OFSTED, but not in a bad sense of the word

This morning I received a letter from the senior HMI for the South Eastern Region, entitled Positive feedback from a former pupil. Honest, no kidding. Positive feedback from a former pupil.

We don’t generally get these. I imagine that they are not the main business of the inspectorate, which functions very much on a deficit model (or not at all, if this story in this week’s TES is typical of their evaluating skills). So to find some unabashed positivity from an HMI was a bit of a treat. Exactly how unusual this is can be seen if I tell the story of how it came about.


A girl who I used to teach in my maths set, and whose mum is a long term encourager and supporter of Christ the Sower, decided that as she had done so well at her secondary school (The Hazeley Academy! Hooray!), a huge amount of that was down to what she had learnt from us (this in itself takes a lot of insight, teenagers being the generally forgetful and short-term creatures that they are). The girl and her mum, between them, decided to contact OFSTED and say what a lovely school we were.

Ha. This is where the fun starts. They found a number on the OFSTED website for pupils to ring and contact the organisation. The girl rang and after answering various security questions, was put through to a pleasant person who asked her what her concern was. Oh, said the girl, I don’t have a concern. I just wanted to tell OFSTED how good a school Christ the Sower was. Well, the person on the phone was a bit nonplussed and said that they couldn’t accept positive reports as that number for under 18’s was ONLY to report concerns. They advised to phone the main number where they would find someone who might be able to help.

So, more ringing, more security questions and another person asking what the concern was. Oh, said the girl. No concerns, I just wanted to tell OFSTED how well I have done and that it was down to having really good education at Christ the Sower. Well, the second nonplussed person said that he didn’t think he was allowed to take that report but he referred it to his supervisor. (Short pause ensues whilst unusual conversation takes place in background). Well, says the OFSTED person, this is very unusual, we don’t usually get calls like this. I’ve never had one before, but we can certainly take the call and we will make sure that we contact the school to give them the feedback. Do you want to tell me which school it was and why you think it’s so good?

And there you have it. Occasionally people grizzle about schools and escalate their concerns to OFSTED – all well and good, I suppose. But how many have the persistence to ring them and say good things about the schools they loved and which did them good. Every school – every school – is good for children. The difference in ratings describes two things – exactly how good they are for how many children, and in what way that goodness manifests itself. If schools were bad for children, the children would, I bet, just stop coming.

One way of helping OFSTED get beyond a deficit mindset and into praising schools as a lifestyle choice, might be if we all rang them up and told them how good our school was for us. My grateful thanks to this girl and her mum for being dogged enough to persist in goodness.

To revel in imperfections

This panorama, and those below, is taken from the fells above Allan Bank, a  National Trust property in Grasmere, looking northwards towards Helvellyn. It’s great because you can see how even the snowline is. It was the highlight of a 3 day visit to Cumbria earlier in the week, and not just for the scenery. Allan Bank, among other residents, counts William Wordsworth as one (he was a mobile sort of guy, and the number of places in the Lake District which claim him is large, and growing). You can keep Wordsworth, actually. The house, ugly enough on the outside to show off mid-Wales council houses to good effect, was the property from 1915 of somebody infinitely more interesting, Revd Hardwicke Rawnsley, who is famous for a number of things.

Mostly, the National Trust have made him famous for inventing the National Trust. But he was one of those great late Victorians who knew and appreciated John Ruskin (Ruskin’s house is not far distant, on Coniston Water) and who shared his views on human creativity. He combined faith and ministry with an educational impulse and an awareness of the importance of craftsmanship that led him and his first wife Edith to create the Keswick School of Industrial Art, which closed in the 1980s after a life that spanned nearly 100 years. He also founded Keswick High School, was a friend of Beatrix Potter (a photo of the two together can be seen in Wray Castle on Windermere) and among other fascinating facts, narrowly avoided becoming the Bishop of Madagascar, a fate that could so easily befall any one of us.

Seriously, Allan Bank has been in the NT for years, and could do with a good scrub up. But just because of this, it is one of the most hospitable and homely places that I have ever been in. It is absorbing in its simplicity, and left a far greater impression on me than palaces, grand houses and gardens elsewhere across the NT estate. It seems to revel in its own imperfections, something which I really think is emerging as an approach to doing school. Like many places we saw in Cumbria, dogs were allowed in – and fed – and coffee was served on an offering basis in a jar. The volunteers were kind and realistic about the place, and clearly loved what it stood for, and more welcoming than many at NT properties. It was, genuinely, a sorrow to leave: it had such a feel of being somebody’s home, all slightly down at heel – even the grand piano in the hall had lost the key to the lid, which was all of a piece.

The idea for this post came from this piece of writing which I found in Allan Bank – part of a celebration of Rawnsley’s life.

Making things with our hands gives tangible results. Craft allows us to revel in imperfection, the inconsistency of each piece created by hand distinguishes it from the mass produced, machine made perfection we expect from everyday objects.

The Keswick School of Industrial Art had as its objectives,

“to counteract the pernicious effect of turning men into machines without possibility of love of their work…to make it felt that hand-work did really allow the expression of a man’s soul and self, and so was worth doing for its own sake, and is worth purchasing at some cost to the buyer”

To revel in imperfection. Isn’t this wonderful as a metaphor for creativity in teaching? What better describes children than the “inconsistency of each piece?” And have we not lost everything as teachers when we lose the possibility of “love of their work” – that which keeps is as amateurs in a professional world?

This is not an argument for low standards. It is an argument for reality, for taking into account children as we see them, a class as we see them, fellow teachers and leaders as we find them, and enjoying, celebrating and revelling in the fact that the imperfection and inconsistency that we see in everything actually make for the interest. To requote Abed Ahmed from Saturday’s conference, stammer with confidence! Make the most of who you are and all that you have, whether others perceive it as disability or fault or whatever.

