NEGOTIATING THE NEW NORMAL

A big picture always sparks my curiosity and none more so than this week, when a new thread appeared in various media. It’s the thought that there must be more to the weary left-right posturing that characterises our political scene; more to society than the inexorable clamour of identity politics where the one who shouts the loudest takes the prize.

Wound into the new thread were discussions about compassion, about human flourishing and about the fact that beyond the economy, beyond school standards, beyond the endless drive of unrelenting social mobility, there are real human people; people living in relationships, in families and in communities. There is a searching for something more; a search that is epitomised by two voices on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Good Right and Blue Labour  are both looking for moral credibility within compassionate politics. Even if their architects (Tim Mongomerie/Stephan Shakespeare and Maurice Glasman respectively) articulate the thinking in different ways, their searches share a similar focus.

And much as it scares the new atheists, who really thought that religion was in the final death throes of an inevitable fade into pre-enlightenment history, the God botherers are not only not going away, they are taking an active part in the debate – witness the Bishops’ pastoral letter.  That particular debate centred on whether the letter was a left wing polemic from people who should leave politics alone and get on with the business of the Church or whether it was a call for a moral compass in politics, but the fact is, there was a debate. Even party political leaders are beginning to realise that they need to engage with people of belief. In an interview for Premier Radio this week, Nick Clegg talked quite openly about going ‘with great joy’ to Mass most weeks with his family. He sometimes thinks it would be wonderful to have faith and if it happens, he says he will embrace it. And he doesn’t have much time for aggressive secularism.

Nor does Maurice Glasman, who says that secularism must not only let go of its superior position, but also accept that faith plays a big part in the lives of many people and so those people must be part of the debate. His preferred route to the common good is clear: ‘Stay in the room and represent our interest and explore how we can be reconciled with others.’ Maybe we have entered a post-secular era, one in which Christians can express their faith in the public square; one where Christians are not forced by statute to conform to the secular liberal agenda.

This is a theme picked up by Archbishop Cranmer, the God and Politics blogger, who suggests that it’s time to reclaim our religious liberty.  We aren’t asking for Christianity to become the dominant culture. We aren’t asking for society to embrace our faith. But we are asking for the freedom to be listened to as part of the social debate and to express views in accordance with ethical and moral values informed by our understanding of the Bible.

What would this mean in education? It would mean that Christian teachers could articulate their worldview without fear of reprisal under the Equality Act. It would mean that children had an opportunity to examine faith in action and understand how it informs what its adherents say, do and think. This will, no doubt, raise the hackles of those whose first and only response is the charge of proselytisation and indoctrination. Well, we have mechanisms in place to deal with that, should it occur, but frankly, I think anyone who seriously believes that you can force a person to believe anything against his or her will has never worked with children or young people.

So, as the move towards compassionate politics and a new found focus on the common good sharpens, consider the fact that Will Hutton, writing in the Observer, chose to sum up what people are searching for by quoting the words of the apostle Paul when writing to the church in Philippi: ‘Finally … whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things’.  Negotiating a new normal from that premise should hold no fear for secularists, and great hope for people of faith.

THERE IS NO MAGIC BULLET

That’s according to the House of Lords Select Committee on Affordable Childcare report, published this week. Currently parents of all three and four year olds, together with 40% of the most disadvantaged two year olds, are offered 15 hours of free weekly education. Ed Miliband plans to extend this to the working parents of all two year olds, as well as offering childcare for all Primary school children by opening schools from 8am until 6pm. But the system has inherent flaws, which Ministers seem to be wilfully ignoring.

The first problem lies in the multiple aims of the policy, which are to: promote child development; narrow the attainment gap for disadvantaged children; enable parents to work, and (implicitly) reduce child poverty by enabling children trapped in inter-generational poverty to break out of the cycle. But this creates a tension – cheap childcare enables parents to work, but provision may not be of a high enough quality to support child development. One policy is seeking to solve two issues; childcare and early education are not the same thing.

The second problem lies in a lack of empirical evidence. There is insufficient data to know whether the policy is having any impact on maternal employment or to judge the effectiveness of spending – many three and four year olds, for example, would be in some form of early education regardless of the policy.

The third problem lies in the nature of provision. The policy is heavily reliant on the Private, Voluntary and Independent sector (PVI) to implement (96% of two year olds access provision this way), but funding inequity means that maintained sector nurseries are given more money than PVI providers. Without adequate funding, these providers cannot employ trained, qualified staff at the same level as the maintained sector. In fact, in many PVI settings, funding does not cover costs, so parents are making additional payments, thus subsidising a government flagship policy which claims to be free.

