Seeing June out…

IMG_20200626_081841460-EFFECTS

It has been a crazy month, not least for the weather. Gardens are well ahead of themselves, and to find ourselves eating broad beans, courgettes, peas, tomatoes, potatoes, blackcurrants, redcurrants, cucumbers, tayberries, cherries and gooseberries all from the garden by mid-June was a surprise. The strawberries and raspberries are all gone, pretty much, and three pullings of rhubarb have already taken place in the Humphreys household. Now that we are in some cooler days, I miss the overwhelming heat that we have had on occasions.

IMG-20200623-WA0000Even our cat is productive, and if herding him is more or less impossible, at least some serious performance management and target-setting has been possible. Our cat knows, I think, that one of its jobs in life is to catch rats, and since Tuesday he has presented us with three, including this one he took into the dining room. I moved his performance management meeting forward in celebration of this fact, and shovelled all three rats, stiff as boards, into the compost bin. It feels a bit harsh, increasing his target to 4 a week.

For a start, I am not entirely sure I want his collection of rats around the house (he brings them in if it is very hot, conscious of the issues around decomposition, I guess). And secondly, I am not at all sure that he has not subcontracted the work to some of his mates on our cul-de-sac. Last week there was just a single rat produced, which he spent sometime arguing over with a magpie who alternately was pecking the rat’s eyes and trying to drag it up the lawn and fly off with it. The cat chased the magpie away but then left the rat on the lawn for yours truly to deal with. Maybe it was the magpie’s kill in the first place, and the cat was just taking the credit, like a cocky Spitfire pilot claiming a downed Heinkel in 1940.

Still, wonderful days, that have gone past very quickly, giving us time to notice things, sit, think, mourn when needed (a lot of that recently), and ponder with God what a future of service might look like. Friends have lost jobs, gained jobs, gone into and out of depression, learnt to cook, taken up hobbies, tended gardens, had babies, fallen pregnant again, and stayed in touch with each other more often. Certainly, we have seen more of our children during the lockdown than we ever did before.

We are half way through the year, June is nearly out, we swim in strange waters, yet God’s faithfulness and tender mercies have not failed us once. Not once.

And that’s something, huh?

 

Back to the old game of shooting admirals

bhc0380We have a long and not particularly glorious national history of dispensing with the people who actually can get things done. From the shooting of Admiral Byng for “losing” Minorca to the French during the Seven Years War, to the sidelining of significant (but opinionated) senior civil servants under the current administration, scapegoating is a national sport. Voltaire’s witticism still applies:

Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres… (from Candide)

Many commentators have argued that the current crowd of inept leaders (I pray for them, by the way. I pray for wisdom for them, but the ineptitude continues…), knowing that a public enquiry is on its way for their (mis-)handling of the Covid-19 crisis, are positioning themselves desperately to escape the chop.

In the last two days, both Alison Peacock, the CEO of the Chartered College of Teachers and Zoe Williams from the Guardian have pointed out that the Tory leadership are gearing up for another assault on the teaching unions, motivated by their own frustration at not being competent enough to get children in England back to school. This is a deliberate attempt to:

  • separate out “teachers” from “teaching unions” as though they speak with different voices. This was shown particularly by the failure to consult unions – even the leadership unions like ASCL and the NAHT – before deciding on the 1 June reopening. Headteachers don’t always help this, choosing an adversarial position with unions as a knee-jerk reaction, but teaching unions are actually on the side of children, and of their education. The fact that they strongly protect their members is simply a function of them being a union!
  • shift parental opinion towards the government’s position and away from teachers’ views. This is shown by the constant briefing to the Conservative press – and their eager ears – of the negative stories about teachers. The strong affection for their schools and for their teachers by parents has been a particular feature of lockdown. When folk see headteachers and teachers dropping off food parcels at their doors, they do realise that these are treasured people, more treasured than before.
  • position themselves as on the side of the “people” against the “elite” – this is a particular theme of Zoe Williams’ article and she is right. It has been going on for a long time, and it is a bald lie. The only thing “unelite” about Johnson is his incompetence and his inability to find a comb. Apart from that, he is a member of the very elite that he despises, and that despises him. We look to elites for wisdom, experience and a rich, nuanced knowledge of how to do things – like run a country. Wisdom, experience and nuance are all broad based, distributed, manifold: that is why the Book of Proverbs encourages us that in “many counsellors is wisdom.”

As Zoe Williams says:

“To present this as the dilemma – a government desperate to do right by its young citizens and their families, with its hands tied by the internecine squabbling between the centre-left opposition and hard-left unions – is completely absurd.”

5704478-11Worse, it illustrates not just the frustration of an incompetent government, but it also shows the pathetic desire to blame somebody for it – “anyone but Boris” as the old Tory slogan used to go! But most importantly, it speaks of an appalling, confrontational desire not to cooperate with anybody, to go it alone, to build a “new Britain”. We see this in their attitude to German success in combatting Covid-19 and we saw it in the government’s sociopathic unwillingness not to be involved in the European Union’s consortium to source PPE for the NHS.

With generosity, we can attribute this to a nationalistic desire to do things well themselves, to be “world-class” (the most meaningless phrase in the political lexicon): but to mess with children’s lives and families’ incomes and chances to return to work, just for the sake of bashing the “blob” again, is unconscionable. How dare a government fail to recognise the legitimate concern of a group of hard working, sacrificial people who have been vilified for 10 years of Tory government and 13 years of New Labour before them, and who know children and young people to a degree and depth that this government could never approach? Teachers are experts on children. They are not just “deliverers” of lessons (again, one of the most appalling terms ever used about education), but trained experts in the way that children learn. Unions protect these people and speak for them, on the whole, diligently and accurately.

