A new Catholic-run RE development trust with unique funding from the city goes public next week when it launches a Primary RE programme which takes the hot debate over 'Here I Am' a stage further. Murray White speaks exclusively to the author.
WHEN THE ENGLISH Catholic bishops fearful that RE would be marginalised during the launch of the National Curriculum issued a manifesto in 1988 to support the subject, they may not quite have realised the consequences of what they were saying.
Religious Education is "not one subject among many but the foundation of the entire educational process," said the Bishops. "It should provide the context for, and substantially shape, the school curriculum."
Seen at the time as merely an attack on Margaret Thatcher's market-driven National Curriculum, with its overburdening emphasis on science, technology and modern languages, the statement may turn out, seven years later, to be a defining moment in the evolving role of the Catholic school in Britain.
For some of those at the cutting edge of Catholic education, like Sr Judith Russi, Hertfordshire Schools RE adviser for the Westminster Diocese, it proved to be a catalyst which fundamentally challenged their view of schools policy.
The St Mary of Namur nun explains: "Before the 1970s, the philosophy of Catholic education was simply 'a Catholic school place for every Catholic child'." RE in this simple context had its emphasis on simply teaching the basics of the faith, and little formal thought went into the relevance of Catholic life in other parts of the curriculum.
Not only are Catholic schools themselves waking up to the challenges of a more complex world, but the last decade of Government education reform has tried unsuccessfully, many Catholics argue to promote Spiritual and Moral Development across the curriculum.
The problem, Sr Judith suggests, is that outside the Voluntary Aided sector it is extremely hard to define "roots or traditions" from which Moral and Spiritual education is able to draw.
Her response to the bishops' and the legislators' challenges is published next week in the form of Children of the Promise, an extensive new RE resource programme for Catholic primary schools and a computerised curriculm planner which places RE and spiritual development at the heart of the curriculum. It is likely to reignite a keenly fought debate over the direction of RE, which has hardly settled after arguments over Here I Am a few years ago.
It is a debate which goes to the heart of what Catholic schooling should be: should we be "passing on the faith" or 'teaching about different religions and where Catholicism is just one piece in the complex multi-faith jigsaw'?
It may be a simplistic comparison, but Children of the Promise fits somewhere between the traditionalist approach of the "Veritas" programme currently in use in some dioceses and the (Bishops' Conference-backed) RE National Project's more progressive Here I Ant package. In the big debate, its emphasis is on giving Catholic youngsters both the tools of their Church and the skills to ask questions of the world around them.
The big departure for Children of the Promise is that for the flip time it crosses the boundaries beyond RE itself. It provides both a series of RE textbooks and a set of key pointers towards the rest of the school's academic work.
Sr Judith explains: "Current RE. programmes are good but we need more. RE is not one subject among many. Our beliefs and values must substantially shape and inspire every aspect of the curriculum."
In this spirit and lamenting the drought of Catholic think-tanks or research bodies which might ensure that such ideas would ever get turned into practical resources, a group of Herts-based headteachers a few years ago set about forming their own initiative.
Their aim was to bring to fruition a programme which took an intuitive Catholic understanding a faith and life across all subjects of the curriculum.
The result was the foundation last year of the Hertfordshire Religious Education Development Trust (HREDT), an independently-run body, which none-the less has the backing of Bishop James O'Brien, Westminster's auxiliary for the county, and Kathleen O'Gorman, an education adviser to Cardinal Hume the two are patrons of the Trust.
HREDT, for whom Sr Judith is a special consultant, goes public next week with the launch of Children of the Promise. A simultaneous curriculum planner computer package, developed by software company Key Solutions RM, and an accompanying music book due out shortly, add to what promises to be a formidable package.
Centred around the liturgical cycle, the programme's specific RE content develops a natural rhythm around the Church's main feasts, and then offers areas of study on moral values which cross into other subjects. There is important emphasis in the content which covers the Sacraments, the Creed and forms of prayer. Keen to measure up to the demands of the National Curriculum, the package breaks new ground with its explicit list of key attainment targets based on the NBRIA document, Broad Areas of Attainment.
This emphasis on teaching and attainment, Sr Judith says, naturally stresses a knowledge and understanding of Catholicism rather than trying to measure faith. But it does realise there is a point behind all the facts.
"We should be producing children who will be agents of change," she says. "We need to ask how we are going to equip our children for all the challenges they will face in the future.
"This is why I think that the whole 'education for the market' philosophy' is such rubbish tomorrow's leaders need to use and adapt and where necessary challenge and transform the world around them, not just be fodder for the system."
For IIREDT, Children of the Promise is just a beginning. Taking the Bishops' 1988 cross-curricular philosophy as its starting point, the Trust aims to spearhead research in the underdeveloped world of curriculum planning within a Christian context. It hopes to offer badlyneeded in-service training facilities for teachers on moral and spiritual education and eventually expand its array of textbooks and resources for schools.
A sideline in multi-cultural education will also be exploited. Teachers will have the chance to take part in exchange programmes to schools in for now Canada and Gambia, to foster a better understanding of Third World issues and the unique perspectives of the North American system. A pilot exchange programme has already seen a majority of Hert fordshire's own Catholic heads spend two week periods in Canadian schools.
None of these plans are particularly cheap. An injection of cash from the City the Bank of Ireland sponsored 'Children of the Promise' to the tune of £10,000, while the HREDT's financial steering group is now courting businessmen for future projects may provide the kind of stability which has seen other similar and worthy ventures flounder in the past.
"You cannot do development on a shoestring," argues Sr Judith. She believes that it is possible to bring "the best of the city to the best of the Church" without muddying the waters of Christian mission. The Trust has found a receptive ear among the moneymakers who see a primary role of organisations like HREDT on a secular level as protecting that great economic stabiliser, the family.
It is a brave philosophy. One which could have like that of the Bishops in 1988 unforeseen comequences for Catholic education as it goes into the 21st century.
"Children of the Promise" by Sr Judith Russi SSMN and the Hertfordshire RE Development Trust is published next Friday by Hodder and Stoughton. A trial pack of six pupils books and a teacher's handbook costs ‘39.99.