Final days

I am up early, thinking about the challenges of my last “public” day at Christ the Sower, a mixture of incredulity and thankfulness. One of the great disciplines I learnt years ago at St Mary’s was to practise writing short summaries in cards on an annual basis to everyone on my adult team, evaluating the wonderful impact they have had each year and trying to find words to describe it. This started with Christmas cards and when I left it became watercolours for each adult (we had a small school, thankfully). Today it is farewell cards – sorry, folks, no time for paintings! But still, a great discipline, forcing me to consider each one with care and attention, and what the future could mean for each of them. It hardly seems a blink of an eye since I was leaving Shropshire.

Now, already, I am overwhelmed by those who are doing the same back to me usually as inscriptions in cards. Parents, particularly, have perceptions that are unique to them and their children and these have been the most moving, because we just don’t know the impact that we have. Teachers, uniquely, tell the story of what we have achieved for them. Children generally labour under the common and delightful delusion of their headteacher’s alleged place in the world rankings of headteachers! Hyperbole doesn’t even come into it, but it’s lovely, and in their world, we take our honoured place and understand the importance they place on us.

What I want, more than anything, is that all the honour and praise that is poured on me today – and it will be: we would be foolish to ignore the massive impact we have as school leaders – is taken by the Holy Spirit to re-root in each adult and each child the necessary strength and conviction to face an uncertain future, and because this is already happening, as a result of the pressure being applied from the new leadership, I want to try and describe it.

Some context. The leadership that is coming in are competent but characterised so far by the imposition of tested systems from one school onto ours (some will work, others maybe not), weak communication, and a perceived lack of respect for the people led and their work. I do not doubt their efficacy to reach the outcomes that have been set them by the LA, and the three features above are easy traps to fall into when you are coming from outside, and may change; but from below, and God always looks at things from the impact on the weakest, it is feeling oppressive to leaders and teachers. Parents are concerned that the “required” results-emphasis will be a short term solution at best and not allow their children to flourish. Governors are already concerned to watch over our foundations as a church school, though these are, I believe, more secure in the long term. Even some children have expressed concerns at the way that they will be taught – will it change?

So for teachers, the question is how to get the best from this, particularly as what we value as success is a long way from what the new leadership appears to value as success, and what we value as strong, devolved leadership is very different from their (so far) much less consultative approach. They, like the LA, only see one yardstick of success, not one that we have much regard for. What I am seeing already, arising phoenix-like from my teachers, is a controlled and focused (and often furious) determination to place children at the centre of the learning experience, a determination that we shall be a church school and remain one, a resolute love for one another, and a recommitment to our vision in all sorts of ways. These are very hopeful signs. One or two have found it more challenging and are responding negatively to pressure, but the love of the others should bring them round. If all I have done in this school, and all that I do and say today, can build up this precious body of adults to serve an even more precious body of children, so that all they do flows from affection and compassion in September and beyond, then the day – and my time at Christ the Sower – will be complete.

That, anyway, is the plan.

Being metacognitive in Oxford (2)

So, back to the Chartered College of Teaching’s Third Space conference last Saturday in Oxford. I am posting all the presentations here that I think are worth keeping – the final keynote was less impressive than the rest. Some I didn’t attend – and Tracey did. Others were not attended by either of us but look pretty interesting. I filled in the obligatory post-conference survey yesterday and one of the issues that came up from that was the level of attention paid to the Third Space events by those working in academic environments.

The value of these events is their ability to bridge the divide between academia and practice, and to showcase that practice that actually roots the research study in the classroom, or demonstrates how we might do so better.

The two talks that really got my attention were on cognition in the early years – a talk by Dr Sara Baker from Cambridge, and one on how we get activate children’s prior learning at the beginning of a unit of work or in a lesson, by Chris Tay from Longden CE Primary School in Shropshire, and a colleague of mine before I came down to Milton Keynes.

Apart from the pleasure of seeing him after 7 years, it was good to hear an exposition of exactly how a school, collaboratively and as a teaching team, decided to embark on this very specific hurdle to children’s learning. What follows here is more of a commentary than actual notes on the talk, because those you can get by reading the presentations.

Sara Baker comes from a psychological perspective rather than a pedagogical one, and this greatly enhanced the authority with which she interpreted her work because of the additional perspective it provided. She used Foundation Stage science as her milieu, because of the range of cognitive functions and skills it was possible to spot in these sort of environments. She began with defining the purpose of education, which is right, but that sort of colours the remainder of the talk, if, as she did, she took a very utilitarian view of those aims: skills based, application to the workplace, etc. However, it was the right place to begin because it best illustrated the powerful link between children’s early cognition and the skill set required: communication, problem-solving, adaptability, initiative and creativity, collaboration etc.

