Woodcut gallery

A number of people have asked me about my current obsession for relief printmaking, so in partial reply, here are a few pictures of recent woodcuts completed since Christmas 2016. Standard cheap-and-cheerful Japanese woodcutting tools (bought from Intaglio Printmakers) regularly sharpened on a small Arkansas stone with honing oil; inks from Lawrence’s of Hove (or from Hobbycraft!); wood is either shina (for the small pieces) or a thick 7-ply from B&Q where the friendly guy with the dangerous machine cuts them into 20 x 20cm blocks for me. Papers are generally Awagami Hosho Shi (for the bigger prints) or a thick cartridge paper for the smaller ones. All are hand-printed, using a smooth acrylic doorknob (B&Q again!) as a baren.

Seeing them all here, they look decidedly amateurish (partly that is the photography!), but they have given me hours of pleasure (and frustration of course) and along with linocut printing, have spoken to me artistically in a way that no other visual art forms have. Comments welcome – always looking to improve.

RE as central

I spent an absorbing day last Friday at the Oxford Belfry near Thame attending the Oxford Diocesan Board of Education’s annual RE conference, entitled RE Central. It was well attended for an RE conference and it was good to see a number of clergy there, as much of the day was spent in discussion and exploration of “encounter” – and that meant how we can get the best from visiting places of worship near us, and the level of organisation needed on all sides. From Christ the Sower, there were four of us – myself, Wendy (who leads RE for us brilliantly and with great purpose), Ranbir (who teaches great RE lessons in Year 6) and Mike (whose ongoing commitment as a governor and pastor to us keeps the subject high on the agenda). Other folk from Milton Keynes were there, both from schools and the local SACRE, and I was pleased that so many had made it a priority.

The context for us is that we will be inspected thoroughly in RE next term, through our 5-yearly SIAMS inspection. To that end, Wendy and I have just completed an observation of 9 RE lessons, part of a fact-finding exercise in order to identify the next steps for us as a school in the teaching of this vital and increasingly-important subject. The overall outcomes I have recently reported to governors, and whilst I have still to observe three more lessons to “complete the set” so to speak, there is a provisional outcome that we can delineate:

  • RE is taught with integrity, skill and thoughtfulness across the school.
  • RE is a model of respectful teaching – respect for children, respect for faith and its adherents, for children’s opinions and in the say that it harbours a willingness for children to be respectful of each other.
  • RE is assessed better and better so that we have a clearer idea of which children improve and how they improve. As this is one of our SIAMS findings from 2012, this is just as well.
  • RE is taken seriously as a core subject in our curriculum.
  • Teachers use the religious experiences of the children they teach in the furthering of the common knowledge. This was seen as a distinct feature in Year 6, Year 5, Year 4 and Year 1.
  • RE is taught in a linked manner – in other words, previous RE learning is built on wherever possible.

What the survey also showed is that the theological/biblical-narrative understanding of Christianity in particular could be enhanced with some better CPD. It was, paradoxically, stronger in the teaching of Islam than it was in Christianity during this survey. A second development point (made all the stronger because in one class it was extremely well developed) was the enhancing of religious debate and argument toward a conclusion. A combination of good dialogic talk models and a willingness to use philosophical techniques to deal with ethical and religious issues was seen in one Year 4 class (thank you, Dan) and this could be spread over the whole piece.

So this provides the backdrop for an exposition of our learning on Friday. I hope that what follows accords with Ranbir’s, Mike’s and Wendy’s understanding of our learning during the day. I had to head off to South Wales mid-afternoon so have not had a chance to catch up with them. The following report is very much in note form, a way of recording the learning for myself and in the process hoping that some of it will stick through paying attention and repetition!

The keynote speaker was Julie Diamond-Conway, editor of RE Today, who showed us three areas where RE could impact directly on children’s understanding, and the reasons why we should keep teaching it. She began with a quote from Freathy et al (2015), indicating that today the relevance of religion was higher than it had been for some while, in social, cultural, economic, political, moral, local. global, personal and public life.

ENCOUNTER: We need tools to help visualise “the other” and encounter helps us not just to know this, but not to see them as the “abject others”, who somehow are not as good as me.

