THE PURPOSE OF EDUCATION: SOCIAL COHESION

The concept of social cohesion was born in 2001, as the outcome of a report by Ted Cantle. Looking at white and Asian communities, he concluded that people were living parallel lives with little contact between the two contrasting cultures. The report attempted to present positive ways of creating a diverse society in which people of different faiths, cultures and communities could live together to the good of all.

The intention was to work towards the dictionary definition of cohesion: ‘the forming of a united whole’. Fifteen years on, social cohesion means something rather different – something much closer to the scientific definition of cohesion as being ‘the sticking together of particles of the same substance’. Where faith was seen as an essential part of personal and community identity, it is now seen as something toxic that should only be expressed in private.

Then, faith schools were seen as positive community spaces; they could play a part in shaping a cohesive society by building bridges between diverse groups. Now they are regularly described in the press as ‘silos of segregation’ which are responsible for creating ghettoes. There are groups such as the Accord Coalition and Fair Admissions Campaign which argue for open access to faith schools (even though many of them already are) and humanist and secular activists that are calling for faith to be removed from all schools. If only, the argument goes, expression of religion was removed from all public spaces, we could use schools to build a socially cohesive country.

But they miss various key points about faith. What we believe, our worldview, is part of our individual identity and therefore a vital part of how we see the world and how we interact with others in that world, not just those within our own communities. Imagine if a government suddenly decided that in order for everyone to be equal we should be a neutral skin colour when in public, say green. We could be any skin colour we like in private and in our own community, but in public, we must be green in order to overcome racial prejudice or stereotyping. Ridiculous? Of course.

Yet that is exactly what the liberal secular argument suggests about faith. Leave your identity at home. In public, you can only express approved, liberal thoughts; we must all think the same. But as France is finding out, requiring a public conformity that denies individual identity in the cause of enforcing secular orthodoxy is costly. It drives resentment underground. Western society is seeing not greater cohesion, but increasing polarisation.

So, if our personal systems of belief (and humanism and secularism are both belief systems which inform a worldview) are part of our uniquely individual identity, how can we create this ‘united whole’ from such diversity? The answer is relationship and that is at the heart of our Christian faith, because God is relational.

The apostle Paul was teaching in a similarly polarised society and he wrote to the church in Galatia that ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). Belief, race, gender or status don’t matter to God, so they shouldn’t matter to us. And the Bible has plenty to say about how that should affect the way we live in the world. We should value others above ourselves, bear with one another, love, forgive and be like faithful friends.

The key to social cohesion can’t be found in government mandate or academic reports. It isn’t about enforcing a single orthodoxy in all of our schools. It isn’t about removing faith from the public square. It’s about the quality of relationships. It’s about building bridges between people based on foundations of respect, regardless of difference.

Paul urged people in the church in Rome to ‘Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.  Live in harmony with one another. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone’ (Romans 12:15-18). The key to a genuinely cohesive society lies with you and it lies with me as we live our faith in our communities.

THE PURPOSE OF EDUCATION: ECONOMIC GROWTH

‘Education is the engine of our economy’, according to Schools Minister, Nick Gibb. Its purpose is to prepare the next generation of workers to feed the Minotaur which we have created; a controlling monster which must be constantly sated to allow us to compete globally. And so a society which has built itself on the ‘shifting sands of self service’ has designed an education system underpinned by the values of consumerism and individualism. We are, quite simply, valuing our children and young people by their potential monetary worth and, in the process, teaching them to use the same measure in valuing others.

This thinking pervades government policy and therefore curriculum content. Language lessons teach us to navigate other countries as tourist-consumers, not as guests. Maths teaches students to think about what they can get, but rarely what they can give. There is a 16+ core maths skill programme which focuses on how to split the bill when you didn’t have wine, but not whether you might miss a social event occasionally and contribute to a food bank collection instead. It teaches how to source the most cost-effective mortgage, but nowhere does it suggest that renting may be a better option than buying. It offers nothing at all to those young people who face the prospect of remaining with their parents because they can’t earn enough to finance any other choice.

When she was Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan became very enthusiastic about a scheme that used tax data to show which degree subjects yielded the most lucrative careers – the database could then be used to inform A level choices. Subjects were classified as ‘facilitating’ and ‘non-facilitating’ depending on their economic worth, and suddenly I found myself after a lifetime in teaching and youth work labelled a non-facilitator by virtue of having studied music at university. Directed by government mandate, we educate children to know the cost of everything, and the value of nothing.

The result is communities disjointed by envious competition. Society’s economy is founded on transaction; acquisition; wealth, and the constant question: What’s in it for me? And it’s this self interest that creates our current economic model, not the other way around. As Justin Welby observes: ‘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’.

