Teaching christianity at key stages I and 2 Alison Seaman

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Alison Seaman

Deputy Director, National Society’s R.E. Centre, London

Many of the teachers I work with feel

they simply do not know where to

start when it comes to planning their

religious education programme, and in

particular when teaching Christianity. In each

of the National Curriculum subjects a broad

outline of content is prescribed nationally. For

religious education it is necessary to consult

the local Agreed Syllabus (or for church

schools, the Diocesan Syllabus) for some

initial guidance. Syllabuses, however, vary in

style and content, some giving much more

detailed information and support than others.

The publication of the RE model syllabuses

from SCAA marks the first attempt to provide

some national guidelines for teaching the

world’s major faiths.
If you feel at a loss as to where to begin with

teaching Christianity, the SCAA materials

provide a useful bank of information to refer

to. It is important, however, to remember that

the syllabuses are not intended for use as

teaching programmes, but they do represent a

consensus of opinion, from a wide range of

Christian groups, on the essential ingredients

of Christian belief and practice. For example,

in the Faith Communities Working Group

Report,(1) the Christian working group have

chosen five main content areas for each key

stage, under the headings: God; Jesus; The

Church; The Bible; and The Christian Way of

Life. This is by no means the only way the

content could be organised, but it does provide

a useful structure to work from.
It is a useful activity to compare your planning

documents for RE with another area of the

curriculum. For example, is Christianity taught

according to plans that ensure progression and

development throughout the key stages? It is

essential to apply the same

academic rigour to religious

education as we would in

maths, or science or history

if pupils are to deepen their

knowledge and understanding

of Christian belief

and practice. Again, the

model syllabuses (2) (3)

provide exemplars which

illustrate a broad and

balanced range of content

organised in a way which

ensures development an

progression. They also en-

courage a move away from

a rather ‘ad hoc’ approach

to teaching Christianity; the

popular Bible stories and

Christian festivals can still

be found, but they are

placed within the context of

key Christian beliefs and

Teachers often express

their concern about having

to teach complex Christian

ideas, that they themselves do not understand,

to young children. The model syllabuses

illustrate how Christian beliefs can be taught

in ways appropriate to the experience and

understanding of pupils at Key Stage 1 and 2,

providing firm foundations for a development

of these ideas at later Key Stages.

In spite of all of this very positive and helpful

support from the model syllabuses, the

teaching of Christianity is still shrouded in

thick mists of misconception and misunderstanding.

Frequently, teachers relate to

me their experiences of staff meetings where

discussions about teaching Christianity have

become highly charged arguments, leading to

no positive outcome. Teachers find it difficult

to detach themselves from the subject material

in the way they can for other areas of the

curriculum; personal feelings about religious

issues in general or Christianity in particular

can be a real obstacle to creative and enjoyable

teaching. Refuge is often found in a few

familiar Bible stories or a superficial

exploration of the major Christian festivals.

Before tackling the “what” to teach in

Christianity at Key Stages 1 and 2, it is

important to clear some of the mist

surrounding the subject. To make use of a

common analogy, we need to lay down some

of our baggage about teaching Christianity

in the primary school.

Many teachers are still unsure of the role of

Christianity in the religious education of

pupils and fear they are being asked to

convert or nurture pupils in the faith.

They can be reassured that evangelism of any

kind is inappropriate in the classroom. In

the recent Government circular on

religious education it is stated that Agreed

Syllabuses should not be vehicles for

religious conversion, and that they should “not

urge a particular religion or religious belief on

children”(4). It is also important to emphasise

the educational justification for teaching

Christianity, not only to develop the pupils’

knowledge and understanding of the faith, but

also to give them the language to discuss

freely and informatively; to enable pupils to

make critical evaluations from an informed

In a group of teachers I was working with

recently, two of them expressed their fears

about influencing their impressionable young

pupils with their own beliefs, but for

diametrically opposed reasons: one because he

was a devout Christian, the other because she

was an atheist. This fear of indoctrination led

them both to avoiding teaching Christianity

whenever possible. It could be argued that this

kind of avoidance, albeit with the best

intentions, deprives children of their right to

learn about Christianity; is this not a kind of

indoctrination of ignorance?
Perhaps the most important strategy is to try to

approach teaching Christianity in the same

way as any other area of the curriculum. This

may well require stepping back or detaching

ourselves from the material we teach. Looking

at the language we use can help this process.

When teaching about Christian beliefs and

practices it is more appropriate to adopt the

position of observer; rather than talking about

“our” beliefs or “our” prayers, saying ‘this is

what a Christians believe” or “this is a prayer

that is important for Christians” It is also

worth consulting the teaching materials

produced by the RE Department at

Birmingham University called A Gift to the

Child (5) in which “entering and distancing

devices” are explored to enable pupils to be

actively involved in sharing beliefs as part of

their religious education.
Teachers need to be clear about what is

required of them when teaching Christianity. It

is important to explore ways in which it is

possible to teach about Christian beliefs while

maintaining the integrity of both teachers and

pupils. Firstly, create opportunities for

anxieties about teaching Christianity to be

aired freely. To guide your discussions and to

provide a helpful structure try the activities

suggested in Eggshells and Thunderbolts:

Teacher Resource Manual called “talking

Frankly” and “Finding a Way Forward.”(6)

Secondly, be reassured that it is not necessary

to be a practising Christian to teach

Christianity. Primary school teachers have long

been willing to tackle all subjects in the

curriculum, and it has been part of a teacher’s

professional responsibility to develop

knowledge and understanding of a curriculum

area. Teachers are not expected to be nuclear

physicists to teach the primary science

curriculum, or eminent historians to tackle

history at Key Stages 1 and 2.
Thirdly, it is easy to forget that Christianity is

a faith practised throughout the world, and one

of immense diversity. It would be impossible

to represent every style and approach but it

would not be educationally sound to reproduce

old unchallenged stereotypes. Children, in

even the most isolated parts of the country will

encounter religious diversity through

television, video, books, and often through

their own experiences when travelling on

holiday. It is important for pupils to

understand that Christians are not rigidly tied

to geographical areas or cultural groups.
When we are teaching about Christianity we

should aim to give a balanced picture which

avoids distortion and caricature. The examples

we give, the images and artefacts we use

should reflect the fact that no two groups of

Christians are alike and that there are no hard

and fast rules. Some aspects of Christianity are

flamboyant and visibly or audibly attractive,

some aspects are less obviously eye catching,

but are of no less value or importance. There is

always a temptation to present more exotic or

sensational aspects of Christian tradition

without giving due consideration to the

appropriateness of the content or the

underlying significance and meaning for adherents.

Finally, we should always be aware that the

cultural and historical significance of

Christianity in the Western world can

sometimes lead to Christianity being seen as

merely an historical phenomenon and

something that is not relevant in the

contemporary world. However, our pupils are

entitled to know of Christianity as a living

faith which is a significant force in the lives of

many people in the world today.

1 Model Syllabuses: Faith Communities’ Working

Group Reports. SCAA ref. RE/941064
2 Model Syllabuses: Model 1 - Living Faiths Today.

SCAA ref. RE/941062

3 Model Syllabuses: Model 2 - Questions and

Teachings. SCAA ref. RE/94/063

4 DFE Circular 1/94 paragraph 32 page 15
5 A Gift to the Child. M. Grimmitt et al. Simon &

Schuster (1991)

6 Eggshells and Thunderbolts. BBC Education and

Culham College Institute.

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