Time for thanksgiving

It has been a wonderful week where I have felt like giving thanks at every opportunity, even though the stresses have been quite high and we have been tired. It has been busy, to be sure, but there are glimpses of light everywhere and the sense of how good and full life is – the life of grace, if you will – has been a constant feature of the term.

So, first of all, I reckon, I have been deeply grateful for my leaders and teachers, who support and encourage me all the time, who bring challenge and wisdom and keep me grounded and careful when I would go off in flights of fancy. This gratitude for my leadership team is a gratitude I carry with me perpetually, which keeps us thoughtful and safe (an excellent and rich discussion at our SLT meeting on Monday, a very helpful visit on Tuesday from my LA improvement partner, Peter, a thorough discussion of our budget by Governors on Wednesday evening, and a challenging teaching staff meeting led by Dan Marshall on raising maths standards on Thursday, are among this leadership support) and broadens the context for learning as well as creating the capacity all the time to move the school to places we want it to go. The budget meeting was interesting simply because we share as leaders a conviction that we are spending the right amount of money on exactly the right things, and yet the pressure on the budget has never been greater. Governors were full of praise for Christine, my SBM, and the work that she does to balance and interpret and strengthen our financial position. It was an evening of forensic detail that resulted in the judgment that we have a good, investment-led budget that blesses children.

dsc03691Secondly, I have been grateful for parents and their generosity, children and their singing and reading, God and his eternal goodness, as shown in our celebration of Harvest Festival this morning. We couldn’t be totally positive, not whilst the Syrian government is pouring barrel bombs and incendiary devices on its own citizens in its largest city, but thanksgiving persists even through a meditation of the conflicts that destroy what God has called good. God’s promise in the picture above, from 2 Corinthians, to increase our store of goodness became a blessing that we said to each other at the very end of the service.

dsc03705Thirdly, I was grateful yesterday morning, following an extraordinary and wonderful livestream event with Katie Thistleton and Nadiya Hussain in our school hall for Children’s Authors Live, for all of our children at school. It was part of the promotion of Nadiya’s new book Nadiya’s Bake me a Story. Not only were the two stars of the event absorbing, interesting and inspiring for children, but the children themselves drew so many comments for their conduct, politeness and well-orderedness, particularly from the presenters, camera crews and sound people. It was one of those moments when all the work we have put in about values becoming virtues actually pays off, and I was really proud of all we had done corporately so that the children made such a rich impression.

This only scratches the surface, really, and points to some of the things that have happened that generate joy and thankfulness, enabling us to live in a growing awareness of God’s grace. I want to come in the opposite spirit to those who are simply looking forward to the next pay cheque or holiday, and say that we are engaged deeply in good work, which a good God honours and helps flourish so our store of goodness might increase.

Affordable and unaffordable in Bristol

I spent last weekend with my sister and cousins in Bristol, where they all live or have property, mainly to visit the laughingly ill-titled Affordable Art Fair. OK, some of it was affordable, but not much, and not by the standards of somebody who loves art and would spend money on it if only there was something that bore study and reappraisal and didn’t cost over a month’s salary. Compared with Sotheby’s, this stuff was of course cheap as you like.

dsc03572The setting was wonderful, in Brunel’s Old Station outside Temple Meads. The art was, as they say, varied, and more than I expected of it was unconvincing, so that when I saw things that stood out to me, such as the detailed paintings of Charlie O’Sullivan, the landscapes of Relton Marine or the fantastic lacquer work of Duong Sen from Vietnam (particularly his wonderful Mandolin), I started to take notice. I know that art that you put in a fair with this sort of title is mainly going to adorn the recently painted walls of the middle classes, but I was surprised by how little of it spoke at a more complex level. There was hardly any portraiture – when it was present, it was often good – and there was an enormous amount that was simply decorative, and little that challenged either the viewer or the establishment. Maybe I should not have been surprised, but I came away feeling that I had seen little that had touched me, challenged me, or told me anything of social realities, or faith, or inspiration, or a call to life – and I would say that good art has this function as well. There was nothing overtly (or covertly) political. There was also very little photography, which surprised me as well. I found more life and emotion, actually, in 2 mosaics that I encountered walking between the city centre and St Georges. One was a community mosaic on a bridge, and the other a community mosaic under a bridge. The latter was so overpainted by graffiti (not great graffiti either) that it was a struggle to find bits to photograph that weren’t affected. The former was bold, colourful and a delight to encounter, inspiring because it was attainable and communal, and gave new life to a unpreposessing bridge in Barton Hill. The picture of the two middle aged people stuck under a railway bridge on a mosaic half overpainted with graffiti was one of the most evocative pieces of art I have seen for ages. See what you think.



The Bauhaus Manifesto and the start of the school year

bauhaus_program37 of us at Christ the Sower have spent a day together enjoying the chance to be together, to relax and learn together and once again to receive the challenge of craftsmanship (that word again) into our lives and our practice.

I have little fear that we will not take this seriously – I am blessed to be surrounded by teachers who are committed to learning and changing, for whom a day spent flat-lining in terms of their own progress, and not reflected on, is pretty much a day wasted. Today I have been very proud of them, watching a co-coaching session where they outlined how they would commit themselves this coming year to the vision for learning we live by.

The metaphor this morning has been the Bauhaus manifesto, written by Walter Gropius in 1919. Its approach to schooling is quite inspirational, and relevant for the modern educational world, combining as it does the longing for high artistic creativity and elegance of expression along with the willingness to master a “trade” that can and must be reproducible and “marketable” to a world that is there to be influenced. We used two quotes:

The manner of teaching arises from the nature of the workshop: organic form developed from mechanical knowledge; elimination of all rigidity; emphasis on creativity; freedom of individuality, but strict scholarship.

There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman. The artist is an exalted craftsman. In rare moments of inspiration, moments beyond the control of his will, the grace of heaven may cause his work to blossom into art. But proficiency in his craft is essential to every artist. Therein lies the prime source of creative imagination.