Printmakers know this. There are no two prints that are identical, and it is in the difference within a single edition that makes for the interest. And God knows this, too. If there were no imperfections and distortions in a quartz lattice, we would never get amethyst, or citrine, or rose quartz. So much for the doctrine of perfection in creation.

This is vital, because God creates us with, if you will, “imperfections.” They are, truly, what we are and what we were meant to be. God adores each one just as he made them, and not because they are striving to look like somebody else. We might see them as imperfections, but really they are not.

When I look at my teaching team, and ponder on what makes me proudest of them, it is this: their ability to take each child, to find a home for each one in their classes through careful pastoral work and (often) a deep love for each one. This results in cases of exquisite care and patience taken with the most vulnerable and distressed, the work of a potter with a piece of clay, not giving up at the first attempt, but also rejoicing in every little thing that makes each (inconsistent) child grow closer to the vision that his or her creator, our great King, Jesus Christ, has for them.

That is a paragraph that ought to go in our school Self Evaluation Form, I suppose.

Why RE matters, by someone who isn’t usually that convinced…

Yesterday at the Chartered College of Teachers conference in London, NATRE were represented. These guys, along with RE Today, are the prime source of excellent RE learning for schools, so it was pleasing to see, on Friday, the Guardian in its leader column, make an excellent case for RE from a perspective that is not always heard clearly.

It is the Guardian, of course, and so has to play to its gallery. Thus the title of the piece, the hook to make its traditional readers take note, but which hardly does justice to the content, is The Guardian view on religious education: teach humanism too.

The argument it makes, though, is simple, and with one wonderful swipe at Dawkins et al (“the facile confidence of the New Atheist movement…pushing at an open door”) it starts like this:

  1. Religious studies remains popular to young people at A level and is therefore of interest to them. NATRE need more RE teachers to meet demand.
  2. RE functions as a basic ethnography, at the very least, teaching us about the anthropological and cultural practices of groups of people we do not know well or have much to do with.
  3. RE is actually more ambitious than this, dealing with a “knowledge” or belief system that cannot be learnt using a modernist, scientific pedagogy. The methods of enquiry are different. “…there is no experiment that can determine whether God is love, or whether Muhammad is his prophet…that can determine the truth of a humanist belief in human rights. These are the sort of beliefs that can all appear absurd…and where they flourish they are not taught as schoolroom propositions but transmitted in thick cultural bundles of habit and ritual: that is why there are so many middle-aged agnostics who still love to sing the hymns of their childhood. The truth of such propositions is tested by the heart. Their meaning is personal, and grows over the course of a lifetime.”
  4. RE – and only RE, probably – can “help people think about this kind of moral reasoning and imagination
  5. Although this takes place across the school (“a good school teaches ethics – such as the virtues of tolerance and respect – continually in every lesson and outside the classroom too. Pupils learn about them by practising them”), it still needs to be reflected on and this is where RE helps. In a world where most young people are guided by an “undogmatic humanism”, which certainly ought to be taught.
  6. Conclusion: “At a time when British identity feels uncertain, RE provides an important tool for understanding ourselves and where we’re going.”

This is not the complete argument for RE, naturally, but a great place to see a partial argument represented. Nice to read. Good to see in the public space, and a good thing to give thanks for.

ConnectCCT18: National Conference of the Chartered College – reflections

This graphic summarizes the day’s learning at the Chartered College of Teaching National Conference in Bishopsgate. Hopefully we will get the presentations made available to us later on. We have heard from Daisy Christadoulou on comparative judgments in assessment, from Lucy Rose on creating schools that allow flexibility in teacher working and from a panel of teachers led by Prof Tim O’Brien on teacher workload and wellbeing. All of this was good, absorbing and challenging. Much of my thinking has been remodelled as a result and I have gained confidence to implement policy and approach that I did not have beforehand. What has been really noticeable is the level of committed positive engagement shown by everyone. This has been a direct result of holding the day on a Saturday in half term. Only the interested, engaged and committed turn up. Having said that, there are about 300 here out of a 10,000 membership, and I wonder if the venue is too small.

The afternoon was less convincing, I thought, and in general, there was a breadth to the conference that exclude depth. The Twitter feed is uniformly enthusiastic about everything, as you would expect, but I have not sensed the authority of the profession in the same way that their joy and enthusiasm is clearly present. The exception has been the amazing Abed Ahmed, a young maths teacher, telling young people, and us, to stammer with confidence. This was moving in all sorts of ways, and being an affirmation of being rooted in the people we are, helped us own our selves, rather than any techniques we rely on to teach, as the focus of our calling.

Like all conferences, there were dead moments that failed to instruct or inspire, but as an opportunity to receive legitimate challenge as a school leader, to hear again the voice of teachers, to reflect on practice and grow in considered wisdom, it has been worth coming. Important learning and questions that have emerged have been:

