CHOOSING AN UNHURRIED LIFE

Modern life is busy – crazy busy beyond anything that previous generations have experienced. Working life is a constant juggling act of emails, meetings, targets and deadlines. Our education service is imbued with the view that it’s all about wealth creation, as though our children are just so many potential economic units destined to live in servitude to the Gross Domestic Product.

What is the effect? Well, in our children, a bow wave of mental ill health that threatens to become a tsunami. And what example do we set our children as e-availability becomes a 24/7 demand? What time do we take to reflect on our lives? What spaces do we create to restore our souls?

During a radio broadcast a few months ago, I mentioned W H Davies’ poem ‘Leisure’, written over a hundred years ago, but more relevant now than ever. And that set me thinking about meditation and the value of stillness. Christian meditation is quite different from any other form of meditation because it involves focusing your mind on God rather than emptying it or thinking of yourself.

It has three components. First, it’s about reading Scripture and grounding thoughts in the Bible. Then it’s about responding to the love of God, before finally worshipping God as an outcome of our meditation. As I was reading Davies’ poem, each couplet brought to mind a verse from the Bible. Ponder on them; not to improve your wellbeing (although it may), or to improve your work output (although that may be an outcome, too) but just because God is.

What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare?

Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10).This is an imperative – we are told to be still. We are finite beings, but God is infinite. Stop, relax, empty your mind of where you are and what you’re doing (the finite) and focus on God (the infinite). You can do this any time, any place, for a moment or for a while. Just let go and let God.

No time to stand beneath the boughs, And stare as long as sheep and cows:

ask the animals and they will teach you … in his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind’ (Job 12:7,10). Job said this in the midst of terrible suffering. He told his comforters to let the birds tell them what was going on; to let the fish of the ocean tell their stories. He knew that God is sovereign. So stop, look, listen and focus on the sovereignty of God to which all of creation witnesses.

No time to see, when woods we pass, Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:

‘all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together’ (Colossians 1:16-17). Look at the created world to see the God who cannot be seen. God started it, God holds it all together every moment and in God we find our purpose.

No time to see, in broad daylight, Streams full of stars, like skies at night:

‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands’ (Psalm 19:1). God worked – he created the world. He still works – He holds the world together. His work declares His glory. All of creation points us to God. Make time to see God in some aspect of creation and allow it to proclaim God’s glory to you.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance, And watch her feet, how they can dance:

‘He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has … set eternity in the hearts of men’ (Ecclesiastes 3:11). God has planted eternity in our hearts and minds, a sense of purpose working through the ages which can only be fulfilled by God. Focus on God’s purpose for you in your work, your relationships and your leisure. Allow the beauty of God to shine through you to others.

No time to wait till her mouth can Enrich that smile her eyes began?

‘Worship the LORD in the splendour of his holiness’ (1 Chronicles 16:29). God is holy. He calls us to be holy. Allow the holiness of God to fill your mind and worship Him for the beauty and splendour that you see in God. Then as The Message Bible says: ‘Stand resplendent in his robes of holiness’.

A poor life this if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare.

Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted’ (Psalm 46:10).

During the summer break, take time to allow God to flood you with His love and to restore your soul. As the rush of your everyday life slows, practice stillness in the presence of the Lord and allow your heart and mind to be filled with the knowledge that He is God.

 

 

 

 

CAREERS ADVICE: SQUINTING THROUGH THE WRONG END OF THE TELESCOPE

Over the last few months, Ofsted inspectors have started to comment on the quality of careers advice and to use their observations to inform the final categorisation. The same thinking was picked up by the Sub-Committee on Education, Skills and the Economy this week. It has suggested formally reaching for the big stick, recommending that Ofsted should play a ‘bigger role’ in ensuring high quality careers guidance, including downgrading schools where it is not in evidence. The view is that the poor quality of careers advice is fuelling the country’s skills shortage.