In seeing the requirement for these skills, she used Massimo Amadio’s (2013) paper for UNESCO (A rapid assessment of curricula for general education focusing on cross-curricular themes and generic competences or skills) to demonstrate the references within 88 curricula to these skills, grouped in decreasing order of frequency: communication, social competence, problem solving, creativity then, and only after those, digital competence, collaboration, numeracy. Bill Lucas’s curriculum framework would tally neatly with some of these.

From there Sara posited that the skill set we see in young children are those that order and develop the brain (see Fox, Levitt & Nelson 2010) and these are optimised by learning at certain times. This is not about cramming stuff into children’s head (please note, UK curriculum planners) to meet specific age-related expectations but by providing a range of opportunity at each stage of a child’s life – and preferably, lots of those, often related around:

  • solving problems
  • children’s own interests
  • learning from and in experiences
  • learning from enquiry
  • project-based learning
  • guided learning
  • active learning (defined as learning that is curious in new things, motivated, exploratory, where initiative, goal-setting and decision making are vital, where persistence and resilience are developed , where children share and listen to others collaboratively, and where they have the chance to think of multiple solutions).

None of this will be new to either early years educators or to those seeking to employ into business, but where it became more interesting is where the learning takes place. Between the two extremes of didactic instruction and free play is a zone where learning is maximised, “guided learning” (Fisher, Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff & Newcombe, 2012) which helps posit the right questions and the right conditions for the learning to take place. This, as all good early years practitioners know, is about framing the provision to maximise the area of learning you want children to grow in, and then extending that provision as you see children flourish in one area or another.

The final area dealt with in the talk was a discussion on working memory. In this, Sara recommended a book by Susan Gathercole and Tracy Alloway called Working Memory & Learning: a practical guide for teachers. This is a well known book among primary teachers, but the point that Sara wanted to make was that the range of retention from working memory is very wide at each age, and that of a 5 year old can overlap with that of an 8 year old, and vice versa, whilst the upper range of the 8 year olds working memory can overlap with the mean score of 12 year olds, and that after 12, the increase in working memory flattens out. This has big implications obviously for speed of calculations and the harnessing of multiple inputs when problem solving.

In the interest of publishing this thing soon, I will refer you to Chris Tay’s paper which I have made available here (for those that are non-members of the Chartered College – but you really ought to join!). That, plus his powerpoint above, were for me the highlight of the day, and perfectly encapsulated the right use of research as applied to the classroom for the benefit of children.





Towards a Personal Theology of Education: Reflections from a Head Teacher

Grove Books eventually got around to publishing my short booklet with the above title. It is a useful summary of a lot of my thinking over the last 5-6 years and tells the story of what I have been trying to accomplish at Christ the Sower, more or less successfully, whilst I have been head here.

You can order it at Grove Books here, and it costs £3.95. Better still, subscribe to the Education series at Grove Books and you get 4 titles a year, for just £11.

The booklet is constrained by the word limit – there is a lot more to say and I will be saying it in different formats over the next few months. It also just posits a few start points for a theological approach to teaching and learning and these too I will want to explore with others over the course of the next year or two.

The joy of writing reports

One of my jobs at this time of year is to read and comment on 440 or so reports. It takes ages and, like the Minotaur, I depend on a constant supply of fresh material. Teachers work really hard to write these, and every year I am amazed at the intimate and intricate knowledge of their children shown in each report. Very rarely do I ever come across an evaluation I disagree with. It is hard work, but it is a joy, at least for me, and especially writing the comments on Year 6 reports, and thinking how it is I want God to bless them in the future, and finding the words for each child that best conveys that.

Anyway, I have just finished all the Year 6 reports this morning and I have been impressed by three things in particular: the great love of our Y6 children, in general, for the subject of Religious Education; the deep self-awareness of ALL children about their successes and challenges and the eloquence and emotional intelligence with which they write about them; and the importance of the teacher-child relationship for their contentment, joy and good mental health. All three of these aspects shine in all the reports.

In our report-writing arrangement, Year 6 children write the report first – a commentary on the whole year, then a commentary on their English learning and performance, ditto maths and then ditto the rest of the curriculum in a long extended paragraph that often needs reducing in size to fit in the box allocated! The teachers then read and comment on what the children have written, agreeing and reinforcing certain aspects, and adding things that they have noticed. It all adds up, by the time I get them, to a collection of very special documents: high-quality self-assessment, feedback and gallery critique at its finest. Then for me to have the opportunity to reflect on each child, think about them, think of what will make them smile, or laugh or ponder, and then write that – all of that is just a privilege that I look forward to every year.