  • Open tasks cannot be assessed by closed rubrics. This has big implications for the use of the interim frameworks for assessing writing, which have some general use, but which wrongly assess the quality of children’s work, mistaking quality for compliance to the framework. Instead, comparative judgment of work, whether in assessing writing or other subjects, will produce a more reliable, faster result. Chasing the rubric is not always a good idea. We need to give children open tasks with holistic judgments. This means that we will move to a comparative judgment approach as soon as we can, and get exploring it in the SLT this year. It is clearly the way that the wind is blowing, and has the NAHT backing.
  • How do we normalise flexible working practices? We have not done this well as a school, and by being really clear in our expectations of part time staff, we can improve their contribution to school life. The evidence for the impact of flexible working is well established, and Lucy demonstrated ways in which legitimate obstacles (and just plain old myths) could be tackled. A project developing the thinking around this is the MTPT Project. The contention is that if schools are family-friendly, they tend to be everyone-friendly. A number of actions for me flow from this, principally in the area of not being clear about expectations and provision right at the start. This form might be a start, that we could both use as a self-assessment and as a contribution to research.
  • What are the components of teacher wellbeing that we can actually help or change as a school – without being tokenistic as a leadership team? For those of us who place our own wellbeing quite low on the scale and just keep working, we have to be forced to think about these things! However, Tim O’Brien outlined some of the key factors we need to take into account in determining whether there is a specific “teacher wellbeing” as opposed to any other kind of wellbeing. He identified three prime factors that impact together to create a specific difficulty that is driving well-motivated people out of the profession, some intrinsic, others extrinsic:
    • The emotional labour of being a teacher is both intense and underestimated by those in and out of the profession: we have essentially a parenting role for a class with all the emotional baggage that entails.
    • We have endured enforced change, without consultation, for decades. This has had the impact of flattening out expectations, taking away teacher agency and reducing autonomy, as school leaders have had to move the ship to get everyone facing the same direction – again!
    • Hyper-accountability, fuelled by UPNs and things like Fischer Family Trust, that restrict autonomy of teachers and schools within a system that is trying to be (despite its protestations) more monochrome.
  • To help us with these, a number of teachers who have been part of the CCT’s Teacher Wellbeing Programme (notable contributions from Alison Rooney at Furze Down School in Winslow, and Ceri Hathaway from Brooklands Primary in Long Eaton) were give the opportunity to share their solutions. Some things that have actually worked have been:
    • Replace teacher observations with lesson study, where teachers work with each other to hold one another accountable (with no pay issues attached!) and to learn from each other;
    • Increasing opportunity for teachers to do PPA at home or offsite;
    • Remodelling the staffroom so it is only a place for relaxation and not a place for work at all
    • Lots of other ideas, variously scattered across #ConnectCCT18

There were plenty of other things today that really began to help my thinking where it has got traditional or just unattended to. Hopefully some of these things will get into the life of the school, despite the pressures of a LA review (coming up 1/12 March) and OFSTED lying in wait….

(Written 17/2; published 18/2)


Agrarian impulses in schools (2)

Being called Christ the Sower, and having therefore one of the New Testament’s prime agricultural metaphors at the heart of our self-understanding, our beloved school is a great place to explore the idea of growth, of health (physical, ecological, relational, spiritual) and of what leads to true productivity.

Jesus’ parable has productivity as a result of hearing and then doing the things that make for health – in other words, the deeds that reflect the health-giving words and thoughts of God as Father in the way we live our lives, in the way we relate to each other, and in the way we relate to the earth. (It is one of the stupidities of our modern hermeneutic that we have tried so thoroughly to spiritualise the Parable of the Sower that we have forgotten that it has some good advice on gardening and farming in there too.)

But schools are funny, unnatural things, a product of the industrial economy’s desire to take children from the home and put them to a more productive use in the money economy so that they will somehow “add value” by leaving home and community and going to have a career somewhere else. This we now regard as normal, and yet it is far from normal, and over the history of schooling is still a minority attitude. Far more common was the expectation that children were educated by their families, maybe also by schools where needed, for the purpose of being skilled in what they as a family produced. Recently I commented on the amazing tapestries of Maximo Laura, Peru’s foremost weaver. He is the 5th generation of his family to be a weaver – this is knowledge that is known through every way that knowledge is possible. Maybe he went to school, maybe not. But he did not learn to be Peru’s national treasure except by the education of his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather. This excerpt describes the situation we have now.

According to the new norm, the child’s destiny is not to succeed the parents, but to outmode them; succession has given way to supersession. And this norm is institutionalized, not in great communal stories, but in the education system. The schools are no longer oriented to a cultural inheritance which it is their duty to pass on unimpaired, but to the career, which is to the future, of the child. The orientation is thus necessarily theoretical, speculative, and central. The child is not educated to return home and be of use to the place and community; he or she is educated to leave home and earn money in a provisional future that has nothing to do with place or community. And parents with children in school are likely to find themselves immediately separated from their children, and made useless to them, by the intervention of new educational techniques, technologies, methods and languages. School systems innovate as compulsively and eagerly as factories. It is no wonder that, under these circumstances, “educators” tend to look upon the parents as a bad influence, and wish to take the children away from home as early as possible. And many parents, in truth, are now finding their children an encumbrance at home – where there is no useful work for them to do – and are glad enough to turn them over to the state for the use of the future…..Thus the home as a place where a child can learn has become an idea of the professional “educator,” who retains control of the idea. The home…is not to be a place where children may learn on their own, but a place where they are taught by parents according to the instructions of professional “educators.”

In such ways as this, the nuclei of home and community have been invaded by the organizations, just as have the nuclei of cells and atoms. And we must be careful to see that the old cultural centers of home and community were made vulnerable to this invasion by their failure as economies. If there is no household or community economy, then family members and neighbors are no longer useful to each other. When people are no longer useful to each other, then the centripetal force of family and community fails, and people fall into dependence upon exterior economies and organizations. The hegemony of professionals and professionalism erects itself upon local failure. And from then on the locality exists merely as a market for consumer goods as a source of “raw material,” human and natural. The local schools no longer serve the local community; they serve the government’s economy and the economy’s government. Unlike the local community, the government and the economy cannot be served with affection, but only with professional zeal or professional boredom. Professionalism means more interest in salary and less interest in what used to be known as disciplines. And so we arrive at the idea, endlessly reiterated in the news media, that education can be improved by bigger salaries for teachers – which may be true, but not, as the proponents too often imply, by bigger salaries alone. There must also be love of learning and of the cultural tradition and of excellence. And this love cannot exist, because it makes no sense, apart from the love of a place and community.

