So, another general election is over and more than half of the population won’t have got the government they want, whether or not they voted. The debate over education spending will roll on and, no doubt, education will continue to be a political football game. Unlike football, though, there’s no defined end time. So, in the midst of the white noise of political wrangling, it’s worth asking the question ‘What do we want our education service to achieve and how can we best deliver it?’
Is it, as one recent media report observed about education promises in election manifestos, all about free meals and free childcare? Is that education, or social care? Schools may well be the most effective place to identify those in need and to help them, but is social care essentially an education issue? There was a call this week for schools to review their procedures after a 4 year old boy was found dead in his home, having lived on for up to two weeks after his mother died. Is this an education issue, or a social problem deriving from the increasing isolation of people within communities?
Is it about imposing a particular social orthodoxy on as many children and young people as possible, without recognition of parental rights, differing beliefs or a range of cultural contexts? Or about using Ofsted as the enforcer of said orthodoxy?
One thing is for sure – schools are only reflections of the communities and wider society that they serve. So the hunger, pain and suffering of any child is a problem created by the society which we have shaped. It cannot be solved by schools. It cannot be improved by better education alone. So as a new government takes office, it’s worth asking some searching questions about education.
The word ‘education’ derives from the Latin word ‘educare’ which means to lead out. The role of education is therefore to contribute to the development of the whole person – to create conditions in which we can facilitate human flourishing.
Although the psychologist Abraham Maslow has fallen from favour among fellow professionals, anyone who works with children and young people will be aware that his Hierarchy of Needs makes perfect sense. A hungry, tired child cannot learn. Therefore, the first step towards human flourishing is to ensure that children are well fed and get enough sleep. But that is the duty of parents, so maybe instead of just increasing the free school meals offer, the government should also engage in training parents to be good parents.
Second in Maslow’s hierarchy is safety – to flourish, we all need to know that we are safe. Whichever government is in power today, the intention is to rush ahead with Relationships and Sex Education (RSE), together with statutory PSHE, which teaches children about domestic abuse, violence against women, sexual abuse, pornography and grooming. Is the best way to assure children’s safety to teach them about the ugliness which we have allowed to flourish? Far better, surely, for society to clean up its act, rather than rob children of their innocence so that adults can carry on living as they please. The recent Family Education Trust report into childhood sexual abuse proves beyond any doubt what happens when we abandon moral frameworks, or any sense of right or wrong. Writing to the church in Philippi, the apostle Paul urged people to fix their thoughts on things that are true, noble, right and pure (Philippians 4:8) – a far cry from the proposed content of the RSE curriculum.
Next, Maslow defines loving and belonging as a key to human flourishing. And that comes back to the family as the unit where we learn to love and be loved, to trust and be trusted, to forgive and to be forgiven. The most common reason that children give for unhappiness and mental ill health is the breakdown of the family, which also leads to lost friendships, stability and security. Only within the safety of a secure family can children learn the relationship skills that they need to flourish, and to form the healthy friendships that are a key to belonging in a school community. Yet no government is willing to acknowledge the critical role of the family; no government is willing to develop policies that prioritise marriage and family life as essential building blocks to a strong, secure society.
It’s only when these steps in the Maslow Hierarchy are secured that the final two steps can be achieved – esteem, and self-actualisation. Only then does a state of being exist in which genuine learning can happen. In order for schools to facilitate effective learning, governments must stop requiring schools to solve all social ills. Society must be held accountable for the moral mess that it has created and take collective responsibility for clearing it up. Only then can teachers be free to teach, helping children and young people to flourish and become the people whom God created them to be.
And for Christians, there is a deeper understanding of flourishing that goes beyond the simply cultural. It’s an understanding that doesn’t focus on material prosperity or a search for happiness. That is the version espoused by government and it is both self-focused and inward-looking. A Christian view is about spiritual and emotional flourishing, acknowledging God as the originator and sustainer of the beautiful world in which we live. It’s in embracing this that we experience Christ’s promise of life in all its fullness (John 10:10), a life that is rich and satisfying. That is the core purpose of education.