One of the problems arising, is that as teachers get closer to children, understand them more and seek to teach them better, they learn to want different outcomes for children than the outcomes that either local or national government wants. Local government officials have often said to me: well, we all want the same thing for our children. Actually, we don’t, often. We know children better and in different, richer ways, and can see that their needs are not always served by the outcomes that the DfE promulgates and that Ofsted inspects. We are closer to parents, more influential with them than LAs or the DfE, and harmonise much more readily with what parents say. We are more interested in the long game.

An adversarial approach, shooting teachers on the decaying decks of old schools, simply is not in children’s interests. If you want to go fast, says the old African proverb, go alone. if you want to go far, go together.

The insight of Haman

Paul_Alexander_Leroy_-_Haman_and_Mordecai,_1884

“There is a certain people dispersed and scattered among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom whose customs are different from those of all other people and who do not obey the king’s laws: it is not in the king’s best interests to tolerate them.” 

These words, from the King Ahasuerus’ top All_the_king's_servant,_except_Mordecai,_bow_down_before_Hamanadviser, Haman, the Dominic Cummings of his day, to his king, the great ruler of the Persian Empire, set in motion a train of events that are described in the book of Esther, and which are commemorated annually by Jews all over the world in the feast of Purim.

Haman is regarded as the bad guy in all subsequent Jewish retellings of the story, and indeed he is. He is descended from Agag king of the Amalekites, whom Samuel “slew before the Lord at Gilgal” in 1 Samuel 15:33. Saul, a Benjamite of the house of Kish, had disobeyed God’s command in failing to destroy the Amalekites.

But actually here, in his discourse with King Ahasuerus in Esther 3, Haman demonstrates a flash of insight about the Jews: A people whose customs are different from those of all other people and who do not obey the king’s laws.

This affected him personally when Mordecai, another Benjamite from the house of Kish, refused to bow down to Haman, who had been recently honoured by the king. Whether the failure to bow down to Haman was for reasons of worship or simply because Mordecai knew he was descended from the Amalekites, and the Benjamites and Amalekites had form, we do not know.

The Jews were called on by YHWH to be a light to the Gentiles, to demonstrate a way of living that was under YHWH’s hand, under his laws, in the shalom that came from peace with the land, peace with God and peace with each other. By this way of living, they were to subvert the ways of the nations and their gods, to demonstrate to them a better way of life. YHWH’s promise to Abraham, in a part of the world not that far from where Mordecai and Haman played out their drama, but a good thousand or more years earlier, was that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him (Genesis 12). This they were to achieve in the land that YHWH would give them, and there they were to engage in rituals and customs, notably circumcision (Genesis 17), that would mark them out, as Haman noticed, “from all other people.”

The failure to do this, to live that corporate life of worship and justice and shalom, had ended in bitter exile for the Jews, scattered as they now along the length of the Tigris and Euphrates, and beyond, as a result of at least two major invasions and forced removals. A similar charge was levied at them by Jesus as he approached Jerusalem in AD 29-30, lamenting that the affection of their God was now hidden from their eyes due to the hardening of their hearts. Exile and the destruction of the second temple was the inevitable judgment.

However, there is something else here in Haman’s mind: the possibility of subversion if compliance is not enforced. He knew enough of Jewish history to know that they lived in a different concept of life from other middle eastern peoples. And that was a threat. Mordecai threatened him just by not doing what he was told, a simple act of subversion that at a single stroke undermined the preening vanity of Haman. There was no way, as there was none for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that he could bow down to such a puppet-ruler, given his Jewish roots. This was not disrespect for authority – Mordecai sat at the king’s gate each day, and later accepted a high-up civil servant role in the government – but an unwillingness to worship that which arrogated authority where it had not been earned or deserved. Mordecai was deliberately and provocatively subversive.


 

In his book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Lesslie Newbigin uses Peter Berger’s concept of plausibility structures in order to describe the “structure of assumptions and practices which determine what beliefs are plausible and what are not” (p.53). This is a highly useful concept to us when trying to place our systems of thought and belief as Christians (necessarily a minority one) within the reigning plausibility structure, informed by modernism, post-modernism and the neoliberal governmental structures we live under, even post-Brexit.

Within each plausibility structure, reason is at work. Reason cannot be “opposed” to revelation, Newbigin argues, because both a revelatory tradition (such as the Christian faith)  and one built on modernist assumptions (such as that that dominates the Enlightenment) use reason to argue their cases. They are both “a tradition of rational discourse” – continually changing in order to make sense of experience, embodied in the language we use, and descriptive and interpretive of a reality we hold to be valid and true and useful. In the same way beliefs and facts cannot be put into opposition, as the modernist would want them, because facts change and are themselves interpretations within a tradition of rational discourse. Newbigin argues that when “facts” and “beliefs” are held to be in opposition, and “reason” placed in conflict with “revelation,” all that is happening is that the modernist, Enlightenment-driven plausibility structure is functioning well:

The Christian, on the other hand, will relativize the reigning plausibility structure in the light of the gospel. There is no disembodied “reason” which can act as impartial umpire between the rival claims. (p.57).

