SEEING STUDENTS AS HONOURED GUESTS

The media was buzzing at the beginning of this week with the news that Nigel and Sally Rowe were considering legal action against their son’s school over a transgender issue. Plenty of air hours, column inches and social media posts have been devoted to discussion about it, but in all of the outrage on both sides of the debate, nobody has considered the role of a teacher when conflicting parental beliefs become an issue in the classroom. Can teachers create a class community which is based on genuine equality?

The answer, as has become very clear this week, is no, certainly not by mandate or statute. The Equality Act 2010 may be the legal bulwark for the government’s diversity agenda, but it doesn’t always work in practice, because it’s nothing more than a surface level fix for the complex problems of human relationships. It causes conflict where we need connectedness.

One answer lies in the concept of ‘shalom’. I’m told that the greeting ‘shalom’ doesn’t just mean blessing; it means peace, well being and wholeness. So seeking shalom in the classroom offers an opportunity to create genuine community – a place where each person is at peace in their relationship with the other, not simply a space in which the teacher is constantly juggling legal protections and mediating conflicted points of view.

Classroom community isn’t about friendship with likeminded people. It’s about groups of 30 strangers who will never become close friends, but who have to somehow work and learn effectively together. For everyone to flourish as people and as learners, the ethos has to foster tolerance and respect and those are characteristics that are nurtured through relationship, not forged by legislation. We must actively choose to recognise the inherent worth in each other, even those with whom we profoundly disagree.

Part of the problem rests with an education system that equates worth with grades and success with money, because it teaches children that they must compete. Part of the problem lies with a society that enshrines individualism – character education teaches children to develop certain personal behaviours for their own wellbeing, without any consideration of the common good. And part of the problem lies with successive governments that have obsessed about social mobility without understanding the basic human need for rootedness and a sense of belonging.

So seeking shalom in a cosmopolitan classroom is about creating space in which each child feels rooted, with the confidence to share ideas, knowing that they will be listened to and met with consideration and interest, not merely tolerance or courtesy. Students are encouraged to see difference in others as an opportunity to learn, not a reason to reject. Children can learn to think critically about the world around them, and pursue questions without being told the answer by a teacher anxious to meet targets. Each person’s story is treated with equal honour, as part of the bigger narrative of the class and school community.

Seeing students as honoured guests in our classrooms isn’t about pedagogy, it’s about a way of being. It requires open hearts, not gesture politics. Unlike respect, which is earned, honour is a gift, given freely without looking for return even when we are offended or hurt. Honouring our students allows us to rise above a constant need to mediate in order to keep peace; instead it creates a community in which each person cares as deeply about the peace and wellbeing of others as they do about their own.

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul offered a definition of love which has become one of the most well known passages in the Bible. In a paragraph that begins: ‘Love is patient, love is kind’ he goes on to say that love ‘does not dishonour others’ (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). In honouring our students as guests in our classrooms, each uniquely made in the image of God, we can rise above the conflict of belief and ideology. We offer a place in which students can flourish as they pursue their search for truth.

 

BULLYING: THE REALITY BEHIND THE RHETORIC

A few statistics to get you thinking: 54% of all children and young people in our country have been bullied at some point during their school lives. 20% have been bullied in the last year. 10% are bullied on an almost daily basis. That’s nearly 150,000 children and young people who dread going to school every single day of their lives, for fear of what awaits them. Of those bullied daily, 37% have developed social anxiety,  24% had suicidal thoughts and 36% have developed depression.

You might be forgiven for thinking that this is solely due to homophobic bullying. It’s a huge agenda, with money and training being poured into stamping it out. It’s pretty much the only kind of bullying that is talked about and schools have to produce anti-bullying policies which specifically detail how homophobic and transphobic bullying will be dealt with. That’s the perspective from the adult liberal elite who dictate policy.

