Tag Archives: Parenting

MEASURING THE VALUE OF A DISTINCTIVE CHRISTIAN EDUCATION

Odd though it may seem, I spend quite a lot of time reading Ofsted reports. It started last year with the British values debacle and in the intervening year, I’ve become proficient in Ofsted speak and in reading subtext. I can usually see the agenda embedded in the rhetoric.

On 30 September 2015, the Bridge Schools Inspectorate was closed – an Ofsted decision that was proclaimed as tidings of great joy by the National Secular Society. Ofsted declared its intention to re-inspect a range of BSI schools and last week the first tranche of reports was published. As I read the outcomes for the 7 Christian schools involved, several questions came into my mind.

Just to set the scene, these schools are all independent schools, but they are far from the standard indie school model. Fees are often minimal, or based on contribution from parents and the supporting church. Staff often work voluntarily or, in many cases, for minimum or low wages in order to offer the Christian education that they feel called to provide. As a result of the limitations this creates, most of the schools inspected have been criticised for lack of curriculum breadth under that pejorative catch-all ‘failing to prepare children for life in modern Britain’.

So here are the questions that the reports raised. Firstly, who determines what failure looks like? Is Ofsted the sole arbiter of this, or are there other measures that can be applied in making a judgment – like human flourishing; like character; like nurturing secure, happy learners? I ask this because every single report noted that the children are happy. The parents are happy. All students know right from wrong. They play and learn well together, trusting each other and the adults who work with them. Bullying is virtually non-existent and when things go wrong, all children know who to ask for help. They are proud of their schools and their achievements. Who wouldn’t want that for their child?

This isn’t, of course, an issue restricted to Christian schools. Earlier this week, head teacher Colin Harris wrote about happiness in his school. I used to teach in Colin’s school so I know that what he writes is true. It’s a happy school despite the high deprivation and disadvantage of most of the pupils. It’s happy because Colin has created it to be that way. As he also pointed out the previous week, we fail to prioritise pupil well-being at our peril.

The second question is this: exactly when did Ofsted assume the authority to tell parents what is best for their children? Not all the parents of these schools are themselves Christians – most of the schools welcome children of all faiths and none. Parents choose these schools for very specific reasons – because the values of the schools support their values as parents. They do so knowing the limitations. So by what right does Ofsted impose its own narrow definition of success on parents who have largely taken a look at that definition and decided that it isn’t what they want for their children?

It’s a question that relates not just to Christian schools, but also to Orthodox Jewish schools. They are being criticised for failing to prepare their children for life in modern Britain, yet these are children whose schools have permanent guards, whose websites are subject to cyber attacks and who face anti-Semitic abuse in the street as they leave school. It all depends on the aspect of ‘modern Britain’ for which you’re preparing your children.

There is also a presumption by Ofsted that its understanding of life in modern Britain is definitive. It’s a modern Britain in which children have to be taught to deal with abuse; child sexual exploitation; unplanned or early pregnancy; violence against women; exploration of gender identity and a panoply of sexual identities; physical, emotional and cyber bullying; broken and transient personal relationships; a tsunami of mental illness; stress, and the relentless pressure to achieve academic and financial success.

If you aren’t preparing your children for this future, you’re failing, even if you’re raising trusting, honest and respectful children in a home which models love, stability, trust and security. Ofsted wilfully ignores that fact as it exercises a relentless missionary zeal in reducing society to its one-dimensional model. That, I suppose, makes it so much easier exercise power and control.

And the exercise of that power is also about to extend to state faith schools. The Education and Adoption Bill which is currently making its way through parliament will allow the DfE to take over faith schools which it deems to be ‘failing’, in the process conducting a land grab from the churches that own the land and buildings. Henry VIII was the last one to try that, and it didn’t end well.

So, are Christian parents going to lose their right to choose the education they want for their children, even when they are providing it themselves? Is our Catholic Education Service, which was educating children long before the state grudgingly joined the party, going to have to conform or close? Are Orthodox Jewish families no longer going to be allowed to decide what is best for their children, just because their communities don’t endorse a singular social orthodoxy?

So as Ofsted presses on with its mission to value only those things which it can measure, is this the beginning of the end of distinctive faith schooling?

 

EVERY PARENT MATTERS

Greeted by cheers as she visited Mulberry School for Girls this week, Michelle Obama told the girls that: ‘With an education from this amazing school you all have everything, everything you need to rise above all of the noise and fulfil every last one of your dreams’. Education, she said, was the ‘ultimate key’ to success.

The furore surrounding her speech missed a vital point – education may be the key, but the girls will have to pick up the key, turn it in the lock and choose for themselves to walk through the door. To do this, they will need plenty of support, love and encouragement beyond the school gate. As a writer in The Conversation observed this week: ‘It’s absurd to lay all the responsibility for a child’s education at the feet of the school’.

Yet the view persists that if we give children and young people the best education that the world can offer, it will solve all ills. Sir Michael Wilshaw even claimed this week, in the wake of 3 Bradford mothers taking their children to Syria, that schools must teach British values to stop pupils joining ISIS, as if there is some single causal link between off loading a set of ill-defined dogmas in a classroom and the life-defining decisions that the 3 parents have made.  As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child and school is only one building in the village. Every child also has a home.