So in Esther, we have a Jewish plausibility structure, rooted in worship of YHWH and situated in the long narrative of YHWH’s choice of, and subsequent dealings with, Abraham’s family, in opposition to the reigning plausibility structure of (first) the Babylonian imperial world and then the Persian imperial world, similar in most features to its predecessor. For a short exposition of the Jewish plausibility structure, the speeches by Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3, and by Daniel elsewhere in the book, are a help. Rooted in a distinctive and challenging worship of YHWH, trust in His deliverance, desire to serve the common good, and a strong understanding that YHWH spoke to, revealed himself to and interacted with people, the Jews lived their plausibility structure right in the midst of the reigning one. They were willing to accept and undergo the humiliation and the conflict with the imperial plausibility structure because of the narrative of their own history and the reality of YHWH in that history. They lived fully in their own plausibility structure, and related as best they could with the reigning one. Newbigin puts it this way:

As a Christian I seek so to live within the biblical tradition, using its language as my language, its models as the models through which I make sense of experience, its story as the clue to my story, that I help to strengthen and carry forward this tradition of rationality.

But as a member of contemporary British society I am all the time living in, or at last sharing my life with, those who live in the other tradition. What they call evident truths are not self-evident to me, and vice versa. When they speak of reason they mean what is reasonable within their plausibility structure. I do not live within that plausibility, but I know what it feels like to live in it. Within my own mind there is a continuing dialogue between the two.

Insofar as my own participation in the Christian tradition is both healthy and vigorous, both in thought and practice, I shall be equipped for the external dialogue with the other tradition. There is no external criterion above us both to which I and my opposite number can appeal for a decision…. (p.65)

I think that this is extremely important and helpful. The requirement of Christians to adopt an attitude of subversion to the powers that rule a country is not one that finds much of a home in Anglicanism, and to posit it as a stance for Church of England schools is controversial. But nonetheless it has to be argued, because there is too much happening in the way that education is governed and managed in this country – and in many other western nations – for our voices as Christians not to be raised. Like Mordecai, we cannot wait for authority to be given us to be subversive. We start by subversion, living out a humble way of life that at every point challenges what the reigning plausibility structure counts as success, as progress, as a good education, as the common good, as….as….  These arguments have to be made not on the basis that they somehow fit into the reigning plausibility structure, but because they flow directly from the fact of God demonstrated in the birth, childhood, life, teaching, ministry, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension to glory of His son, the messiah, Jesus.

Taking Newbigin’s internalised debate between the two plausibility structures is useful, because it legitimises both “embodied traditions of rationality” for us, even though we know that the one (the Christian understanding rooted in the Kingdom of God and the lordship of Jesus Christ) will eventually supplant the other. It means that we can strive for a fully articulated way of being Christian in and as Church of England schools whilst simultaneously engaging with, dialoguing with, debating with, and possibly suffering at the hands of, the dominant plausibility structure.

Newbigin’s argument is a call to arms to develop and flesh out the contours of what such a lived life in a Church of England school could become, as we seek to subvert, under the Lordship of Jesus, the dominant imaginary in our educational culture.

 

Sitting at home doing nothing?

I have some sympathy with the view expressed by Pauline Wood, the outgoing head of Grange Park Primary School in Sunderland, that some of her teachers “sit at home doing nothing” whilst others had come up with “the most amazing imaginative things.” I think there is probably a frustrated part of most heads that get this.

Firstly, it is mirrored in my own experience. I have been privileged to be involved with a phenomenal effort led by the directors of learning at the two schools that make up the academy chain of which I am a trustee. Speaking to both of them last week it was clear that they had led an extraordinarily passionate and detailed response to enable teachers to provide high quality learning to thousands of young people during the lockdown. A teacher I know and love very much has worked tirelessly to provide lessons to children in a completely different time zone, with all the consequent disruption of her sleeping patterns. At the same time I have had dealings indirectly with a primary school outside Milton Keynes whose teachers (and headteacher, I presume) have deliberately turned the parents into the teachers, and just sent them a list of things they could do around the house or online. There have been no calls from the school, no face-to-face online teaching, no reaching out to the most vulnerable, no welfare calls, no assessment (the secondary academy directors of learning mentioned above also found assessment a particular struggle), no assemblies or class meetings, nothing.

Secondly, as Becky Allen has often pointed out, the range of quality in teaching and provision within a single school is much wider than that between schools. This is well established in the research community and is another way of saying that a school has both outstanding and inadequate teachers at the same time, and certainly as a head, that was my experience. In fact, working with poor or beginning teachers and training them to become better ones was the core of my job, often the frustration of it, but also the love of it. So Ms Wood is technically correct to draw attention to the variation between teacher quality.

What intrigues me about Pauline Wood’s situation, though, is that she has been in her school for 15 years, has brought it from inadequate to outstanding, and still has teachers who she knows will be “sitting at home doing nothing.” Her governors have suspended her, which I regard as an action both rash and (possibly) indicative of the head-governance relationship. My sympathies are strongly with any head who has worked hard to bring their school to success: it is a tough job and requires a lot of toughness internally. But the fact that she knows she has this diversity – excellent teachers but also teachers about whom it is, in the words of Geoff Barton from ASCL, permitted for their headteacher “to give their perspective and insight to the public via the media” – tells me more about her than it does about them.

Where, for instance, are the leadership virtues of wisdom and grace? Where is the creation of community? Ms Wood has a reputation, according to the news reports, for no-nonsense, “relentless,” child-first leadership, and because I know some people of that ilk, I imagine that children are esteemed (in such a view) to the extent that teachers are seen as simple servants of the children’s outcomes.

I have spent the last year at York St John through my doctoral work arguing for servant leadership as the go-to leadership stance for heads of Church of England schools. One of the reasons I do this is because there is substantial research that says that if a head shows a servant heart and is a servant of her teachers, then the teachers begin to mimic that and find ways to be servants of the children. Further, there is a strong connection to the quality of servant leadership and the creation of learning community, and eventually, altruistic love. Another reason is that it provides a conduit for wisdom and, in focusing on the servant-enriched leader-led relationship, creates a home for grace and forgiveness.

