The election is over and the process of forming a functioning government begins. Education stood mostly in the wings of the pre-election theatre as the economy dominated centre stage. That should hold no surprise – the sole purpose of education for the last ten years has been to serve the burgeoning needs of The Economy, as though it is some sort of Minotaur demanding the constant sacrifice of our children’s wholeness and wellbeing.
The economy has become our master rather than our servant. Consumerist thinking is embedded in the curriculum. Endless testing narrows definitions of success, with the promise of more new tests for four year olds this year, and even more rigorous tests for 11 year olds next year – tests that 30% are expected to fail. Just as the ever-increasing burden of taxation broke the English peasants in 1381, so the ever-increasing burden of the exam factory culture is breaking our children and young people as we face the tsunami of their mental and emotional illness.
So what of education in the future? I believe that it can be a beacon of hope, a source of nurturing the wholeness and wellbeing of which our children and young people have been robbed. But my hope is informed by my faith and the radical changes needed will take courage to embrace. As a Christian, I don’t see pupils as economic units, with minds to be crammed with exam facts which are promptly forgotten, with advice to be given about the subjects to study in order to maximise future economic success. My understanding of personhood is very different. I see unique people, each created in the image of God, loved unconditionally by God and therefore to be respected, nurtured, raised and educated in an environment in which they can flourish. I want the same as every other parent, carer or teacher. I want the best for every child, my own as well as everyone else’s. But my definition of ‘best’ is for potential to be nurtured so that we can flourish, so that we can become the people God created us to be, not the economically successful consumers that governments need us to be.
Education should be multi-faceted: it should be personal, social, cultural, intellectual, physical, moral and spiritual. But the materialism of our culture has militated against this, to the virtual exclusion of all but the intellectual. Music and the arts have become mere tools to enhance academic performance, while physical education has been annexed to the battle against obesity, rather than areas of learning which enrich, enthuse and inspire for their own sake. Fun, pleasure in learning and curiosity still thrive where teachers are determined to make space for their flourishing, but the most centralised education department for years has seemed intent on its destruction. It not only needs to be restored, it needs to be acknowledged as the engine that drives all learning.
Individualism and the cult of self (the logical outcome of narrowed definitions of success and pursuit of wealth) have forced us into a position where we have to teach PSHE. We need lessons to teach children what we once knew – how to care for and respect ourselves, how to live in community, how to contribute to the common good, and how to build strong, lasting relationships. We may even have to teach all young children how to protect themselves from exploitation, rather than dealing rigorously with the exploiters in order to preserve our children’s right to childhood.
And it’s no good leaving this to schools, as successive governments are wont to do. Research shows that when there is a mismatch between words and actions, children copy actions. We teach about respect, dignity, compassion, understanding, honesty, humility and caring for others above ourselves. We nurture and model it in community within our schools, but actions in wider society speak louder than words in school.
The answer lies in the values which we, as a society, choose to adopt. Even this agenda, which promised early hope, has now been diverted to serve the standards machine, with resilience and grit apparently needed in order to maximise test results. But what if we chose to anchor our communities in shared values for the common good? Values such as justice, fairness, gratitude, honesty, patience, tolerance and collaboration? These are values that unite people of all faiths and people of none, if they genuinely care about building a diverse, strong and mature society.
It will take courage to slay the monster of the economy and the myth that it must dominate our education service. But if we want education to be the beacon of hope that society needs, if we want to give our children and young people back their dignity and self-respect, if we want them to be whole, well and effective people, it’s a step that we must take.
Thirty six years ago (almost to the day) Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. She famously quoted the words incorrectly attributed to St Francis:
‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy,’
What sort of society would we nurture if, rather than that being used as a political mantra, it was the aim of each and every one of us in our daily lives?
Faith schools have taken quite a battering in the last few years. The charges against them are varied: there’s the indoctrination argument, the social segregation argument, the unfair admissions argument and the neutral public space argument, thinly disguised as a legal wrangle about admissions protocols. Ofsted has waded in with its wildly enthusiastic rooting out of homophobia in faith schools then, following the public outcry that resulted, making a subtle shift in approach by taking the standards of English teaching as a route into enforcing conformity.
Despite all of this, faith schools, it seems, will remain part of the fabric of our education provision. The meddling with admissions procedures will continue and no doubt the National Secular Society will continue to oppose any expression of faith in the public square, but faith schools remain enduringly popular with parents. This week, however, a couple of new issues arose, which might change public perceptions.
Firstly, the Church of England seems to have started attacking itself from the inside. Martin Hislop, vicar of St Luke’s in Kingston on Thames, is reported to be dropping church attendance as a criteria for admission to St Luke’s Primary School on the grounds that he feels ‘uncomfortable’ about accusations of parental gaming and that the need to record church attendance did not contribute to a ‘positive and affirming atmosphere’ in the parish. Doubtless parents do game the system in a range of subtle ways and not just for church school admissions – moving house into the catchment area of a good school is reasonably common and the use of a family member’s address for those outside of the catchment area isn’t unknown.
What the Vicar’s decision will do is trigger a price war on houses in the school catchment area which will probably secure the very demographic that critics of faith schools abhor. It will almost certainly discriminate against less affluent families and narrow the intake, so parents will still game the system, just by another method, I guess it will, at least, release them from unwilling church attendance.
This move is part of a growing trend in the Church of England – a group of clergy even published a letter earlier this month urging open admissions. In principle the idea may well be defendable, but it also raises the issue of those Christian parents who choose a church school for its faith ethos, not for the quality of its education. Why should families who genuinely worship in their local parish church, who commit time, money and energy to its work and who do so because they love God and not to game the system, be barred from their children attending that church’s school?
