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.
It 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:
- To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
- To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
- To respond to human need by loving service
- To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation
- 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.