Category Archives: Comment

A VERY UNEQUAL EQUALITY

An important Ofsted report was quietly published this week – one which finally defines what is, and is not, acceptable to Ofsted when categorising a school. It comes down, it seems, to one single issue.

Vishnitz Girls’ School in north London first came under scrutiny with an unannounced emergency inspection in February 2016, after safeguarding concerns were raised. The school’s categorisation fell from ‘good’ to ‘standards not met’. The report published this week is for the third monitoring visit – according to Ofsted, standards are still not met, and Schoolsweek cheerfully named the school as one which has ‘repeatedly failed their legal duties’ but ‘have nevertheless been allowed to remain open’. Another witch-hunt, or a school which has genuinely failed to address valid concerns?

The report makes interesting reading. All but one of the concerns have been addressed. Pupils are ‘well motivated, have positive attitudes to learning and are confident in thinking for themselves’. Teachers use a range of strategies and their ‘good subject knowledge and high-quality classroom resources inspire pupils with enthusiasm for learning and to achieve well’. Assessment information is used effectively to allow students to make good progress. Behaviour is good, with management strategies used to good effect – pupils ‘behave well and … take responsibility for their own actions’.

The school is ‘clearly focused on teaching pupils to respect everybody, regardless of beliefs and lifestyle’. PSHE curricula and schemes of work have been revised, with the help of an external consultant and a compliance officer. All safeguarding concerns have been addressed – staff are well trained and the school is fully compliant on all matters of safeguarding, health and safety, pupil welfare and buildings. So what’s not to like – the school’s categorisation has been returned to ‘good’, hasn’t it?

Sadly, no, and for just one single reason. As a matter of policy, the girls are not taught about gender reassignment or sexual orientation because the curriculum and learning policy is written in accordance with the school’s faith position. According to Ofsted, this means that pupils do not ‘gain a full understanding of fundamental British Values’ and the curriculum does not comply with the Equality Act 2010. The pupils in the school are aged between 3 and 8.

Finally, Ofsted has revealed its true agenda. It doesn’t matter how good your school is in all other respects –simply refusing to teach very young children about gender reassignment will lead to your closure. That is the possible outcome for not only this school, but other Jewish schools which refuse, as a matter of faith, to teach about LGBT issues. All the indications are that the Orthodox community is prepared to stand its ground.

The argument used to justify such sanction is that these are protected characteristics. So is religious belief, but it’s now been made crystal clear by Ofsted that the Equality Act is actually hierarchical, with sexual orientation and gender reassignment at the apex of the Act. All equalities are equal, but some equalities are more equal than others.

The conflict between gender ideology and the tenets of faith is one which has so far been held in uneasy balance by the government. But Ofsted has now clearly drawn up lines of battle between the Orthodox Jewish community and LGBT activists. With Jay Harman, the BHA education campaigner. calling for the closure of their schools, there is little chance of the Jewish community being allowed to continue to live in peace, with parents raising and educating their children as they think best.

The Equality Act now informs all aspects of education policy in both the state and maintained sectors. British Values, according to Edward Timpson when speaking in Parliament recently, provides the moral framework. So, over to the Department for Education to decide what happens when two protected characteristics meet in head on conflict. There are just two options – protect the right of individuals to live and raise their children in accordance with their faith, or make a mockery of the Equality Act by closing schools that fail to comply with your LGBT agenda.

 

 

 

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.