Contrast that with God’s economy. It’s one of relationship; of limitless love and free grace, and of the question: Who has God created me to be? In Christian terms ‘education is intended to draw out the full human potential of each child of God’. Take a look at What If Learning for an example of what this looks like in practice, when teaching and learning are rooted in Christian faith, hope and love. Instead of a curriculum designed to create economically successful units, it offers a curriculum that embeds in its approach the love of God for His creation and the dignity of every person.

The Westminster Catechism says that our ‘chief end …is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever’. What difference would it make to our teaching if we fully embraced that, provoking awe and wonder through our teaching and sharing our enjoyment of God as creator of this wonderful world in which we live?

THE PURPOSE OF EDUCATION: SOCIAL MOBILITY

The purpose of education is currently being considered by the Education Select Committee. So for the next few weeks, I will be blogging about the issue, considering a different perspective each week.

In its broadest sense, education is every society’s way of transmitting its canon of knowledge to the next generation – knowledge which is interpreted through the predominant culture of the age. It’s about preparing young people for a place in adult life. Whether it’s a tiny, stable community of hunter gatherers teaching their children the skills they need to live, or a large industrialised nation with a sophisticated and complex education infrastructure, the principle remains the same.

So what happens when an education service becomes consumed by ideologies which threaten to divert its wider purpose into narrow channels? That’s exactly what is happening at the moment, as successive governments become obsessed with social mobility and economic growth as the twin benchmarks of a successful education.

Wikipedia defines social mobility as ‘the movement of individuals, families, households, or other categories of people within or between social strata in a society. It is a change in social status relative to others’ social location within a given society’. It should be a straightforward piece of social engineering: provide equal access to an outstanding education and the next generation becomes upwardly mobile. Except that it isn’t that simple.

The government fails to understand that we are educating people, not programmable units. People live in relationship with each other, in families and in the communities which form our wider society. There’s a high price to be paid for social mobility. It means no longer belonging in the community where you were raised and which gave you your values. Even when they’re proud of the achievement, it leaves parents and families feeling betrayed and hurt that what they gave wasn’t good enough. It means no longer belonging where you started life and often not belonging where you end up. We each speak a language with a cultural subtext derived from our upbringing and social mobiles spend their lives watching, listening and assimilating things that you take for granted when you’ve always belonged. Social mobility strikes at the very roots of identity.

And what of the lost relationships? I have spend most of my working life in inner city and estate schools, and I’ve lost count of the number of times parents of bright children have told me that they hear what I’m saying, but they don’t want to lose their child. Social mobility is seen as success for some; for others it’s the catalyst for unbearable loss.

It’s a downside that journalist Reeta Chakrabarti considered more than two years ago. Writer Damian Barr describes the sense of loss as an emotional tax that every social mobile has to pay. Presenter Terry Christian reckons that the promised land isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either, because ‘the skill sets that help you become socially mobile aren’t you being smart, or being very good at your job, it’s all about you being ambitious, greedy and very competitive’. He suggests that it’s the model of social mobility, with its relentless drive for more money, that’s faulty.

It’s also a model that fosters envy. Where does upward mobility stop? If the measure of success is your relative place in the social strata, then there’s always someone higher than you. Should we be striving for a better life, or for a more contented one?

And that’s the question that many twentysomethings are answering, with a response that makes them downwardly mobile by the government’s measure. Even if they’ve gone to university, they have no realistic prospect of achieving the successful economic future they were promised. So they are opting for a very different life from that of their parents. They are taking manual work in shops or call centres to earn enough to pay the bills, then spending their time doing the things they love – art, music, community gardening, conservation and church work are just a few that I’ve heard of recently. It’s a substantial rejection of the values that underpin the current social mobility model. Despite government policies, Millennials looks set to define a new set of social values based on having enough but no more; contentment; fulfilment; collectivism, and contribution to the common good.

So, what does the Bible say about social mobility? Nothing, but it does lay out principles about the values that inform the ideology. The Bible tells us that our equality is not based on money, possessions or social standing. It’s based on the fact that we are all created by God with equal dignity, value and inherent worth, because we are made in God’s image. The Bible also has plenty to teach us about equity, or the fairness and justness of our society. It’s encompassed in Christ’s call to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:31). That’s not about feelings. It’s about valuing others as we values ourselves; caring for others as we care for ourselves, and creating opportunities for others and not just for ourselves. In education terms, it’s about creating a service which gives every unique individual an equal opportunity to flourish in whatever way best matches their skills and aspirations. That might be to remain within the context of family and community. It might not. It might be in a context where paid work provides enough but no more, or one where ambition to achieve yields a substantial income.

The key is to provide an education that facilitates informed choice and then to respect and value every choice as being of equal worth, regardless of the social status it affords.