This is the best statement I know of how and why parents and extended families should be at the core of teaching the young. The author is Wendell Berry, of course, simply by virtue of being the most eloquent agrarian thinker of our day; the essay is The Work of Local Culture.

But this raises some enormous issues for us as a school. How do we go about convincing parents that they are the prime teachers of their children? Then how do we persuade them that this does not mean that they repeat our essentially boring and mind-numbing curriculum at school? How do we reveal to them that they are the possessors of great knowledge, of family story, of language and myth, of faith and of perception on the world? Some schools, looking at some parents, might think: well, all that is worthwhile is what we have to teach them. This is hubris of course, and like all hubris, can lead to tragedy. I have teachers who think like that, but we need to be more generous. We need to recognise that our parent body has often been so industrialised, that what they value is hugely compromised by the money economy, by salesmanship and by the foolish pretension that we are what we possess. Beneath this, I hope, there is a richer awareness, hippocampi stored full of childhood memories ready to be awakened by a scent or the look of the sky. We function in certain ways in school because that is the best way of demonstrating peaceability and community, of modelling good learning and social attitudes and finding expressions of what it means to love.

What has really ruptured this opportunity for children to learn from their parents is that we no longer have a household economy that creates things. At a friends’ dinner party last night we were talking about how we all learnt to cook. The hostess told us that her mum had taught her, as part of her home upbringing. Her husband had learnt out of pursuing his interest, and from sheer necessity as a young man. Others had learnt from grandparents, others from books, and I had learnt simply out of the desire to share some of the burden of cooking when our children grew up. One person there, the son of the hosts, is a professional chef and is learning his trade in a great kitchen in Cumbria, and his interest has been sparked by his parents who have together made a passion and hobby of food and of cooking. It was heartening that this still takes place, this home-apprenticing of the young. But it is limited now. We do not have generations of potters, of furniture makers, of blacksmiths in the same way we used to. This is not a matter of them simply dying out, but a result of the impact on the rural periphery of the streamlining, “efficient,” industrial economy that ignores place and scale. Therefore we buy things rather than make them, and replace them rather than repair them, and our children do not learn at home. The crafts which are left to us – cooking and gardening, and perhaps the arts – do not have the economic potential that the handed-down industries of earlier generations once had.

Is this recoverable? Many would say no. We have had it, and the costs of resurrecting this sort of economy, never mind the battle against the god of convenience, are too much to bear. But, an agrarian-minded school can challenge parents, help children to think differently about goods and services, about cooking and gardening, about the role of knowledge and what it means to be human, and can change its curriculum so that what children learn will both reflect the best intentions of their forebears and equip them to challenge the modus operandi of the current industrial economy.

Convenience as a standard?

I am spending time at the moment re-reading a number of essays and books that have seemed to be of great importance in my thinking, and therefore merit re-visting simply by way of revision and refreshment. They include a number of essays from Wendell Berry’s The Way of Ignorance (2004), the title essay from his Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (1990), Michael Oakeshott’s essay Learning and Teaching (1967) from the collection entitled The Voice of Liberal Learning, Tom Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God (2005), Ellen F Davis’ Scripture, Culture and Agriculture (2007) and Dallas Willard’s Personal Religion, Public Reality (2010), his last major work before he died.

WP_20180212_12_01_55_ProThese pieces of re-reading are reinforcing for me the reality of God at the centre of all things, the actuality of His great presence and His deep and ongoing concern for the world; they are also reinforcing an attitude to life and a reality of how life can be lived that is very much at odds with the way we are forced to pursue our existence at the moment. They bolster a sense of narrative in all things – the Bible as narrative; teaching and learning as a cultural narrative (lots of work to be explored here); and our lived lives as a narrative that proceeds from the agrarian vision of what it is to be human. All of these books challenge one thing: that mere convenience is not a standard by which we should measure our lives, and that any standard worth adhering to or setting our lives by, is done in community, with others, mutually submissive whether to those living or to those who have lived before us – and in Berry’s arguments – to those who are yet to come and to whom we owe a responsibility to present a world increasingly marked by wholeness.

These authors have largely circumscribed my life for the last five years – especially Berry, Wright and Willard. They have interpreted the Bible for me in a way that makes much richer sense than the way I was taught as a young Christian, they have allowed me to think culturally about my faith as well as simply theologically, and have contributed to an integrity of worldview that no longer separates out faith, politics, agriculture, economics, work, theology, education and artistic culture, but sees them all as part of the great multi-varied glory of God to which we are daily called. For those who cannot see that prayer and praise are the other side of the coin from hard work and attention to detail; for those who see that there is a work-life balance to be had, as though life was not work; for those Christians who see leisure as a right rather than as a gift of God – for such I mourn, because they have not seen, as Irenaeus saw, that the glory of god is a human being fully alive, working, resting, eating, worshipping, fellowshipping with others, learning, teaching, farming, adding cultural value and love to the world around them.

At the heart of all of this is our tendency to see convenience, uncritically, as a good thing, rather than just as another opportunity which, like all opportunities, comes at a cost. For our western world it bears a high cost – it is a form of enslavement because it bypasses our mind and makes convenience the first thing we rate. Why? Mainly because it saves time and effort. And why, generally, do we want to save time and effort? Because it frees up time that we could be spending on more work (less likely) or leisure (more likely). These have a disordering sense upon our attitude to work, with the result that we become ever poorer at the management of time and effort, as we have no longer any concept of “chores” or “rest” and, increasingly, because we cannot see the value of a completed piece of work. As Ellen Davis has argued (and which I touched on here), hard work, quota-driven, without thoughtful completion or rest was a function of the Israelites’ agricultural and brick-making experience in Egypt. One of the first things that YHWH did in the desert was to re-institute a proper, worshipful sense of sabbath, a concept that the nation was unused to, and which they found tough at first to understand.