The love of RE in Year 6 derives from the open, discursive and highly respectful manner in which Ranbir, their RE teacher, teaches the material, and allows the children’s voice to be fully heard. It is one of the glories of RE as a subject that children can find their voice and be respected for sharing it, knowing that their beliefs and the expression of those beliefs, add to a mix of learning that forms each of the children in their class:

“I have developed confidence in RE because what you say has to be your own opinion…..I enjoyed RE because I get to choose whether to share from my religion or not…..I am a Christian so I love RE and love answering questions…..In other lessons, such as R.E, it was definitely more discussion and opinion focused but we still really respected and listened to people with opposite opinions…..I thought it was fun listening to other people’s opinions. I also liked to hear how religious people tried to explain to other people about their faith.”

Children’s self-awareness can be astonishing, but it is only astonishing because their teachers and parents have given them the language in which to say all that they want to say. Every year, children seen to grow in their ability to express their emotions and evaluate their successes and occasional minor disasters, and this gives us a lot of encouragement for the future. Reading these reports has made me reflect on how full we all have made these children’s lives, and what we have given them that will lodge there forever.

And lastly, to read what they write about their teachers is simply beautiful in places, and should make any parent who reads their children’s comments wonder about what actually happens in our school. Yes, it is a source of pride for teachers, but more importantly it is undeniable evidence of a job well done, a job completed, a piece of work handed in and ready to be worked on by others in a different setting, a relationship brought to a level of fulfilment.

That sense of completeness is one with which I want to bless Emma and Helena, Sarah and Ranbir, Michelle and I and all the others who have worked with these children this year, along with all those amazing people who have taught them on their journey from when they were in Reception.

This, the amateur standard, the standard of love, is what is reported and commented on here, and which counts in what we have given to these children, not the reductionist professional standard that only looks at measured outcomes. We have offered a life to these children, and the glory of it is that Jesus, through his Spirit working in our school, has added to it so that their life becomes ever fuller.

Countdown in colour

The realisation that I am shortly to be finishing my time at Christ the Sower has begun to have an impact, both on me and those who work alongside me. However, because I am going to work my full notice period to the end of August, there is time to focus on people over the next fortnight and only then on systems and the technical aspects of handover. But still, it is sobering. We have been living in the midst of a wonderful heatwave over the last 2-3 weeks, and whilst the gardens are suffering, there is a new sense of freedom and joy around the place.

One of the ways that this was shown at school has been in the riotous and completely-at-the-wrong-time celebration of Holi, the Hindu and Sikh festival of colour and the victory of good over evil. I daresay that there will be those, both from Christian and Hindu camps, who find it weird that we should do that, but I defend it on all sorts of grounds. We celebrated Ramadan, supporting those dear members of staff who had to fast through the lightest part of the year and who needed support to keep going, especially over the first week of long days, which was a shock to their systems. We celebrated Eid with all sorts of lovely things, because in doing so we (as Christians) acknowledge the devotion of our Muslim members of staff both in fasting and celebration, we celebrate Diwali and rejoice in the series of festivals of lights that take place in the run up to Christmas and we would celebrate Holi at the right time of year if it were not for the fact that Easter takes place at the same time of year and so, with our identity as a school, that gets celebrated by preference.

However, a second reason I defend the celebration of Holi is because it was asked for by the children, and although we love to follow children’s leadership in the curriculum where possible, the fact that the School Council asked to celebrate it was enough for us.

The third and decisive reason in my mind is simple jealousy. Why can’t we have a festival like this? Since the reformation in northern Europe, Christian celebrations have been generally dull and cerebral, not wild and celebratory. Catholics generally do better than northern protestants with colour and noise. Tom Wright, writing in “Surprised by Hope” says that Easter is our big festival, we should make it last and get the flags out!

But we don’t. We get as far as Easter Monday, and then it fizzles out for most Christians. We use the bible, not symbolism and festival, to express our faith. So I am jealous of Hindus and Sikhs who get to throw paint around and squirt coloured water on each other, whilst dancing and playing together. Why would we deny our children this opportunity to explore the joy of another religious culture, even if it was done in a very non-subcontinental way?