If you talk to young people themselves, they tell quite a different story. Ditch the Label produces a comprehensive annual survey conducted only amongst students. According to these figures, 50% of those bullied say it involves attitudes to their appearance; 19% say it relates to them getting high grades, and 14% say it’s because of household income. Only 4% report being bullied because of their sexuality. So you are far more likely to be bullied because of your body shape, for wearing glasses or for having red hair than whether you are gay or transgender. The agenda has, quite simply, been hijacked by LGBT rhetoric.

A quick view of the Stonewall website is telling. Repeatedly, it focuses on the inappropriate use of the word ‘gay’ which is common youth parlance, often used without sexual connotation. Does the misuse of the word constitute bullying? Not really. There’s a difference between teasing and using inappropriate language, and bullying: it’s important to know the difference. Bullying is prolonged, persistent and planned – it’s what 10% of young people experience daily and it isn’t confined to school. Recent research shows that cyber-bullying isn’t deployed as an alternative to more traditional forms; it’s actually used in addition. Nearly all students bullied in school are also subjected to cyber-bullying, leaving them scared and isolated 24/7, wherever they are.

There has been considerable press coverage recently of the increased risk of poor mental health and suicide in those bullied because of their sexual or gender orientation. Here too, the figures show that the same is true of all bullied children, regardless of the reason for the bullying. But yet again, the LGBT lobby dominates the agenda.

None of this helps – in fact, it causes real harm. About 86% of disabled children report being bullied on a regular basis, yet that doesn’t grab any headlines or provoke a flurry of policy documents at the DfE. To highlight just one reason for bullying is to create a hierarchy, clearly signalling to the disabled, to ethnic minorities, to those of religious faith or to those who don’t wear the ‘right’ clothes that their pain and suffering are less important than LGBT suffering.

According to official statistics, the incidence of homophobic and transphobic bullying has fallen over the last few years. No surprise there – the Hawthorne effect (of which DfE officials must surely be aware?) says that if you shine a huge spotlight on an issue over a period of time, you will effect a change simply by your intervention. But shining a spotlight creates deep shadow and that makes others more vulnerable, because bullying is a behaviour choice. If bullies can’t pick on one group of people in their school, they’ll simply pick on another. Logic dictates that if you’re going to get caught easily for choosing those in the spotlight, then you choose people in the shadows where you’re less likely to be seen. It isn’t about the reason they bully. It’s about being a bully.

If you are gay, or transgender, or coloured, or disabled, or have red hair, wear glasses, are clever or from a poor home, the reason why you are being bullied matters to you deeply, because it strikes at the heart of your identity. But to those dealing with bullying, the reason shouldn’t matter – what should matter is that so many people are suffering.

Solving the problem should begin in a wider society where bullying is endemic. Schools have a part to play, but it’s not down to schools alone to solve the problem. The liberal ideology which says that if we stamp it out in the young we will have a happy society with the next generation is rubbish. When children are faced with a conflict between words and actions, they always follow the actions. So using any amount of words in the classroom won’t stop some children becoming bullies because that is a model which they see in wider society, in their communities and, sadly, often in their own homes.

In his letter to the church in Galatia, the apostle Paul wrote, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female’ (Galatians 3:28). Genuine inclusivity doesn’t prioritise one group over another – it’s colour, race, gender, ability and social status blind. So if he was writing to a Christian teacher pondering on how to nurture an inclusive classroom, he might well have written, ‘There is neither gay nor straight, there is neither male nor female, there is neither black nor white, there is neither disabled nor able bodied, there is neither rich nor disadvantaged’. The key is ‘for you are all one’ which means that instead of creating hierarchies, we should be focusing on each individual as a person uniquely created in the image of God and deserving of equal respect regardless of heritage, culture, belief or ability. Only then can we create just, fair communities where a commitment to the common good renders bullying obsolete.

 

SENDING OFSTED TO THE NAUGHTY STEP

After years of protest about Ofsted’s increasingly capricious judgment of schools, it has finally happened. Ofsted has been sent to the naughty step. By a judge. Here’s how it happened.