Because I maintain that love – of God, of self, of others, of community and of the learning to hand – is the goal of all educating, then to me, servant leadership is not only possible, or available, but necessary. There are only really a few ways left to us as leaders to create the kind of learning community that God esteems. Slagging off your teachers in the media, I suspect, is not among them.

 

Invitation to purpose

803383I have commented elsewhere that the curriculum offer made by a school is essentially an invitation to a worldview, to a view of reality and its associated theory of knowledge (epistemology).  It is the link between the kind of life (virtuous, prosperous, communal, individual, national, economic, etc.) that the school thinks that young people need to live as a result of their time at school and the life they currently live.

This is why people talk of curricular pathways or curricular learning journeys. It is a great metaphor, an appropriate metaphor for the progression we seek for children. The narrative sense of learning is one of the most powerful metaphors we have because it places us as learners within a story, and our own story within a larger narrative. This gives confidence and direction to our lives and to our learning, and situates the purpose of learning within our own story and the story of those we learn alongside.

Sometimes a spiral is a better metaphor, or a staircase. Even better, a spiral staircase, adventurous and challenging all in one.

But whatever metaphor is used, it is an invitation from the school to a destination that they have considered good or worthwhile, or that their government has told them is a good or worthwhile destination. One of the reasons I like Michael Reiss’ and John White’s Aims-based Curriculum is simply that it is an invitation to a better kind of communal life, where human flourishing is the goal and that goal is best interpreted as a flourishing together.

Recently, the voice of certain black academics and teachers has pointed to the need for our curriculum to develop critical thinkers. Rather than engage in more “Black history months,” (not wrong, but by no means sufficient) this is a recognition that there will, over the course of our post-modern identity-political experience, be a number of issues that arise that require deep, sustained, critical thinking. I could not agree more. Yesterday saw the Daily Mail “eclipse the Sun” as the country’s most-read newspaper: two papers, neither of which are famous for critical thinking, vying for the top spot in the information-disseminating world of the UK press, does tell us something about our own national willingness to be lied to and to disengage from critical thinking. Critical thinking was absent from a number of recent debates, the decision to leave the EU most prominent among them. Campaigning-mode politicians, such as the current UK government or its US equivalent, willingly sacrifice critical thinking for sloganeering, despising the people that they claim to lead, and angling their arguments towards the gut emotions rather than the mind.

However, even the call for critical thinking is only valid if it allows a variety of ontologies to be part of the debate. At the moment, our curriculum is predicated upon a single worldview, that which has pertained since the enlightenment, and which relegates all other worldviews to the “personal” or the “private” or the “romantic.” When contrasting the “Enlightenment scientific rationality” against others that predated them – such as the reality, taken for granted before 1650 in the west, that God was in charge of the world, actively involved in history, and worthy of worship – the debate degenerates into a “reason” versus ” religion” debate, and in the terms of that debate in which we now live, “religion” is private not public, personal not general and falls under “lifestyle choice” rather than “public truth.” This religious studies in the UK belong to that part of life which is attributed to certain groups and their choices and actions. Even the conventional (now) modernist/postmodernist, positivist/social-constructivist debate takes place in a world and along a continuum where the biblical narrative has been sidelined and regarded neither as historically significant (the positivists) nor as speaking to the human condition (the social-constructivists). That there might even be a narrative, a compelling story, is anathema to many postmodern thinkers.

Where this brings us in our curricular discussions is that for many teachers, the ultimate question of “why?” in their curricular planning is simply not answered. The Enlightenment modernist will point to “progress” – all that remains of the Christian narrative in the Enlightenment world-view – but is that worthy of our children? The 20th century and its modernist thinkers have collapsed under the weight of the destruction wrought by two world wars and some spectacular atrocities in the Soviet Union and in China. What now can progress mean? Until we do that, what are we inviting our children to? The neoliberal conception of humanity, the self-actualising homo economicus, may satisfy for a while, but falls far short of a true understanding of human flourishing.

What then does the modern curriculum invite us to? What world view is it offering that we might share with our children? And is that worthy of them? It is expected of Church of England schools that we somehow articulate a biblical understanding of our faith in school. Christian doctrines, even one as tricky to explain as the Trinity, are expected to appear in the worship and teaching life of a school that seeks to be “excellent.”

To me, this seems like nothing so much as the modern expression of the catechistic approach to doctrine that was part of the original National Society brief. The way that the current SIAMS framework functions, “measuring” compliance with (and expression of) the current Anglican vision for education, is both inspectorial and judgmental, but has little to say about the curriculum (the word is mentioned twice only in the vision document).

In order for the Church of England to have any kind of curricular impact, we cannot tinker around the edges. We need to lay out a much more robust vision of what human flourishing means within the life of the kingdom of God, with an invitation to discipleship as a start.

Why discipleship? Simply because the curriculum, the content of and pedagogical approach to that which we learn and teach, has to be taught and learnt as part of the bringing of children and young people towards the knowledge of Jesus. If we really believe that “in the Messiah are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” then all that is said and taught in a Church of England school (and, by implication, in a church as well) will flow towards the knowledge of God.

I have tried, in my thinking, to make this conclusion go away. Anglican schools are doing OK with the existing Enlightenment curriculum, where we give autonomy to humans and ask them to discover knowledge for themselves, where we ask children to stand outside the curriculum and have it transmitted into them by skilled and well-trained teachers. I lived and worked in these kind of schools for years. They have an OK vision for human flourishing, and communal, interdependent learning is slowly being established in some schools and classes. Servant leadership is slowly becoming something that has traction in Church of England schools, but until we argue for a position where the resurrection of Jesus and the subsequent establishment of his new age inform our thinking and practice, our curriculum and our leadership of schools, we are still a way away from anything that could be regarded as “deeply Christian.”

