This week has seen vitriolic exchanges almost unique in the life of the British people. As feelings ran high, words like liar, fascist, racist and Nazi were thrown around with uncharacteristic hatred. And now it’s all over, what, I wonder, have our children and young people taken from the angry rhetoric?
The answer may well be fear. Not in the sense of Project Fear – attempts on both sides of the referendum debate to frighten us with statistics that couldn’t be based on anything other than conjecture. But young people live in a fearful world, to which the behaviour of many adults around them has probably contributed in the last couple of weeks. The global reach of terrorism caused devastation in Orlando. Our TV screens carry news of beheadings, war and pictures of countless rivers of people made homeless and stateless by war. A much loved and respected MP was murdered in the heart of her constituency in the middle of the day. Many young people across all faiths are scared to discuss belief through fear of being misunderstood or of becoming the latest target of bullying.
Add to that fear of cyberbullying, fear of exam failure, fear of not getting into the best university or securing that lucrative career, and you have an explosive mix. For some, a fragile, recovering economy holds no promise of sustainable training or employment. And for many more, family breakdown means moving home, losing friends and living with fractured relationships between the people who once committed to love them, and each other, above everything. Is it any wonder that a tsunami of mental and emotional illness is sweeping away the hope of our young people?
Into this seemingly bottomless well of fear, God offers hope. The prophet Jeremiah was given a message for his people at one of the darkest times of their nation’s history. The brightest and best of their people had been rounded up and taken off to live in exile in Babylon. A puppet King had been put in place to rule over them, and before leaving their country, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had plundered their wealth and ransacked their Temple, symbol of God’s relationship with his people. Things couldn’t really get any worse. But God told Jeremiah to say, ‘For I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’ (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV).
Through Jeremiah, God offered his people an invitation to worship Him and trust Him as their God. He had plans for them which offered hope not harm, and a future, not fear. And that message is still the same today. Hope is the central message of Christian education and of Christian teachers. Our children and young people don’t need to fear the work of terrorists, or the future state of the economy, or even the outcome of the referendum, because the love of God offers us hope.
Take the words of the Apostle Paul to the Romans into your teaching this week: ‘Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 15:13 NIV). And may that hope, love and peace flow out into your classrooms so that others can see that you live in hope, not fear.
Christian pedagogyFamilyMissional teachingParentingPartnershipRelational working
As long ago as July 2015, Nicky Morgan was talking about removing stakeholders from school governing bodies in favour of people with professional skills. Move forward to May 2016, where she now offensively describes the role of parent governor as being of only ‘symbolic representation’ and not representative of the real parent voice. The move is just one more step towards removing schools from where they belong – in their communities.
But it’s also one more step towards airbrushing parents out of their role in raising children. The DfE isn’t to blame for a society which values the concept of family so lightly that parents increasingly tell me that they are ‘moving on’ or need to ‘find themselves’ because the relationship into which their children were born no longer meets their need for a personal, more fulfilling space. The right to self-determination has replaced concepts of commitment and duty, with counsellors on hand to repair any collateral damage to our children.
It also means that society is slowly but surely teaching children that relationships are transitory, that commitment is superseded by self interest and that they can no longer expect to be protected from the trauma of broken relationships by the very people who should put their security and wellbeing above everything else. As a result, today’s young people regard relationships as part of life’s ephemera, with the shape of families shifting according to the paramount needs of the adults in them, rather than the paramount needs of the most vulnerable.
So while parents the length and breadth of Scotland complain about the intrusion of the Named Person into their family space, society at large only has itself to blame, having created the relationship vacuum in which the scheme has been forged. And while Nicky Morgan is currently only describing the parent governor role as a ‘symbolic representation, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the parental role itself will soon also be seen in the same way. David Cameron has, after all, already said of children in care ‘we, the state, are their parents’, so it’s not too far a journey for the state to assume parenting of all children, viz. Ofsted’s plans to inspect voluntary groups, Sunday schools, home education and just about every space that children inhabit.
The suggestion for this was tucked quietly away in the Westminster Faith report ‘A New Settlement’, raising the concept of Ofsted not only visiting Sunday schools but also homes. Religious instruction, it said, ‘should take place outside the school, in families, Sunday Schools, madrassas etc. (though there may be a need for inspection, to safeguard against abuse or coercion).’ It was largely overlooked at the time, but the idea is nevertheless there, in print – parents of faith being inspected. How, I wonder, would humanists, secularists and atheists feel about Ofsted visiting their homes because they are denying their children the opportunity to examine faith and make up their own minds?
God designed families as a place for parents to raise children with good reason. It’s where we learn to love and be loved; to forgive and be forgiven; to protect and be protected; to learn right from wrong; what it means to trust and be trusted, and to understand from parents what it means to place family before freedom, and common good before self interest. As soon as the family stops fulfilling that role, cohesion disintegrates and society becomes a group of disparate people all determined to pursue their right of individual will. If you destroy the human contract which family represents, then you destroy the roots of community. Sound familiar?