Proficiency in his craft is essential to every artist… This is the nub of it: seeing teaching and artistry as crafts helps us with all manner of otherwise conflicting issues: creativity versus standards, for one; spontaneity versus discipline for another. You apply yourself to the craft of a subject and this in turn enables you to be as creative (and effective) as you want to be.

We have been studying therefore the impact of last year’s teacher development, and its growing impact on children. With the publication of the excellent Teacher Development Professional Standards (July 2016), we have been able to compare the work we did with the standards, and as a result, are encouraged by the direction we have started to travel. This is not the place to be too explicit about what we have discovered, but the implications for continuing work are clear:

Persisting with a deepening understanding, training in and application of our Theory of Learning in staff meetings and INSET together.

Changing the conversation in teacher development to a much more impact-focused approach to what we do:

  • This is what I heard/read/observed in pupil outcomes/learning/attitudes in my class
  • This is what I decided to do about it
  • This is how I changed my practice as a teacher as a result
  • This is what changed for children and here’s the evidence to demonstrate it

In other words, the driver for all professional learning is change to provision or outcomes for children in line with our vision for learning.

In the co-coaching we addressed four questions, to stimulate our thinking, express any concerns we had about the year to come, and become a little more accountable to one another as collaborators in this great work:

  1. What do you see right now as the main challenge(s) you face in Teaching and Learning this year?
  2. What are your initial responses to the challenges you’ve identified?
  3. What opportunities do you see to enhance your work towards our vision for learning, and what is the likely impact on your children this year?
  4. What support will you need either to enhance your teaching and learning or to meet the challenges you have identified?

It is a good start, getting our minds into a focused and necessary place, with the children as learners at the centre, and ourselves as learners right alongside them.

Have a good term.

Church of England Vision for Education (2): Wisdom and Hope

I mentioned in the previous post that in each of the four basic elements of the vision for education that the CofE published last month (wisdom, hope, community and dignity), there were areas that extended the way we have thought about the impact of the Kingdom of God and biblical teaching on the purpose and pedagogy involved in educating children and young people.

What got my attention on my first reading of the vision was this statement, appended as a footnote to p.14 of the document:

A major concern should be for the literacy required for reading well. The wisdom literature is just one of many examples of texts that cry out to be read and reread carefully, thoughtfully, in conversation with others (fellow learners, teachers, and previous generations of readers), open to being delighted, enlightened, moved, challenged and shaped by their message. An immense amount of what is most valuable in our own and other cultures is passed on in texts that require that sort of reading and conversation if they are to be adequately appreciated. Yet many are not inspired and taught how to do this. Other forms of reading – for pleasure, information, knowledge, know-how, assessment, and so on – are valuable, but reading for depth of meaning and wisdom is also something well worth learning. Learning this at school can give a habit (or at least an idea that this is possible and worth eventually developing) whose value increases over the years. We will seek to encourage schools to be places where such wisdom-seeking reading can happen.

I have never heard church leaders talk about this. In fact, the last time I read a book that encouraged me as a Christian in the art of reading was a chapter in Richard Foster’s excellent Celebration of Discipline, where he taught that you read every book three times (once to find out what it said; once to find out what the author meant; and once to respond personally to what the author meant). I think that this little footnote could be one of the most transformative parts of the whole document. Elsewhere in the “wisdom” section of Chapter 6, it says:

Jesus Christ was himself a reader and interpreter of his Jewish scriptures and was steeped in their wisdom, as well as in their traditions of law and ethics, prophecy, and worship. Early in his public ministry he gathered disciples (literally ‘learners’), and during his ministry a great deal of his time was spent in teaching and conversation as he formed a community of learners. His own vivid, imaginative, challenging teaching has been among the most influential in human history…(he) also breathed his Spirit into his followers so that they could be led further into the truth (John 16:13) and carry on doing as he did (John 20:21-22), initiating communities of teaching and learning that are now present in every country.

So the emphasis on reading was the first bit of “wisdom” teaching that I found fresh and new, but there are others that challenge and present things in a new way that the church has not really said to schools before:

  • Can we find a wise way of living with disagreement, that lead to negotiation and mutual understanding?
  • Can we see education as having a “horizon that looks to him, seeking truth and wisdom in all reality”?
  • The wisdom-teaching of the natural world must be recognised and appreciated: “the pedagogical potential of study in and of the natural world should not be squeezed out through timetabling pressures. In an age of multiple ecological challenges and increasing disconnection between many people and first hand experiences of nature, it is more important than ever”
  • How do we combine continuity and innovation wisely? Do we have the courage to reject innovations that we judge unwise?
  • Do we have the wisdom to challenge pre-existing cognitive structures and concepts, even in our own faith and that of others? In a world where 80% of people identify with a religious tradition, “but where religious faith is often neatly packaged, unquestioning, unimaginative and even dangerous, it is vital to have examples of wise faith” (p.12-13)
  • Do we think of the need for communication and collaboration as leading to a deeper wisdom in our thinking, especially in church schools who engage with the other branches of Christianity, other faiths and insights from those with no faith?