We have not quite figured out what a true distinctiveness looks like, and because of that, we cannot be radical enough in our approach to how we educate children. We have not seen ourselves as different enough, I don’t think. And we may not have wanted, or felt that we were in a strong enough position, to be more distinctive than we are.

I have just read a great paper by Howard Macy from the George Fox University on the way that the Quakers understood the scriptures through their long and interesting history. It made me realise that their determination to be separate actually helped them grapple with their view of the Bible from a puritan start to a more diverse present.

I think that if we regard, as I do, the purposes of public education in Britain to be essentially idolatrous, then perhaps a greater degree of separation might be desirable, and required.

Falling behind (2)?

DSCF2303In the last post I tried to unravel some of the assumptions behind the construct that sits in the educational world and public mind of a child “falling behind.” It is a metaphor that we talk about a lot yet without much careful consideration of what we mean. It implies somehow going backwards and going forwards at the same time, a metaphor of differential velocity. Going forwards, but not just fast enough. Fast enough as what, exactly? Fast enough as the fastest? Fast enough so you don’t stand out? Fast enough to keep pace with your own self-expectations?

And then there is the remedial expression “catching up.” Again, catching up with whom? And to what standard? Two weeks ago we had the Education Endowment Fund and the Sutton Trust getting concerned about the “opening up of the attainment gap” – something that drives both organisations. It really begs the question as to why this current government was so poorly prepared in its advice to schools and in its own willingness and foresight to help schools have the encouragement and resources they needed to keep this from happening. Some schools have done brilliantly, with a full measure of teaching provision and high expectations of completion; others have just sent a weekly bulletin home with no expectation of completion of work and no marking. If the government is really committed to the “eradication of the attainment gap” then it is curious why it has not done more to ensure that its agents – the DfE and schools – were not enabled to make the provision desired. This issue is now thoroughly explored in the media and not worth commenting on again. It is a scandal (“The sense that the government is not in control of events in the pandemic is nowhere more palpable than in education”) as the Times leader has it today. The Guardian, in all its forms, is less polite on this issue. It really is not an issue for politesse.

But I want to continue exploring the parent-child educational relationship a little in the context of Covid-19, as it has concentrated minds, not only of government (what little mind is left) but of schools themselves.

Firstly, we have to start with the ancient command that mothers and fathers are the chief teachers of their children, and that by word, deed and example, children learn a way of life from their parents. This, when done lovingly and carefully, is free from coercion, free from exasperation, and full of a deep mutual affection and respect for each other. Underlying the command for children to obey their parents is the assumption that Paul makes in Ephesians 5 that we firstly submit to one another out of reverence for Jesus. However, the lives that children live in the UK today is often extremely tough. Not only have many adults forgotten this responsibility, but the networks that sustained that responsibility have begun to shrink. Often, parents do not even know that this is a responsibility given to them by God, and the church has often failed to teach that. Thus it is a delight, and a rarity, to see families functioning in a wholesome respectful relationship. When I was a headteacher, I saw it evidenced more in black West African Christian families than anywhere else. It appeared to have been well taught there. There are some signs that parents are beginning to reimagine this relationship and take back a little of the authority that they had ceded to the state. This I regard as a hopeful sign.

On Tuesday night I attended an outstanding webinar hosted by Alison Peacock from the Chartered College of Teaching that involved leaders from secondary, special school and primary multi-academy trusts in a discussion about the response of schools to the long lockdown. It was both inspiring and deeply moving, and when it comes out as a recording I shall listen to the whole hour again, because not only was the breadth and depth of how the CCT is supporting schools astonishing, but the agility and imagination of the three MAT leaders was inspirational. What all three talked about specifically and with great compassion, was parents. The relationship between their children and young people, their home and their school had completely shifted. There was a far deeper awareness of the role of parents as educators, the stability in their children’s lives and the richness of the partnership between parents and teachers that had hardly been touched upon. One leader talked about a new language of education being written, as her schools began to engage with parents in a new way. In Michael Fullan’s terms, this learning (he calls it “deep learning”) is not the sort of Michael Young “powerful knowledge” but the learning that takes place through exploring learning partnerships between schools, between homes and across that divide; learning environments that extend to the political, regional, state and down to the school, the home, and the natural environment; pedagogical practices that reinforce learning with the affection needed for character to be built and sustained; and leveraging the power of the very fast digital shift everyone has had to make to enable learning to work well. There have been some astonishing examples that I have seen: the role of imagination at school and at home has been a revelation. Fullan et al’s paper for Microsoft is full of respectful and honouring references to parents in a way that I have not seen in a policy document from this side of the pond, where parents are regarded as adjuncts to schooling. To see practices where parents are brought to the party as equal partners is beginning to happen. This too is a sign of hope. Perhaps the reason why Fullan et al. get this right is because they place “deep learning” as a set of practices, partnership and environments within the larger triad of deep learning, wellbeing and equity. If we are starting with issues of equity of access, equity of provision and equity of opportunity, and then mediating that through the quality of a child’s (and, therefore inextricably linked, her family’s) wellbeing, then it must be no surprise that the door is open to parents to play a full part in their children’s education.

(More still needs to be done. Fullan et al. do not go so far as to change the nature of schooling, I don’t think. Public schooling is still the driver here, and it does not do much to shake the neo-liberal anchors of state education.)