My friend Chris Redgate tells a story about when he was in Turkey with Graham Kendrick in the 1980s, probably. Chris is one of the world’s leading exponents of avant-garde oboe – the sort of amazing musician that composers write for and instrument makers create instruments for and with. In the story, Graham and his band, of which Chris was a member, were playing at a conference at which the vast majority of Turkish evangelical Christians were present – you could fit most of them into a large room at the time – and they were singing well known western hymns and songs. Graham turned to Chris and said something like “play something Turkish” and Chris, who regularly plays under the direction of the Holy Spirit, began to play an arabesque-type tune. After a while, the group of Turkish Christians began to sway slowly and after a bit, linked arms and began to dance to the music, until it became more and more of a riotous celebration involving everyone in the room. When it had died down, one of the Turkish Christians approached Chris – where did you learn to play Turkish wedding music? Chris replied that he hadn’t learnt it; he’d just responded to the Holy Spirit in his music making and this is what came into being. The Turkish man, now agog, then remarked: we never knew that we were allowed to use our own music in the worship of our God! As Chris said to afterwards, the sound of western Christianity shooting itself directly through the foot was deafening.

I only tell this story to show that in each culture God has placed something holy and wonderful, something of himself that is doubtless sullied by sin and dulled by repetition or legalism, but which somehow persists. This often shows itself through music, through song, through dance and through poetry and other arts. I met a wonderful bharatanatyam dancer about 15 years ago who told me that she knew dancers in India who told the gospel story through bharatanatyam – classical Indian dance used to show people what Jesus was like.

He has placed eternity in our hearts, says the writer of Ecclesiastes, and he is right. It does not sanctify everything in a culture, and everything, even good Christian things, can be damaged through sin and evil. But still, His voice will be heard in every culture, and often through the arts. The boundaries are messy, and it doesn’t matter. The expressions of love are messy and that doesn’t matter either. What matters is that we allow our hearts to be moved by joy and the grace of God, even if at the time we are not sure what that means. Holi is the celebration of the triumph of good over evil, and the subduing of the demonic. Our children may or may not know that. What they do know, at the end of the afternoon, is the joy of celebrating their own or somebody else’s festival that was so colourful, refreshing and exhilarating that their humanity and their willingness to express themselves are now broader, fuller and involves more paint.

Being metacognitive in Oxford (1)

Yesterday some of us from Christ the Sower attended the Chartered College of Teaching‘s Third Space event in Oxford, on developing effective learners. Eleanor Stringer from the EEF started with an exposition of their recent toolkit on Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning. To be blunt it might have been better to get the toolkit and then discuss it in groups. But the discussion was good and as the CCT often do, there was plenty of time for it. The key debates centered around the difference between the cognitive challenges in each subject and the metacognitive strategies inherent in each lesson. The differences between disciplinary skills and the strategies needed to access and learn content and use specific skills in each discipline need to be carefully differentiated so that children can learn how to tackle any challenge in any subjects. This provided a good focus for all that followed during the day.

The key recommendations are not rocket science and are obvious to most who have been in a classroom for any length of time. They are summarised in this wall chart which schools can print off and display.

This opening talk was followed by Will Millard talking about the value of oracy in the classroom, based on and flowing from Robin Alexander’s work in 2010. Again, much of the talk was referenced in LKMco’s report entitled The State of Speaking in our Schools (2016). The recommendations were similarly rooted in the report and we were pleased to see that not a lot of this was different to, or added significantly to, our understanding of the use of talk in the class. Tracey Feil and I have just submitted a short paper to Impact’s next issue on our curriculum at CtS and in writing it, I was reminded of how far we had come with getting good quality talk into our children’s curriculum. Where we have struggled to do so, the barrier is not in our thinking, but in getting every teacher to see how important it is and to keep the message clear in teachers’ minds.

One of the interesting reminders at the heart of Will’s talk was the way that teacher talk was an enabler of the oracy process, so that children and young people did not just see oracy as the “eloquent end” of debating and civic presentation, but rather as a means of exploring language in a way that added to their own and others’ learning. The report is full of fascinating insights from a range of schools in a variety of different economic settings and in many of these the sense of using oracy for personal and social benefits, civic empowerment and managing different situations was obvious. At a time when child mental health is at the forefront of our minds, we need to be able to teach these skills of articulation to children, developing them as other-focused listeners as well as self-reflective speakers.

That was just for openers, and as I am conscious that not much has been published on this blog for a while, I am going to publish this one and leave the two other fascinating talks (and the one less fascinating one, maybe) for another post.

Leadership challenges: continuing flourishing

The end of the elder blossom is upon us. Last weekend we walked around Bradwell and Bancroft, noticing how much was still left. So this evening I biked the same route along Loughton Brook collecting the last blossoms for a last batch of cordial. It is a lovely summer tradition and it signifies the opening of the foraging season in our house.