The big surprise in the section on “hope” is the emphasis placed on Collective Worship. What was more surprising was that there was not a very clearly-made connection between the two. It almost felt that they needed to put it somewhere, but then left it slightly unexplained why Collective Worship contributes to hope. However, it does (Tom Wright’s book Finding God in the Psalms, which I am reading as a devotional aid at the moment, really explores this well), and this paragraph is interesting in that context:

Jesus and the love he embodies are at the heart of our faith, offering hope that wrongdoing and sin, suffering, evil and death are not the last word about reality. The drama of his life, teaching, death and resurrection, set within the larger story of God’s involvement with the whole of creation and history, is fundamental not only to affirming the goodness of life but also to facing and finding ways through whatever goes wrong with ourselves and our communities. He inspires both a realism about how flawed and fallible we are and a confidence in transformation for the better. Even while involved in much difficulty, disappointment, failure, suffering and even tragedy, our trust and hope in Jesus inspires perseverance, patience, gratitude, openness to surprises, and celebration. (p.15)

Telling the whole biblical narrative, and appropriating that narrative through such summaries as the psalms, or Stephen’s speech in Acts, can show that our hope lies in the character and prior acts of God as well as in his promises, which we can trust because of the proven narrative. Collective worship, through its description of the church year, the retelling of the expectations of God’s goodness, and the different “colour” that those expectations have, when compared with what hope or wisdom looks like in the world is described in this paragraph from p.16:

The Church of England is (along with many others) a liturgical tradition, and encountering its worship is essential to understanding it and the God in whom we believe. The seasons of the church year rehearse the drama of Jesus Christ in the context of the larger biblical narrative, and they offer a means through which that narrative can be grasped and inhabited. Collective worship in schools, including prayer, reading and reflecting on the Bible, liturgy, sacrament and experience of the musical and other imaginative riches of Christianity, provide a vital opportunity for this.… there is a strong educational case for experience of worship being part of school life, since its omission lessens the possibility of understanding traditions to which worship is essential…we should host discussion, share good practice, and sponsor research in this area so that worship in schools promotes theological and religious literacy and liberates participants to an imagining of a different order of justice, mercy and hope.

Finally, the closing statement in the section reminds us that hope is an active and prophetic virtue, that remains truthful but clear and encouraging toward a deeper and more fully human future:

Hope in God’s future can often stimulate prophetic responses, both critical and constructive, to the present situation. The combining of hope with particular aspirations for our society, for each school, and for each pupil is crucial to the continuing health of society and its educational ecology (p.16).

I shall leave it there, and comment on the other two areas in the next post.

Church of England Vision for Education (1)

In July, the Church of England Education Office published their Vision for Education, subtitled Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good. I read it during the journey to Italy for a short break, and on return have had some further thoughts about it. My copy is heavily scribbled on and annotated.

CofEVfEIt is, overall, an excellent document. It places itself firmly in the historic development of church thinking on education, then makes the very best of the theological framework that Tom Wright and others have been trying to articulate clearly over the last 20 years, so that the lordship of Jesus Christ is effectively established over the whole area of education, of learning, and in particular that bit of it that the CofE has direct or shared responsibility for.

The document takes a robust approach to many areas, and articulates its vision in terms of four values or areas of exploration – wisdom, hope, community and dignity. In each area it upholds the obvious areas of Christian educational commitment, but in each, to my mind, it marks a fresh departure in the church’s thinking – departures that will inform and inspire church school leaders such as myself. There is hardly anything in it with which I disagree, though I have often thought that the church is not bold enough in the way it approaches education, and my reservations about that remain after reading this document. In particular – and we shall come onto this again – the words invitation/invitational and disciple/discipleship do not make an appearance and I think there could be bolder implications of the gospel made through this vision. The authors say that they will make shorter versions for different audiences (including head teachers!), but at 21 pages of double spaced type, this is hardly necessary (there is an index, executive summary and a conclusion as well, so 17 pages really). In fact, a more weighty volume, digging deeper, or a bibliography of the theological and educational material, might serve just as well. We are in education – that makes us intellectuals of a sort, surely.

If you are a church leader, a school governor of any stripe in a church school, a teacher or chaplain or leader in a church school, you should read this. It is being published alongside the launch in May this year of the Understanding Christianity website and training course for teachers, which aims to root the teaching of Christianity in RE in a much more theologically coherent framework. And a good thing too, as the teaching of our faith is in general poor, and (like the teaching of some other faiths in schools) does not relate the theology of belief to the practice of faith particularly well.

It has also coincided with the articulated desire of the CofE to found/sponsor more free schools, and this bit has found its way into the national press, to the predictable alarm of some. I don’t like free schools, and don’t want them, but when you see some of the crazies trying to run them at the moment, then the CofE is definitely a preferred provider, with a long and honourable tradition (mostly) of school management.

What is particularly good in this document is that it takes no prisoners with regard to the kind of world we are in. It is as far from being apologetic (except in the theological sense of that word) as it is possible to be. It is confident; there is no retreat into a shell, but a clear articulation of the desire of God to bless all people. The theological framework is clear at all times and there is a particular desire that children and young people should “encounter Jesus” whilst they attend a Church of England school or any other school where Christian Anglicans (and presumably others) have an opportunity to teach and lead young people.

Being readied for publication after the March white paper but before the backtracking on some elements of that white paper by the previous Secretary of State, it unfortunately promotes “educational excellence everywhere” (p.3) for “everyone” (the bit that Nicky Morgan did not say!). The vision’s “deeply Christian” foundation will be seen “in teaching and learning both in RE and across the curriculum”, in “authentically Christian worship and ethos” in church schools, and “expressed and promoted as one of human flourishing” in schools not rooted in the Christian “ethos”. It looks to John 10:10 (“Life in all its fullness”) as the driver of the vision, and aims to embrace the “spiritual, physical, intellectual, emotional, moral and social development” of children and young people. The four basic elements (wisdom, hope, community and dignity) are expounded for the “common good of the whole human community and its environment”. It is meant to be “hospitable to diversity, respects freedom of religion and belief, and encourages others to contribute from the depths of their own traditions and understandings”.

The fuller vision relates to the Anglican communion’s “5 marks of mission” which are:

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  2. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  3. To respond to human need by loving service
  4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth

The argument as to why this is needed is summarized thus: God is concerned with everything he has made, and particularly to the wisdom, truth and knowledge which should mark the raising of the young and which shape their futures and their families and communities. As a result, every person is somehow related to Jesus Christ, and his word therefore can be applied to all. This includes education, one of society’s greatest contributions to the common good.

