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How to take lessons beyond the classroom

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As the new school year gets underway, Paul Haynes, project director of REinspired, explains how the charity is helping pupils get more out of RE

What are your memories of Religious Education (RE) in school? As a child of the 70s I remember very little, apart from a few Bible stories. It was lifeless.

 

Maybe it’s my age, but more likely it’s because
I didn’t have teachers who were passionate about the subject. There are plenty of people who enjoyed RE, but my experience seems common. Forty years on, and schools have changed enormously. So has RE.
RE is a compulsory subject in schools and Christianity has to be taught throughout. But RE is often misunderstood and the subject of some controversy. Many atheists wish it wasn’t there claiming it aims to persuade children to believe in God. Many Christians think it misses the mark precisely because it fails to do that.
Dismissing RE misses the point, and devalues a unique learning opportunity for children and one where people of faith are uniquely able to contribute significantly to the education of a future generation.
Life in Britain today has been shaped by our Christian heritage and continues to be shaped by the diverse faiths of our increasingly multi-cultural society. You cannot understand our society without understanding these influences – let alone hope to change it for the better.
At its heart, RE is not about any particular faith. Nor is it simply about comparing and contrasting religions. True, it does enable children to gain awareness and understanding of a broad range of religious beliefs and practice. More importantly, we think, this is in the context of enquiring into bigger questions such as “Do people who believe in God lead better lives?”
To answer such abstract questions pupils first need to understand concepts such as “belief” and “better” before they can look at a religion and how its beliefs and practices lead to behaviours in everyday life. Only then can pupils answer the question with any justification, and only then can they reflect on what a good life would mean to them personally. Does that sound like a tough ask?
It’s a more profound question than most of us would ask of children in church. It’s just one of the questions on the RE syllabus that primary schools must cover.
More than ever before, this aim of learning from religion is at the heart of the new RE syllabus being rolled out across Berkshire over the next year. And more than ever before, teachers are looking to faith communities to help them. There are some amazing digital teaching resources.
Reading Museum has a collection of religious artefacts that schools can borrow. These are great for learning about religion. But learning from religion is quite different – it needs living artefacts: people of faith who can tell their story, discuss how their faith influences their thinking and action, and answer questions children have as best they can – and children have plenty of questions not in the text books.
For well over a decade churches in Earley and East Reading have been working with schools to help children understand Christianity from the inside. Under the REINSPIRED banner, we deliver over 100 lessons to 10 primary local schools, seeing most of the 4,600 pupils twice a year.
At Maiden Erlegh School we see another 580 pupils as we deliver lessons on Holy Week to pupils in year 7 and on Christian Diversity to pupils in year 8. We employ three part-time team leaders to coordinate this work but we couldn’t do it without our volunteers who between them spent 1,200 hours in schools last year.
More than 80 volunteers from Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, URC, Baptist and independent churches work together to help children enquire about questions such as “Why is belonging to a church important to Christians?” To answer that question you need to find out what it means to belong to a church. There’s no better way to learn that than by talking to ordinary Christians in a church setting where you can explore fonts and baptisteries, communion tables and altars, crosses and crucifixes. And ask any question you like.
It brings faith to life. It brings RE to life. And that’s just what teachers appreciate so much. They can help pupils make sense of what they see and hear, but in an increasingly secular society fewer teachers can confidently answer the questions themselves with authority or conviction.
There are now well established groups of churches working with schools in the same way in Woodley, Caversham and beyond. Founder and former minister at Anderson Baptist Church, David Skinner has started a group in Bedfordshire where he is now a minister. Maggie Thorne, curate at Earley St Peters until the end of last year, is setting up a project in her parish in Oxford.
We are also talking to churches across the country with the aim of helping them support RE in their local schools.
The new pan-Berkshire RE syllabus which was launched in June provides more opportunities than ever before for churches to get involved in supporting RE. We’ve already had enquiries from schools beyond our catchment area that we are unable to help unless more churches are willing to look beyond the walls of their own church and engage with their local schools. All you need are a few volunteers who are comfortable in the company of children and willing to tell their story and answer their questions sensitively. REINSPIRED can help you with the rest – come along to our RE Matters taster day on Saturday, September 29 and we’ll show you that it’s not rocket science.
If you’re in a church in one of the areas where we work, or your children or grandchildren go to school there why not join us? If not, but you are excited by the opportunities we’d love to talk to you about how we could help churches where you are support your local schools.
To find out more or to arrange to see one of our lessons, call us on (0118) 966 3929 or email office@reinspired.org.uk. Alternatively, come along to our annual celebration evening at St William of York Roman Catholic Church, Upper Redlands Road from 7.30pm on Thursday, October 4.

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