But there is an allegorical thing happening here too. I am conscious of those teachers, who, like me, are leaving Christ the Sower at the end of the term. Where we might see a winding down of commitment, there is no slacking up at all. In fact, all of us, stayers and leavers, seem more productive, more focused and more fruitful. We are, if you will, the late summer blooms being of use to bees and foragers right to the end of the season. On Wednesday and Thursday night last week, Year 6 children produced a version of Joseph and His Technicolor Dreamcoat that turned a great year for them and their teachers into a magnificent one, and met the prime directive of stage performance – to move the audience to the depths of their being. Year 4 children, a collection of all sorts of particular needs, together with their teachers and teaching assistants, saw no end of personal triumphs as they took the children to the Caldecotte Xperience for two days of adventure. This was the summit of these children’s experience and crowned the year with beauty for them.

The other late flowering that I have seen is a renewed and holy determination by the governing body to secure the future of the school’s Christian identity and mission. The fact that leadership have to be stronger than ever right now is not lost on anyone, as tough as it has been at times. To lead relationally, with a servant heart and a new willingness to serve, is a model we have long been proud of, and it is alive and well in our governing body.

We serve to the end of our calling, with all our heart. That’s all.

Leadership challenges: hanging on to the good

At a time of change, one of the biggest challenges that comes to leaders at all levels is to review what they really want and be prepared to allow change to that. Despite our current straitened circumstances as a school, a review of certain aspects of school life was planned this year in any case (SIAMS, restorative practice). Currently I am reviewing the effectiveness of our school curriculum, which we wrote together as teachers in 2013 and early 2014. What follows owes much to the great teachers and leaders who contributed to the initial part of the review. I hope they don’t mind being anonymously quoted!

Review focus

The questions that I have put to the teaching team at Christ the Sower have been geared around our vision for learning….

At Christ the Sower Ecumenical Primary School we provide the ‘good earth’ for all in our community to flourish; where every member can fully explore who they are created to be, with the high expectation that we, individually and collectively, will bear fruit beyond our wildest dreams. A place where we are loving, learning and growing together….a learning community: Believing that we all can excel, we are a community that deeply desires to learn. We nurture children and adults so that we are all empowered to be fearless, lifelong learners: embracing challenge, releasing creativity, persisting through difficulty, seeing mistakes as opportunity, discovering for ourselves and responding in wonder to what we find.

….around our curriculum aims….

  • To seek learning that nurtures risk taking and self-motivation that promotes positive attitudes towards thinking, gaining skills and knowledge now and for the future.
  • To foster learning that offers a broad exposure to new experiences that enable children to collaborate and engage in learning opportunities through creativity, imagination and exploration.
  • To enable children to know biblical values, helping them to work interdependently. As a result of our curriculum, children will flourish as respectful individuals, fully exploring who they are created to be.
  • To empower children to become full, active and contributing members of both a local and worldwide community through collaboration in our diversity and stewardship of the Earth.
  • And to leave school with: core skills in the basic tools for learning; insatiable curiosity for further learning; a set of values that carry instinctive respect for others, tolerance of their views, and the ability to make sense of the world they live in.

….and the extent to which the principles underlying the curriculum have found their way into regular practice:

  • Our agreed theory of learning underpins our curriculum.
  • A rich curriculum is an entitlement for all children, created to engender a love of learning.
  • We believe in the power of story to enrich, express and create meaning from life.
  • Effective dialogue is at the heart of the curriculum.
  • Themes are one way of organising our curriculum to enable the children to understand the big picture of their learning enabling them to make links across subjects (disciplines).
  • Our Christian values underpin our curriculum
  • Our curriculum is about the whole child.
  • The taught and hidden curricula are of equal value. The hidden curriculum is taught through relationship.
  • Skills are at the heart of our curriculum
  • Respect is shown for the distinctiveness and ways of working of domains/subject disciplines
  • Our curriculum is distinctively local and relevantly global
  • Learning outdoors is generally more interesting than learning in classrooms

Review outcomes

What the results of the review demonstrate, at least through the questionnaires, is a high level of agreement (85-100%) on:

  • The fact that the curriculum as designed meets our original vision for learning
  • The curriculum we now teach meets the original aims we set for it
  • Our topic planning takes into account our school’s theory of learning
  • Children continue to enjoy and respond to the units of work that we teach
  • Literature forms a strong focus in our planned units and still has impact
  • Humanities (geography, history and RE) have enough curriculum time in the week
  • The two-week emphasis on Christian virtues and values taught at the start of the year provides an effective foundation for the learning over the remainder of the year.
  • When we assess, the language we use in planning topics and discrete foundation subjects really helps to make accurate judgments
  • Teachers are conscious of planning to and using the suite of specific learning skills outlined in the curriculum.

