Case Study 3: Schools event in Maldon, Essex
Here, the Regional Facilitator, Claude Muya, worked with schools to look at how to bring people of different faiths together locally, so that they can contribute to community cohesion, discuss and take action on the shared global issues that link us all. The contact to develop the event came through someone involved in OWW locally in the past, who knew of schools that might be interested – showing the importance of personal contacts. The project took place in Maldon, Essex, which is perceived as a white, Christian, middleclass community. The school taking the lead on this OWW project was St Francis Catholic Primary School. The other school involved is Maldon Primary School. According to Mrs M Mann, the Assistant Head teacher, two other schools willing to take part were Maldon Court and Maldon County. Other schools showed interest after the initial events: All Saints School and Wentworth School. The event was reported in the Maldon & Burnham Standard Newspaper of 31st January 2008.
The event consisted of:
A display of art, craft, holy books, literature, symbols, ceremonial clothes, traditional clothes, from some of the main religions represented in Great Britain, notably: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, Buddhism.
Storytelling from countries and religions from around the world, carried out by teachers, parents and guests from various religions.
A BBC video show presenting different religions.
A “Touch and Try” session allowing people, especially children to touch, feel and try various religious objects displayed.
Because Maldon is perceived as a white, Christian, middleclass community, the project gave an opportunity to think about:
• What knowledge do participants have of other faith groups?
• Have they an image of other faith groups which is different from the stereotypes portrayed by the media?
• How can they reach out to other faith communities?
• How can these get together across perceived boundaries and come together to learn from each other?
• What instrument within the community can allow this learning to take place?
The feedback from the event was positive:
A teacher of RE commented that she thought that this was the best way to teach children, especially in a Roman Catholic school; she was impressed by the interest shown by children.
Children asked questions that showed that they wanted to learn more about other religions. “Why do Muslims bow down to worship?”, “Why do Jews not eat pork?”
The Touch and Try Session facilitated learning. “Seeing art crafts from other religions and touching them made learning easier. It was the visual effect that made the difference” (Mrs Thurston).
Story telling was a gentle way to talk about other religions and tackle stereotypes. “It gave children an idea of other religions which is different from the violence they hear talked about in the Medias” (Mrs Thurston).
Some parents admitted their ignorance of other religions and claimed to have learnt a lot during this OWW event. “As an adult I didn’t know anything about Sikh religion” (Mrs Barker).
Other schools in Maldon are showing interest in this experience. It is possible that this model will be replicated.
There was only one OWW event taking place at school in this area; now there are at least three schools involved.
Working with local schools could be a good way of reaching out to parents from other faith groups and bring people together for learning.
While it would seem that there was no explicit emphasis here on the international global dimension, there was an implicit understanding that this was a first step to getting the schools working together to explore issues. The organisers were in no doubt that this event offered the opportunity for some local schools to connect with each other and open up dialogue between them.
Indeed, feedback from Mrs Mary Mann, Assistant Head Teacher of St Francis Catholic Primary School suggests that it will lead on to further collaborative working:
“The School Council enjoyed their visit to Malden Primary School, and the children interacted well. It opened up dialogue between them… Following the day, they [the children] were able to suggest ways to develop and build on their experience.”
The challenge will be for these future events to build on this dialogue and interest around exploring faith, and channel it into exploration of international issues.
What we learned about... learning about faiths in a school setting, and with children
A school is a place where parents have the opportunity to meet regardless of their faith background.
Any member of the school community can be involved with school activities without feeling excluded or marginalised. And not only parents and carers – schools are increasingly involving their local residential and business communities in their activities.
A school offers learning opportunities for both parents and children and for all other members of the local community.
Claude’s experience with faith communities suggested that people are cautious about attending events organised by other faith groups which do not share their own religious convictions – the school setting is neutral and non-threatening.
The local library worked well as a partner in delivery as well as provider of resources
Having items to touch, feel and try on was a success. Children love kinaesthetic learning, and so do adults, secretly! But beware of artefacts being displayed as exotic or different – include the familiar and the unfamiliar, and don’t just think that by trying on a sari you are learning about issues facing Hindus.
Rather than professional story tellers, it is effective to draw stories from participants, parents and children, of what their faith means to them.
In the process of children learning, their families learn too.
Getting children talking is a great way of getting adults listening and talking to each other. Children become the thing in common that is shared across the different faith groups.
Schools are integrated into clusters, and feeder clusters etc, which is a good way of encouraging the spread effect.
Children can claim the ownership of this event: letters sent to parents and story tellers and contacts made with other schools were written and carried out by children.
School diaries can be very full up from the beginning of the year. Finding physical space and time for a new event within what is already a busy school agenda can be a challenging task. Think about it at least a term in advance.
What we learned about... working with a majority white Christian community
“Maldon isn’t a multi-faith or multiracial community; we don’t attract a lot of people” (Shirley, former teacher)
Exploring perceptions of other faiths is a good way to start – people may feel more able to say what they think about other faiths if it’s done in the more abstract – how are faiths portrayed in the media, for example.
Religious structure: identifying the religious structure of the community could provide useful information for defining a starting point.
Opportunity for making contacts: there are places, such as schools, where people from different faith groups have the opportunity to meet under circumstances other than religious activities.
Outreach agents: there are people, within the community, whose role and activities offer opportunities to connect with other faith groups and allow them to influence others (e.g. children at school, parents’ activities at school, parenting activities, leaders, etc.).
Interfaith messengers: a messenger carries the responsibility to teach the right values and provide the right information. He/she is the channel for community cohesion. This is the role played by story tellers, teachers, lecturers, etc.
A local school can, through pupils and parents, become a useful link between different faith groups. However, other ways of linking faith groups, such as sports, social clubs, etc, need to be explored.
If members of faith groups are given the responsibility of sharing the values of their own religion with others, it brings pride and gives them the opportunity to claim ownership of their community cohesion. At this OWW event in Maldon, parents have shown their pride in telling religious stories to children.
If there is a lack of commitment at the beginning, don’t give up easily. Sometimes, people need time to understand the project and see a successful outcome. The commitment will come and with it pride and joy for achieving something.
“Although, initially, members were not particularly committed to such a day, the feedback received from them, the children and adults who took part, was all very positive.” (Mrs Mary Mann, Assistant Head teacher)
The OWW Local Inter Faith Development Project national team acknowledge that this event developed into a valuable inter faith activity but did not really extend into a OWW event addressing global issues of shared concern, encouraging participants to take action. While it addressed British intercultural and inter faith issues it did not focus attention specifically on global issues. As we have seen before though, increased understanding and cohesion locally promotes the ability to develop a sense of global justice based on understanding rather than prejudice. While it is important that local OWW organisers do not switch their attention to interfaith activity as a substitute for addressing global poverty issues, this case study recognises that exploring faith diversity locally can be a way in to a more inclusive approach, and to exploring global justice issues.