Category Archives: Comment

PRAY DAY 2015

For those who are new to the idea of a Pray Day, it’s a day each year which is set aside for people across Europe and the world to pray for education. It includes everything from nursery to university; it encompasses everyone, from students, staff and governors to parents, youth and church workers. If you’re involved in education in any way, you will be prayed for during the day – this year, Pray Day is on Tuesday 17 November.

There are various ways of getting involved. You might pray alone for the people you know in your own context. You might organise a prayer group in your church, your school or your college. You might lead a school assembly or an RE lesson to explain what prayer means to Christians, or you might organise a prayer walk. The Pray for Schools Pray Day page has lots of resources and suggestions which are adaptable to your situation.

This year, the UK theme is a Prayer Marathon inspired by Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, in which he wrote: ‘Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith’ (Hebrews 12:1—2). The idea is that you choose a time during the day when you can pray for 30 minutes, before handing the prayer baton on to somebody else.

The resource provides hourly themes, derived from the concept of a marathon. They include Persevere; Stay Focused; Be Rooted in the Word; Be Aware; Encourage Others; Trust God, and Be Thankful. Each theme has a number of prayer points, many of which you can personalise to your own context.

Maybe you’re reading this and wondering why you should pray for education in particular. The answer is because there are so many issues that we need to pray about. Our children and young people are under great pressure to achieve academic success. They are growing up into a world which measures value and accords social status based on material success. Anxiety levels and mental illness are reaching epic proportions.

Education is a tough place for Christians to be at the moment, as the pressure of a secular culture attempts to silence the voice of faith. We should pray for Christian staff and students, that they are afforded a fair space to talk about how their faith informs the way they see the world.

Nurseries, schools, colleges and universities are communities which rely on positive relationships to be effective. We should pray for those relationships and for the building of communities which support and nurture whole people.

We hear every day of the hundreds of thousands of children and young people who suffer in silence; who cannot go to school because they are displaced, or because it is too dangerous. So we can pray for the global perspective, for peace, for stability and access to education for children around the world.

It’s an opportunity, too, to be thankful for the excellence of much of our education service and for the many thousands of people who work so hard in schools and colleges on behalf of their students.

When I profiled the work of Pray for Schools earlier this year, I wrote: ‘Just pause for a moment and visualise your local school or college cocooned in a prayer wrapper. Then visualise a bigger prayer wrapper encompassing our whole country.  Think what it might mean for the wellbeing of our children, our teenagers, our families and ultimately our society’. That’s why we pray.

However you decide get involved with Pray Day, pray in the strength of Christ’s promise: ‘Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours’ (Mark 11:24). Be blessed as you pray.

FAILURE IS A TERMINAL STATUS

This week saw Nicky Morgan’s significant and much vaunted one nation education speech – significant because it sketched the assessment landscape that will soon be shaping a school near you. There were four key areas: consultation on more rigorous KS1 tests (for which read the return of KS1 SATs pursued with renewed vigour); new KS2 SATs resits in Year 7 (for which read if something doesn’t work just keep repeating it); the requirement for 100% of pupils to achieve EBacc reduced to 90% (for which read almost everyone must follow an academic curriculum) and the creation of a National Teaching Service, in which 1500 teachers will be parachuted in to failing schools to turn them around (for which read the resurrection of ASTs with national mobility required).

I blogged earlier this year about why Year 7 resits are a destructive idea so I won’t take up any space repeating that particular diatribe. Taken as a whole, and added to the baseline tests, phonics assessments and GCSE rigour that are already in place, these ‘new’ policies leave no room for doubt. This government is determined to blight the education landscape; turning the green spaces of our 25,000 learning communities into exam factories. The problem with exams (or mere ‘tests’ as Nicky insists they are called) is that failure is a terminal status – one from which those least able to interpret failure as a learning opportunity rarely recover. Repeated exam (aka test) failure is life defining.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against assessment and I see the need for testing. When someone comes to fix my gas boiler I want to know that they’ve passed the necessary exams to prove that they can do the job safely. But so much testing throughout school? And playing for such high stakes? Nicky Morgan really needs to take a leaf out of Barack Obama’s book – his recent damascene experience was the realisation that teaching and learning can actually be harmed by an obsession with tests.

