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?