Many of the report’s observations are valid – only 15% of apprentices find out about the opportunity through teachers or careers advisers. Too many past initiatives have made the system of advice complex and unwieldy. But even if those issues are fixed, it’s the underpinning philosophy which is fundamentally flawed. Nicky Morgan is keen to end the ‘outdated snobbery’ that surrounds apprenticeships and vocational training, yet the government continues to perpetuate the social attitudes from which that hierarchy of values stems. It is squinting through the wrong end of the telescope.

This government, perhaps more than any previous one, has taken the growth of the economy to the point of obsession. Nick Gibb is on record as saying that the purpose of education is to fuel the economy. Nicky Morgan plans to use tax data to create a database of earnings potential so that students can choose subjects to maximise their income. Living in a country which has one of the world’s strongest economies has its price and that includes the creation of a society which values people for what they possess and what they earn, not for who they are. Little wonder that the ‘outdated snobbery’ that Nicky Morgan eschews continues to create social hierarchies founded on money. The government is attempting to use education in general (and in this case, careers advice in particular) to treat the symptoms, rather than tackle the cause.

The economy is treated with reverential respect, as though it’s some kind of autonomous Minotaur that requires constant feeding in order to avert its wrath, rather than something which is of our own creating. That deity status is nowhere better exemplified than the post-Brexit hysteria and scapegoating which centred almost solely on our economic future. As Justin Welby wrote in On Rock or Sand? Firm Foundations for Britain’s future ‘We believe that if we can fix the economy, the fixing of human beings will automatically follow … It is a lie …that casts money, rather than humanity, as the protagonist of God’s story’.

And that is the key – seeing humanity as the protagonist of God’s story. When we start looking through the telescope from the right end, we stop valuing people for their perceived social status, and we start to value them for their humanity. Any government that strives for equality through education misses the point that the only foundation for equality lies in our equal worth as human beings: ‘The rich and the poor shake hands as equals – God made them both! (Proverbs 22:2 The Message).

So while each student whom we teach, and each child whom we parent, will go on to achieve different things in life, they are all created equal by God – a truth which the Founding Fathers held as self-evident. And that impacts on our view of careers advice, because we are encouraging our students to be the very best people they can be, each with unique God-given gifts and abilities that can make a valid contribution to the common good.

The prophet Samuel went to the home of Jesse to anoint one of his sons as successor to King Saul. Samuel quite naturally thought that the eldest son, Eliab, would be the chosen one. He was tall and strong, and already a serving soldier. But Eliab wasn’t God’s choice, for all his kingly appearance. God said: ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7 NIV).

How different might our society be if we valued people for their hearts, rather than their appearance?

 

BRITISH VALUES AND THE CAUTIONARY TALE OF A CHRISTIAN ETHOS SCHOOL

The Durham Free School (TDFS) opened its doors to Year 7 students in September 2013. Less than two years later it was closed. It’s a complicated story, but one which I followed because TDFS was a Christian ethos school which should have fitted perfectly into David Cameron’s Big Society and vision for a new, socially motivated Britain. So what went wrong?

Before a free school can open, a huge amount of work goes into the application, the planning and the preparation. The process is rigorous, so by the time approval is given, you can be sure that the school knows exactly what its core purpose is, together with exhaustive detail about every aspect of how it will be delivered.

TDFS planned to serve the Bowburn area of south-east Durham that was badly in need of school places after closures had left parents concerned about the distances their children had to travel. The vision was to offer ‘distinctive and inclusive education, shaped by traditional Christian values and welcoming to all. The School will offer a high quality education in a caring, Christian environment in which each student is known, valued and encouraged to achieve his or her individual potential’. Those who belonged to the school community (staff, governors, parents and students) found that to be a vision which was realised. The Department for Education thought otherwise.

