MORE THAN A NUMBER IN THE DfE BOOK

Until 1999, when you went to school, you were a person; you had a name. After 1999, you were a number – a unique pupil number (UPN) admittedly, but a number nevertheless. The purpose of said number was to facilitate data transfer between schools so that pupils could be tracked. But it was also a tool for raising standards: Local Authorities access the data for target setting and monitoring, and central government uses it to evaluate and monitor policy. I was told once, when working with a DfE Primary Strategy Team, that modelling allows analysts to project GCSE outcomes from early years data with reasonable accuracy, and also to predict probable A level and Higher Education potential.

So far, so good. Until, that is, we inhabit not just a culture of measurement which subjects children to a relentless testing regime, but also a system which has annexed education to the singular purpose of economic growth. The latest plan, whether or not it is best for the child, is to encourage parents to put children in school nurseries shortly after their second birthday to get them ‘school ready’. Tony Blair’s administration is responsible for starting this, with his view that ‘education is the best economic policy there is’. What he started, the current government is continuing, with unadulterated enthusiasm.  Everything, but everything, is servant to the economy, as beleaguered teachers stand by their corporate conveyor belts awaiting performance related pay judgments.

Take character education – when it first entered the arena, many of us breathed a sigh of relief that common sense was finally starting to prevail; that policy makers were showing some realisation that pupils are people not production units, and that schools are communities, not exam factories. The relief was short lived. Extolling the virtue of hard work, the DfE declared that: ‘Knuckling down and succeeding in school puts an average of £140,000 in a young person’s back pocket’.  One of the schools in receipt of a Character Award was recognised for the improvement of its pupils’ job prospects through developing ‘resilience, resourcefulness, reflectiveness, reciprocity and respect’. At the award ceremony, Nicky Morgan finally came out with the unambiguous statement: ‘Character building remained a priority for the government … This is all about building a strong economy.’  So not about building better people for the common good, then.

The Prime Minister joined in, too, telling the Institute of Directors that ‘children need to know how money is made and to turn a profit’. Addressing BETT, the education technology show, in January, Ms Morgan sang the praises of a future technology that could ‘link qualifications to tax data, in order to demonstrate the true worth of certain subjects’. Conclusion: money making subjects worthy, all other subjects worthless (and as someone with an apparently worthless arts degree, this one made me cross. Very cross). She’s already well on the way to achieving her aim, as she used the data from a commissioned report on ‘the earnings and employment returns to A levels’ to issue a press release announcing that ‘Science and maths send girls’ future wages soaring’. Note the emotive language. Boys not included.

You might, like me, think that at least pupil premium was about enabling and enriching the lives of disadvantaged children. How naive could I be?  David Laws was happy to demonstrate that participation in arts or sports can put a pupil two months ahead in the three Rs. And the value of a school trip? A three month boost to academic performance: enrichment and joy value unknown.  But here’s the real kick – £200 per disadvantaged student per year could raise achievement by five PISA points.  The only problem is, education should be about peoples’ lives, not a vanity project rating for the government.

Contrast this with a Christian perspective. The Bible says that we are created in the image of God; we are unique in his creation. Psalm 139:14 tells us that we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’. Anyone who works with children and young people knows this. They are funny, quirky, smart, curious and above all, individually and uniquely human. Each one is different. Each one is special. Education, if it is about anything, should be about nurturing each and every person; about helping  them to flourish; about contributing to the common good. That involves academic learning, character building, social development and the modelling of values. It involves playing a part in their preparation for adult life. If we get that right, fulfilment of potential will follow.

So, do we want to enter each unique pupil number on the DfE spreadsheet that measures value only in economic worth? Or do we want to nurture each unique, special person, regardless of their future economic value?

HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE THE FAITH SCHOOLS?

A brief history of education, before I define the problem that faith schools are heading towards.  Until 1870, the church (both Anglican and Catholic) provided most of England’s available education; everyone seemed quite happy with this status quo, apart from the National Education League which began campaigning in 1869 for free non-religious education.

In 1870 the first Education Act provided for national education, through a series of locally elected and funded school boards. Unlike ‘voluntary’ (mostly church) schools, the new state schools were to be non-denominational, a designation which persists 145 years later.

The 1880 Education Act made education compulsory between the ages of five and ten and during that decade, provision of special schools also became statutory. Church and state co-existed quite peacefully in the cloistered world of education, apart from a blip during the debating of the 1902 Education Act which brought church and state schools under the same funding umbrella. It led to cries against ‘Rome on the rates’, before education continued cheerfully on its way, with the foundations of the current situation firmly laid.

The 1944 Education Act saw a further clarification of the relationship between church schools and the state; it also made the teaching of religious education and a daily act of corporate worship which is broadly Christian in nature statutory in all schools. Nearly half a century then passed with nothing much changing. In spite of considerable Commonwealth immigration, the Judaeo-Christian foundation stones of English culture remained the social norm.

In 1997, Tony Blair came to power. Things changed rapidly. Under his management, church schools increased in number – an increase which his administration was keen to encourage, not least his Education Secretary, David Blunkett, who once said that he wanted to ‘bottle the magic’ of Christian schools. Their growth became increasingly contentious as the arguments over admissions, curriculum content and staffing crystallised. In 2002, evangelical Christian Sir Peter Vardy came under fire for the alleged teaching of creationism and the issue of biblical fundamentalism was placed firmly on the agenda, where it has remained ever since.