So, I would hopefully suggest we abandon the idea of “falling behind.” Education is a provision, not a race. In Fullan et al’s paper, the word loss is only mentioned once, and it refers to the sociology of well being:

Whether managing operations or addressing the learning program, leaders will need to remember that this period represents profound change and loss for adults and children alike. Considerations must include the impacts of a weakened economy, food insecurity, widespread unemployment, housing instability, increased mobility, increased abuse and addiction, while working within an overwhelmed health and social service. We cannot underestimate how these factors have shaken those living through the disruption. Rushing to re-open without addressing trauma and well-being needs further exacerbates an already strained situation.

No mention is made of “falling behind”. Nobody in the webinar on Tuesday mentioned the concept. Not once. At a MAT meeting I attended remotely last week, none of the leaders mentioned the term. Let’s stop using it (it is a hugely grace-less term anyway)  and instead reforge different and deeper relationships with the family who are the prime educators of the children we seek to serve. We have a wonderful opportunity in front of us as Christian educators to help pray for and shape a different way of thinking about education.

A strange distinction

One of the weirder practices we see currently (there are a number to choose from) is the government, with the assent of some bishops, arguing for a loosening of restrictions on Sunday trading laws (to “boost the economy”) whilst churches remain closed until 15 June, and even then only for private prayer. There is a certain balance in the neoliberal mind about this: get those pesky religious people out of their places of worship and into the shops where they can exercise their religious choice as consumers! Churches will open at the same time as pubs, hairdressers and cinemas.

Screen-Shot-2019-05-05-at-8.53.36-AMThat is strange enough, but it has been the response of Muslim and Jewish leaders that is the most fascinating, and perhaps the most challenging to Christians. Of course the Guardian headline, in its little way, sees this as “religious leaders split,” which is nonsense and a failure to read their own article. Whilst some mosques are happy to open for private prayer, prayer is overwhelmingly corporate in Islam and in Judaism. In both faiths, it is the people of God together who pray, not a bunch of hermits in caves. The Muslim’s five daily prayers are done in the confident knowledge that at exactly the same time, thousands of co-religionists are doing exactly the same, using the same words.

We can’t undo 1500 years of the individual contemplative and monastic tradition in Christianity, but it is notable that worship even in the monastic tradition is the one corporate expression of faith.

I was thinking about this whilst worshipping virtually at the church we currently “attend.” The songs we sang on Sunday were almost entirely focused on the individual relationship with God. There was hardly any sense of “we the people” submitting to our great God and King. Prayers were largely individual, and not even the great prayers of the liturgy were said together. We were invited to say a psalm together.

On such occasions I try and change all the songs from the first person singular to the first person plural, but it generally wrecks the rhyme scheme and annoys people I like who are standing nearby. There is plenty to rhyme with “me” – much less with “us.” When leading worship at a local church earlier this year, I made the congregation sing songs that they had been used to singing as “I” songs into “we” songs. This is not me just having a Cummings moment and going all bolshie. This is really important, because as Jamie Smith has pointed out in Desiring the Kingdom, there is a habit-forming aspect of worship that God uses to change us. We speak the truth about God and about ourselves, and if all we sing about is the “I-relationship” with Jesus, then we are not church, we are individuals. I love the creativity of Christian worship songs (though among the current crop being sung in churches are some real clunkers) but we cannot simply take our own experience, sing about it in the first person, render it normative for the church and foist it on a congregation.

Virtual-church-choir-1586882318During lockdown, I would have thought that every effort would be made in the choice of songs to ensure that “we” sang songs together, expressing our corporate identity. We have lots of ready-made prayers and collects. We have the psalms. We could sing canons and rounds, using the wonders of split-screen technology. We are one body, the bride of Christ, and the relationships between us are critical to our witness to the world. How we strengthen that corporate identity through worship is, it seems to me, of first importance, and Jews and Muslims have something vital to teach us in that regard.

All in this together? Um…maybe not.

A number of things have shown the huge divisions that underlie our society recently, amongst them the vast inequities opened up by race, class and income by the trials of Covid-19, and before that, which we have almost forgotten, the wide variation of responses to the need to protect the land. But none have been more powerful and challenging to us as white Christians than the structural injustices shown by our and the US’s attitude to race in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. It is challenging to non-Christian white people too, but as Christians we have a particular identity rooted in and protected by a loving God who hates injustice: we learn to hate the things He hates, and to love those He loves. And we have to learn. We cannot assume. Two recent contributions on the Grace and Truth blog, by Neil Charlton and by Adrian Lock have helped me start from a different viewpoint in engaging with issues of race and structural inequity. It has helped me to see that whatever efforts I have made toward equity in the past, I cannot eradicate a historic identity as a racially prejudiced white male person – prejudiced by the habitus in which I have grown up in, and to which I have acquiesced, mostly subconsciously. In myself and around myself, and in my society, there are works to do, actions to take, words to speak. If Jesus is Lord, then this other stuff cannot claim even my subconscious allegiance.

Years ago I was debating this in South Africa with a group of young white Christians on an away day organised by the National Initiative for Reconciliation. I was with two black pastors. They were speaking on more difficult issues: I was speaking about the challenge of scripture to those young men about to enter the military on their national service, and who had never been taught that Jesus and political life had anything to say to each other. One of the pastors, Graham, who bravely had tried to start a non-racial Christian community on a piece of land in a township designated (then) as “coloured” was engaging these young people who had been arguing that they didn’t build the walls of apartheid; it was their fathers and grandfathers. And Graham simply said to them: so it’s your job to pull the thing down. So simple. And many in South Africa worked hard to try and achieve that, and are still trying.