Following Tom Wright, John Lennox, Trevor Cooling and others, the document insists that there is no neutrality in education –

every school has a particular ethos, with commitments, beliefs and value-laden practices – and, amidst the variety of approaches, we are confident that our vision of education for ‘fullness of life’ is one that fully deserves its place in twenty-first century Britain. It is a special strength that it achieves educational excellence in a broad framework within which pupils and teachers can pursue the big questions of meaning such as ‘Who am I?’, ‘Why am I here?’, ‘What do I desire?’ and ‘How then shall I live?’ (p.5)
and that the approach it takes is timely, given both the educational changes and diversity of our country at the moment. “We see the present time as a time of opportunity that is unlikely to recur in our lifetimes. There are unprecedented opportunities to renew, improve and interrelate existing schools and to found new ones” (p.6).
At the risk of being brought up before the Commissioners on a copyright infringement, I am going here to reproduce the whole of chapter 5 of the vision, so that the basic content can be seen. You can find this on pages 9-10 of the vision document):
There are four basic elements that run through the whole approach. Together they form an ‘ecology’ of the fullness of life, each in interplay with all the others.
Educating for Wisdom, Knowledge and Skills
Good schools foster confidence, delight and discipline in seeking wisdom, knowledge, truth, understanding, know-how, and the skills needed to shape life well. They nurture academic habits and skills, emotional intelligence and creativity across the whole range of school subjects, including areas such as music, drama and the arts, information and other technologies, sustainable development, sport, and what one needs to understand and practise in order to be a good person, citizen, parent, employee, team or group member, or leader.
Educating for Hope and Aspiration
In the drama of ongoing life, how we learn to approach the future is crucial. Good schools open up horizons of hope and aspiration, and guide pupils into ways of fulfilling them. They also cope wisely with things and people going wrong. Bad experiences and behaviour, wrongdoing and evil need not have the last word. There are resources for healing, repair and renewal; repentance, forgiveness, truth and reconciliation are possible; and meaning, trust, generosity, compassion and hope are more fundamental than meaninglessness, suspicion, selfishness, hardheartedness and despair.
Educating for Community and Living Well Together
We are only persons with each other: our humanity is ‘co-humanity’, inextricably involved with others, utterly relational, both in our humanity and our shared life on a finite planet. If those others are of ultimate worth then we are each called to responsibility towards them and to contribute responsibly to our communities. The good life is ‘with and for others in just institutions’ (Paul Ricoeur). So education needs to have a core focus on relationships and commitments, participation in communities and institutions, and the qualities of character that enable people to flourish together.
Educating for Dignity and Respect
Human dignity, the ultimate worth of each person, is central to good education. The basic principle of respect for the value of each person involves continual discernment, deliberation and action, and schools are one of the main places where this happens, and where the understanding and practices it requires are learned. This includes vigilant safeguarding. It is especially important that the equal worth of those with and without special educational needs and disabilities is recognized in practice. For the first time in history, there is now something approaching global agreement on the worth of each person through the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and its successor declarations, covenants and conventions, including that in 2006 on the rights of persons with disabilities. How that is worked out in each nation and each school is a massive task that calls on the inspiration and resources offered by each tradition of faith and belief.
Given those basics focusing on the pursuit of wisdom, knowledge and skills, on trust and hope in the good as more fundamental than the bad, on the centrality of relationships and community, and on the dignity of each person, there is endless scope for deeper thinking and further applications, improvisations and creativity. This is what we mean by life in all its fullness.
My niggle with this vision is minor, but will be familiar to those with whom I have debated this in schools and churches. Is it possible for us to see the Great Commission to “disciple the nations” in a way that actually allows us to talk about and enact a form of discipleship in our schools? If we take Dallas Willard’s basic point in The Divine Conspiracy that “we have all learned to live from somebody else; we are all disciples of one sort or another,” then surely we can talk about the life we seek to lead as one of discipleship. If our basic direction of travel in God’s kingdom is to become more fully human, image-bearers of the great God, as Tom Wright argues in Virtue Reborn, then in schools as in all of life we move towards the completeness or perfection of the telos that Jesus intends. Our self-discipline and pursuit of the virtues of faith, love and hope are expressed theologically in terms of discipleship, of apprenticeship or of studentship under Jesus Christ. Can we not use these words in church schools to express what our “moral arc” is curving towards? I think the document should be bolder on this point.
Secondly, I would like to see a greater emphasis on invitational approaches. The document acknowledges that there is an attractiveness to others because of “the quality of its outcomes for children and young people” (p.5), but this is a wonderful opportunity to explain what it is we believe and to invite (not insist, ask or tell) all those in the school community to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34). I think that the work of Tom Wilson on hospitality in church schools can be taken to an invitational level, especially with those from other faiths, those recently arrived in the country and in fact anyone for whom going the extra mile provides a reason to talk about the Christian identity and virtues at work in a school.
In particular, this includes the issue of prayer. Offering prayer for people, invitationally, is a wonderful mark of mission, inclusive, welcoming and peace-making. The vision does not mention prayer much, and it should have done.
I will return to this, but that is it for now.