There were obstacles to overcome from the outset. Free schools have no control over the choice of building – that is done for them by the Education Funding Agency. Instead of serving the area for which it was approved and where the first intake of pupils lived, TDFS found itself temporarily housed in empty school buildings in a different part of the city. There was opposition to the school long before it opened – Hansard records that Pat Glass MP (who was this week so briefly the shadow education secretary) had been ‘raising issues relating to Durham free school for several years’ asserting that ‘You cannot spit in Durham city without hitting an outstanding school. There were surplus places in that city, and I could not understand the reasoning behind the setting up of another school’, although Ofsteds report into north-east schools would suggest that this wasn’t an accurate appraisal of the city’s secondary provision.

Then, on the back of Trojan Horse, British values burst onto the stage in a very unexpected way. TDFS suddenly found itself judged against new, untested and undefined criteria that were vague enough to allow for the Christian ethos of the school to be labelled creationist and homophobic, thus failing on safeguarding. The irony of the latter label is that several TDFS pupils had moved to the school due to homophobic bullying and both pupils and homosexual parents alike found the school to be caring, nurturing and supportive.

The conducting of British values inspections of Christian schools is well documented; the argument that Christians are intolerant, homophobic, creationist indoctrinators that propagate hate are rolled out with tiring regularity. The concerning issue here is the fact that the British values agenda was used against a Christian ethos school not just to satisfy a secularist liberal agenda, but also for political ends. TDFS was one of the first schools – it certainly won’t be the last.

Various other things struck me while I watched this story unfold. The first was the patience and self-control of John Denning, the chair of governors, exemplifying in all of his communications the Christian virtues which the school represented. The dignity and respect with which the debate was conducted by the school stood in sharp contrast with that of Pat Glass, who used Parliamentary privilege to say:

‘… as a former senior education officer in the north-east, I was aware that there were very high levels of teachers working at Durham free school that I knew had already undergone competency procedures with other local authorities. A head teacher in the region told me that the school had become a haven for every crap teacher in the north-east’

– an outrageous statement and potential breach of confidentiality against which none of the staff could defend themselves.

The second was the swiftness with which the school was closed. A school which starts with a Year 7 intake needs time to develop and it doesn’t really feel complete until that first intake becomes Year 11 – in other words, 4 or 5 years. Yet there was no real opportunity for the school to even implement a development plan. The end came so suddenly that staff were preparing for a monitoring visit from Ofsted scheduled for the following day when the closure notice was issued. It was almost as if somebody wanted the school closed, so the evidence (centring on the Christian ethos) was interpreted in a way which could make that happen.

A possible reason became apparent after the closure notice was issued, when the Local Council almost immediately indicated its intention to sell the land on which both the school and a local community centre serving over 1000 people each week are located. The Youth and Community Association which used the centre closed its doors a week before Christmas. Although it was expected that the land would be sold off for housing development, the buildings are still standing. Discussions continue about whether it’s cheaper to demolish them or find a new tenant, while local residents are fighting to retain the playing fields for the community.

But there’s a final sting in the tail of this sad story, should there be any doubt that the closure was political. Despite Pat Glass’s assertion that you couldn’t spit in Durham without hitting an outstanding school and that there is plenty of spare capacity, new schools are urgently needed in Bowburn, the very part of the city which TDFS was originally approved to serve. You can read a response here .

Parents, staff, governors and students walked out of TDFS with their heads held high after putting up a dignified, courteous and robust fight. At their final service at St Giles church, The Reverend Canon Alan Bartlett said the closure felt ‘like a bereavement, a taking away of hope’. For some students, facing a return to the schools where they had been bullied, it was exactly that.

Since the closure of TDFS, the climate of Christian schools’ inspections has significantly changed, but the political will to impose a one-size-fits-all agenda on all faith schools is still very evident. It may be a daunting prospect, but we must engage with this and be bold in explaining what we believe and why.

After the death of Moses, God told Joshua to lead the people of Israel. It must have been a daunting prospect to him, too. But God challenged Joshua three times to ‘Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged’, followed by the promise ‘for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go’ (Joshua 1:9).

That is our challenge and promise, too, as Christians working in education.