Racist stances and nuances are seen most acutely by those who have experienced them. This leads to an acuteness in the perception of racial discrimination that those of us free of the slight of it cannot feel. We found ourselves highly sensitised and politicised, on return from South Africa, because we had been taught what the contours of racism looked like, by seeing both the starkness of it from government and white society, but also because we knew many who suffered under it. I began to notice subconscious bias towards non-English nations of the UK, and somehow took on, not in a damaging way, some of the awareness of my Anglo-Welsh roots, that meant that I could not be fully “at home” in an English society that equated “England” with “Britain.” Nobody’s fault, but needing challenging anyway.

So when yesterday a group of people chucked Mr Colston in the Avon, I felt that there was a rightness and a significance about it, something that people could learn from. Listening to the mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, talk about it was wise and helpful. I learnt from him. From now on I want to try and learn, and change.

So I am starting from the assumption that I need still to repent, over and far above whatever I have already repented of, because this thing is deep and I have lived within its hegemony for a very long time. I am determined not to criticise others in this position, because we have to learn for ourselves, to allow the Holy Spirit to change us and renew us through what we read and experience, to challenge us and start to lead us into actions that undermine the structural injustices that daily are heaped upon our black brothers and sisters. Before I condemn, have I learnt? Mission, as Joshua Searle has said, is solidarity with the world.

It has been good to see a much more robust response from the churches on this issue than we saw on Covid-19 (though important dissenting voices demonstrate that the CofE is still pretty much the Tory Party at prayer).

There is much more to say, but I am not the person to say it. Hopefully, as we are re-conscientised together, learning, reasoning and repenting together, we may slowly move towards each other as Christian sisters and brothers.

Falling behind (1)?

Yesterday somebody told me that they wanted their child to be back in school because they were worried that they were falling behind. Falling behind China, in fact, where children have already gone back to school. Not falling behind his classmates, but behind a whole other country.

Nothing spoke to me of the neo-liberal obsession with progress quite as much as this statement, and I want here and in the next post to debunk something of why this obsession with “falling behind” is such a modern and destructive construct. Here I start by undermining some assumptions behind the “falling behind” myth. In the next one, I shall try and propose solutions.

6LR3NW4IRZBNXCRN4RB6NEMEFU

Years ago, Michael Barber wrote of the “restless drive for school improvement” (in The Learning Game, 1996), which comes from the same obsessive-compulsive construct (I actually enjoyed this book once). It assumes firstly, that a competitive, market-driven assault on improvement is a good thing and is one of the basic truths about the world. This is rooted in (again) a neo-liberal, market-as-sole-truth perspective. A lot of tosh has been written about neo-liberalism, but it is a real, pervasive world-view that we all live within. An excellent summary and exposition by Philip Mirowski can be found here. Alternatively, the second chapter of Nick Couldry’s Why Voice Matters gives a helpful view of its philosophical and historical importance. Either way, you will eventually have to read some Foucault!

The second assumption it rests on is that there are agreed standards, that they are to do with transferred knowledge and understanding, and that only schools (and the most motivated parents under time of lock-down) are equipped to impart them. Those who profit from this system, including a huge and burgeoning number of online suppliers of curricular knowledge and materials, merely compound the problem: there are standards, life is a race, your child has to know this stuff, if they don’t learn all of it they will be “falling behind,” etc.

The third assumption that this argument makes is something more fundamental, and it is that in the grand scheme of school education, parents do not matter that much. I have dealt with this elsewhere but it bears repetition. As much as schools reach out to parents, as much as parents look to schools to supply teaching and resources and help their child learn, the relationship is imbalanced and is constructed in two, somewhat contradictory ways:

(i) the parents and their children are customers of an education system in which they can pick and choose. In this the parents are in the “driving seat” and should have access to their child’s teacher, work record, reports, assessments and behaviour records at all times;

(ii) parents-as-educators are simply there to serve the education system with making sure homework is done, attending school events and consultations, behaving appropriately on the school site, and learning to see that only school learning has real value.

In both of these ways parents are instrumentalised, as customer and as service-provider respectively. The contours of relationship, stemming from love, are absent. 

The fourth assumption this “falling behind” mania makes is about the nature of a child as a self-actualizing economic-unit-to-be. I have discussed this often elsewhere when I was still leading a school (for instance here, and here). The quote I have used before from Bob Lingard and Fazal Rizvi’s super book on Globalizing Education Policy (2009),  shows what a child in the neo-liberal world is meant to aspire to:

…the self-responsibilizing, self-capitalizing individual that is the desired product of neoliberal education policy reforms….This emphasis on self-capitalizing required across the entire life-cycle replaces the older, more liberal humanist and social democratic constructions of education which were underpinned by education’s multiple purposes. The best economic outcomes for a nation are now deemed to flow from the production of individuals pursuing their self-interest. This is a conception of human beings as at base individual economic beings, an account that fails to recognize the collective social and cultural aspects of human behaviour (Rizvi & Lingard, 2009: 184-185)

Philip Mirowski talks about the way that we re-position ourselves as consumers and traders:

Readers of Michel Foucault will know that the key to the process of spreading neoliberalism into everyday life involves recasting the individual into an entrepreneur of the self.” 

In some ways that is exactly what I am submitting to in writing this blog, hoping people read it and be influenced by it, on an online platform. But we need to extricate ourselves from this way of thinking and see ourselves as vocational beings, loved and equipped by a creative God to live lives of beauty and service in the world, within community and family.

