SOCIAL LIBERALISM AND THE NATIONAL DNA

Several strands of comment have emerged since the election about the social liberalism of our country. It all started when the government announced that they were in talks with the DUP – a party which holds clear views on social issues such as marriage and abortion. Ed Vaizey was first out of the blocks on BBC Breakfast, the morning after the election.

In his view, social liberalism is now ‘part of our DNA’ and any moves to concede social rights on same sex marriage and LGBT rights in order to annexe DUP support would not be welcome. He would regard any such move as both socially illiberal and a means of ‘taking the country backwards’. Social liberalism, he argued, is‘part of what makes us the great country that we are’.

He was quickly followed by Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservative party, who received assurances from the prime minister that LGBT rights would not be affected by any DUP deal. In fact, the prime minister went further in agreeing to ‘try to use her influence to advance LGBTI rights in Northern Ireland’. Ruth Davidson also said that LGBT rights matter more to her than party.

This illiberalism is concerning on several counts. What right does the prime minister have to seek to impose her particular social orthodoxy on Northern Ireland? The point of liberalism, if there is any longer a point, is that people are free to decide for themselves how to live and to use the ballot box to demonstrate their wishes. It is also worrying that Ms Davidson cares more about the rights of a minority group than about the politics of the party and the people whom she serves. If the issue is so close to her heart, she should leave politics and become an LGBT activist, rather than use her position to seek to impose her views on others. The problem, of course, is the relentless march of identity politics, a march in which governing for the common good is subsumed in personal ideologies and identities.

Perhaps the saddest moment of the whole debacle began during the election campaign, when Tim Farron was relentlessly pilloried by the media about his views on human sexuality. It was a debate he was always going to lose as a Christian, because there is only one right answer in the minds of those who hounded him. LGBT rights good: everything else bad. The end of his resignation speech was both powerful and moving: ‘Imagine how proud I am to lead this party. And then imagine what would lead me to voluntarily relinquish that honour. In the words of Isaac Watts it would have to be something “so amazing, so divine, (it) demands my heart, my life, my all”.’ And in making his decision, Tim Farron highlighted the essential illberalism of those very people who claim to be social liberals. He was forced to choose between honouring his faith and assenting to contemporary culture. Why should he have to make that choice, if we live in a country that is genuinely liberal in its DNA?

And the implications of all of this for education policy? It’s clear, from the media feeding frenzy surrounding Tim Farron; from Ruth Davidson’s demands for the prioritising of LGBT rights over those of the democratically elected DUP; from the promise of the prime minister to seek to impose LGBT rights on Northern Ireland, and from a vocal minority who insist that if you don’t agree you must be silenced, where education policy is headed.

Alongside a range of other points of view, in a genuinely liberal country, schools should be able teach about marriage as the basis of building strong families in which to raise secure, happy children. Schools should be allowed to teach that we are created male and female and that this is God’s design for humanity. And teachers who choose to teach that shouldn’t be branded extremist, hate-filled homophobes. Christian teaching presents God’s design, but it does not demand that people accept and promote it at the risk of losing their careers. Only social liberalism does that. We no longer prioritise the teaching of traditional family values in our schools, leave alone Christian values. So how long before teachers also have to make the same choice as Tim Farron – their faith or their career; conform or go?

In the book of Samuel, a prophet visiting the priest Eli, whose sons had abandoned all pretence of honouring God, delivered two statements. One was a warning: ‘those who despise me will be disdained’. But God also made another promise, that ‘Those who honour me I will honour’ (1 Samuel 2:30). How willing are we, as Christians and educators, to honour our God rather than our culture?

 

 

HUMAN FLOURISHING – THE PURPOSE OF EDUCATION

So, another general election is over and more than half of the population won’t have got the government they want, whether or not they voted. The debate over education spending will roll on and, no doubt, education will continue to be a political football game. Unlike football, though, there’s no defined end time. So, in the midst of the white noise of political wrangling, it’s worth asking the question ‘What do we want our education service to achieve and how can we best deliver it?’