  • Thus opportunities to meet automatically break down barriers. Physical meeting is good, as it generates good dialogue between faiths or people from different branches of faith (about which more later) and identifies common areas of humanity straightaway, even without any “religious” discussion.
  • Psychological research is suggesting that encounter may also be imagined or virtual. Mere imagining a contact with a person from a different culture for just two minutes can help to change and challenge attitudes to people from that background, so powerful is the imagination.
  • Further, looking at religion in the real world is a powerful tool to dislodge prejudices and place people in the real communities in which they – and we- have our daily lives.

Ways of deepening this encounter in the classroom include persona dolls, films from members of a particular faith community (see for instance Natasha telling others about the Holy Cribs synagogue on True Tube, or the Faith in Schools website from Newham), charities inspired by specific faiths, the RE Today Photostories series, the use of visits and visitors, and the (great) use of great photos! The latter is a huge help because it generates so many good questions. Julia suggested a model of their use where you begin with picture extending (half a picture is shown, and children have to look for clues to see what the other half might be), then complete the picture and go through the process of naming, understanding, imagining and puzzling. This generates empathy and a diversity of questioning from children that shape their understanding as the questions find answers or just remain as good questions.

DIVERSITY WITHIN RELIGIONS: One of the problems facing RE teachers is that all religions are fairly messy things, for mainly historical reasons. They have different branches, so it is good for teachers to use the language of “some Hindus believe…” “most Christians think…” “many Muslims practise….” because there is an increasing chance that blanket statements will be challenged in class by some child who has more specific knowledge! The approach Julia recommended is to look at religion as lived faith, where the variety of experiences, for the sake of religious literacy, are no more valid or invalid than others. She quoted the recent difference of opinion between Rabbi Murvis, the Chief Rabbi of the UK, and Rabbi Jonathan Romain, from the reform Judaic tradition, over whether there ought to be a cap or not of 50% of religious adherents in religious free schools. This internal diversity happens all the time and should be both celebrated and used effectively in our teaching of religious faith. A good place to start is with a wonderful Secret Life of Muslims video called What is a Muslim? (Aman Ali, the comedian, is great on “there’s no pork on my fork, no swine on my mind…I’m not hostage to the sausage”).  A good place to follow up is the HarvardX course Religious Literacy: tradition and scriptures.

EXAMPLES OF RELIGION NOW: the third take on showing children the relevance of religious education is to demonstrate how religion is talked about in the modern world, and in the modern media. Julia began, by showing that religious education in schools is often illustrated with images of children in collective worship, a very different thing. She argued that a picture of religious education in a primary or secondary school would not look that different from an English lesson! However, the widespread use of media meant that we had plenty of examples to pick from in order to challenge children’s understanding of religious faith in the UK, because it was in general so poorly reported and therefore open to serious questioning. Accuracy is of course important – a rich theological understanding by the teacher is always going to be worth acquiring – and such a start can be made by walking around the school and looking for signs that religious faith is being pursued in the community.

She finished the session by giving us a number of cards describing different situations in school or the community where religion was referred to or used to justify a course of action and asked us to measure on a “respectometer” where the action fell.

The first seminar I attended after this keynote was run again by Julia and by Alex Wolvers, author of the RE:quest website which provides resources for the teaching of Christianity. Julia and Alex discussed issues around visits and visitors in RE, at a very practical level. Some of it was a shameless plug for RE:quest, but we also learnt about Ambassadors of Faith and Belief (AFAB) a Redbridge project now closed, but with many learning opportunities for us in Milton Keynes through the Youth SACRE. So, the learning:

  • The power of a personal story is both real and vivid for children. It brings a topic alive; it offers a range of different experiences, helps deeper understanding, offers different eyes on a familiar subject and makes issues of faith real to children.
  • Visitors really need to be selected carefully – no proseltyzing, no boredom, and no patronising of children – just relevant interesting material!
  • Alex provided 8 tips for getting good visitors into school
    • Can visitors be just for RE, or is their interest wider than that?
    • Where in the scheme of work is this visitor placed – when is the best time in the teaching sequence?
    • Get in a speaker for a specific topic (e.g. Ramadan in our family, how the Torah is used in everyday life, my baptismal experience, etc)
    • Write questions with the children beforehand.
    • Define the outcome of the visit for children: is it to be able to tell a story, to be ready to visit a place of worship, or to connect the learning from the visitor with a religious lifestyle?
    • Decide how many visitors to invite: sometimes they are better in pairs.
    • Use the visitors as part of a focus, not in a general way.
    • Take them on the class trip to their place of worship, so the children can see them in class and in their mandir, mosque or gurdwara.
  • Using the RE:quest website can be really useful for longer stories and to provide additional context. Alex showed us a set of short videos about a long pilgrimage from Chester to Lichfield on the Two Saints Way.

