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School opts for multi-faith approach: Fran Abrams finds east London pupils being given an insight into several beliefs

TOP CLASSES at Malmesbury Junior School in Bow, east London, are learning about Sue Ryder in religious education this week. The founder of charity shops for the sick and disabled comes under the heading of 'Caring for other people'.

Malmesbury has children from almost every religion among its pupils, including Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. The Christian creation story is taught alongside those of other faiths, and each child visits a Sikh and Hindu temple, a mosque and a synagogue, as well as a church during his or her four years at the school.

Doreen Franks, the school's religious education co-ordinator, believes it obeys the law that religious education should be 'in the main Christian'.

'Attitudes such as friendship, kindness, generosity and charity go through most religions. Christianity tells you to 'love thy neighbour', so we are basically looking through the eyes of Christianity even if we are studying another religion,' she said.

She is worried about the demand in the new syllabuses that pupils aged seven to eleven should learn about Christianity and just two other religions. At Malmesbury, the 300 pupils learn about six religions.

'To study the geography and history of this area, you would need to do the French Huguenots, Jewish immigrants, Irish Catholics, Afro-Caribbeans and now the Somalis. The Sikhs have been here since the 1940s. It would be an insult to them to ignore them - they are part of Tower Hamlets,' she said.

Although every class at the school spends between 45 minutes and an hour each week on RE, many of the lessons are about basic values rather than Christianity. Malmesbury bases its RE policy on a syllabus drawn up by the now defunct Inner London Education Authority, under which children learn social skills such as respect for others, and moral values such as the difference between right and wrong, and compare different faiths.

The headteacher, Michael Russell, does not think it is the school's job to reinforce Christian or other beliefs.

'We are not a synagogue, a mosque or a church. We are a school, and children come here with a rich range of experiences,' he said. 'What we can do is to get them to reflect on their own circumstances and to reflect the major themes such as birth, death and separation.'

Most Malmesbury parents supported its approach to RE, he said, though one mother did complain that her child had been asked to sing 'Bengali songs' in a pre- Christmas concert. Mr Russell did not have the heart to tell her that the song in question was 'Jingle Bells', sung in French.

(Photograph omitted)