The point which is missed, of course, is that schools are communities. Each school has its own context and ethos, reflective of the community from which the pupils are drawn. Outstanding teachers in one context can’t just be dropped into another, quite different, context and expected to deliver. Teaching and learning are relational activities and relationships have to be built.

It also misses the point that teachers and students are real people and real life is messy. There’s no formula. There’s no textbook. There’s no way of measuring the things that really matter – how students learn and grow as whole, rounded people, not just as data sheet fodder.

Our modern work ‘pedagogy’ derives from the Latin ‘paedagogia’. A Roman pedagogue was a trusted slave who was responsible for a child from the age of seven, teaching him to read and laying foundations for later learning. He led the child to school and was there 24/7 to protect, oversee, supervise, discipline and train. His job was to deliver the young adult as an upright citizen, a credit to Rome and a reflection of his master’s values. How different might contemporary pedagogy look if this, rather than teaching to test, was our job, too?

THE ULTIMATE SELFIE OF THE SOUL

Improved behaviour? Improved GCSE results? A drop in the re-offending rate of former prisoners? It sounds like a good idea, whatever the strategy is to achieve it. Following a yearlong enquiry into its efficacy, MPs this week were introduced to mindfulness, which, it is claimed, can deliver all of the above. A call to roll out mindfulness, or secular meditation, across the public sector is expected to come soon – not to nurture the growth of children and young people, but to raise standards and improve productivity. It’s the same message as the one underpinning character education – fix people, fix the economy.

So what is it? The tradition of mindfulness is rooted in Buddhism and stretches back over 2400 years.  It’s about learning to control your breathing, your thoughts and your feelings – a form of cognitive therapy. It’s about directing focused attention to experiences as they happen in order to understand oneself and one’s responses. MPs want the DfE to pioneer mindfulness training in three schools, before establishing a £1m fund to train teachers in its delivery in every classroom.

The originator of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, makes a big claim about its effectiveness, saying that those using it ‘will be addressing some of the most pressing problems of society at their very root – at the level of the human heart and mind.’ He certainly identifies the crux of the issue – the most pressing problems of society are, indeed, caused by the human heart and mind, but by what the Bible calls sin, and the problem of sin can’t be solved by secular meditation. As the prophet Jeremiah pointed out: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure’ (Jeremiah 17:9 NIV). Only God has the cure, through the forgiveness of our sin.

So if mindfulness is about changing the human heart, can Christians engage in it? No, because we cannot transform our own hearts and minds. Christian meditation is different from all other forms of meditation because it involves focusing our minds outward on God rather than inward on ourselves. There are three components to Christian meditation; it is grounded in the Bible, it responds to the love of God and it leads to worship of God. The Bible tells us to ‘Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it’ (Joshua 1:8). So rather than focus on personal thoughts, feelings and experiences, we focus on God’s word, allowing God’s love to fill our thoughts as we worship Him.

The key to our behaviour becoming more like Christ’s isn’t to be found in mindfulness. It’s to be found in allowing our minds to be transformed so that we see our behaviour and interpret our experiences not from a personal perspective, but from a God-perspective. We don’t ask how we might speak or act, we ask what God would have us say and how God would have us act. As the apostle Paul wrote: ‘let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect’ (Romans 12:2 NLT).

While there’s no doubt that relaxation and the ability to identify feelings and their impact on our relationships are essential life skills, secular meditation is not the way to develop them. Humanity is not the protagonist in God’s story – God is. That’s why Paul urges us to: ‘Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise’ (Philippians 4:8).

In contrast, mindfulness is nothing more, and nothing less, than the ultimate selfie of the soul.