There has been a slightly lower level of agreement (60-80%) on the following aspects:

  • There is enough time allocated for music, visual arts and drama to be taught effectively in the curriculum (variation is between different year groups)
  • It has been possible to find and source trips and visits that have supported children’s learning in the curriculum (again, different responses from different year groups)
  • The curriculum is able to meet the needs of the whole child in our class
  • It has been easy to use dialogic talk in subjects beyond English

This is all very encouraging to me! However, less encouraging have been the responses where more teacher agency was perhaps required:

  • Only 25% of teachers found it easy to incorporate outdoor learning into their teaching program or to find a charity that linked with their curriculum
  • Only a third of the teachers found it straightforward to find and use “what-if” learning questions to build a more ethical curriculum, or to use the specific discipline skills of each subject in their teaching.
  • 42% of teachers could incorporate either a local learning emphasis or a global learning emphasis in their curriculum easily.
  • Half the teachers felt that there was enough time given to science to merit it being regarded as a core subject.

If I was staying, I would pay strong attention to some of these findings, and in any case will pass them on to those who succeed me. However, what is perhaps more interesting are the answers to the question: What would you fight to retain in a time of possible curricular change, and why? The answers that I received back were around literature, around freedom for the teacher and for those aspects that had most deeply engaged children. For instance:

  • Good quality text being at the centre because it gives the children a hook to link their learning to”
  • “…topics being based around stories
  • “….texts as the centre of all learning…”
  • “…literature at the heart of the curriculum….”
  • Freedom to follow the class’ interests”
  • “The creative and individual nature of each year group’s/class’ planning”
  • Freedom of teaching teams to create themes that meet NC requirements and our principles”
  • “Time to get to know the children so that the curriculum can be planned around their interests. Trust and autonomy to know that we do know our children the best and what is needed to motivate and encourage them”
  • “Art, music, drama, PE – because it helps me, as a teacher, to discover everything my children are good at, i.e. gives me a complete picture of their abilities – not just their ability in English and maths”
  • “the balance between core and foundation subjects as…giving the children a range of things and ways to learn helps them grow and find success”

Other teachers identified specific activities and study programmes that they had taught but needed more time or better emphasis because the children had got so much from it.

Exploring the theme of freedom, another question was: What freedoms has this curriculum given you over the last 4 years that surprised you? Answers included (from those who have been here for more than 3 years!):

  • “Being able to instill values in children’s learning in different subjects”
  • “…able to pursue subjects/topics as we see progress and ‘run’ with ares that captivate children’s interests”
  • “...linking art and literacy through the surrealist art unit”
  • “…the chance to follow the children’s interests and areas of previously unexplored aspects of subjects”
  • “…linking our charity – World Vision – into the Natural Disasters unit and then using this to inspire poetry brought a new dimension to learning and linked with our class virtues of hope and compassion”
  • “…to be able to go with the children’s interest…be trusted to plan a curriculum around the children’s needs and interests and be allowed to do so”

There were a range of other responses to questions, and I have reported these above because they get to the heart of the issue of why it is our teachers love teaching our curriculum. Certainly for our best teachers it has given the greatest freedom, because they have the skills to take advantage of it. This was summed up by one comment, in response to the question Which parts of the curriculum have excited and motivated children to learn, and why?, that said “All of it, because we as teachers have approached it in a motivated way; the children naturally pick up on that motivation.

This is the heart of the debate we face at the moment. Is it possible, for teachers with skill and motivation, to articulate and pursue the freedoms above, to follow children’s learning, to love literature and to maintain a biblical view of childhood and learning at the core of the curriculum within a different structure and with restrictions on how long each unit is to last?

Each teacher will have to answer that for themselves, but the quality of the curriculum we have built, and its impact on children, has been high, ethically and biblically motivated and inspiring for children and adults. These are aspects worth fighting for, in any new dispensation.

