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PRAYER SPACES IN SCHOOLS

What is Prayer Spaces in Schools?

It’s a project of 24-7 Prayer which is accountable to 24-7 Prayer’s oversight team and Trustees. It’s a resource hub to support, resource and encourage the rapidly growing network of prayer space practitioners who run prayer or reflective spiritual spaces in schools. A small team manages the website, encourages the sharing of resources, supports local networks and training workshops, and keeps the prayer space community connected.

 

What is a prayer space?

Prayer spaces enable children and young people, whether or not they have a faith, to explore the big questions relating to their identity and the purpose, meaning and experiences of their lives. A prayer space usually pops up in a classroom or similar space for a few days. Activities encourage those who are taking part to reflect on issues such as forgiveness, injustice and thankfulness. Some schools bring classes to a prayer space for a lesson, while other schools offer the opportunity as a voluntary time and space for personal and spiritual reflection.

The website is the best place to start exploring what prayer spaces are and how they are organised – it includes an excellent section on Values and a video in which chaplains, students and staff explain how a prayer space can support spiritual life.

 

How have students responded to prayer spaces?

With great enthusiasm! They comment on the peace, the stillness and the chance to reflect. They sometimes surprise themselves by their reflections and the realisation of how many different ways there are to pray. They are willing to be vulnerable and honest with themselves and often children want to take their parents to the prayer space, too, so that they can share in the experience. Above all, they value the personal time and the safe emotional space that is so lacking in other areas of their lives.

 

Are Heads and staff happy to host a prayer space?

Feedback from heads and teachers is overwhelmingly positive. They talk about the quality of the interaction between adults and children, the opportunity for children to find a voice, the value in bringing the school community together in a shared experience and the benefit of time to be still and reflect. Some staff have noticed the difference it is making to individual pupils and several schools have benefited so much that they want to create a permanent prayer space.

The contribution to the RE and PSHE curricula (RME and Health and Wellbeing in Scotland) is valued by teachers, parents and governors of all faiths and none as activities are in line with government guidelines and meet the statutory requirement to support the spiritual, moral and social development of pupils.

 

Can anyone run a prayer space?

Yes, if you want to serve your local school community and contribute to the spiritual and pastoral development of students. Talking to a local support network would be a good idea if you want to know more. Check out the Getting Started page of the website and read some of the stories to get a feel for how prayer spaces work.

 

So how would I go about starting one?

Prayer spaces work best when they are part of the ongoing spiritual and pastoral life of a school, so if you want to start a prayer space, you need to think about any relationships that already exist – maybe your church with a local school, or you with staff or governors. To facilitate a prayer space, you will need to meet with someone in the school who has responsibility either for RE or school leadership. That’s where any connections you, or your church or youth worker have with a school comes in. When you have arranged a meeting, check out the Serving the School Community section of the Prayer Spaces website, which gives you detailed information about what to take to an initial meeting and what to talk about.

 

What do I do next if the school wants to go ahead?

The Prayer Spaces in Schools website is an amazing resource. It’s crammed full of the advice and support you will need as you embark on all the hard work and planning, including Choosing the Prayer Activities Recruiting and Training a Team and Publicity and Preparation. There’s a section on the exciting bit – Running your Prayer Space and finally What Next? – supporting the ongoing spiritual life of the school community with which you are in relationship through your prayer space.

Finally, don’t forget to register your prayer space. It’s easy to overlook but it’s a very important step. Not only will it keep you in touch with resources and stories from others, it will allow the organisation to track where prayer spaces are popping up around the world and to keep you connected with others, maybe in your area, who are involved in their schools. Registration is all about getting, and staying, connected in the prayer space community.

 

NEW SETTLEMENT OR OLD ARGUMENTS?

The Westminster Faith Debate report A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools has, as expected, provoked heated debate. Is it time for a new settlement? Yes, and then again, no.

There are several problems with the report’s assumptions. The first is its definition of religion as a sociological phenomenon that just won’t go away. And if it won’t go away, then it has to be accommodated or endured. And if it has to be accommodated, let’s make sure that it’s as inoffensive and bland a form of religion as we can possibly make it – an amalgam to bond society. That’s 3 assumptions stemming from a limited understanding of spirituality.

The report is much more far-reaching than anything that has gone before with its proposal for all faith and independent schools to be ‘invited’ to the party, but it’s also hardly surprising. Matt Ridley in an attack on faith schools last year argued that faith is a ‘virulent infection’ and the best protection against it is ‘a mild and attenuated form of the … virus’ viz. the nationalised fusion curriculum that this report advocates.

On the issue of abolishing a statutory requirement for collective worship I broadly agree with the report’s suggestions and I agree for very personal reasons. We live near a Buddhist monastery which my children visited as part of their Religion and Philosophy curriculum. But when one of my children was told that she also had to take part in temple worship, she refused. As she met with no support from the teacher concerned (himself a Christian) I stepped in. I was upset by 2 things – a refusal to accept that no pupil should be forced to participate in an activity against their will and also the blank incomprehension of why I might want to deprive my child of such an amazing opportunity.

I’m right with the Rt Rev John Prichard on this when he said that ‘the problem is with the word ‘worship’ [which] is by definition a voluntary activity, and I think it may be better to reframe the discussion, and to call this time that we are discussing spiritual reflection’. I have a real problem with requiring children to worship within any religion until they wish to make that choice for themselves.  Reframing collective worship as a time of spiritual reflection and allowing schools to define this in accordance with their ethos is, to my way of thinking, a reasonable step, as long as faith schools are allowed to interpret this from their distinctive perspective.