Is it, as one recent media report observed about education promises in election manifestos, all about free meals and free childcare? Is that education, or social care? Schools may well be the most effective place to identify those in need and to help them, but is social care essentially an education issue? There was a call this week for schools to review their procedures after a 4 year old boy was found dead in his home, having lived on for up to two weeks after his mother died. Is this an education issue, or a social problem deriving from the increasing isolation of people within communities?

Is it about imposing a particular social orthodoxy on as many children and young people as possible, without recognition of parental rights, differing beliefs or a range of cultural contexts? Or about using Ofsted as the enforcer of said orthodoxy?

One thing is for sure – schools are only reflections of the communities and wider society that they serve. So the hunger, pain and suffering of any child is a problem created by the society which we have shaped. It cannot be solved by schools. It cannot be improved by better education alone. So as a new government takes office, it’s worth asking some searching questions about education.

The word ‘education’ derives from the Latin word ‘educare’ which means to lead out. The role of education is therefore to contribute to the development of the whole person – to create conditions in which we can facilitate human flourishing.

Although the psychologist Abraham Maslow has fallen from favour among fellow professionals, anyone who works with children and young people will be aware that his Hierarchy of Needs makes perfect sense. A hungry, tired child cannot learn. Therefore, the first step towards human flourishing is to ensure that children are well fed and get enough sleep. But that is the duty of parents, so maybe instead of just increasing the free school meals offer, the government should also engage in training parents to be good parents.

Second in Maslow’s hierarchy is safety – to flourish, we all need to know that we are safe. Whichever government is in power today, the intention is to rush ahead with Relationships and Sex Education (RSE), together with statutory PSHE, which teaches children about domestic abuse, violence against women, sexual abuse, pornography and grooming. Is the best way to assure children’s safety to teach them about the ugliness which we have allowed to flourish? Far better, surely, for society to clean up its act, rather than rob children of their innocence so that adults can carry on living as they please. The recent Family Education Trust report into childhood sexual abuse proves beyond any doubt what happens when we abandon moral frameworks, or any sense of right or wrong. Writing to the church in Philippi, the apostle Paul urged people to fix their thoughts on things that are true, noble, right and pure (Philippians 4:8) – a far cry from the proposed content of the RSE curriculum.

Next, Maslow defines loving and belonging as a key to human flourishing. And that comes back to the family as the unit where we learn to love and be loved, to trust and be trusted, to forgive and to be forgiven. The most common reason that children give for unhappiness and mental ill health is the breakdown of the family, which also leads to lost friendships, stability and security. Only within the safety of a secure family can children learn the relationship skills that they need to flourish, and to form the healthy friendships that are a key to belonging in a school community. Yet no government is willing to acknowledge the critical role of the family; no government is willing to develop policies that prioritise marriage and family life as essential building blocks to a strong, secure society.

It’s only when these steps in the Maslow Hierarchy are secured that the final two steps can be achieved – esteem, and self-actualisation. Only then does a state of being exist in which genuine learning can happen. In order for schools to facilitate effective learning, governments must stop requiring schools to solve all social ills. Society must be held accountable for the moral mess that it has created and take collective responsibility for clearing it up. Only then can teachers be free to teach, helping children and young people to flourish and become the people whom God created them to be.

And for Christians, there is a deeper understanding of flourishing that goes beyond the simply cultural. It’s an understanding that doesn’t focus on material prosperity or a search for happiness. That is the version espoused by government and it is both self-focused and inward-looking. A Christian view is about spiritual and emotional flourishing, acknowledging God as the originator and sustainer of the beautiful world in which we live. It’s in embracing this that we experience Christ’s promise of life in all its fullness (John 10:10), a life that is rich and satisfying. That is the core purpose of education.