Leadership challenges: principalities and powers

When leaders lead so as to represent the power of their organisation, whether deliberately or subconsciously, they become susceptible to the principalities and powers that seek to control the minds and will of human beings and instrumentalise them. If they lead so as to subsume the role of the individual and the individual mind to the power of the corporate and ignore the moral framework that governs just rule, they are opening a wide door for the demonic to oppress or even possess. This can happen in small organisations, where the impact of an individual’s sin is magnified and more obvious, or it can be seen in large corporate identities where it is hard to maintain a personal level of relationship between the top and the bottom of the pay scale. This understanding has been well developed in Anabaptist thought, and it provides a very useful window into the public life of Jesus. We find it in the larger structures that we live in – political parties and movements, economic structures such as markets, at every layer of government that seeks to retain control, and of course in multi-nationals and the state. It is this overtaking of the state by the demonic that has led Anabaptist churches to separate themselves (in the most extreme form, completely) from the state and prevented them from seeing the work Christians do within such structures as valid or part of their calling.

We as believers are the temple of the Holy Spirit because Jesus craves expression through us. Frank Viola puts it this way:

Evil spirits desire to inhabit human bodies because they crave expression. That’s the whole point of possession. They seek to take over a human body so that they can express themselves through it, employing it for wicked purposes in the earth. Jesus Christ is now in the Spirit. And He craves expression also. He seeks to make His life visible through a many-membered being. The difference is that Christ doesn’t possess a person’s body. He inhabits a person’s spirit and seeks to dwell, or make His home, in it (Eph. 3:17) (From Eternity to Here, p.236).
This way of thinking about the personality of evil is helpful. Principalities and powers crave expression through organisations that can oppress and undermine the beloved personhood of each believer – in fact, of each created person. This is a challenge to me as a leader of an organisation: how do I prevent the enemy from finding expression through my school and oppressing people? I need constantly to be on guard against this and there are several ways of approaching this that undermine the demonic work that is purposed when principalities and powers possess organisations. In no particular order, these have proved to be helpful.
  • Seek humility not pride. Practise preferring each other over yourself, honouring one another above ourselves. so that the stronghold of pride does not become a place where the devil gains a foothold (Rom 12)
  • Don’t let any bitter root spring up among us and defile many (Hebr 12). Keep short accounts and practise grace when confronted by a bitter spirit. Refuse to take offence because this can lead to the harbouring of grudges and the nurturing of a bitter spirit.
  • Demonstrate love for your enemies by publicly and privately blessing them, giving thanks for them, speaking well of them where you can. Walter Wink says of this: The command to love our enemies reminds us that our first task towards oppressors is pastoral: to help them recover their humanity. Quite possibly the struggle, and the oppression that gave it rise, have dehumanised the oppressed as well, causing them to demonise their enemies. It is not enough to become politically free; we must also become human. Nonviolence presents a change for all parties to rise above their present condition and become more of what God created them to be. (The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium)
  • Keep Jesus at the forefront of all discussion of faith, of all prayer and of all worship. He has a knack of assuming importance in any context and of putting our petty rivalries and anxieties in their place.
  • Privilege community over self, and find ways of allowing individuals to submit their own desires voluntarily and purposefully to the greater good.
  • Work, where possible, from the particular to the general rather than the other way around. Generalisations tend to make it easier to override individual contributions. If we start from the real and move toward the imagined, we cause less damage and root our thinking and action in that which has genuine impact on actual people. What works in one organisation only has a moderate chance of working elsewhere, and attempts to force the issue can create unnecessary discord that allows the demonic to plant seeds of disharmony.
  • Speak truth in love at every opportunity – being clear and respectful but accurate in explaining feelings, perceptions and in describing situations to those in power over us.

These are just a start, but practising these as disciplines would be a wonderful way to begin resisting evil in an organisation, and undermining the attempts at colonisation by the principalities and powers. This has been pertinent to our experience this term, because it is clear to many of us that the way that the Local Authority has behaved has been over-assertive and bearing the hallmarks of the demonic – not to say anything about the people involved, just that it is an “unguarded” organisation that is a natural target for principalities and powers to rule through and oppress by. Thus I am called to love, to humble myself, to speak truth and take a stand for righteousness with regard to those who have acted in the particular way that they have towards me and toward those I love and have pastoral oversight of.

Pilgrimage in Shenley

Last week was a time of astonishing effort and hard work for the majority of children and adults at school, as though the crank handle is being wound ever tighter. We stop, and look at all we are doing, pinch ourselves and ask – can we work any more intensely or with more purpose? I observe people at work and marvel at their capacity to sustain this level of effort for so long. And next week will be the same.

