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Educating the educators

by
05 February 2016

Dennis Richards reviews the latest education titles

PERHAPS taking a brief moment to congratulate and sympathise with those who publish is pertinent. Lord Weidenfeld, who died on 20 January, was described in his obituary in The Times as “the outstanding London publisher of the second half of the twentieth century”. Weidenfeld’s story makes fascinating reading: it is an RE lesson in itself. As a Central European Jew, he fled the Nazis in the 1930s, and escaped to London. A family of Plymouth Brethren took him into their home in Highgate. It was a gesture that Weidenfeld never forgot.

Last year, at the astonishing age of 95, he funded a rescue mission for Christians in Syria and Iraq, and helped many to escape death at the hands of Islamic State, or Daesh. “I had a debt to repay,” he said. In these times of debate about migrants, that anonymous Plymouth Brethren family of decades ago gives teachers an inspiring RE lesson for today.

 

PUBLISHERS of educational materials do not find life easy under the current Government. Michael Gove may have moved on, but he left a legacy of rapid change. The new GCSE Religious Education courses will be taught from the start of September, and examined for the first time in September 2018. Neither OCR nor AQA, the two largest exam boards, have endorsed publications ready for purchase by schools, who will become increasingly desperate as September approaches.

Thankfully, some things never change. Children love stories, and, until the grim reality of adolescence takes hold, they also love acting them out. The Whoosh Bible, by Gill Robins (BRF, £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70)) is a joyous production, with an impeccable pedigree. The title is a catchy way of describing a strategy first developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s education unit. Gill Robins has a background in English teaching, and it shows. She has applied the “whoosh” technique to the most familiar of Bible stories. Children will stand in a circle and take turns in acting out the story.

The whole group will be involved, and the intention is that each participant becomes the story. “Whoosh” is the code word for moving on. It’s buzzy, it’s simple, and the stories are easily accessible. I suspect that Year 3 and Year 4 will love whooshing. There is a delightful set of images at the end of the volume for colouring in. OFSTED inspectors would be apopleptic at the very thought — but provided they are not in the vicinity, who cares? Children love colouring in, and it gives the teacher a welcome breather. But OFSTED will probably hate it. What is the learning objective, it will parrot? Spoilsports.

 

ANOTHER certainty, particularly welcome at this juncture, is that familiar names remain as active and as enthusiastic as ever. Being Christian in Education: Reflecting on Christian professional practice in a secular world, by Hazel Bryan and Howard Worsley (Canterbury Press, £19.99 (£18)),is a collection of essays. The editors are well known — and prolific — producers of material related to RE and Christianity in schools. This volume, however, is different, and probably their most important publication to date. Fifteen doctoral students give a synopsis of their theses, and some of the subjects up for discussion could not be more timely. For example, look at “Are British values Christian values?”

While some of the discussion is needlessly polemical and point-scoring, Andrea Haith’s essay is at the heart of the current debate about the place and nature of state-funded RE. The upholding of fundamental British values was made part of the new Teachers’ Standards in 2012. As Haith says, there is confusion, and a lack of clear understanding, about what they are. As they will form part of the re-drafted GCSE specifications, to which we referred earlier, no wonder the publishers are hesitant about going into print.

This important volume reminds us of Jeff Astley’s dictum that there is a straight choice: education in Christianity, education about Christianity (and presumably other faiths as well), or education in a Christian manner. It seems to me that it has been obvious for many years that only the second is now appropriate in a state-funded school in multicultural Britain. It will mean compromise on the part of all faiths. And, if we change the word “Christian” in the third choice to “British”, perhaps the publishers have a workable blueprint. Discuss.

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