vine, as education has chipped away at its more outlandish
I SEE no reason why the same should not happen when Islam comes
under the microscope, in the harsh unforgiving world of the GCSE RE
classroom, with a bunch of cynical 16-year-olds. Teachers will need
sensitivity, commitment, and some serious in-service training.
Our French visitors are sceptical. They are entrenched in their
position, an absolute separation between Church and State, which,
for them, precludes any kind of religious discussion in
Britain has chosen a very different path, believing that the job
of schools is to tackle ignorance in whatever field - and that very
much includes religion. No need for any more Trojan horses. We are
going to face this together and head-on. In school, the
Syro-Phoenician woman must now step aside. Her job is done.