It is important that we see these assumptions (there are many more, but these will do for now) not as nicely-worded philosophical points, but factors that underpin what George Reed calls “administrative evil” – i.e. “systems in which well-intentioned people participate in organizational activities that case harm to people” (quoted in Kellis, D.S and Ran, B. 2015, Journal of Organizational Change Management, 28 (4): 614-626). Kellis & Ran interpret administrative evil as resulting from

the diffusion of information, division of labor, role specialization, and compartmentalization that separates individuals from the consequences of their actions (2015: 616)

It is the reverse of Joseph’s words to his brothers following a discussion of their treatment of him in selling him as a slave – you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. Here instead we have well intentioned, kind and loving people functioning within a system that, left to itself, will eventually damage both them and those they care for. 

If this is the case, then parents, who have the opportunity to stand outside the system, can offer another world entirely. (I am not for a minute undermining the argument from Steve Chalke and others that for a large minority of children, home is not a place of safety or support, and school can offer them that safety instead: that is another issue, actually, and has little to do with the “falling behind” debate, even if some in the DfE want to conflate them in their rush to get children back into schools – as Keir Starmer said so pithily yesterday, an exit without a strategy).

So we need to start changing how we view the relationship between parents and children, and remove school entirely from the discourse for a minute. As Julian Stern has written, school is a strange idea and we may not have invented it if it didn’t already exist! 

How we might position that family learning, the common experience of the child-in-family, will be in the subsequent post.

Reaching out

There are some very strange behaviours appearing at the moment. We have denial sessions in rose gardens, trips to Barnard Castle to test your eyesight, otherwise sane members of Her Majesty’s government queuing up to tell us how much confidence their boss has in the aforementioned eyesight, and the growing demonstration of many people’s misunderstanding of exactly how long 2 metres is. Thank you to Sainsbury’s who tell us “that’s two shopping trollies.”

In the middle of all this, at last, the bishops have spoken and called the government out for its appalling behaviour in the way it has given support to Dominic Cummings (he of the rose garden denial and dodgy eyesight) and in so doing undermined the entire national effort to protect itself during the current pandemic. The fact that some bishops have received death threats for doing this, shows how out of touch with reality many of us are becoming.

But yesterday I saw a new behaviour (new to me) that went to the heart of what has changed. Driving back from Staines, where we had been on a carefully distanced walk along the Thames with my daughter and son-in-law, the road and footbridges on the M25 were filled with families waving at the traffic. This may have been going on for some time, but yesterday was a bank holiday so people were out in force. They were answered by the lorries (the vast majority without any loads or trailers, itself a sign of the times) with ear-splitting soundings of horns, and tooting from cars and vans (and because it was nice and warm yesterday, drivers waving back through open windows). My hands were firmly on the steering wheel, otherwise I would have photographed it, so touched was I by the whole thing. And it went on and on. We got on the motorway at junction 13 at the A30 and there were bridge wavers all the way around to the M1 junction (21).

We want contact, the waving was saying. We have been cooped up for ages and we want to make contact with other humans. You see this in the talk between strangers on walks – even in Milton Keynes, one of the most unfriendly towns I have lived in, people talk to perfect strangers, if only to say thank you for moving away from them!

The other evening, around Lodge Lake, on the side where there is a peninsula with some houses on it, two teenagers were sitting on the pavement outside the gate of a property, 2 metres apart, whilst their friend, whose home it was, was sitting inside the gate. It was very touching, a practical response to restrictions on touch, but not on talk.

There is something both comforting and deeply unsettling about this, a comprehensive re-alignment or our cultural and social expectations. Just being with other people seems to have more meaning than it did beforehand, as though God is using it to remind us of the extent to which we depend on each other. Do not forget to meet together, said the author of the Hebrews. And yet our churches have forbidden exactly that.

0831cyprian-of-carthage0012During the plague outbreak in Carthage in 257, Cyprian, knowing that the plague (which lasted for over a decade, on and off) was being blamed on Christians, and that they had just suffered a persecution in which large parts of the North African church had fallen from the faith, got the entire Carthaginian church together and essentially asked them to stay and help those who were suffering. The wealthy fled, but the poor, which comprised most of the church, stayed. Those who were suffering, and those who remained, would have found people to hand, of whom a large number were Christians.

There were two consequences of the mid-3rd century plague. Firstly, it was disastrous politically, with the imperial government in Rome going through a huge problem with internal coherence, poor border defences, and a series of rebellions that nearly spelt the end of the empire. Secondly, “the threat of imminent death from the plague and the unwavering conviction among many of the Christian clergy in the face of it won many converts to the faith.”

carthage

Alan Kreider’s account in The Patient Ferment of the Early Church goes like this, in an account of Cyprian’s sermon to the assembled church:

Cyprian responded to the crisis of the plague by urging the people to live lives marked by the habitus of patience – trusting God, living without being able to control the outcome, living unhurriedly, living unconventionally, loving their enemies. We do not know how his hearers responded. No doubt their response was uneven. But according to Pontius, some of them got the point: through their care for the pagans as well as for fellow believers, the Christians did good for all kinds of people, “not merely for those of the household of the faith” (Kreider, p. 68; Pontius, Vit. Cypr. 10)

We are not in the sort of plague where people threw infected bodies, alive or dead, into the street, as they were doing in Carthage. The NHS and emergency mortuaries have sorted that particular problem, nor is this virus killing large numbers of people. However, it is putting our entire economic and political systems (especially where of relatively low competence such as in the UK) under massive pressure and it is both a huge opportunity and challenge to the church. How we respond, and the attitude of heart we learn, may matter a lot more than we think. Reaching out all the time with the love and affection of Jesus will have an impact, perhaps more now than we might expect.