Garden ecology (4)

DSC03119It has been a week or so since I have last blogged, and whilst away in Italy I have had at last the time to think and read and reflect about a whole range of things. Italy is a good place to get thinking in perspective, partly because what they value as a culture is very different from what we value, or at least, they place higher value on some things than we do – children in public life, for one; their articulated cultural and artistic history for another (they know what makes them Italian far more than we can say what makes us British). A year ago I was travelling in the same area, and reading Andy Crouch’s excellent Culture Makers, a book that I return to from time to time. This year in Italy I read (and was completely absorbed by) Benjamin Markovitz’s You Don’t Have to Live Like This, a novel published last year about the “takeover” or colonisation by some wealthy Yale graduates and their mates of some of the abandoned lots in the urban sprawl of Detroit. It was quite an experience to read – the level of detail is compelling, and the discussion of racism helpful, but disturbing were the levels of disconnect experienced by the characters and lack of admirable values within the book. There were few people in the book I could identify with, yet I have long identified with the desire that many have of renewing urban spaces more effectively and being part of city transformation (Andy Crouch’s book, interestingly, also addresses the issue of city renewal through the cultures we create as Christians). Having completed the Markovitz novel, I then re-read Tom Wright’s Virtue Reborn, one of the most important books for Christians today and vital in my school leadership where we are trying to move from seeing Christian “values” as important (but not necessarily transformative) to a place where we are willing to allow the virtues we practice to transform us. I am still reading and annotating it, but already I have been grateful for the larger picture of Christian and biblical life it paints, as well as informing a distinctly Christian pedagogy that we could put to good use.

Finally, whilst on the plane out, I read through, and annotated thoroughly, the Church of England’s July 2016 vision for church school education, Subtitled Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good. I want to summarise it and my response in another blog in the next couple of days, but it made a useful transition to re-reading Tom Wright’s book.

DSC03456We arrived on Garda, then, a town we know fairly well, on a rainy evening that turned into a proper thunderstorm. Our hotel balcony provided a wonderful place to watch lightning in the mountains whilst feeling dry. Opposite us was the block of flats illustrated here, mostly inhabited by elderly couples, but attached to it was the most fantastic communal garden plot. About 50m long by 10m wide, and bordered by a stone wall and a small river, it contained the most fantastic variety of fruit and vegetables and every morning and evening we would see men, mostly, leaving the flat and collecting produce in big baskets. The fruit trees included figs, peaches, plums and apples, whilst the vegetables included varieties of squash, including cucumbers, melons, zucchini and a pumpkin; aubergines, beans (a particularly long variety), rows and rows of tomatoes, large and small, and a host of other things under cover that we couldn’t see. There were some spectacular multi-headed sunflowers and some palms and herbs as well. When it rained on the first evening, I was glad for the refreshment, but happier for this lovely garden that over the week taught me all sorts of things. The garden was not the tidiest, just one of the most productive I have seen, and so the drawing below leaves quite a lot of the messier detail out! The garden seemed to “specialise” in runaway zucchinis. They were making a break for freedom over a garage shed (pictured here) over the wall into the hotel grounds, out the other side into the river (three of them, obviously a zucchini gang, were trying this), as well as others who had not made it out of the garden yet, but given another couple of thunderstorms and a week of sunshine would be with their mates. DSC03460Something in me rejoiced when I had seen it – partly the willingness of everything to grow (Tom Wright’s comments on how creation praises God were instructive at this point), as well as in thinking in the communal planning and care that this garden had received. I found the appropriate diversity wonderful as well – tons of tomatoes, because that is what Italian cuisine demands, but just the one peach tree, like a little luxury. It is a fantastic garden, at Via C. Preite 13 in Garda (should you visit!) and seeing the residents using it so productively and with affection, whilst also thinking about the conversations they must have had between them in planning the layout and keeping it growing in the summer heat, was an inspiration.DSC03106

Religious Education in action

A week before the term ended I got seriously blessed by three children who I took with me to the Denbigh School to take part in the Milton Keynes Youth SACRE. For those uninitiated, the word SACRE stands for Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education, which is nearly as exciting as it sounds. Following the 1988 Education Act, when religious education was confirmed as a compulsory part of the curriculum, it became a statutory requirement for every Local Education Authority (LEA) to appoint a SACRE. Recently I have been going along to our one in MK because they have asked me to take on, and I have idiotically accepted, the role of overseeing the writing of a new Agreed Syllabus for the city. I have spent the last two days doing precisely that, and giving thanks daily for the great Jo Fageant, former RE adviser to MK and member of the Diocese of Oxford RE advisory team, who wrote the last one so well! The vast majority of her work will survive to another era.

The Youth SACRE meeting is a relatively recent phenomenon and in MK we have had our third meeting, and the first at which Christ the Sower children, all from Year 5, took part. I took Year 5s because they have the necessary maturity and interest, and are around next year to go to some other meetings of the Youth SACRE. None of us knew what to expect, but Shammi Rahman, head of RE at Denbigh, is highly enthusiastic, and the opportunity looked great. We really enjoyed ourselves, and the three children, who got into great conversations with other children from across the city, as well as with some “experts” from Y9-11 at Denbigh to ask questions about. Shammi opened the meeting with a summary of what had been decided at previous meetings:

  • We exist to promote tolerance and respect for each other – working toward equality and a better society.
  • It is a chance for children’s voices to be heard in the RE debates nationally
  • Because the UK has changed so much in the last generation, RE is very relevant to children’s lives – as a subject it discusses issues better than any other one, and educates our community about each other.
  • At the National Association (NASACRE) AGM attended by Shammi and others from Milton Keynes, the discussion was about bringing RE into the 21st century in its teaching and content, and it gave MK delegates a chance to tell all about the Youth SACRE, which the NASACRE board wants now to encourage across the UK. (See the item on the Sharing Good Practice list here)
  • Perhaps we could have a MK RE conference next year, with a special stream for primary aged children.

I could see our children from Christ the Sower being both impressed by this, but also wondering how they could contribute.  We then got into groups to discuss how we could broaden the impact of a Youth SACRE – how could we reach out to all primary schools, as there is a big difference between those who love and respect RE and those who pay it lip-service only. Once this had been discussed by the children they were then asked to focus their ideas onto a presentation that they were to give to the headteachers of all MK primary schools:

  • What would they say about the importance of RE?
  • Why should schools teach it well and be proud of doing so?
  • Why should children not explore spiritual questions at school, and not just at home?
  • How would we present our information to headteachers?

Shammi has all the bits of paper from the discussion which took at least 30 minutes, and I hope that we can perhaps film some children doing the presentation and make sure all primary head see it.

