Pupils are flocking to study religious education, a subject which until now has been seen as irredeemably unfashionable and the preserve of the sandal-wearing brigade. Last year an extra 1,000 students took religious studies GCSE, and 800 more opted for the A-level course than the year before.
This often-neglected corner of the curriculum is also enjoying new prominence thanks to Gordon Brown's recruitment of religious education teachers to the fight against terrorism. He believes that their ability to teach diversity and faith is essential to developing a tolerant society that can resist extremism.
The Prime Minister's new-found faith in RE comes hot on the heels of another big coup for the subject. Ian Jamison, the flamboyantly-dressed head of RE from Kingsbridge Community College, in Devon, won this year's secondary school teacher of the year award at the National Teaching Awards.
More schools are putting pupils in for RE exams, and the pupils are lapping it up. "Whenever I come out of RE my head is exploding with questions and my whole body aches – this is not because I don't understand – it is because I'm buzzing with new thoughts," one 12-year-old girl told the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE) in answer to a website survey.
It's easy to see why. Today's children are growing up in a world beset by problems, and yet have few opportunities to consider the big questions of life. They are under pressure from tests and targets in school, and bombarded by commercial messages outside. They are growing up in a world in which the consolations and certainties of church-going have faded, but where fears about climate change and terrorism stalk the headlines. In such choppy waters, RE can be the steadying influence pupils badly need.
"Although RE is not about being religious, it is about establishing yourself as a person," Ian Jamison emphasises. "It's about knowing that you think, and being aware of what others think. What I want is for all my pupils to be able to explain themselves. To be able to say: this is what I think, and why I think it. Too often they are just led by their peer group and their standard response to anything they are presented with is: "That's rubbish." Well, fine. But I want them to be able to tell me why it's rubbish."
Religious education has been a part of classroom life since before state schooling began and has gone through many incarnations. Dull Bible lessons slowly gave way to lessons that introduced pupils to the Five Pillars of Islam or the Five Ks of Sikhism. These have led to more flexible and interactive courses of study, in which pupils examine how religious beliefs interact with moral, ethical and cultural issues. What remains unchanged is the fact that RE is compulsory. It is part of the basic curriculum that all registered school pupils are taught alongside the national curriculum.
RE syllabuses are set out by local education authorities after consultation with local faith groups and teachers. Pupils learn about the major religions, but syllabuses must, by law, reflect the fact that religious traditions in Great Britain are Christian. Voluntary-aided faith schools must also provide RE, but can follow their own guidelines. Three years ago, new national guidelines for RE syllabuses were set out by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, emphasising the importance of children being introduced to all the main faiths, but teaching is patchy, says Ofsted. Gordon Brown is now promoting cross-faith teaching in the world's religions. Without it, he fears, more children will become prey to extremist messages, while others will retreat into distrust of other faiths, leading to an increasingly fractured and unstable society. He is likely to be helped in his plans by an upturn in the recruitment of RE teachers. "And they are coming from a range of backgrounds," says Rosemary Rivett, executive officer of NATRE, "not just theology."
"I believe we do have an increasing role in the current climate," says Helen Cairns, head of RE at The Chalfonts Community College, in Buckinghamshire. "We can challenge the messages that pupils get from the media, promote debate, and ask any of the big questions, such as: can you be a spiritual person without being religious? Why are we here? What is your purpose in life? It's all to do with their personal development."
Another award-winning teacher – Cairns was voted outstanding new teacher in the South of England in this year's National Teaching Awards – she has experimented by turning her classroom into a Sikh gurdwara, encouraging pupils to discover their own way of praying, organised the cooking of kosher food, and helped pupils reflect on how concepts like forgiveness apply in everyday life.
"RE is also very good for helping pupils learn to communicate and how to listen," she says. "They learn to listen to someone else's opinion and compare it to their own in a respectful way."
Last year her school had its largest-ever cohort of students taking RE at GCSE, as well as a 14 per cent increase in the number of students taking the short course that leads to a half-GCSE.
Ian Jamison's pupils also do well in exams, but he aims to help them keep perspective. "Children today are under such a lot of pressure to succeed. They come in with the attitude, 'You're the teacher. We require answers to pass exams. Give them to us.' But I tell them that tests are such a tiny part of life.
"RE gives them quiet, space, the chance to be themselves, and the realisation that there is not always a right answer to things, that lots of people have come up with different answers to the same question."
He also points out that it is an excellent subject for any pupil who wants to go on to work with people, and noticeboards in his department depict former students who now work in high-flying jobs in counter-terrorism and business.
Cairns agrees that it is a valuable tool. "Our pupils are going to travel the world. They aren't necessarily going to work in this country. They need to understand other people's cultures and religions."
She sees great opportunities for RE opening up under the new, flexible secondary school curriculum, launched this summer, which offers increased scope for subject collaboration. "We could have RE and design technology, RE and physics. Why not?"
From Hinduism and Buddhism to the Holocaust and abortion
From the top of his skinny pigtail to the tips of his red cowboy boots, Ian Jamison is different from the average teacher, and his arrival at Kingsbridge Community College, in south Devon, eight years ago, brought a blast of fresh air to a subject that all under-16s study in this 1,200-strong comprehensive.
In his classes, pupils are introduced to religious groups from Pagans to the Salvation Army, and have a hands-on experience of pilgrimage when they walk up Glastonbury Tor and meditate on top.
He has taken a group of sixth-formers to India, to study Hinduism and Buddhism, and plans a similar trip next year. In class, pupils might be asked to try practising loving kindness towards other people for a day – "some said they were amazed at how differently people treated them," he says.
He refuses to mark work on the Holocaust, arguing it would be inappropriate, and instead encourages pupils to create a personal response to their encounter with evil and suffering. "One boy came in with a tree in a pot. He had traced all the online records of members of his family who had died in the Holocaust, printed them off, torn them up, made a mulch out of them and grown three trees, one for his garden and two for the gardens of his family in Europe. I've been in tears, at times, at the things they've done."
In lessons that are fast-paced and collaborative, he encourages pupils to know their stuff, and to discover their own opinions. With a sixth-form philosophy class he skilfully runs through comparisons between Descartes and Ramanuja. "You see the whole point of Buddhism is that it put two fingers up to Hinduism saying, 'No, you're wrong'...."
After lunch he quizzes a class of Year 10 students about Christian attitudes to abortion. Then he prepares Year Nine students, who are studying conflict, to watch the film 'The Mission'.
His unique style and deep knowledge help to put pupils through their religious education GCSE in half the usual time. The subject is popular at A-level, and about one- third of students go on to study related subjects at university.
"I really like RE," says Scott Tytheridge, 13. "People think it has to be all based on God, but you don't have to support God to be interested." HWReuse content