But this wasn’t the only change. The first state funded Muslim schools also opened. In an interview with Jeremy Paxman in 2002, Tony Blair said about church schools (redesignated faith schools in acknowledgement that provision now encompassed non-Christian schools), ‘I think there is a strong case for faith schools because I think parents often like to have their children brought up with the certain ethos that they believe in … we have had faith schools for years in this country, the issue is simply whether we say to the Muslim community, you can have Christian faith schools, you can have Jewish faith schools but you can’t have Muslim faith schools, I don’t know how I would explain that to them’.

And so to today: we have Church of England, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and non-denominational schools, and the debate rolls on about the place of religion in public life, the role of education in alleged social segregation, and the rights of faith schools to admit pupils and select staff using different rules.

This conflict has sharpened further in the last year. The redefinition of marriage in 2014 and the LGBT focused Ofsted British values agenda of recent months have brought faith schools into conflict with Ofsted, as the DfE seeks to impose a new liberal secular orthodoxy regardless of individual conscience. These are real and complex problems for faith schools; problems that require real and complex answers. It doesn’t help that Nicky Morgan, on the matter of British values, is ‘unwilling to “lay down rules” about how the requirement [for active promotion] was to be interpreted’.

But here’s the problem with which I started out. Tony Blair’s desire to be fair in allowing non-Christian faith schools is understandable, perhaps commendable. But at the same time, David Bell, his Chief Inspector, was warning that faith schools, particularly Muslim schools, needed to be carefully monitored as they could become a threat to national identity.

The imposition of a 50% open admissions policy is fine in theory, but the reality is that non Muslims don’t want to go to, or teach in, Muslim schools. Non Sikhs don’t want to go to Sikh schools. So what happens when there is no choice, when this is the only school place you are offered? Where non-Christian faith schools are filling gaps in local provision, this is increasingly going to become the problem with non-Christian faith school provision.

Just what do you do when the school in which you are offered a place is not representative of your cultural identity? To what extent will non-Christian faith schools be required to adapt in order to accommodate all cultures and faiths, in the way that church schools have already done? You can have food fusion. You can have music fusion. You cannot have faith fusion.  The DfE may repeat ‘preparing pupils for life in modern Britain’ as a mantra in every press release, speech and document, but what is the definition of modern Britain – now? And in the future?

The debate engulfing faith schools is a microcosm of what should be a wider social debate; a debate on the definition of our national identity. Instead, a new social orthodoxy is steadily being forged in the smithy of our education service.

 

 

 

THE REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION OF FAITH

‘We are faced with two roads — one of narrow ideology and the other of broad tolerance and co-existence — and the Department for Education is at the heart of the decision about which road to take’ claims Sir Edward Leigh, MP. His pertinent observation came on the same day as the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) issued an interim report on its survey of ‘Religion or belief in the workplace’ and days after the Council of Europe passed a resolution calling for reasonable accommodation of belief, with particular reference to Christianity. So where does this leave faith in education?

It leaves a situation of great confusion, but with clear guidance from the Council of Europe and the promise of advice from the EHRC on clarification of the law. It’s obvious from the EHRC report that some employers offer genuinely diverse workplaces where staff feel valued and coexist peacefully. But it’s also clear that some employers are (some wilfully and some in ignorance) abusing the right of their staff to tolerance, respect and reasonable accommodation within the needs of the organisation. That’s something of which I have personal experience, having been told that my career progression was at an end for courteously declining to abandon my Sunday school class, my right to worship and my right to family time, in order to attend school social functions on Sundays.

But legal clarification does nothing to deal with the everyday frustrations caused by poor communication, the determination of one person to exert their rights over another or the instant assumption of offence where none is intended. It does nothing to overcome the Christian=homophobic, Christian=extremist, Christian=proselytiser rhetoric that predominates. At its heart is relationship; the ability to respect expression of belief and the ability to express that belief positively and respectfully. Schools, you would hope, are places where positive relationship building is part of the community ethos. Sadly, this is not always so.

One parent described how her son was told that he wouldn’t be getting any Christmas presents because he didn’t believe in God – the school took no action on her complaint saying that it had been a joke. Pupils with and without religious beliefs described being ridiculed by teachers because of their views. Christian parents expressed concern that their children were being mocked by teachers for their beliefs, particularly relating to the issue of creation.

This situation has been made much worse by the knee jerk reaction of the DfE in its rushed implementation of the British values agenda. Fiona Bruce MP  has called for proper consultation and clarification, following a number of questionable Ofsted inspections of faith schools which clearly demonstrated lack of understanding (possibly wilful, possibly not) by inspectors, many of them HMIs. In a letter to MPs, Nicky Morgan herself described the inclusion of the Equality Act 2010 as a British value as marking ‘a dramatic change in education policy’. In the current climate of identity politics, the lack of clarification has led to some protected characteristics being promoted and those of others (namely faith and belief) being trampled on.  As Edward Leigh also observed in the debate, ‘the vague school standards allow Ofsted to treat social conservatives as extremists’.

So which direction will the Department for Education take? At the moment there is just one narrow ideology permeating the corridors of power, and the thinking of many people within the profession, who would like to see faith become an entirely private matter. It’s an ideology that masquerades as liberal, yet promotes intolerance of faith. It claims to be neutral and fair to all, yet it disregards the democratic right of everyone in a pluralist democracy to express the views that make them who they are.

The way ahead is to build bridges not barriers, but to do that, there has to be acceptance of the right of every individual to speak freely in the public square.  While I’ve been writing, someone has tweeted me to say that her Catholic school is chosen by Muslims because they teach all faiths and the ethos encourages respect for all. That is the route to peaceful co-existence and reasonable accommodation.