Ethos Archives – Christians in Education


A couple of years ago, whilst at a Christian Education conference, I attended a fascinating workshop on avoiding conflict in the classroom. It wasn’t quite the standard reflection on conflict resolution that I expected – it was much, much more. It looked at some of the causes of conflict and how, as Christian teachers, we can address them. The presenter suggested a range of reasons why conflict arise, many of them either to do with factors external to our classrooms, or due to unresolved baggage that pupils bring with them when they walk through the door.

One word in particular grabbed my attention and got me thinking, because in contemporary use it implies an industry, which provides a service at a cost. It was the word ‘hospitality’. What does the word mean to you? The dictionary has two definitions: the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors or strangers, and relating to or denoting the business of entertaining clients, conference delegates or other official visitors. Christian teachers, the presenter suggested, should exercise hospitality in their classrooms. Well, he clearly didn’t mean ‘entertain’ which is the thrust of the dictionary definitions and which rather skates over the full meaning of the concept. So what does the Bible say?

Answer: a great deal. ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers’ (Hebrews 13:2), ‘Show hospitality to one another without grumbling’ (1 Peter 4:9), ‘You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:34) and ‘hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined’ (Titus 1:8, all quotations ESV). Clearly, God wants us to be hospitable not in the sense of entertaining, but in a much deeper sense, and it’s not an optional extra. It is fundamental to our work for God.

So, we are to welcome people, even strangers from other lands. We are to love them as we love ourselves, in other words, to consider their needs not at the expense of our own, but as equal with them. We should seek to care for others just as willingly as we care for ourselves. Hospitality is about perceiving the needs of others and doing our best to meet them and it’s also about service (1 Timothy 5:10).

What does this mean in practice, in our schools, every day? The practice of Christian hospitality is about inclusivity. We look for God’s gift in each pupil, we treat each one with dignity and we teach each pupil according to their need. We also provide an environment where individual needs to belong are met and in doing so, we model to our pupils how to practice hospitality towards each other. If we are leaders, we have a role in helping our staff to accept responsibility for practicing such hospitality to everyone in the school, not just those who conform to particular norms.

I have spent much of the last week browsing through OFSTED reports for Christian schools. Despite their widespread geographical locations and the unique context of each of the schools, there were common threads to the reports. Teachers were excellent role models for considerate, caring relationships. Pupils talked about their schools feeling just as comfortable as their homes. Their behaviour was judged to be sometimes good and often outstanding.

Tens of inspectors over a long period of time noted the positive, caring and supportive relationships in schools which experience little or no bullying. And, not surprising for those of us who have experienced this kind of nurturing environment, children make good or outstanding progress regardless of ability, often surpassing national standards. The reports proved a powerful argument for Christian schooling.

A hospitable classroom is one in which the fruit of the Spirit grows in abundance. And it’s not just any hospitality – this is Christian hospitality, because we are ‘Rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man’ (Ephesians 6:7 ESV). Whatever our context, this is what makes us distinctive as Christian teachers.

British valuesChristian pedagogyEthosFaith schoolsRelational working feature-672x372-2305713 September 9, 2016 Admin10

This week’s return to school has seen the predictable blowing of a single issue out of all proportion – in this case, a decision by the Head of Hartsdown Academy in Margate to send home pupils who failed to conform to the school’s uniform policy. I don’t intend to discuss this in detail – the case has been cogently argued by Behaviour Tsar Tom Bennett in his recent blog. But in the light of Team GB’s recent Olympic success, this story set me thinking. Here’s why.

Several years ago, I taught a child who, by the age of 10, was hovering on the edges of anti-social behaviour and showed every sign of becoming lost, despite the best endeavours of both school and family. He was a talented footballer, but spent more time in playground fights sparked by disputed decisions than he did actually playing. Most days, he ended up banned. He was disengaged in the classroom, sullen and often angry.

Football was the great and single passion of his life – watching it, playing it and talking about it. He regularly represented the school in league matches and generally managed to control himself, for fear of losing his place on the team. It was pretty much the only thing that kept him in school.

One day he was spotted by a talent scout. Following a trial, he was offered a place with the local First Division club junior team – but there were conditions. He had to change his diet. He was no longer allowed to join in with playground football or school league games. He had to commit to working in the classroom, showing respect to school staff and club trainers. Any infringement of the school’s behaviour code, any single incident of aggression, any suspension from school or any missed training session without good reason would mean instant dismissal from the programme. He would have to achieve 5 GCSEs at the end of Year 11 in order to progress beyond the junior team. To succeed, he had to change his life.

The conditions might seem draconian, but there was a purpose. To become a successful professional footballer, he would need to develop self-discipline in all areas of his life, and he would need to commit to a new lifestyle. He did commit, very willingly, and overnight, he turned his life around.

This has been an exciting summer of sport, as we’ve celebrated the outstanding success of our Olympians. But each and every person on Team GB understands, as my pupil did, about discipline, commitment and the need to set aside personal choices in order to succeed. Without accepting the discipline of their trainers, and the need to eat, sleep and train in accordance with their training programmes, none of them would have been there.

Why, I wonder, do we celebrate this determination and discipline in our athletes and footballers, yet cry foul when that very same attitude is enforced by a school Head? In order to get the best out of school life, pupils need to commit – to listening, working, to being determined and to keeping the rules. School is where young people learn how communities, society and the workplace operate. Staff who are lazy about enforcing rules are actually doing their students a grave injustice, allowing them to think that they can please themselves about which rules they keep and which ones they ignore. Life outside of school doesn’t work like that, so life in school shouldn’t either. Everything worth achieving costs effort, commitment and focus.

