Religion, culture and diversity

Written by: Phil Champain | Published:
Creative: An image from a recent Faith & Belief Forum workshop (image: Faith & Belief Forum)

Today more than ever primary schools need to adopt an interesting and creative approach to teaching issues relating to diversity and difference, argues Phil Champain

In July, we celebrated Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday. “Education” as he put it nearly 30 years ago “is the most powerful weapon for changing the world”.

Helping leadership teams in the UK’s primary schools find the time, and skill so children can really learn about different belief systems and their commonalities is one way we can live up to Mandela’s vision for a better world. What Mandela won’t have predicted in the 1990s is the way in which society has become more diverse in respect of faith and belief. In this sense it has never been more necessary for primary-age children to understand the perspective of different religions and cultures, beyond traditions and symbols.

The start of a new term presents some great opportunities to start thinking about different approaches and techniques to give children an interesting and creative focus on faith and belief diversity.

Think of diversity and religious character

For the first time in the UK, a majority (according to the 2018 British Social Attitudes Survey) identify with no religion but are not necessarily secular. We are certainly seeing a shift that former education and home secretary Charles Clarke and academic Linda Woodhead have described as “the single biggest change in the religious and cultural landscape of Britain for centuries”.

This requires a paradigm shift in the way we cover religions and cultures in schools. If communities are really going to be able to tackle stubborn and pervasive divisions that stem from stereotyping based on religious and cultural difference then schools must be given the space and opportunity to use more creative methods and approaches that can prevent prejudices passing from generation to generation.

Not just something for RE

Consider a holistic approach. As we have seen reported in the press of late, RE is often neglected in schools. Yes, it can be covered by collective worship or thought together and a cursory lesson a week, but those able to teach it are in short supply and often hard-pressed. Parents can also exercise their right to withdraw children from RE, which presents schools with an additional headache.

The Faith & Belief Forum takes the view that all questions exploring differences between varied religious and non-religious beliefs are meaningful. With this in mind, there is value in starting young and engaging primary children in ways that open up, rather than close down dialogue.

For example, in our Art of Asking programme we teach young people how to question others about their beliefs and value systems to get the information they need without making anyone feel alienated or attacked.

Another popular approach is to bring speakers from a range of faith and belief perspectives into schools to tell their stories, and to provide a trained professional facilitator to ensure the right learning takes place, as well as to create a safe space in which to have conversations. Done this way young people and their teachers can receive and explore carefully considered answers to their questions.

Challenging the labels that divide

The primary years present a relatively short period of time where it is possible to teach children that we are all different and we can get along; the theory goes that if you start communicating this from the ages of six to 11 when children are still developing their beliefs and values, then they will be better informed and more able to understand and express their own identities and treat others without prejudice in later life.

The benefits of understanding different faiths and beliefs are clear. Not least they include the ability to counter divisive narratives in the media and to better connect with others in society. The place for this is mostly seen as RE, PSHE or citizenship but, as mentioned above, time for lessons can be limited. There is a need for education policy to support schools in creating the space, skills and resources needed to teach young people what they need to learn and understand in this area.

While primary schools can’t be expected to tackle single-handedly the root of religious discrimination in our society, faith and belief-led engagement is becoming an accepted way to help young people build the necessary religious literacy, empathy, and communication skills for later life. We all want to stop prejudices passing from generation to generation. Dedicating a few hours in the term to planting the seed of thoughtful dialogue in young minds is a great place to start.

  • Phil Champain has built a 20-year career in the NGO sector and today leads interfaith charity, the Faith & Belief Forum.

Faith & Belief Forum

The Faith & Belief Forum runs education and arts programmes. For primary schools in particular it offers teacher training support, moderated workshops, and opportunities for pupils to meet people of different faiths. It also offers a school linking scheme run in partnership with The Linking Network, which helps children engage with pupils in other schools in their communities that they might otherwise not meet. Visit https://faithbeliefforum.org/programmes/


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