If this happened, I would fully support the removal of parental opt-out. If you sign up to a faith school, you know what you’re getting – choosing faith education for academic reasons then opting out of the religious bits really is cheating. But this is where the report is very clever and carries more than a whiff of the Accord Coalition/Tristram Hunt arguments that were aired last year. Having tacitly accepted that parent power alone would secure the continuation of faith schools, they changed tack. Now they are harnessing that power to ensure that with a 50% open admissions policy, enough parents will object to the faith ethos to dilute it beyond effectiveness.

I’m also right with this report in defining British values as counter-propaganda, although less supportive of the view that RE is the place to park the only critical discussion that will lead to a liberal democracy, particularly when it’s a very illiberal liberalism that is being proposed. The report is peppered with reasons for this liberal kickback:

‘churches are taking more radical ‘counter-cultural’ stances against a perceived secular mainstream …  The influence of more conservative and ‘fundamentalist’ elements of religion relative to less activist liberal or ‘moderate’ majorities is also likely to increase … Currently, the most serious concerns are those to do with Islamic and far right forms of extremism, but we have noted the growing power of more conservative elements in all religions’.

It’s less to do with liberal ideology and more to do with feeling threatened by the perception of power bases, outside of government control and among those inconvenient people who take their faith seriously. That’s why the report even suggests the inspection of Christian family prayers and Sunday schools ‘to safeguard against abuse or coercion’. It simultaneously asserts that ‘Religious instruction should be principally the responsibility of religious communities and families’ and that the state should control even these expressions of faith by inspection.

So is it time for a new settlement? Yes, I think it is. There is much to commend in the report regarding the teaching of RE and provision for spiritual development in secular maintained schools. But to suggest that faith schools must abandon a distinctive curriculum and its inspection by people who understand its purpose, is a step way too far. Anyone who wants to remove faith schools should say so, and campaign to close them down. Except, because that can’t possibly happen, we have ethos reassignment by stealth.

In a survey that Christians in Education is conducting, a participant observed that secularist curriculum influences can sometimes be tricky to spot; they’re so embedded in our thinking that we just don’t notice them any more. I think it applies to this report, too. Although it seems to suggest an entirely reasonable way forward, it is actually just a set of old arguments brought together and dressed up in new clothes. The real message is conformity to a liberal secular agenda until, through a sustained programme of inoculation by fuzzy liberalism, the social phenomenon of faith is one day eradicated.

Thank goodness we don’t live in France, where you can’t start school without an inoculation certificate. Or maybe that’s the next step.

OPEN THE BOOK

Everyone loves a good story. We all love to tell them and we all love to listen to them. Story telling is the way we make sense of the world and our place in it. From TV news broadcasts, soaps and documentaries to social and print media, books and film, our lives are full of stories. Teachers, parents and carers alike all know the value of a good story.

The Bible is often described as the greatest story ever told – the story of God’s interaction with his world and its people. With 66 books and some 40 authors, it spans thousands of years of history from the beginning of our universe to the establishment of the Christian church. It even ends by talking about the eternal future of humanity – no other history book does that!  But the Bible isn’t just a history book. All of contemporary life is there in the stories – love, hate, jealousy, greed, families, sibling rivalry, heroism, bravery, friendship and self-sacrifice.

In 1999, a group of Christians in Bedford started telling these stories in school assemblies/acts of collective worship. But this was no dreary reading of the Bible. The stories were brought to life through interactive drama using mime, costume, props, puppets and sound effects. Children, and even staff, got involved. The concept became so popular that Open the Book became a national charity and, in 2013, part of the Bible Society. Thousands of children for whom the Bible might have remained a closed book have seen it come alive in front of them.

Open the Book is a three year rolling programme of themed and dramatised Bible story telling. Stories are from the child-friendly Lion Storyteller Bible written by the internationally known children’s storyteller Bob Hartman. Teams of volunteers formed from local churches provide assemblies at no charge to schools. Each story takes between 10 and 15 minutes to tell so it can stand alone or be incorporated into an assembly. There is also an introduction and conclusion for each story, a time of quiet reflection and the option of a prayer, carefully worded to respect the different backgrounds of all children present.

The strength of Open the Book is that the team will come weekly – this isn’t just a one-off visit. Storytellers are given the option to be trained and they stay within the legal requirements for collective worship – stories are simply presented without any teaching or application. Demands on the school are minimal and volunteers understand their role as invited guests in each school. There are several benefits to schools inviting a team to share with them, not least the fact that OFSTED and SIAS reports are very positive. It also gives an opportunity for local churches to work together, for schools to meet local Christians, and for children to hear stories which are important for them to know.

Children are overwhelmingly positive about Open the Book – many have never heard the stories before. They say that it seems as though the stories are really happening, that Open the Book is their favourite assembly each week and that they love seeing the teams in school.

If you work in a school, perhaps you could think about inviting a team into your school. If you love sharing Bible stories with children, perhaps you could become a trained volunteer. If you are part of a church, perhaps you could encourage your church to form an Open the Book team. Whoever you are and whatever your role, as a parent, governor, member of staff or a member of a local church, you could play a part. You only need to Google ‘Open the Book’ to see just how many schools are enjoying the opportunity.  Why not make your school one of them?

To find out more, visit the Open the Book website, which is full of information for schools, churches and volunteers. To get involved or if you have any questions , email the team at enquiries@openthebook.net