As we have been engaged in this, there has been a genuine outpouring of blessing and of the Holy Spirit which every member of the chaplaincy team has commented on with specific anecdotes, specific testimony or in their attempt to describe the deepening sense of comfort and encouragement that there is around the place. Not everyone feels that, to be sure, but it is real and it is tangible to those who have learnt to recognise God at work in school. A pilgrimage yesterday by Year 4 children to St Mary’s Shenley Church End, one of the 5 churches that make up the Watling Valley Ecumenical Parish, encapsulated all of that and more, as did a Year 4 collective worship about pilgrimage the following day.

It has been a while since we did this – probably 5 years since the last time we took children on a pilgrimage, and this one, put together by the Year 4 teachers and the Watling Valley clergy made my last efforts look really paltry. This one was scripted excellently, took us to some beautiful places along the way, and fantastically supported by the members of the St Mary’s congregation who welcomed us, served us and made us feel at home in their church. The scripting, by Alison Summerfield, was based on the great work in the diocese of Lichfield put together by Joan Furlong 20 years ago.

Children began their preparation in the classroom, lighting a candle and thinking about life as a purposeful journey. They took a stone from a pile and a piece of string as a memory aid.The children then assembled outside the school, looking for the tell-tale signs of pilgrimage (a shell that just happened to be lying on the ground, chalk footprints indicating the direction we were to take) and stopped and gave thanks at the start of our journey, reflecting on God’s peace, before setting off into Medbourne, stopping near the pavilion to think about the length of the path we had to walk, and drawing in chalk around our feet as a marker. From there we were led to Shenley woods and a time of reflection of the detail of God’s creation and the peace and age of the woods. At each stopping point, children added another knot to the string that they had brought with them.

Over thousands of years people have made pilgrimages because they feel they are going to a holy place, a place where the space between heaven and earth is so thin that you can almost feel you are in heaven, in the presence of God and all the saints. It is a place of peace, a place of calm, a place to receive God’s blessing.

Think: Can you tell a story of such a place or a time when you felt at peace, calm or perhaps in God’s presence? Is this place somewhere near here or far away? What helps you to feel at peace or to know that you are in God’s presence? If you had to build such a place in your school where would it be? If you had to help people feel at peace, calm or to know that God was with them what would you do or say to them?

Reflection: Be still. Still your body. Still your mind. Still your spirit. Be aware of God. Feel your quiet breathing. Be at peace with yourself. Feel loved. The peace of the Lord be always with you (And also with you)

From there, we walked into Shenley Church End, stopping to think about the crossroads we were at, where our little redway went under V3. This was the place where God began to speak, and where I started to understand the nature of the choices in front of me a little more clearly, and about his comfort and encouragement for the school once I have left. Further stops took place at Shenley Toot, a 13th century motte and bailey, since disused, and at the Glastonbury Thorn, a fabled offshoot of the thornbush at Glastonbury allegedly grown from Joseph of Arimathea’s staff. And thence to the church, where the clergy and volunteers had prepared some reflections.

These reflections began with us taking off our shoes and allowing the volunteers to wash our hands, pouring water over them and drying them. This was conducted in near silence and with the maximum of respect from the children. We then went up to the altar and sat in a quiet circle. Taking the stones that we had brought with us, we wrote a single word on each and placed them at the foot of the altar. This giving back to God of burdens and joys was necessarily a bit of a scrum, but after the children had done this, shared some grapes and juice as a token of the church’s hospitality, we were asked to add two beads to the knotted strings that we had brought with us.

Simple things, all of these, but actions which provoked great questions and drew out deeper thoughts. Some didn’t have the spiritual awareness or experience to get the best from the pilgrimage, but then that is true of adults as well.

It was a morning of purpose and reflection, of exercise and being together outside, and all of these together added to the reality of being pilgrims with God in a beautiful world.

One reflection on this has to do with the fact that this week we have been hosting Dr Ann Casson as a researcher from the National Institute for Christian Education Research at Canterbury Christ Church University on a project called Faith in the Nexus, looking at the relationships between church, home and school in the development and nurturing of Christian faith. Ann has been interviewing parents, teachers, support adults, governors and children about how this looks at Christ the Sower. She came with us on the pilgrimage, to see what this might look like in an authentically collaborative and purposeful spiritual activity. I don’t know if her work has helped to heighten expectations or not, but it has been interesting that there has been this outpouring of blessing and joy during a week when she was there to witness it.

A final reflection is that we are blessed, according to Psalm 84, if we set our hearts on pilgrimage. For those Year 4 children who have been to Life Path to study John Newton’s life before half-term, who have learnt about pilgrimage and taken part in it and (in the case of Teasel class in Y4) presented it in worship with us, it is not really a surprise, but more of a delightful consequence, that they have been blessed, and us with them.