Convenience for us needs itself to be measured by other standards which we need to hold more dear. Health is one, the quality of community and relationship is another. Talking to friends last night we were discussing that the convenience of electronic equipment in the home, on the internet and in the kitchen means that we can do more ourselves, and therefore do it without reference to neighbours or friends. This tends toward a self-satisfied isolation, which militates against such other standards as courtesy, mutual interdependence, neighbourly care, and a host of others.

fresh-bread-loaves-terry-mccormickWe have just bought, against my better judgment, a bread-maker. It has the potential, if used carefully, to help me in my bread-making, but mostly it works against it, removing from my life the chief pleasure of bread-making which is the physical work of kneading, and the smaller pleasure of watching dough rise and prove. I will still make bread, but I cannot compete with the convenience of this machine, with its ability to work while I sleep. I rejoice, however, in the fact that all the bread comes out a single size, a perfect metaphor for our industrial age.

Now, however, we are less likely to visit Dutson’s bakery in the Heelands, a local bakery that has been in the Heelands since the suburb was built, and I am uncomfortable with the thought that our purchase of a breadmaker will in a small way threaten his business. This is the cost of convenience, often – the loss of trades and roles in our community that give dignity and strength to the relationships between people and to the people themselves.

amish-farmland-pennsylvania-farms-fields-taken-hot-air-balloon-golden-hour-lancaster-pa-61590689Convenience, then, is only a reasonable standard when submitted to the constraints imposed by better ones. Many Amish communities, famously, have submitted every technology to the test of community, of hard work, of the demands of the place, and of their corporate decisions to work with solar power rather than fossil fuels, and with animals. And notably, community. In Wendell Berry’s novel Remembering, (another recent re-read) Andy Catlett, at that point an agricultural journalist, is driving through Amish territory in Pennsylvania, when he stops to talk to a farmer, Isaac Troyer. He gets the opportunity to drive his team a bit and then the two of them talk as they walk around the farm. At one point, Andy wonders:

Had Isaac ever thought of buying more land – say a neighbor’s farm?

“Well, if I did,  I’d have to go into debt to buy it, and to farm it. It would take more time and help than I’ve got. And I’d lose my neighbor.”

“You’d rather have your neighbor?”

“We’re supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves. We try. If you need them, it helps”

This is the submission of convenience and expansion (which is enabled by convenience) to a higher standard of neighbourliness. It takes a new technology and submits it to the standards that a community has already chosen to live by. The Amish have advantages here. They are a community that talks to each other, that has a strong Christian faith by which they live and which, though long usage, has made agreements and a social contract based on work and the land and its use, that determines exactly how and when a technology can be put to use. We, on the other hand, have no community worth the name; we allow no other person or family to make decisions about how we interact with the corporations that want to sell us stuff, and more stuff; we have no values in common because we have not worked together and therefore we have no recourse to thinking about or reflecting on the impact of convenience on our social selves because we have very little understanding of ourselves as social beings. We are deeply impoverished and therefore leisure and entertainment seems to be the way out, and convenience of goods seems to be one way of attaining that goal.

This is a serious problem in western life, and should be addressed by the churches. But it is not, and the reason is plain to see: most churches have a very poor communal sense, and their theology of technology, like an old unloved film in an SLR, is undeveloped.

Agrarian impulses in schools

Five weeks of intensity at school have come to a screeching halt. If ever there was any evidence for OFSTED being a motor to school improvement (and I believe the evidence for this is thinnish), this would be the time to find it! However, I am not sure that they (the inspectorate) could be identified as the cause of the improvement, so much as our desire to learn from past mistakes and correct and improve on our practice for the sake of the children. I am constantly challenged and heartened by two things in particular: the attention to detail that so many teachers pay to each individual child, and the unwillingness of so many of our teachers to see them as anything else than children – not as pupils, or learners, but as children.

The obstacles to our thinking in this way – now they do come from OFSTED and the DfE, in the form of national comparisons, unrealistic targets (the expected floor standard for a school’s combined KS2 RWM percentage is currently 65%, where the national average is 61%!), the reduction of children to pieces of information, and the recent machine-generated algorithms to rate schools for OFSTED – are many. The Local Authority, shamefully, are now totally in hock to this way of thinking; we ourselves, slavishly, have to think in this way if we are to defend our school in any inspection. And it is this which has caused the damage to schools most fully. I am still not certain that I accept or respect the need for national accountability. I certainly do not accept the use of national standards to judge schools – why I don’t, I explore below – and I am certain that OFSTED should be totally abolished and replaced by a peer-to-peer local schools based means of mutual support, backed up by adequate funding to councils.

At the root of this issue is whether or not local issues have nationally-applicable solutions. Some, undoubtedly, do. The NHS, for instance, may have local variance in practice, but what works on one human body, for the most part, has an applicability to another one. The factors that cause communities to be radically different are (mostly, not totally) filtered out when you get to tissue or vascular level. However, the growth in our understanding of genetic causes of disease may again reinforce a more individual (and thus historical) understanding of health care.

In schools, it is totally different, though the government choose not to think so. Because they take an essentially industrial-pragmatic view of schools, they would say (through their well-funded lackeys, the Education Endowment Foundation) that certain things work, certain things don’t work, we should do more of a particular thing in teaching, we should no longer do some other thing, and so on. The EEF now produce spurious “toolkits” based on statistical outcomes of what does and does not apparently “work” in classes. Millions of teachers teach according to this approach. They assume (and because of the impact of industrial globalisation on the thinking of every family, through the media, through advertising, above all through the internet, they are right in their assumptions) that children – no, pupils – over the whole country are more or less the same, that they work in the same way, that their communities are of no account because schools are such an effective means of social control.