And what is true in the physical realm is also true in the spiritual realm. The writer of the Hebrews urges us to ‘run with perseverance the race marked out for us’ (Hebrews 12:1), while the apostle Paul writes: ‘Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever’ (1 Corinthians 9:24-25).

As another school year gets underway, think about the example you set your students in commitment, perseverance and determination. They are values that help pupils to build solid foundations, not just during school years, but for whatever their future lives hold for them.

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The Durham Free School (TDFS) opened its doors to Year 7 students in September 2013. Less than two years later it was closed. It’s a complicated story, but one which I followed because TDFS was a Christian ethos school which should have fitted perfectly into David Cameron’s Big Society and vision for a new, socially motivated Britain. So what went wrong?

Before a free school can open, a huge amount of work goes into the application, the planning and the preparation. The process is rigorous, so by the time approval is given, you can be sure that the school knows exactly what its core purpose is, together with exhaustive detail about every aspect of how it will be delivered.

TDFS planned to serve the Bowburn area of south-east Durham that was badly in need of school places after closures had left parents concerned about the distances their children had to travel. The vision was to offer ‘distinctive and inclusive education, shaped by traditional Christian values and welcoming to all. The School will offer a high quality education in a caring, Christian environment in which each student is known, valued and encouraged to achieve his or her individual potential’. Those who belonged to the school community (staff, governors, parents and students) found that to be a vision which was realised. The Department for Education thought otherwise.

There were obstacles to overcome from the outset. Free schools have no control over the choice of building – that is done for them by the Education Funding Agency. Instead of serving the area for which it was approved and where the first intake of pupils lived, TDFS found itself temporarily housed in empty school buildings in a different part of the city. There was opposition to the school long before it opened – Hansard records that Pat Glass MP (who was this week so briefly the shadow education secretary) had been ‘raising issues relating to Durham free school for several years’ asserting that ‘You cannot spit in Durham city without hitting an outstanding school. There were surplus places in that city, and I could not understand the reasoning behind the setting up of another school’, although Ofsted’s report into north-east schools would suggest that this wasn’t an accurate appraisal of the city’s secondary provision.

Then, on the back of Trojan Horse, British values burst onto the stage in a very unexpected way. TDFS suddenly found itself judged against new, untested and undefined criteria that were vague enough to allow for the Christian ethos of the school to be labelled creationist and homophobic, thus failing on safeguarding. The irony of the latter label is that several TDFS pupils had moved to the school due to homophobic bullying and both pupils and homosexual parents alike found the school to be caring, nurturing and supportive.

The conducting of British values inspections of Christian schools is well documented; the argument that Christians are intolerant, homophobic, creationist indoctrinators that propagate hate are rolled out with tiring regularity. The concerning issue here is the fact that the British values agenda was used against a Christian ethos school not just to satisfy a secularist liberal agenda, but also for political ends. TDFS was one of the first schools – it certainly won’t be the last.

Various other things struck me while I watched this story unfold. The first was the patience and self-control of John Denning, the chair of governors, exemplifying in all of his communications the Christian virtues which the school represented. The dignity and respect with which the debate was conducted by the school stood in sharp contrast with that of Pat Glass, who used Parliamentary privilege to say:

‘… as a former senior education officer in the north-east, I was aware that there were very high levels of teachers working at Durham free school that I knew had already undergone competency procedures with other local authorities. A head teacher in the region told me that the school had become a haven for every crap teacher in the north-east’

– an outrageous statement and potential breach of confidentiality against which none of the staff could defend themselves.

The second was the swiftness with which the school was closed. A school which starts with a Year 7 intake needs time to develop and it doesn’t really feel complete until that first intake becomes Year 11 – in other words, 4 or 5 years. Yet there was no real opportunity for the school to even implement a development plan. The end came so suddenly that staff were preparing for a monitoring visit from Ofsted scheduled for the following day when the closure notice was issued. It was almost as if somebody wanted the school closed, so the evidence (centring on the Christian ethos) was interpreted in a way which could make that happen.

A possible reason became apparent after the closure notice was issued, when the Local Council almost immediately indicated its intention to sell the land on which both the school and a local community centre serving over 1000 people each week are located. The Youth and Community Association which used the centre closed its doors a week before Christmas. Although it was expected that the land would be sold off for housing development, the buildings are still standing. Discussions continue about whether it’s cheaper to demolish them or find a new tenant, while local residents are fighting to retain the playing fields for the community.

But there’s a final sting in the tail of this sad story, should there be any doubt that the closure was political. Despite Pat Glass’s assertion that you couldn’t spit in Durham without hitting an outstanding school and that there is plenty of spare capacity, new schools are urgently needed in Bowburn, the very part of the city which TDFS was originally approved to serve. You can read a response here .

Parents, staff, governors and students walked out of TDFS with their heads held high after putting up a dignified, courteous and robust fight. At their final service at St Giles church, The Reverend Canon Alan Bartlett said the closure felt ‘like a bereavement, a taking away of hope’. For some students, facing a return to the schools where they had been bullied, it was exactly that.

Since the closure of TDFS, the climate of Christian schools’ inspections has significantly changed, but the political will to impose a one-size-fits-all agenda on all faith schools is still very evident. It may be a daunting prospect, but we must engage with this and be bold in explaining what we believe and why.

After the death of Moses, God told Joshua to lead the people of Israel. It must have been a daunting prospect to him, too. But God challenged Joshua three times to ‘Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged’, followed by the promise ‘for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go’ (Joshua 1:9).

That is our challenge and promise, too, as Christians working in education.

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