 

 

 

CSE: SOCIETY’S GUILT

This week, the BBC screened Three Girls, a harrowing three-part programme about the battle for justice for victims of the Rochdale child grooming case. It tells the sickening story of sustained abuse and the reaction of authorities that, in failing to believe them and act, abandoned the girls to their suffering. Viewers might have found it hard hitting as a drama – but it was all the more sickening because it was based on facts. This actually happened. And not only to three girls.

One of the most distressing moments of the whole series was its ending, when a list of local authorities where cases of child abuse have been prosecuted across the country faded onto screen – 36 in all. Child sexual exploitation (CSE) and abuse has happened right across the country, for many years, and to thousands of girls. It is suffering on a huge scale – suffering for which society must accept full responsibility.

Also this week, a report dropped through my letterbox, written by Norman Wells of the Family Education Trust. Titled Unprotected, it examines some of the serious case reviews which have finally got to the root of the CSE crisis. The report analyses the complex reasons for the abuse but also asks whether society is heeding the worrying messages that these case reviews reveal.

The report is structured in three sections. The first considers the evidence from 7 serious case reviews around the country, together with the Independent Enquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham. The analysis shows that the means of exploitation are as varied as their occurrences – some are organised, as a result of grooming. Some are opportunistic. Others involve ‘recruitment’ within friendship groups, and for many, technology plays a key role. Peer-on-peer abuse accounts for an estimated 30 per cent of all exploitation. So what has happened to our society, that CSE has become so widespread, so embedded?

Where, you may wonder, are the parents in all of this? The sickening truth is that loving, desperate parents have tried with dogged determination to get help for their daughters, only to find that they have often been labelled by the authorities as part of the problem. Their daughters, they are told, have made independent lifestyle choices as part of growing up and they are simply exercising their rights.

So, do we not have rigorous child protection protocols, designed to identify abused children? We do, but they clearly aren’t working, and the report concludes that this is because the current climate of protecting children from early pregnancy and access to confidential sexual health advice not only militates against genuine protection, it actually makes it easier for abusers to groom and exploit. So GPs prescribe contraception and the morning after pill (sometimes repeatedly) to children as young as 11. Guidelines say that if a child requests confidentiality and is judged able to make consensual decisions, a health professional need not inform parents or involve child protection authorities. The fact that girls are requesting contraception in the first place is deemed evidence enough of the maturity to be given what they request. Prioritising confidentiality over safeguarding creates a climate in which CSE could flourish.

But we have an age of consent, don’t we? Yes, but this is largely ignored, particularly when sexual activity is underage, but seen as being between consenting teens. For many of the abused, the fact that they talked about their ‘boyfriend’ when they sought help, meant that the authorities assumed it to be normal consensual activity. No questions were asked about the age of the ‘boyfriend’ and even if they had, the girls often didn’t know, or had been lied to.

Finally, the report suggests that no amount of improved joined up thinking between child protection agencies will solve this problem, because it is essentially a social and moral one. The third part of the report makes a range of recommendations which society at large needs to take on board. These include consideration of the confidential provision of contraception and sexual health treatment and the abolition of the idea of ‘rights’ for a child to be sexually active. These have become social norms and in condoning ever-earlier sexual activity, society is making it easy for abusers to flourish.

During the autumn, the government will consult on the new Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) curriculum and also consider statutory content for PSHE. Many are calling for better education to protect children from abuse, whilst allowing children to remain sexually active. The report calls for something different: the restoration of rigour and respect for parents; the recovery of the age of consent, and the prioritising of marriage, family life and a moral framework in RSE.

Do you need to read this report? If you are a parent, yes. If you are a teacher, youth worker or health worker, yes. If you care about children and young people, and the mess that we have created for them, yes. The report’s author writes: ‘We need nothing less than a fundamental change in how, as a society, we view children and young people, how we perceive parental responsibility, how we treat the family unit, and how we regard the law’.

If we don’t heed the warnings from the past, we are merely condemning children of the future to the same exploitation, abuse and suffering.