The fourth problem lies in the clear statement from the Committee that this policy alone is not enough – the home environment is critical and not enough is being done to support this aspect of child development. And this exemplifies the limited effectiveness of single policy solutions. Emergent theory says that social problems are complex and so need a whole picture solution which addresses all the problems in one go. Offering free childcare, giving book gifts at birth, improving housing or expanding Sure Start centres (via charities) all have limited impact, as each strategy addresses just one issue.

A separate report from Jubilee + recently concluded that 52% of children in England access some form of parent and toddler group via churches. Other churches and faith groups also fall into the category of voluntary nursery provision. Christians are motivated to do this because they care, and because they want to live out in practice the law to love your neighbour as yourself.

With the new culture of social investment in childcare’ created by the government this week (for which read ‘rely on the voluntary sector because there’s no money’), it looks probable that whichever government is in power after the election, it will be looking to churches to increase childcare availability. There is no magic bullet, but there are many, many people, motivated by their love for God and love for humans created in His image, who will meet the challenge of giving each and every child and family the opportunity to flourish. That is faith in action.

 

WHY CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING

The Education Select Committee this week published ‘Life lessons: PSHE and SRE in schools’ its report into PSHE/SRE provision, based on a wealth of written evidence and committee interviews. The report shows sympathetic consideration of the many strongly-held views that were expressed, and arrives at a workable solution to the thorny issue of compulsory provision and statutory curriculum content; a solution which also shows that the committee was not brow-beaten by the mouthpieces of identity politics.

There was a strong pull in the evidence base towards using SRE to protect all children from exploitation and abuse, and to protect women and girls against violence. The report  acknowledges this need, but also determines that SRE education should not be a social defence mechanism – it should play a positive part in the raising of children who are empowered to live with integrity.

The report recommends that SRE should be renamed RSE, acknowledging the priority of relationship. It also concludes that provision should become statutory, but with a number of very significant restraints. While parental opt out should be retained (the report appears to accept that ceding this point allows for compulsory provision to go ahead without further opposition), the role of parents is to be strengthened, thus rendering opt out unnecessary in most cases. Curriculum content should not only remain the business of each individual school, but parents and pupils should be actively involved in deciding what is taught – there was even a suggestion that Ofsted should ensure that this is happening.

Based on my experience, this is vitally important, because context is everything.  I once taught in a community where, if you were female, still at school and baby-less at the age of 16, you were more to be pitied than applauded: self-respect was derived from early motherhood. Here’s a conversation I had one day with a proud and delighted nine year old in my class whose 15 year old sister had just had her first baby:

Child:     How old were you when you had your first baby?

Me:    27, why?

Child:  You poor thing. Were you a minger?

Me:    No. There were lots of other things I wanted to do first, and I didn’t want to have a baby until I was married, and I had a home and a job.

Child:    Why? Couldn’t your Mum have helped you look after a baby? You’re entitled to a flat once you’ve got a baby. Don’t you know about benefits?

The child was both curious, and genuinely sad and concerned for me. In that particular community, I was the counter culture.  Their family structures were matriarchal but very strong, with mothers, aunts and older sisters all providing love and support. The transitory nature of the men (many of whom were service personnel) wasn’t seen as a problem and most mothers could work part time, because there was always someone in the extended family  to provide loving childcare. The child’s mother even told me (because she was feeling sorry for me) that I must be a ‘sad cow’ for having had to go to university and having to work.  The idea that I chose to pursue a career was complete anathema to her and she certainly saw her life as being significantly better in quality than mine.

So how do you address the issue of teenage pregnancy when it isn’t seen as a problem? And how would centrally determined SRE address the complexity of a community culture into which early motherhood is so strongly woven? You don’t change an embedded culture with one single SRE policy.

What these recommendations do offer is the opportunity for parents, as first educators of their children, to determine what their children are taught and when. The strength of response to the proposed changes to SRE provision has shown how important it is to parents to be involved in decisions about moral and ethical education, and the report acknowledges this.

For faith schools, it offers the opportunity to teach within the doctrines of their faith. For parents of faith, it offers the opportunity to get involved, to be part of the discussion, and to influence outcomes in a way which isn’t possible under current provision.

What this report tacitly accepts and affirms is that parents, not the state, should have the right to decide what their children are taught. One key subtext of this debate has actually been about the rights of parents versus the rights of the state, particularly those parents whose views are informed by religious belief. If the recommendations are adopted in amendments to education law, it will establish an important precedent. Parents are the first and best educators of their children. Of course we should create a safety net for those children for whom this isn’t their experience, but don’t use it to justify wresting control from all parents. Involve parents. Engage parents. But above all, respect their right to parent.