Leaders assume that what works in one school must work in another, and find, lo and behold, that often it works. The more that we can reduce children to learning units and avoid too much challenge based on the identity of local communities and their histories (which we have all now largely forgotten), the more likely that the input-output model will work. Historical factors and roots of communities are now largely reduced to being curiosities. You find remnants of their importance in older white working class communities – Peterborough brickmaking families or Chester bargemen living in the same terraces as their great grandparents did – and schools that are serving such communities are rich indeed, provided that those communities can resist the global culture and reinforce for their children what their roots are. In his wonderful account of Cumbrian sheep-farming, James Rebanks describes the complete ignorance shown by his school teacher of the life of his shepherding community, as though the reality of life in the Lakeland fells could be reduced to poems by Wordsworth.

Is there a model that might help us think more clearly, even if it is too hard at the moment to implement? I believe that the answer lies in an agrarian approach to schools, which is above all an approach of correct scale. It is (to use Wes Jackson’s term) the right “eyes-to-acres ratio.” Wendell Berry and others have argued for a long time that the main problem with the industrial economy is that it overextends itself and therefore strengthens the (chiefly urban, globalising, power-concentrating) centre at the expense of the (communal, principally rural and democratic) periphery. It does not hold valuable anything that cannot be extracted or put to use for the benefit of the centre, and pulls the means of production to the users of those products further and further away from each other; in the case of American agriculture, the agrarians’ chief concern, it has been wholly disastrous, depriving millions of a livelihood, ruining small towns and farms, and depleting communities wholesale.

This is, I think, where we are in education today in England. We have sold out to a global approach, even whilst saying that we welcome a variety of school models. This is freedom within a locked room, unfortunately.

The agrarians’ second big concern is that of place. That each place is a distinct community with distinct people and families, farmed distinctly, educated in the goodness of that place and what it has to offer. Read the following, from Wendell Berry’s essay Imagination in Place, and then substitute farms for schools, agriculture for education, field for class:

The most insistent and formidable concern of agriculture, wherever it is taken seriously, is the distinct individuality of every farm, every field on every farm, every farm family, and every creature on every farm. Farming becomes a high art when farmers know and respect in their work the distinct individuality of their place and the neighborhood of creatures that lives there. This has nothing to do with the set of personal excuses we call “individualism” but is akin to the holy charity of the gospels and the political courtesy of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Such practical respect is the true discipline of farming, and the farmer must maintain it through muddles, mistakes, disappointments, and frustrations, as well as the satisfactions and and exultations, of every actual year on an actual farm (p45, The Way of Ignorance, Counterpoint, Berkeley).

If one wishes to farm well, and agrarianism inclines to that wish above all, then one must submit to the unending effort to change one’s mind and ways to fit one’s farm. This is a hard education, which lasts all one’s life, never to be completed, and it almost certainly will involve mistakes… (p46, ibid.)

I think that this is very helpful. Berry has written more incisively and at greater length on aspects of place, but as a summary position that we can learn from, we could not do much better. It means that, amongst other things:

  • We must regard each child as more important than “all children” (think the parable of the lost sheep)
  • We must regard each child as important within their family setting, cultural loves and community history
  • We must regard each school as more important than “all schools.”
  • We must regard national comparisons between schools as bogus with no relevance to what is happening in each individual school.
  • Schools are communities to be cared for and built towards social, personal and environmental health, and education has to take place within that treasured health-ful community.

The instinct for this among teachers is very strong, and I do wonder whether the disconnect between these urges for the individual child to flourish right here, in this set of friends, in this class, this year, and the reductionist approach of child-as-pupil or child-as-data, is not responsible for many of the mental health struggles reported increasingly by teachers.

I will write more on this (as I have already), as it has a vast amount to teach us as an approach and as a metaphor. In this I am grateful for the agrarian story that sits at the heart of our school, and invite all of us to consider it as a working model.


Welcome is the best guarantee of safety

stream_imgThis evening, Michael Scott brought to an end his short history of Sicily on BBC4. Subtitled The Wonder of the Mediterranean, it is a treasure of a program. Amongst many other wonderful things, was this quote from an elderly Sicilian academic talking about the fact that Sicily has, without making much of a fuss about it, and exhibiting not much in the way of intolerance, taken in 400,000 immigrants from North Africa in recent years, simply out of a humanitarian desire and because they were asked to by the Italian government.

1502278549-view-over-taorminaAlso, of course, because the Sicilian island of Lampedusa is stop number one for Tunisian and Libyan migrant boats. But in challenging the attitude from some Italian politicians for whom fear is a weapon to stir up intolerance, he said this:

Welcome is the best guarantee of safety.

There is something so profound about this that it forced me, immediately, to ponder it. It raised a whole range of questions about ourselves, myself, my attitudes, and about the cultural position of welcome in the UK. Welcome is quite a conditional thing with us. It can be summed up, probably, in Mrs Ogmore Pritchard’s quote in Under Milk Wood: “Before you let the sun in, mind he wipes his shoes.” Standards, usually our own economic standards are placed at a higher level than our common humanity. I hope that this is not the case, but the evidence rather suggests that it is.