The children, being children, got cake and biscuits and juice – it was great fun actually serving them, and acting as hosts to them as delegates (Could I have another sugar in my tea, please? was a great question to be able to say yes to). After the break, they had the opportunity to interview three different older children with different and varied faith backgrounds about how they came to their faith understanding and what questions they had about their beliefs. It was really inspiring watching our children listen, take notes and ask ever deeper questions of their older peers. They all want to go again, all saw the need for only a small number from each school being there, and also the need to encourage others to go – it may be I will take one or two from this meeting and bring new children each time. It is a great initiative – long may it live!

Local is best

1420411313 years ago I had cause to stay in the lovely Virginia “city” of Falls Church, not far from Washington DC, and a stop on the DC metro system. I was staying during the winter of 2003 when everyone was mightily exercised about whether or not GWB would invade Iraq. The snow was so heavy that week that it closed the Smithsonian for one of the few times since the Second World War, and I remember vividly the sight of three municipal snow ploughs meeting at an intersection in Falls Church and not being altogether certain how to do a 3-point turn in such cumbersome vehicles. There was one day when the US government was not quorate enough to make a decision to go to war, as nobody could get to their offices. We all felt a little safer that day. But mostly what I learnt about Falls Church was the keen sense of local democracy, and even more strongly, a keen sense that that democracy had local economic implications. A new condominium had been built and the folk we were staying with had a strong sense of the demographics of the residents of the block. If the ratio of adults to children fell below a certain point,then more would need to be spent on schooling for the children than could be gained in local taxes from the residents spending at local businesses. People shopped in Falls Church partly, it seemed, because it was not Fairfax. Coupled with a strong sense of local economic identity (which usefully covered chain stores through the sales tax system as well as locally-owned businesses) was the usual American commitment to local action and keeping your sidewalk clear, and making sure that if the neighbour couldn’t do theirs, then you did it for them. It was far more a participatory democracy in the economic and practical aspects of their lives, than we have here. It was good to observe it for a week. There was an election at the same time for school superintendent, and that occupied people’s thinking and conversation. More good local democracy, with real consequences for families.

This local incorporation for tax purposes clearly has its problems – as Detroit has found out in the last 30 years when white flight led to the creation of separately incorporated townships (compare the stats for Highland Park and Auburn, Michigan) – as it too easily, in large metropolitan areas, gives a mechanism for the wealthy to think too locally and only in terms of a suburb not a whole city and, as has been the case in many cities, the tax bases of older areas and newly incorporated desirable locations are grossly out of kilter, along with median incomes and quality of service provided by a dwindling tax base. In that sense, the UK has a much fairer system of tax distribution, though what it gives us, and what we have taken as a right, has begun to stop us thinking about our own personal responsibility as citizens to the health and wellbeing of our local communities. The upside is that, for instance, Milton Keynes business taxes are in good shape. We have a vibrant economy locally and the result is that we have a high level of business taxes, but most of those are redistributed to areas that need more help. What is a structural feature supporting equality regionally becomes a disincentive for us to support local businesses within our city.  However the balance is viewed (and on this we wade into party political waters with their competing views of the role of the state itself), there has to be a strong argument made economically that will encourage a local identity. We see community life as essentially about neighbourliness, volunteering, interest groups, family etc. All of these are important, but to ensure that they happen, there needs to be some incentive economically to serve the local community. I would argue for local support for business to be done from altruistic reasons, but am not thick enough to think that this would happen by itself.

This is all by means of a preamble to a discussion of the local MK schooling arrangement and its relationship to democracy and a democratic way of thinking. With the increasing privatisation/state control (how can you do those at the same time?) that is behind the academies system, the link between schools and a strong and vibrant local authority has begun to be severed. This has been massively supported by government’s own lack of funding for local services and the less-than-subtle plutocratic thinking that derives from a Milton Friedman, market-driven view of the world, which has never been renounced by the Conservative Party. Some heads locally think that the LA just want to disassociate themselves from schools, which is palpably not the case, and is a foolish thing to say. The new world we are in has led to an increasing separation of interest groups – I was at a meeting with a group of heads and chairs of governors recently and came away appalled at the unwillingness to trust one another and to trust secondary schools who were looking to build a local grouping. I had expected a really positive and open meeting, and all I got was skepticism and a looking to own interests. It was shocking to me and profoundly depressing. Nobody tried to look at the positives of such an arrangement. In fact, the danger is that we very quickly forget our local commitment to one another and to think we are either on our own (which we are obviously not, when we have a supportive and hard-working LA on our side) or that we have to fast-forward to some other grouping of schools in a MAD (a multi-academy distrust).

The next step may well be that we forget that we “belong” to the local community in any civic way at all. Years ago in Wales it was the case that no teacher could live more than 2 miles away from their school – we see that now as unnecessarily demanding or restrictive, but it meant that you had a direct stake in the wellbeing of the children and their parents who you were called to serve. And perhaps that is the word we have run into – serve. If we see school as work, then it matters not where we live and how we get there. If we see it as service to a community whose civic life you want to see strengthened, then living close by is both a sensible choice and a privilege. If we live in a separate area economically from that where we work, then to that degree our loyalties are split. The answer is to see ALL work as service and calling. I know that there are heads who are only too glad to get away from the LA and all its restrictions. They have heard the siren voices of those that say “do what is best for your school”. But such voices forget that we have a responsibility to each other, an accountability for what we give to our communities and therefore they fail to ask the question “how can we do what is best for our city, or our community, or for our parents?” The answers to both questions might be the same, and hopefully they will be, but both questions have to be asked.