This issue was further complicated this week by the news that due to the shortage of school places, 20 families have been given places at a Sikh faith ethos school that they didn’t request. It’s an issue which I touched on in an earlier blog, and one which has been brought into sharp focus by the reactions of one particular parent. He said: ‘We strongly believe in education being secular and not based on any one faith – and we expressly stated in our original application that we wanted a non-religiously affiliated education for our daughter.’ They had deliberately not applied for their nearest school because it was Church of England.
So what happens when parents find themselves in this position? Human rights treaties give parents and guardians the right to educate their children in accordance with their religious faith and their morals and that is true for atheist and secular parents just as it is true for parents of faith. What education managers and politicians seem not to understand is the distinctiveness of faith ethos schools. Just as one example given by a parent delegated to a Sikh ethos school: will the school include meat on the school dinners menu, when Sikh ethos is strictly vegetarian? Will children be allowed meat or fish in their lunchboxes if this is against school principles? And although RE teaches about a range of faiths, each day starts with Sikh prayers. Parents have the right to opt their children out of these, but what will the social effect be? And how can they become integrated into a community when they are opted out of parts of each day?
So what is the future for faith schools? If faith education is to mean anything, it must mean distinctiveness within each faith. To do otherwise is to reduce faith education to nothing more than a caring school where moral standards are nurtured and a holistic approach defines the school ethos. There are many schools like this with no faith ethos, so what would be the difference?
Church of England, Catholic and Jewish schools have a longer tradition of education than the state, but Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools are the new kids on the block and their entry raises questions about how we define faith education and who can, and can’t, access it. It also leaves unanswered the question of compulsion and whether parents can be forced to absorb spare capacity in schools which contradict the beliefs with which they choose to raise their children. Maybe this will be the next debate surrounding the continued functioning of faith schools …
‘Excuse the cynicism but my idea of the “Good Life” is not shoving my 3 and 4 year olds in 30 hours of state childcare to ensure I pay tax’ tweeted a mother this week, as political parties vie to outdo each other in the childcare stakes. It has become the educational issue of the election, far outstripping any dialogue about teacher shortages and primary school place shortages, both of which could tip our education service into crisis.
All parties are suspiciously quiet (one might almost suspect a conspiracy of silence) about future school structures, governance, inspection and funding. Little is being said about the future of school curricula or how to protect education from the constant political meddling of people who understand little about what students might need to learn and even less about how they learn.
Promises of childcare, of course, court voters, because more childcare means more parents (usually mothers) returning to work. The more parents return to work, the more tax revenue for the Exchequer and the more money being trickled into our nascent economy. The earlier children are put into care, the better their educational attainment and the more they can earn as adults. Ka-ching! Vote for childcare because everybody wins. Or do they?
As I wrote in a previous blog, there is no magic bullet. There is some evidence of positive impact on disadvantaged children, but also a conclusion that home life is more important and a suggestion in one study that early gains may well be lost by the end of primary school. There is evidence that school-based nurseries have a greater impact on learning because staff are qualified, but many are closing because of inadequate funding or the pressure to create more Reception class spaces. Private and voluntary provision is popular with parents because of its greater flexibility, but it has much less impact on early learning and is also facing a funding crisis.
So what might be on offer from the new government? There is broad consensus between the main parties. The Conservatives have pledged to double current provision for 3 and 4 year olds to 30 hours per week, creating 600,000 new childcare places. Labour is promising 25 hours plus wraparound care for all primary school children from 8am to 6pm. Lib Dems promise 20 free hours from the age of 9 months, when parental leave runs out.
But the move could backfire. Funding sources remain vague, which could turn out to cause the death of any government’s childcare promises. Nurseries are already closing because the funding for 15 free hours doesn’t meet the real cost, so doubling the hours will just double the problem. Funding, in fact, will probably come from the new DfE opportunity for ‘social investment’ hence the party leaders’ courting of the Christian vote. At the recent Festival of Life, David Cameron even resurrected his Big Society concept, saying that Christians are: ‘the Big Society in action’. By caring for the ill, mentoring teenagers and providing aid overseas, he said that ‘Christians are working for a better Britain. Like Jesus turning water into wine, you turn loneliness into companionship, you turn deprivation into comfort, you turn lost lives into lives with purpose’. It’s not Christians who bring about the transformation, of course, but the God whom we love and serve, but the point remains that the contribution which Christians are making to society is viewed as a way to source provision when all other cupboards are bare. Cameron isn’t alone – Ed Miliband gets it, too.
But is childcare from the age of nine months, or two, or even three or four, the best provision for our children? One school is even planning to offer care from birth. Maybe instead of joining the headlong rush to get everyone maximising their earning potential and preparing the next generation to do likewise, we should stop and think about what is best for our children. The Bible says that ‘Children are a heritage from the Lord’. We should be our children’s first and best educators – Deuteronomy 4:9 says: ‘be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them’. How, why, and at what age, we start to share the raising of our children with others should be informed not by government policy or by how quickly we can get back to work, but by what is best for our children.
Increasingly, the evidence shows that home environment has the biggest and most lasting impact on a child’s life. The family is God’s design for raising children, the place where they are loved without reserve, where they are nurtured and where they are given the time, space and care to flourish. The early years are where life’s foundations are built. Do we really want someone else to build the foundations of our children’s lives for 30 hours a week from the age of nine months?