Scott’s program highlighted the pride that Sicilians take in learning from each of the migrations that have flooded across the island – Greek, Roman, Punic, Arabic, Norman, Spanish and Italian. There appears to be a rich awareness of the range of what it means to be Sicilian and therefore an appreciation of a wide variety of Sicilian-ness. This obviously helps them appreciate the newcomer as somebody to be learnt from. Sure, the Mafia and others despicably use the migrants and not everything in their experience is good, by any means. But to live out a culture that welcomes the stranger first and asks questions later, seems to me to be a godly thing, a mark of holiness in Leviticus 19:33-34:

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.

Welcome as safety…this should, if adhered to carefully, provide safety for the foreigner (see the provisions made in the rest of Leviticus 19) and for ourselves, because it makes us more open hearted toward the stranger, which in turn lays siege to our self-centredness and (here’s the rub) pride. Oh no, we say, we have not been invaded for nearly 1000 years. We are an island race, we say. We have the sea to protect us and keep us separate from Europe….

But what if we had been invaded repeatedly since then? What if that helped us appreciate the people we really were? What if we revised our Whig view of history and began to see how influenced we actually have ben by other cultures and nations?

Welcome as a means to our own safety has much to offer us. Brexit came about partly because although the perception of open borders was very strong, the welcome offered to those who had come was very weak, and therefore we began to feel unsafe. The fact that Angela Merkel opened her borders to so many migrants in 2013-2015 worked because they were welcomed. New problems arose, but every German friend I have spoken to about this, talks of the sense of welcome – the pride they had – in being a host to so many people.

This is not the whole answer to these difficult questions, but an open welcome to migrants seems to be one answer, which, if we get it right, will mitigate the negative responses to other, harder questions to come.

Called, committed, connected – or the other way round (2)

There was plenty to get you thinking yesterday at CEFEL’s National Conference in London, and after the keynote from Amanda Spielman, the rest of the day was really a chance to reflect on and reinterpret the most important input of the whole event, from Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford. His talk was forthright and because it was, it framed the day, especially some of the woolliness that was lurking in some of the other talks. At the very end of the day, there was a “plenary-breakout,” which is a contradiction in terms, but which gave the chance for each of the theme words to get plenty of discussion. Because Bishop Stephen had spoken on the theme “called,” it was to this afternoon plenary I went, led by Revd Nigel Genders, the CofE Education Officer and by Bishop Rachel Treweek of Gloucester. In this post I will try and summarise both of these inputs and some of the learning that came from discussion afterwards. I am reliably informed that all the morning keynotes were filmed and will be put onto the CEFEL website on this page, empty at the time of writing. In particular, I hope that the transcript of Bishop Stephen’s talk is published in full, because keeping up with him as a notetaker took a bit of doing. In the meantime, his maiden speech a few years ago in the House of Lords is worth a read.

I just checked back to the last time I reported on a talk I heard from him – at the NCCSL conference in 2012 – and he spoke on two aspects that I think frame this sense of calling – one was that we needed to learn to fail well, without taking our eyes off the prize, and not to fear failure. The second one, which he referred to again yesterday, was the subversive nature of the Holy Spirit, who, when we were trying so hard to turn children into adults, was determined to turn adults into children.

We are defined, Bishop Stephen said, by the call to be and do the glory of God – this lies behind every other call. In John 1:43, Jesus found Philip and said to him “Follow me.” This shapes the Christian vocation completely. We are called by somebody – Jesus. He has come to find us, he cherishes us, and he cherishes those we have responsibility for and the schools we are called to serve. He shows us what humanity is supposed to look like when we learn to live our lives in community with God. Humanity, at its best, is shaped by creation in the image of God, made for and growing into, community with God.

Therefore a Christian education is a whole lot more than just learning stuff about God. Fullness of life, true flourishing, requires us to nurture the spiritual, the beating heart of God in each one of us. It is in the interplay of heart, mind, body and spirit that we create a complete education. If we neglect the spiritual, we impoverish humanity: we are called to full humanity, yes, but also to be fully ourselves. God carries in his heart, all the time, a vision of what we can one day become, and this is different for each person, because the call is different for each person.

Presently, in the western world, we are hooked on the idea that we can be improved and satisfied by more stuff: we are an addicted culture in this respect. Instead, where satisfaction comes is in allowing God to transform us into the lovely person that he sees us as already. God has us in our heart already: education therefore becomes the process of bringing each person to the person that God wants and calls them to be, made in the image of God, made to be themselves in community with God.

Therefore schools can be the place where this transformation happens, but only if we emphasise the spiritual alongside all the other aspects of human development. This starts with us as leaders manifesting joyful renewal and transformation in our own lives, and then affirming others in what they can be. We grow and flourish under this affirmation. We “bring the abstract to emotional life” (Madeleine Bunting’s quote in the Guardian here). We believe in a person and through that person God communicates to us directly, in all the ways that he speaks. Jesus takes the time to call us and we receive the call through, principally, the outpouring and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, for us, education is simply impossible without reference to God. Anything else is impoverishment of children. We are involved as teachers and leaders because we are called to fullness of life. This call to be fully human encounters the fullness of life, the revelation of God through Jesus Christ, and this shapes the whole curriculum. This is not just for church schools, but a vision for flourishing for everyone, because it is good for everyone.

Faith, says the writer to Hebrews, is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. What is not seen? This, whatever it is, is critical and valuable: Jesus, the most important and deepest reality of our lives. The Holy Spirit is confounding us at every turn, and subverting our efforts to grow children into adults by reminding us that it is little children who find him. Let us guard against educating childhood out of children.

You might be able to get a glimpse of why this needed some serious reflection time later in the morning.

The afternoon plenary, hosted by Nigel Genders and with Rt Revd Rachel Treweek as the keynote speaker, brought us back to reflect on our calling. Bishop Rachel, who is a trustee of CEFEL, took up the challenge of the recent CofE publication Setting God’s People Free, a report from the Archbishop’s Council. She said that it was imperative that Christians who felt called by God as to how they spend their lives, should be encouraged by the churches to live those lives as teachers and leaders – and that this was as important (or more so) than the call to ordained ministry.