I find myself elected, by virtue of not paying attention at a pub lunch, as chair of the Primary Heads Strategy Group in MK, which may or may not mean anything much. With the “new world” of academisation, there has been a feeling that with new groupings emerging, a group of heads drawn from locally-defined areas and groups of schools may not mean much. But the essence of the argument I have made above is that schools serving together a civic population that depends on them is exactly where we should be putting our “relationship capital.” It is harder than hiving off with like-minded people and pursuing your goals that way, but there must be a recognition that we are servants, and servants pretty much go where they are told to go and serve where they are planted. And we are planted together, in our communities.

There is another argument that comes into play here – a curricular one. For 8 years now, since the publication of the Cambridge Primary Review Final Report under Robin Alexander, many of us have been arguing for a local curriculum rather than only a national one. A 70:30 national:local split was the original proposal from the CPR reports, and it still seems a sensible one to me. With new “curricular freedoms” since 2014, doubtless the government would say we have that option, but the construction of the KS1 and KS2 assessment frameworks, in place for 2017 as well, together with the huge amount of prescription in the core subject sections of the 2014 curriculum, both militate against those freedoms.

I think I respect the need for a national curriculum (I have never been convinced) and I have heard important people say that we need to educate and assess for the national economy (though again, I have never been convinced). But if both of these are foisted or promulgated to the extent that local democracy, economic life and a truly local curriculum are threatened, then I would say – local is best.

In praise of aubergines and art

DSC03072I was fortunate on Wednesday to get to see the amazing Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at the Tate Modern. Whilst knowing of her, I have never really looked hard at O’Keeffe’s work and it was a great opportunity to do so. I took nearly two hours and went through the exhibition twice: it covers the period from the First World War to the late 1960s. A lot of the work immediately made an impact – some of the work done in the 1920s and 1930s from Lake George (Autumn Leaves, From the Lake No3 and No1, Autumn Trees – The Maple) and the stunning visualisation of New Mexico semi-desert (Black Mesa Landscape/Out Back at Marie’s 1930, The Mountain 1931, My Back Yard 1937) are as arresting as anything you will see in modern art, simply for the bold use of colour in the service of form. The beautiful Nature forms, Gaspe (1932) is a testimony to the fact you can paint landscape without ever being absolutely sure where the sky, land and sea actually begin. I wish I had had these in mind before teaching my art club on watercolour last term…


Almost missed, because of its position near the entrance to another gallery, was her lovely The Eggplant (1923), as wonderful a painting of an aubergine as you will ever see. Aubergines have such a solid presence as a fruit. The darkness of the colour, a deepening of the shade of the flower, and the way that light is reflected from it, all makes for a rich sense of promise – as though a whole meal is there waiting for you to explore it. As a lover of baba ganoush and Imam Bayildi, two great aubergine dishes, I am prejudiced in their favour anyway. We have been growing three plants over the summer, and there is another large plant in the school greenhouse.

O’Keeffe paints it against a folded sheet – and the eye draws you from the sheet down toward the base of the picture where the fruit sits. This print, from a reproduction website, does not do it justice, and we were not allowed to photograph in the exhibition. But still, worth spending a long time looking at – except for the fact that if you did, you would be blocking the entrance to the next gallery.

I also loved the determination to exploit each medium to its full extent. As a young artist, O’Keeffe wrote that “I began with charcoal and paper and decided not to use any other colour until it was impossible to do what I wanted in black and white”. Later on, in 1949, the wonderful Ram’s Horns I is a study in charcoal again, a testimony to the fact that the simple things, mastered completely, become serviceable throughout a creative life.

Finally, I admire artists, like Astrup (Western Norway), O’Keeffe (New Mexico), Kathe Kollwitz (Berlin) and Frank Auerbach (north London) who make the place they call home the centre of their artistic work. As I have often argued here, the need for a fully local engagement is impossible to avoid if an artist does not want to appear rootless.

Anyway, this post was originally supposed to be about aubergines, so here are some more pictures!





Why you shouldn’t trust the OECD with your children, especially the under-5s

The OECD is a powerful organisation that undoubtedly has done a huge amount of good in the world and has provided a backdrop particularly to the economic and social development of the European continent, since its foundation in 1961. The Wikipedia entry describes it as

…an intergovernmental economic organisation with 35 member countries, founded in 1961 to stimulate economic progress and world trade. It is a forum of countries describing themselves as committed to democracy and the market economy, providing a platform to compare policy experiences, seeking answers to common problems, identify good practices and coordinate domestic and international policies of its members.

Over 55 years it has carried this out principally through conferences and reports and by motivating and commissioning research and using its funding (from its member states) to model and develop policy and pieces of work that it then promulgates. In many respects it appears “independent”, or “scientific” or “evidence-based”, and for the most part this helps it. It is an organisation that I am glad to refer to, and the work of David Istance and the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation has produced some timely and wise approaches to the business of education. Its work on the brain and learning is a useful summary of what we know about the relevance of modern neurosciences.

However, it is actually not independent at all. It is wedded to market freedoms and western democratic models, and as a direct result it is both an adherent of and a promulgator of the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM). Listening as I have done on numerous occasions to Andreas Schleicher, one of its most prominent researchers and spokesmen, I have been often dismayed by the unwillingness to see anything else but education in the service of a global economy underpinning his arguments. Their flagship test, PISA, measures essentially those attributes that OECD and its sponsor governments think are worth measuring. Nobody considers it worthwhile to measure progress for 14 year-olds in music or drama or the visual arts. So whilst we can seek for a more holistic approach to education, we will get no help from the OECD, not whilst the word “economic” is the adjective in its title. OECD has a very high standing among governments, and as a result it makes the assumption, common among those who see “sharing best practice” as the answer to everything, that what works in the education system of one member state must have applicability and measurability in another member state. What works well in Finland or Alberta must be of direct applicability to Wales or Spain. And of course, being transnational, it assumes that educational outcomes in each country are to be put to the service of the global economy. It makes a chronic assumption that each country needs to generate more scientists so that the world economy can grow, as though this was a good thing.

