Tag Archives: Faith schools

THE POWER OF STORIES

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking at the Leeds Prayer Spaces in Schools conference. I chose to talk about the power of stories. Why? Because stories are fundamental to our understanding of the world and they are the way we find a meaningful place in it.

I consider myself to be one of the most fortunate people around. I’ve not only spent much of my life teaching, I’ve also spent most of that time, as a teacher of English and music, immersed in stories. What could be better than introducing students to other people’s stories through literature and music, and then helping them to tell their own stories in words and sound? It really doesn’t get any better: I was storifying in a range of media long, long before the power of stories was realised.

So imagine my delight this week when I came across the Jubilee Centre for Character and Values’ report Knightly Virtues: Enhancing Virtue Literacy Through Stories. The Foreword begins:

‘Only human beings can tell stories. And only human beings can pass them along. To communicate what matters most, we share great narratives from literature, as well as stories from our own lives. In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre (1981: 216) argues that our lives are so deeply narrative that we can only answer the question: ‘What am I to do [with my life]?’ If we can answer the question: ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’

Stories are fun. Stories motivate. Stories spark imagination. They help us to form knowledge; to make sense of our daily experiences and our memories. Stories are where we dream. But above all, stories are universal and it’s through their universality that we build relationships, understanding what it means to be human and learning how to live well with others.

As a Christian and a teacher, this has a particular resonance and it’s one that needs to be understood by all those who clamour for schools and colleges to be secular, neutral spaces. Apart from the fact that neutrality is impossible (everybody believes something), my faith is integral to my story. It informs my understanding of the world around me. It shapes who I am. I can no more leave my faith in the car park when I go into a school than I can leave my personality.

When Philip Pullman’s General Oblation Board separated children from their daemons, creativity, intelligence and will were reduced; sometimes even obliterated. And so it is with the content of people’s stories. You cannot separate people from any part of their unique story and still retain whole, vibrant, creative people.

An article in The Conversation this week examined the increasingly vehement debate about religion and secularism, while a group of parents, with the backing of the British Humanist Association, is going to court to get humanism included in the RE syllabus. What this actually says is that we have become unwilling to listen to each other’s stories and as a result, we no longer have the necessary vocabulary to discuss them. So how can we make sense of what is happening in our schools, our communities, our society and our world when belief plays such a significant role in its events?

I would suggest that we could do so through stories. We live in a pluralist society, so no one story should dictate social orthodoxy. We should learn to respect each other’s stories and the experiences and beliefs that have shaped them. Christians and other people of faith are often accused of indoctrination and proselytisation as a means of trying to separate them from their stories in the public square. Why?

It’s in the values that we all share that our stories overlap and offer hope of a better future. Maybe one reason why faith schools are so successful in nurturing rounded humans is because those values aren’t just discussed. They are worked out in practice, in the messy business of everyday living in community. And in doing so, those values become virtues.

So instead of trying to impose a singular, secular ideology, why not find common ground in the nurturing of those virtues that we all share, regardless of religious or non-religious belief. When that happens, nobody will need to silence those with whom they don’t agree. We won’t need an Equalities Act to enforce by statute what we are currently unable to do by individual will – respect each other regardless. Just because.

I am Christian. Please respect my story. It defines me. Trying to silence me is to limit my ability to flourish as a fellow human. In return, I will respect your story as fundamental to your identity as we work together to give hope for the future to the students we teach.

 

TRUST, THANKS AND LOVE

A couple of weeks ago I was pootling around on Twitter, as you do, clicking on links, reading the first line or two of various blogs and then moving on. One blog caught my eye – Secondary schools – trust, thank and love your Primaries.  I clicked. I started reading.  I read to the end. I cheered. Here’s why.

I have never, in my whole career, heard that level of acknowledgement from a Secondary Head. Transition every year is effective, only to be followed in September with dark mutterings about our level 5 not looking anything like their level  5. But then, Primary education is only about teaching children to colour by numbers, isn’t it? And Primary leaders are just the people who write the numbers. There’s always that unspoken thought that we’re just childminding until the real work of education begins – and always that delicious moment when Secondary NQTs spend their compulsory day with us and crawl away at 3.30, pale and exhausted, asking how on earth we do it day in, day out. One day is quite enough to put them off for life.

The blog touched on various issues that I found compelling. Firstly (with heartfelt thanks to John Dexter) was the observation that we are ‘fairly expert at everything’. I’ve heard non-specialist, I’ve heard generalist, I’ve even heard jack-of-all-trades, but I’ve never heard acknowledgement that we ‘seem to know everything’. We don’t of course – often we learn from, or with, our children or we’re only a step or two ahead of them, but great Primary teachers aren’t afraid to admit gaps and root out the knowledge needed to fill them. I once heard a colleague describe how she would (to her family’s intense embarrassment) dumpster dive to retrieve useful bits and bobs for craft work or display. The analogy wasn’t wasted on us that we do the same with knowledge.

Another acknowledgement I read into the blog’s subtext was that Primary teachers speak fluent child.  People mistakenly assume that children are just mini-adults waiting to grow up. They aren’t. They’re a species all their own; childhood is a unique space in its own right, not a waiting room for later life. Great Primary teachers know this and they are experts in equipping children to deal with the ‘ups and downs of life … meeting issues of ill parents, or bereavement perhaps for the first time’.  As the blog also comments, we know a great deal about our children’s families including, sometimes, those details that parents might be horrified to know that we know (yes, Mrs X, if your son’s friends are taking an inordinate interest in your kitchen it’s because he really did tell all the Year 6 boys in a Sex Ed Q+A session that you keep your contraceptive pills attached to the pin board so that you don’t forget to take one every day).

Then John moves on to consider the question of how ethos is communicated. He found part of the answer in visits to his feeder Primaries – it starts in Primary school. He is also Head of a faith school, so ethos is clearly defined. The schools in the Trust share chaplains, families worship in parish communities and Priests are involved in the life of the schools. Part of the answer also lies in the fact that he is now part of a Multi-Academy Trust which facilitates genuine partnership. There are a whole range of points where Trust, church, community, Priests, chaplains, teachers and managers intersect. And this is education at its best. As I often say, it takes a village to raise a child and there are a lot of buildings in the village, all of which have a part to play in raising the next generation of adults who understand community, the common good and the need for human flourishing.

I read John’s blogs regularly and I thoroughly recommend them. They’re full of passion, enthusiasm and hope. He isn’t afraid to think aloud and ask questions to which he is exploring answers. And above all, he is about relational living – with students, colleagues and the wider communities that touch his own.

When asked by an expert in the law what the greatest commandment was, Jesus answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22: 37-39). Christ’s two greatest commands are concerned with relationships – with God and with others and that is the heartbeat of missional teaching.

So, Mr Dexter, thank you for your blog. I hope that it will encourage all Christians working in the amazing world of education to trust, thank and love each other as we build those relationships.

 

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.