What we get from that call was like, she said, Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, just a huge unknown, but it stemmed always from a desire in God, and then in us, to contribute to a flourishing of people in a flourishing world. Relationship is at the core of being human, at the heart of our humanity, and the call requires us to ask: how do we contribute to the quality of relationship in our schools so that we can educate for community and living well. But all those who are called to teach – we also need to flourish. We “become” in relationship over time, and that needs love and an atmosphere of affection. We don’t talk about love much anymore in schools, but it begins by creating a place where we can understand our given-ness: our calling is taking up our given-ness of who we are, and stepping into a place of love, within relationship.

We often say that we are “called away” from a task to a meeting or whatever. Are we often “called away” from that to which we are “called to”? It is vital, under these pressures, that who we are and what we are called to is a constant in our lives, something we are “becoming to be.”

Following this short reflection (not the best note-taking again, sorry!), a panel of worthies discussed questions raised by the audience. The questions led to other questions. So, here goes:

  • Do we use the language of vocation enough? It seems that in some schools, teachers coming into the profession do not have that sense of vocation yet, and come in for other reasons. Using the language in recruitment may focus minds and help us get the people we want in our schools. A sense of vocation  is a powerful help in getting through difficulties.
  • If teaching is a vocation, it must be a place where adults can really flourish and grow and be all that God made us to be. What would provide for this? Resources? A sabbatical culture? Could the church have a voice to pressurise the government is ensuring it provided for teachers’ flourishing? Can we “call people back to a wonderful huiman flourishing as teachers” and make provision for that? The debate in the House of Lords in December on education tried to address this.
  • Are we colluding, as a church with the anxieties that pressure schools?
  • Have we defined education as separate from schooling? To many they seem to be the same thing.
  • Are we using the school system to tackle the wrong problems? Are schools the right instrument to tackle social inequality? Have we decided what we prize in schools?
  • Is SIAMS not yet radical enough? Should it set us on a path to true human flourishing? Does it need grades? In this complicity with the “grading culture” has this damaged our calling and restricted human flourishing?
  • Why is church and school leadership and the conference today so un-diverse ethnically? Why so many white people?
  • Has the church been complicit in the government’s promotion of an industrial curriculum?

And that’s it. Plenty to think about, and I will post links to the content of talks when they are up on the CEFEL site.

Called, committed, connected – or the other way around (1)

Well, not quite like being at church today, but to be led in worship by young people from Trinity School in Bexley, and then preached at and re-invigorated by Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell (+ Chelmsford) came close. In between those two lovely experiences came the Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, sharing her thoughts on the role of church schools and the dangers of radicalization. As I have said before, I exist to be radicalized so I am not altogether certain that I am the right person to talk about this.

I am at the Church of England Foundation for Educational Leadership Annual Conference. It’s pretty posh here, in the etc Venue at 200 Aldersgate, just by the Museum of London. I have had some concerns about CEFEL in general. It comes across a bit as “academic excellence with ethos attached” and both Amanda Spielman and Bishop Stephen took a good pop at that perception, I was glad to see. I hope that both speeches will be reported fully and the transcripts made available. In the meantime, I will try and summarise what we learnt this morning.

Amanda Spielman first. She began by emphasising the importance of strong networks, in that they had the potential to maximise opportunity for children, OFSTYED’s primary concern. She spoke really well and managed to fit how and what she said into a framework we could all relate to well. She sees system diversity as a strength, increasing localism and leading to a strong self-improving school system. She said that where they see real long-lasting improvements in OFSTED is not in schools led by “superheads” (thank goodness) but where teams in schools and collaboration between schools is most effective. CofE schools have an inbuilt network but one that was not always used well. She hoped that CEFEL would be able to break down silos within church schools; CofE schools are a significant imprint in English and Welsh education, and we need to find ways of making that imprint more effective than it is currently. She wanted to affirm what we are doing, and that there can’t be a tradeoff between ethos and outcomes. She knew that in CofE schools that OFSTED had good evidence that schools were not neglecting either, but that there was a constant danger that ethos was betrayed by an over-focus on narrowly defined outcomes. This echoed much of what was in her first annual report. She worried that schools were not teaching anything but English and maths in Y6; that KS3 was reduced to two years and that some children were discouraged from doing the full range of EBacc subjects. Exam performance are a reflection of learning, not the sum of it; tests exist in the service of the curriculum, not the other way around. Psalm 119 encourages us to teach knowledge and sound judgment – and this was a point really well made. She said that it matters more than ever that we have an ethical basis to our curriculum.

School leaders needed to embody the the values of our schools, demonstrating those leadership capabilities that were marked by integrity; it was incumbent upon us to instill deep knowledge of all types.

She then moved into the section of her speech that dealt with radicalism, and you can read that in today’s papers. Her plea for a muscular liberalism was characterised by having no truck with closed minds; by refusing to allow the most conservative representatives of faiths to have the greatest impact; and to give way to the loudest voices is not a hallmark of liberalism, but rather of cowardice. OFSTED would back heads and leadership teams that took action on behalf of their children in defence of commonly held values.

Finally, she spoke of her disappointment that the churches have not supported proposed legislation to allow OFSTED to inspect out of school provision, chiefly because of the issue of Sunday Schools. She felt that this refusal to engage meant that extremist (and principally Muslim) schools would not be subject to scrutiny.

I was just tickled by the thought of HM Chief Inspector of Schools quoting the Psalms…

That’s it for now. Stephen Cottrell can wait until my battery is recharged….