The other significant seminar I attended was by Kathryn Wright, who is the RE adviser for Norwich Diocese and a member of staff at Culham St Gabriels in North Oxford (amongst other things). She gave a talk, informed by some work she is doing for a doctorate, on how we promote religious literacy through RE. Defining religious literacy is tricky but she settled on one definition that seems to me to contain all the important features (when co-writing the Shropshire 2008 Agreed Syllabus I remember a long debate about this, so I have given it some thought):

Children and young people (and adults too, presumably) being able to hold balanced and informed conversations about religions and beliefs.

This is informed by:

  • Theology (the study of key concepts on which a religion or belief system is based; considering issues such as authority and diversity of interpretation; focusing on developing skills of textual analysis)
  • Philosophy (the study of diverse expressions of human wisdom; questions of meaning, purpose and truth; developing higher order thinking skills)
  • Social/Human Sciences (studying the lived and diverse reality of religion and belief; issues of pluralism, secularism and diversity; focusing on developing ethnographic research skills and emphasising encounter, engagement and impact)

This is a critical approach to religious literacy, focusing on a range of skills that we do not always allow into RE. I was particularly delighted to see the high emphasis on textual analysis – this seems to me to be the most authentic and respectful approach to religious faith: to take someone else’s (or our own) religious writings seriously enough to study them in class.

Seeking to answer the question How do we teach RE to ensure that pupils become more religiously literate? Kathryn indicated that this would have to take the form of enquiry, the “action of seeking” for what children would need to know. This would dovetail perfectly with the three strands of religious literacy outlined above. A model for it would be the OFSTED Best Practice Enquiry Process illustrated here. Whether we were using it effectively in developing religious literacy would depend on the quality of the teaching:

  • Asking questions helps engage with a key aspect of the enquiry, focusing on a “big idea” or concept, but only if it reflects what the children themselves want to find out.
  • Investigating the big idea or concept is an unending process – children and teachers can take this as deeply or as broadly as they wish.
  • Evaluating and drawing conclusions from the investigation needs to answer questions around impact and the difference the practice makes on the lives of believers or adherents. It also raises new questions to be fed into the cycle.
  • Ensuring the children reflect on and express an understanding of the enquiry question, and are considering other questions on the way, leads to the next phase of the enquiry.

Kathryn suggested three analogies for enquiry, none of which were completely perfect, but all of which posited ways of thinking about enquiry:

  1. Doing a jigsaw, with the box as the guide: this was possibly too prescriptive for some, assuming that there was a correct answer. An alternative was to paint a picture based on the jigsaw box, interpreting it as we went.
  2. Skiing, but then going off piste for a bit before ending up at the clubhouse for apres-ski! This had more appeal, as it allowed for variety in the direction, but had a clarity about a destination (i.e. insisting on an answer to the big question).
  3. Spiralling (essentially a hermeneutic approach): as the circle is repeated, layers of meaning emerge and understanding develops. This is how we teach maths, or music, with ever growing complexity.

From a discussion of these three analogies, she drilled down into some examples, based clearly around religious texts, where children could explore one verse of scripture, one part of an image, or look for emphasis or repetition (and therefore importance) in a passage. She began with John 6:35

I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger.

Looking for the emphasis in this verse – repeating it with each word stressed separately, or asking children to identify the most important word in the text – can lead to rich questions that then open up the discussion, leading to layers of meaning as each word takes its place and is presented and debated.

Another approach, akin to Berger’s gallery critique is to take a scripture, such as John 1, or a section of the Midrash, and make comments on it. Other children can then comment on the comments, raising questions and deepening the enquiry. Eventually there will emerge a vibrant theological understanding of the passage.

