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Education: Resources

06 February 2015

Dennis Richards reviews some of the latest education books and resources

THE title of a new volume about the German occupation of France during the Second World War has a peculiarly apt title, given the events in the French capital in recent times - When Paris Went Dark, by Ronald Rosbottom (John Murray, £25 (CT Bookshop £22.50), hardback; £9.99 (£9) paperback).

Teachers of history, philosophy of religion, and politics across Europe are being confronted with the prospect of renewed anti-Semitism. This volume provides an admirable background study to the question: Does France have a particular problem with this?

While we have no room for complacency in the UK, teachers will find it educative to see how France repeatedly failed to root it out. When the French Revolution, in 1789, gave the Jews in France equal rights with all other French citizens, anti-revolution groups adopted an anti-Semitic stance.

Most notably, the French military held to the traditional view that the Jewish community's loyalty to France was questionable, and produced a cause célèbre to support its case. An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris (Arrow Books, £7.99 (£7.20)) is a best-selling fictionalised account of the Dreyfus affair, which began in 1894 when a Jewish army officer in France, Alfred Dreyfus, was falsely accused of spying. It was a case that both traumatised and divided France in a way that was never finally resolved.

Much the same was the case when Maréchal Pétain's collaborationist Vichy government was complicit in the deportation of vast numbers of Jews during the Second World War. For 50 years or more after these events - until 1995, in fact - France held to the view that, because the Vichy regime was illegal, and without authority, the anti-Semitism of the war years was not ultimately a French responsibility.

Mitterrand: A study in ambiguity by Philip Short (Vintage Books, £12.99 (£11.70)) is a perfect example of the ambivalence of French leaders. This wonderful account of a skilful but ultimately duplicitous politician demonstrates the failure to tackle the endemic anti-Semitism in France in the past. Not until 1995 did a French President, Jacques Chirac, finally recognise that the anti-Semitic actions of Vichy were crimes committed in France, by France.

All this has a bearing on the position in this country. For a start, the question in the title Does Religious Education Work? A multi-dimensional investigation, by James C. Conroy, David Lundie, Robert A. Davis, et al. (Bloomsbury, £75 (£67.50) hardback; £24.99 (£22.50) paperback, published 23 April), would be a wholly irrelevant question in the fiercely secular French education system: there is no RE.

This newly published compilation of essays is, therefore, a salutary and timely reminder to us of the crucial significance of the value of RE in the UK curriculum. There is no forum in a French school where, in so far as neutrality is possible, religious intolerance can be tackled in a way that is non-confrontational and, above all, educational. Instead, a French head teacher is reduced to standing at the school gate asking Muslim children to remove their scarves, and Christian children to remove their crucifixes. It is a fundamentalist view of secularism.

The book concludes: "In schools where religion was treated seriously . . . the teachers (and the school community) clearly considered that they had significant obligations to foster community relations, and worked hard to do so." More remarkable still, even where it has low status as a subject, "we should not underestimate the extent to which students are engaged. . . It was this very unimportance which the students enjoyed", as opposed to the daily grind of maths, more maths, and further maths. RE is a chance to relax and do something useful at the same time. The authors' names are refreshingly unfamiliar, and represent the latest thinking on the subject.

In a similar vein, Christian Values for Church Schools, by Neville Norcross (Grove Books, £3.95 (£3.56)) reflects the recent changes in the Statutory Inspection of Anglican and Methodist Schools (SIAMS) framework, supposedly to boost the distinctiveness of church schools, whether aided, controlled, or academy.

In fairness to Grove Books, they have a singularly attractive strapline. "Not the last word . . . but often the first." In that case, they probably need to know that the new framework has created considerable disquiet in voluntary controlled church schools in particular. Many such schools are the only school in a community, and walk the tightrope of being both a church and a community school.

An experienced head teacher, with a demonstrably outstanding church school, was left floundering (as was the inspector) by an articulate parent, who asked how the 15 required values are specifically Christian, as opposed to Jewish, or Muslim - or humanist, for that matter. Any attempt to define the distinctiveness runs the risk of being disrespectful to those of other faiths and none.

The "Value a month" approach runs the further risk that "We did compassion in November. . . Sorry, kids, it's December now, we're on to justice. Tough." That being said, if you want to play the SIAMS game, this booklet will help you pass with flying colours. But it is a shame that "Christian ethos" has been so devalued (pun intended) by the new framework.

Meanwhile, hot off the press is another classic from Barnabas in Schools: RE in the Classroom with 4-5s, by Helen Jaeger (£7.99 (£7.20)). Simple to use and to understand, each lesson has a starter activity. The lessons are varied, and will clearly afford the children great enjoyment. As one would expect with a BRF imprint, the material is solidly biblical, but the themes are rooted in the everyday.

What is the biggest burden for primary-school teachers? Planning. Hey presto, Jaeger has done it for you - for a whole year, and for less than £10. Wonderful.

Free service launched. Anew service that matches secondary-school teachers and trainees with classroom vacancies was launched in London on 19 January. The service - which is free to both schools and teachers - is TeachVac, and is the idea of Professor John Howson. Endorsed by the top brass at the National Governors' Association, the National Association of School Business Management, and the ASCL, representing secondary-school head teachers, the service already has more jobs than some other online job-boards.

Schools that register receive updates about the job market every time they register a job, and dioceses can stay informed about vacancies in their area through a group recording function. Professor Howson said that the service would be expanded to cover primary-school vacancies and leadership posts later this year.


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