Category Archives: Comment


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?


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.



‘Be in no doubt: if you are teaching intolerance, we will shut you down’. Stalinist Russia? North Korea? Some other totalitarian regime, maybe? No – the United Kingdom in 2015. This is David Cameron’s new big idea involving Ofsted and anyone who doesn’t conform to the government’s social orthodoxy. The trouble is, this extends way beyond the confines of the classroom into families, into private lives, and into the right of parents to raise their children in a faith.

Just over a month ago, the Telegraph reported on leaked information which said that all faith leaders would have to enrol on a national register and undergo government specified training before being allowed to go about their work with children and young people. It all sounded so Orwellian that I didn’t write about it at the time, not wanting to appear like a fully signed up conspiracy theorist.

Turns out, though, that the report was broadly correct. In his speech at the Conservative Party conference this week, David Cameron spelled it out – anyone teaching intolerance in their faith organisation will be shut down. As ever, intolerance remains conveniently undefined, with the fine detail to be filled in by Ofsted later. Apparently though, intolerance equates (in his mind anyway) to ‘filling children’s heads and hearts with hate’. His target? Madrasas, Sunday schools and yeshivas.

Unity, Mr Cameron, is not the same as uniformity. Nor is cohesion the same as conformity. You need to understand the difference. For example, I hold a personal view about marriage – I believe that God ordained marriage to be between one man and one woman, who enter the relationship with the intention of it lasting for life. That doesn’t mean that I’m intolerant of other people’s views on marriage. I’m perfectly capable of holding a personal belief whilst accepting that others hold very different, equally personal, beliefs. I live and work alongside people with all kinds of different beliefs about life. Holding to a distinctive faith and its teachings is not intolerance. Nor is articulating it or writing about it intolerant. It’s only intolerant if I expect everyone to conform to my view. It’s only hatred if I actively seek to harm everyone who disagrees with me.

I choose the above example advisedly, because definition of marriage and belief in God as the creator of the world are two key litmus tests that the government loves to apply to people of faith. If you don’t conform to the liberal dogma, you’re branded intolerant; extremist, even. And you can be fairly sure that they will be wheeled out again when it comes to registration. Active promotion of LGBT rights and gender identity, together with active promotion of evolution as the only sane explanation for our origins, will be the required price.

First media responses suggested that Sunday schools won’t be affected because there will be a rule which gives exemption to any organisation teaching for less than eight hours each week. But if a church’s work with children and young people is accumulated (toddler group; Sunday school; youth club; after-school care) many churches will find themselves needing to register. It will certainly affect all churches and organisations offering holiday clubs, camps and beach missions.

It does, of course, depend on the definition of intolerance, but based on recent track records, it’s not looking good. Teaching about creation has been branded extremist more than once by both the DfE and Ofsted, as have schools which teach a traditional view of marriage. The vague, amorphous mass of British values can mean whatever the powers that be want it to mean. Behind its smokescreen, the government can take out everyone who disagrees with them, knowing that because of the fear that terrorism engenders, they will enjoy broad public support.

Over the last couple of years, they have wilfully constructed in the public psyche the idea that people who take their faith seriously (Muslims, Jews and Christians alike) are extremists. It’s generating unprecedented levels of hatred, although the government still happily expects people of faith to remain heavily committed to social action. They want the benefits of outworked faith without the inconvenient belief bit that motivates the action.

Just after the election this summer, David Cameron told the National Security Council that: ‘For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It’s often meant we have stood neutral between different values’. Isn’t that exactly what the government of a liberal democracy should do? But there’s to be no more balancing of the different values of law-abiding citizens. The government is coming after anyone who doesn’t embrace its single set of values.

That adds an ominous new intent to One Nation Conservatism.