The fact that the Bible contains so much about family life shows how important it is to God. Parents are charged not only to keep God’s commandments on their hearts, but also to ‘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 6:7). In other words, parents should be examples of godly living, not just in church on Sunday or when someone is looking, but they should walk the talk all the time and every day. Writing about family relationships to the church in Ephesus, Paul tells children to be obedient to their parents because it is their duty to honour their mother and their father. And husbands, Paul suggests, should love their wives just as Christ loves the church. That means to the point of death, and that’s a choice of the will and the mind, not about feelings or personal needs.
Christ gave us just one commandment: ‘Love each other as I have loved you’ (John 15:12). That love was self-sacrificial, not self-seeking. It honoured God, not self. It wanted the best for others, not self. It’s a love than builds, strengthens and fulfils us as the people God created us to be. That is why parents who love their children in this way will always be needed.
This week has seen an unprecedented barrage of press releases, speeches and promises from the government relating to social justice. There’s the change to adoption law, prioritising lifelong stability for children over all other considerations, including short term care while support for the birth family is explored. There’s the creation of ‘a new generation of high flying mentors’ to support young people at risk of falling through the cracks, whether or not high fliers have any understanding of the cracks or the complex reasons why young people fall through them.
There’s the flattening of ‘sink estates’ with total disregard for community and the many people who struggle to create positive communities in contexts of extreme deprivation and decline. There’s parenting classes for all, and an increase in support for treatable problems such as poor mental health and addiction.
David Cameron praised Tiger Mothers and suggested that all parents should be similarly motivated. He wants to improve financial resilience by encouraging low income families to save – with what? He wants state schools to learn from ‘elite schools’ how to teach ‘curiosity, honesty, perseverance and service, character values, resilience and knowledge’ as if schools are solely responsible for raising children of good character. And as if we aren’t already trying, despite having to swim against the current of a measurement culture and inspection regime that’s out of control.
All these press releases, speeches and sound bites share common aims – to deliver on social justice reform. The Prime Minister wants to ensure that every child gets the best start in life; to transform the lives of the vulnerable; to improve social mobility and to enhance life outcomes. They are worthwhile aims and taken together they do suggest the possibility of a more equitable society. But at best they completely miss the point and at worst they insult the many, many people in our society who work tirelessly to improve the lives of our children and young people.
The ideas are good in one respect. Emergent theory shows that complex problems such as social injustice can’t be dealt with one issue at a time – for example poor housing one year, low educational expectation the next year, and so on. All the issues have to be addressed simultaneously in order to overcome the problem in all its complexity. In this respect, the extent of the government’s plan promises effectiveness.
But it also completely misses the point of human flourishing. Society is made up of communities. Communities are made up of people. Flourishing people live in relationship. Nowhere in this extensive plan is relationship considered. High flying mentors may, or may not, help young people, but it’s not the career success of a mentor which will make a difference. It will be the quality of a relationship built on compassion, empathy and value for the unique human identity of every individual. Relationships take time to build. They’re messy. They’re complicated. They don’t fit neatly into a time slot provided by an employer delivering social justice.
Maybe flattening ‘sink estates’ will solve the problem of poor housing, if replacement housing is of a high quality. But it will also rip the heart out of communities without any regard for the human need to live in community. Communities evolve through relationship; flattening estates will flatten the very essence of what makes a community vibrant, even one with severe social problems. Maybe members of the government should spend a week or two teaching in a school on a ‘sink estate’ to help them understand.
So it’s a bit of a curate’s egg of a social plan, imposing a particular, narrow set of values on society and aiming to get everyone in it to contribute to the gross national product. Rather like the culture of testing rampaging its way through education, it assumes that social justice is a measurable outcome of government dictat.
Perhaps the saddest statement of the week was made by the Prime Minister, who said that improving family life was ‘the best anti-poverty measure ever’. Even family value can now be measured – by its financial and material success. It sounds like a government worshipping at the shrine of the economy – yet again.
At the risk of repeating last week’s blog, I wonder if David Cameron knows about the work of TLG Early Intervention mentors? Or the many Christians who mentor students in their local schools? I wonder if he knows about Make Lunch, or the hope that Christians offer to the disadvantaged, the hungry, the lonely and the sick? And if he does, I wonder if he knows why Christians do this – not to promote material success, but because God’s love for his humanity compels us to act. We know that Jesus is the bread of life and anyone who comes to him will never go spiritually hungry or thirsty again. We want everyone else to know it, too.
I wonder if David Cameron understands that a good family is where we learn to love and be loved; to trust and be trusted; to forgive and be forgiven; to fail and to have the confidence to try again. God designed the family not as a magic bullet against poverty, but as a place where we can grow and flourish in safety, to become the people that God wants us to be. We may be rich: we may be poor. We may be high flyers: we may not.
The prophet Micah asks the question ‘what does the LORD require of you?’ The answer isn’t success. It isn’t wealth. It isn’t health and happiness. God requires us ‘to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God’. That’s the key to a just, fair and cohesive society.