I believe this this to be fundamentally a wrong supposition, meaning, unfortunately, that its entire oeuvre is predicated on a lie. It only has value to the extent that all other western economies are predicated upon the identical lie. This would not matter if the OECD restricted its view of education to that which had a direct impact upon the economic development of its member states. Perhaps it does; perhaps I malign it unnecessarily.  However, member states perceive the work of the OECD with such high importance that only those things that it measures are deemed to matter, and the national governments are complicit in the GERM view of the world that sees educational reform as fundamentally geared to serving the national economy. The national curricula, the accountability measures, the competitive framework in which schools suffer – all of these ignore the diversity, curiosity and imagination of humanity, and are a direct reflection of a desperation among our political masters to “do well” in the PISA rankings each time they are published.

As if this was not enough, we now have PISA for 5 year olds, the International Early Learning Study, IELS, which you can’t even say properly (“yells?” – this might be appropriate for some 5 year olds). The call for tenders for this new venture went out last year and had to be in by February. So tough, if you were excited.

Peter Moss from the Institute of Education, along with others from Europe and North America, have published a critique both of this tender document (all that is available at the moment) and of the thinking behind it. The paper is published in Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood.

A handy summary of the main conclusions is found on the IoE blog today, under the title “Is an early years PISA what we want for our young children?”

I have only read the blog article, but it seems so important I am reproducing Peter Moss’ conclusions here – many of them tally strongly with my instinctive worries about the OECD and the uses to which it puts its metrics. So with grateful acknowledgements to the IoE Blog, from which this text is taken, here are the main conclusions from Moss et al. (2016):

  1. Education is firstly a political issue, raising political questions with alternative and often conflicting answers. Yet the OECD makes no attempt to set out its political questions or to argue for its choices. Instead it treats early childhood education and the proposed study as if they are purely technical practices, epitomising what the IOE’s Paul Morris (2016) has described as a “drive to position policymaking as a technocratic exercise, to be undertaken by an elite band of experts who are immune to the influence of politics and ideology”. (HH comment: this is what I argue for above, that policy seems “neutral” whereas it is anything but. The OECD researchers seem to imagine that if something is technical, it is therefore neutral and “above” political criticism. It is not. At the extreme end of this, bomb-making is technical.)
  2. Adopting a technical facade, the OECD implies that its conclusions and recommendations are self-evident, objective and incontestable. They are anything but that. It adopts a particular paradigmatic position, that might be described as hyper-positivistic. It values objectivity, universality, predictability and what can be measured. It chooses to work with certain disciplines, notably particular branches of psychology (child development) and economics (human capital). It assumes an economic and political model of a world of more of the same, for which we must ‘future-proof’ children through the application of human technologies. Of course, the OECD is free to choose its position. However, it should be aware that it has made a choice and taken a particular perspective. It should also be aware that there are other choices and other perspectives. Yet on both counts it shows a total lack of self-awareness. (HH comment: again, this is dealt with above – all research is done through a particular worldview, and OECD’s worldview is simply one of a number of competing ones)
  3. Reading the IELS documentation, you might be forgiven for thinking that its precursor, PISA, had not been the subject of criticism. But it has, and the IELS fails to engage with those criticisms, which apply as much to comparative testing of 5-year-olds as 15-year-olds. Some are of a technical nature, with, as Gorur (2014) argues, a “vast literature that critiques aspects of [PISA’s] methodology”. But there are more substantive issues, for example PISA’s failure to address complexity, context and causality, and an implied but naïve model of enlightened policy-makers objectively and rationally applying lessons from other countries. (HH comment: the issue of locality and context is dealt with above, as is the relevance of research done in one country being applied to another system.)
  4. The IELS, and similar testing regimes, seek to apply a universal framework to all countries, all pedagogies and all services. This approach rests on the principle that everything can be reduced to a common outcome, standard and measure. What it cannot do is accommodate, let alone welcome, diversity – of paradigm or theory, pedagogy or provision, childhood or culture. The issue raised – and not acknowledged, let alone addressed by the OECD in its documentation – is how an IELS can be applied to places and people who do not share its (implicit) positions, understandings, assumptions and values. (HH comment: the nub of the issue, this. There is no scope for localism even within a single country (compare urban Milton Keynes with rural Norfolk – do children in these two localities require the same education?). Diversity and locality are key factors in determining the nature of a child’s education, as the Cambridge Primary Review final report demonstrated back in 2008.)
  5. The OECD is an extremely powerful organisation, applying extremely powerful ‘human technologies’, including PISA and IELS. Yet the possible adverse effects of this power, such as the narrowing and standardisation of early childhood education, do not figure in the IELS documentation, not even in the section headed ‘risk management’. (HH Comment: I don’t know how we begin to address this. Governments need to look at a longer term view of human education for their populations, and not just bask in the glory of the hoops through which they are making their young people jump. Perhaps a catastrophic failure of OECD thinking – demonstrably false and laughable – might help, but I have no idea as to how to engineer one of those)

I am very grateful for Peter Moss blogging with this article. It doesn’t tackle the substantive issues around what must be done about the content, because it is not there yet. However, the call for tenders is full of a highly technical language and an emphasis on existing early years approaches that themselves are more technical than informed by child development understanding. The criticism of the Early Years baseline in England last year will overlap with a number of the eventual objections, I suspect. Peter Moss has done a great service to early years educators and I await the follow up with interest!


Gorur, R. (2014) Towards a Sociology of Measurement in Education Policy. European Educational Research Journal 13: 68-72

Morris, P. (2016) Education policy, cross-national tests of pupil achievement, and the pursuit of world-class schooling: A critical analysis (Institute of Education)

Moss, P., Dahlberg, G.,  Grieshaber, S., Mantovani S., May, H., Pence A., Rayna, S., Swadener, B.B., & Vandenbroeck, M. (2016) “The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s International Early Learning Study: Opening for debate and contestation” Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 17: 343351).