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Education: book reviews

10 February 2023

Dennis Richards reviews the latest education titles

THERE is, apparently, nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come, according to Victor Hugo. This SPCK volume for children, God Made the Dinosaurs, may well be long overdue.

I freely confess that I came to it with questions. But worries that it might have a dodgy creationist stance were quickly set aside, since the front cover prominently makes it clear that the text is a joint SPCK-Faraday Institute production. No fears on that score, then.

I also needed to be sure that today’s four- to nine-year-olds are actually interested in a range of creatures, stretching from the Permian Palaeozoic right through to the Late Cretaceous Period. The overwhelming consensus: primary-school age groups are not just interested: vast numbers of them are obsessed —to such an extent that they are described by a word new to my vocabulary list: a generation of “dinophiles”.

The when, the why, and the wherefore are dealt with in encyclopaedic chronological detail, supported by magnificent illustrations. Then come higher level questions relating to extinction and evolution. My geologist colleagues tell me that the science is impeccable. The RE department is equally at ease with its overtly theocentric approach.

This volume has all the hallmarks of a classic. One of the most impressive children’s books I have reviewed in recent years.

It is easy to see why the publishers have produced a new version of a volume familiar to primary-school RE teachers, assembly takers, and leaders of church family services. Creative Ways to Tell a Bible Story is brimming with ideas, but based on an easily understandable framework. The author describes it as a “way in, way through, way out” strategy (opening up a story, telling it, and exploring its meaning).

The “way in” invariably involves a game with groups in a circle and changing places as and when. But don’t be put off by a fear of mayhem; flash cards with key words would serve equally well if control is an issue.

Helpfully, there is a final section, suggesting a programme for “A Year of Bible Stories”, using the stories explored in the book. In all, there are 36 lesson/assembly plans. Familiar Bible stories presented in an attractive and readily accessible format. Primary RE in 2023? Sorted. Just the thing for a teacher’s Sunday-evening panic. If, however, schools find this approach too conservative in 2023, there is an ideal companion volume to hand. . .

The starting point in Scriptural Reasoning for Primary Schools is very familiar. Stories of all kinds are a significant part of the primary curriculum. As above. The driving force behind this pamphlet, however, is to bring together three sacred texts, from three different faith communities. The group would then form “a collaborative community of enquiry”.

Take “How the world began”, for example. The fundamental principle is made clear from the outset. “The important aspect of the texts used in scriptural reasoning is that they should be significant carriers of meaning for the participants.”

It has increasingly become common practice for schools, finding themselves in small leafy towns, to seek to partner with inner-city schools with a radically different pupil intake. Until Covid brought the process to a shuddering halt, the results were wholly positive. Children in such circumstances can happily learn from each other, explore the differences in a non-confrontational manner, and, most importantly, build friendships. Church schools with a high proportion of children from families adhering to other faiths are in an ideal position to follow this process.

As always with Grove Books, the pamphlet is packed with really useful information. For example, I confess that I had never heard of Gordon Allport, his intergroup contact theory, and the four key conditions for positive interactions, and yet I cannot imagine a better foundation to achieve positive outcomes from inter-group discussion. All this help for £3.95. What’s not to like?

Interfaith discussion groups in the settings envisaged in the above volume would certainly welcome More Than Words: Promoting race equality and tackling racism in schools, a thoroughly researched and professional volume.

“Woke” has been around as an emotive term far longer than most of us think. It originated among African-Americans in the 1940s to mean “actively aware of issues of racial injustice”. It has now been adopted for use in debates about social injustice as well — usually, it has to be said, with negative overtones.

The authors, members of the Equali’Teach consultancy, are advocating longer-term strategies rather than short-term fixes: nothing less than shifting the dial in relation to race, much as schools have done in relation to homophobia.

More than Words is a comprehensive guide as to how to embark on the process. The goal: to create safer and more inclusive environments for all.

We can start the process by accepting the author’s challenge to reflect on our own practices and preconceptions. The ultimate goal is to inspire and empower the next generation to develop anti-racist value systems. It’s already happening. My daughter quizzed me as to why I seemed to assume that the history of Australia began in 1774, and why I always referred to my British friends living abroad as expats and not immigrants. Good question.

Published to mark the 30th anniversary of Schumacher College UK, Regenerative Learning: Nurturing people and caring for the planet is a collection of inspiring, prizewinning essays inviting contributors to focus on climate change and sustainability.

Head teachers will love it for some brilliant quotes. Geographers and ecologists, among others, will appreciate the conviction behind it. RS teachers will relish a volume which provides such a thought-provoking context for their lessons on the Christian concept of stewardship.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Sir Anthony Seldon is one of the contributors, long known for his angst that the current market-driven ethos in schools is damaging to the well-being and happiness of students. His ten ideas for reimagining schools are a classic Seldon manifesto. Wonderful stuff.

The prize-winning essay, “To value a wasp”, is written by Matthew Carmichael, a Yorkshire teacher of English. I must declare an interest here, as he is a former student of mine. He subtitles his essay with a quote from Rabbi Herschel: “Humanity will be saved by not more information, but by more appreciation.”

Matthew’s critique of our current system is based on his 22 years of teaching at Roundhay School, in Leeds, where he felt he was being asked to think of children as “milk bottles on a conveyor belt”. His task? To be part of a “learning factory”, filling the children with the knowledge and skills to vie with each other in a fiercely competitive jobs market. To understand Matthew’s lovely classroom anecdote about the wasp and his students, you will need to read the book.

I should add that the foreword was written by Pope Francis. I should also add (although the school may I wish hadn’t), that the best-known former student at Roundhay School, Leeds, is a certain Liz Truss. Say no more.


God Made the Dinosaurs
M. and C. Carroll
SPCK £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.69


Creative Ways to Tell a Bible Story
Martyn Payne
BRF £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.99 (New Edition 2022)


Scriptural Reasoning for Primary Schools
Anne M. Moseley
Grove Books, £3.95


More Than Words: Promoting race equality and tackling racism in schools
Sarah Soyei and Kate Hollinshead
Jessica Kingsley Publishers £15.99
Church Times Bookshop £14.39


Regenerative Learning: Nurturing people and caring for the planet
Satish Kumar and L. Howarth, editors
Global Resilience £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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