Durand Academy used to be the darling of the Department for Education. Feted by Michael Gove in 2011 as he celebrated the school’s successful academy conversion, the DfE press release trumpeted: ‘An already outstanding school doing a wonderful job for children in one of London’s most challenging neighbourhoods has, in the last twelve months, made even more amazing strides forward. New support for children in the early years. More superb academic results at the end of Key Stage Two. A new cohort of brilliant young teachers trained here – in the classroom – and transforming children’s lives’.

Earlier this year, Ofsted, following an integrated inspection, attempted to put the Trust’s schools into special measures. So what happened to cause such a significant reversal of the Trust’s inspection fortune?

One clue is found in the 2011 press release, which went on to say that the Trust had ‘exciting plans drawn up to establish a brand new secondary school – with boarding accommodation – ensuring that young people in Lambeth can enjoy an outstanding state education which will equip them for the future every bit as effectively as any private school’. The Trust acquired a site in rural West Sussex and a local campaign group immediately swung into action. A lengthy battle for planning permission to develop the site was lost, so it was not surprising that serious concerns about the suitability of the building for residential education were raised when it was inspected.

Switch your attention back to London, where Durand was rapidly and heavily falling from favour. The Head, Sir Greg Martin, had created a new entrepreneurial business model, not seen before in education. It involved running various businesses, including a gym, leisure facilities and, if press accounts are to be believed, a dating agency. The schools benefitted to the tune of £8 million; students benefitted from smaller classes and subsidised meals; the local community benefitted from access to the facilities, and Sir Greg is alleged to have benefitted by £161,000, in addition to his salary as head of the school. The Public Accounts Committee didn’t like it. The National Audit Office didn’t like it. There were calls for the removal of the Head because the Trust’s ‘complex’ structure left if open to ‘perception of wrongdoing’. The Trust was ordered to re-tender contracts.

Quite suddenly, all the strands of conflict and opposition came together. The boarding school was expecting a follow-up inspection, but Ofsted seized the opportunity to initiate an integrated inspection, which meant that all the Trust’s schools could be inspected at the same time and one common judgment made. The judgment, unsurprisingly, was that the schools all needed to be put into special measures. The Education Funding Agency announced termination of funding, which meant that the Trust would be taken over.

The Trust vowed to fight the decision, saying that it was a victim of ‘half truths and inaccuracies’, because if it is anything, Durand Academy Trust is both determined and wealthy enough to finance what followed. The Trust took legal action, first to prevent publication of the ‘glaringly perverse’ report, and then to quash the judgment. Anyone knowing how Ofsted operates would probably, at this point, have thought, ‘Good luck with that’.

In fact, the Trust achieved a seminal judgment when the case came to court. The judge ruled that Ofsted’s complaints procedure was neither ‘rational’ nor ‘fair’. He added: ‘To my mind, a complaints process which effectively says there is no need to permit an aggrieved party to pursue a substantive challenge to the conclusions of a report it considers to be defective because the decision maker’s processes are so effective that the decision will always in effect be unimpeachable is not a rational or fair process … The absence of any ability effectively to challenge the report renders the complaints procedures unfair and in my judgment vitiates the report.’

Ofsted has indicated its intention to seek leave to appeal and in the meantime has announced the setting up of an independent adjudication service. But it’s too late for the Durand Academy boarding school pupils. To the glee of local campaigners, it closed this week. It’s too late for the many schools that have been forcibly academised following adverse judgments. It’s too late for the schools that have closed because they couldn’t comply with Ofsted’s capricious requirements or didn’t have the necessary finance to take action – Durand has spent around £300,000 on legal fees.

And what of the future? Vishnitz Girls School recently failed an Ofsted inspection on just one factor – failure to teach Key Stage 1 children about same sex relationships and gender reassignment. As the new social engineering experiment know as Relationships and Sex Education comes into force in 2018, how many more schools will be failed? Will this judgment make any difference to their appeals?

Watch this space.