Education begins at home, from the moment that a child takes the first breath. Talking, playing, singing, reading, laughing, crying, eating together and even encouraging babies to understand that sleeping at night really is advisable for everyone concerned are all part of learning. The more of life we share with our children, the more we are helping them to learn and grow. As we do so, our actions are communicating our values and our children are absorbing them. Far from the start of school being the beginning of education, it’s the point at which the effectiveness of the parental role as first and best educator comes into its own.

This has been clearly proven in research going back over decades, yet successive governments, instead of addressing the issue of supporting parents, have offered more, and earlier, educational opportunity. In the case of this government, that comes layered with plenty of testing to demonstrate policy success. As recently as February, the House of Lords Select Committee report on Affordable Childcare pointed out that childcare is not a magic bullet, and that it cannot make up for the hours in the week that children spend at home. The report recommended that plans needed ‘to be accompanied by support for parents’ to ensure ‘a strong home learning environment’. The response of the government was to double childcare availability.

For Christian parents the vital role of parent as educator is a given – Psalm 127:3 says that ‘Children are a heritage from the Lord’ – a special gift that God gives us; people made in His image who need to be loved and nurtured. Although we utilise formal schooling in our contemporary culture, the principle that God gave to the people of Israel still holds good, that ‘These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up’ (Deuteronomy 6:6). Teaching our children is an integral part of our daily lives and it takes place in the family – the foundational unit of society where we model for our children how we want them to live.

However good the formal education opportunities, it’s nearly always the support, encouragement and interest of parents that ensures that young people choose to pick up the key to success, unlock the door and walk through, with confidence to meet the challenges of life. If the aspirations and hopes of parents and school aren’t in synch, it’s the home environment that usually prevails. There’s a simple reason for this – it’s our parents and our community that define and nurture our identity; it’s where we feel we belong, and so it’s where we want to remain.

Every parent matters, more vitally than governments care to admit. So as well as ensuring that we offer every child an excellent academic education , we also need to give support to parents who can’t, or won’t, offer what their children need most – the support, interest and encouragement of those who love them.

 

IF YOUR FORGET EVERYTHING ELSE, REMEMBER THIS

B1071 Remember_this WEBYou’re sleep deprived as you rise to the challenges of the day: the noise, the mess, the endless activity.  Your arbitration skills are honed to perfection; you could negotiate for the UN.  Your counselling ability is stretched to capacity as you pick up the pieces of broken friendships and broken hearts, or as you bandage sprained imaginations. And lurking just outside your conscious thought is that nagging question: Am I getting this right? If this is you, then you must be a parent.

In which case, you need to read Katharine Hill’s book If you forget everything else, remember this: parenting in the primary years. Instead of this book, I had a How To book. One of my children conformed to the book so closely she could have been given away as a free sample with every copy. From the get go, my other child seemed intent on doing the polar opposite of everything in the book. I’m happy to report that they’ve both arrived in adult life intact, as caring, thoughtful and poised people, happy in their own skin. But if only I had been given this book, instead of the How To book…

The author enjoyed parenthood so much that she embarked on it four times, in the process learning a lot about the vagaries of sharing daily life with small humans. She regales readers with accounts of the day she accidentally left one of her children in London; her son’s creative use of muesli to avoid school, and the inevitable attraction of Coco Pops to the pristine clothes of children dressed for a wedding.

There are laugh-out-loud moments – her husband’s idea of calming down a boys’ sleepover in the small hours with a water pistol. There are poignant moments too – she writes movingly about the day when one of their sons, after years of snuggling into bed with them every morning, suddenly and without notice, stopped. But there is also profound wisdom in each pithy chapter.

Actually, think of it as 42 thoughts – each one short enough to read while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil, but each one thought-provoking enough to make you linger over your cup of tea.  Reflect on the power of words, the value of wonder and imagination and the special role of grandparents. Ponder on how to parent with elastic, how to give your child roots, and how to model values. Think about your parenting style, how you set up boundaries and how you make sure they are kept.  Muse over what it means to laugh together, to eat together, to play together and to cry together.  Deliberate on when to leave your child to face the consequences of their forgetfulness, when to take a walk in his moccasins and how to choose your battles.

But this isn’t just a collection of wise thoughts. It is written by a parent who has been there, done it and worn out the T shirts. Embedded in the overarching themes of love and relationship is an understanding that we’re all in this together, regardless of the differences between our children, our families and our parenting. We all feel guilty. We all feel anxious. And we all ask: Am I getting this right? While this book won’t answer that particular question, it will help you navigate the challenges, face the dilemmas and know that you aren’t the only one asking the question in that exciting, nerve-wracking journey that is parenting.

About the author: Katharine Hill is UK Director for Care for the Family and a popular speaker, writer and broadcaster. She has served as a family lawyer and as a member of the board of the International Commission for Couple and Family Relations. The book is published by Muddy Pearl and retails at £7.50. Click here to read a sample.