Yet another approach is to summarise a passage in 5 words. We tried it with Mark 2:1-12, where the paralytic is lowered through the roof and is healed and forgiven. Different people came up with different emphases (mine was resolutely practical: crowd, paralytic, roof, mat, legs). Others took a theological journey through it: preaching, need, noticing, healing, forgiveness. The conversations around this make the meaning in the story and create deeper understanding.

The final two approaches to enquiry that Kathryn showed us were

  • a double entry journal: children keep a journal of an event or conclusions from the text, and on one side write what they saw in the text, and on the other, what they thought with their mind or understood beyond the text. This is used often in English and in history, and in RE it has particular usefulness in clarifying the text and the interpretation, which helps learning to go more smoothly.
  • I wonder questions, similar to those raised in Godly Play. The sort of wondering might be I wonder what surprises you about this story? I wonder what difference this story might make in he lives of believers? I wonder if this story has value today? I wonder what would happen if this was left out of the Quran/Bible/Talmud? I wonder if this story connects with anything in your life?

At that point, I was full of thoughts and did not feel I had the energy to go to what I am sure was Dilwyn Hunt’s excellent seminar.

My thanks to Anne Andrews, the diocesan RE adviser, for putting this event on, which will sustain us in RE learning for a good while.

Creating monsters as we accelerate uphill

For children in Years 3-6, there is a statutory expectation that they have about 25 hours of teaching in each week, about 5 hours a day, excluding collective worship, breaktimes and lunchtimes. For younger children, it is more like 22 hours a week. Either way, under current time budgets, more than 50% of that time is spent teaching English (an hour or so a day) and maths (again, about an hour a day), usually in the morning, but with guided reading or some other similar reading activity taking up 20-25 minutes a day on top of that. What teachers do with that hour is of first importance, and it behooves each teacher to use that time to the very best of their ability to enable children to progress, learn new material, attend to new understanding and to practice and apply what they have learnt.

It follows, therefore, that if you have good or outstanding teachers (by whatever measure you choose to make such judgments) then the curriculum, for all that it is a dire, unimaginative and deadening piece of work, is designed generally to be taught in that hour a day in each of English and maths and that you should not need to teach extra lessons of maths or English. The law of diminishing returns tells you that there comes a point where the investment you put in no longer repays you with the same amount. It is like accelerating uphill in a car which has reached that point where the foot is on the floor and the sheer weight of the thing cannot be coaxed any harder up the pass.

A number of children can get to that point, yet I am conscious that at this time of year, many primary schools are flat to the floor trying to get more and more learning into children – 10 and 11-year olds generally, but also 6-7 year olds, which seems just abusive to me – not so that they become better mathematicians or writers or whatever – but so that they can increase the proportion of children who meet the required standard. Some schools even sit the children next to their “interim framework” for KS1 and KS2 and encourage them to self assess against this list of writing features that are simply an assessment list not a curriculum of honour and depth (except that, unfortunately, depth is defined by three bullet points on the list). Of course there are features of good writing, and of course teachers will have their eye purposefully on helping children acquire, practice and imaginatively use these features to improve and deepen their clarity and breadth of expression. But I suspect we have forgotten what writing is for. We have looked at children too much as pupils and students and not enough as uniquely created works of beauty, purposefully designed by a great King, a heavenly Father, to live life to the fullest. If we, as teachers, help them become great writers and mathematicians in the process, then good. However, if we try and do that by offloading the stress that we ourselves feel from the government onto their tender shoulders, so that children are stressed about whether they should get the “required standard” or not, then we are perilously close to emotional abuse. If, in the course of all that English and maths struggle, we fool ourselves by putting the pedal to the metal when the car is nearly stalling, we will be tempted to compound that abuse by teaching more writing, more maths, more grammar, in the space where children should be learning to dance, paint, sing, experiment, research and play. This is not a plea for any less effective maths and English teaching – parents and school leaders, as well as teachers themselves, should have an expectation that what happens in that two hours a day is at the very top of their ability to teach and the children’s to learn – but a desire that all we have learnt over centuries of working effectively with our young should not be sacrificed just to meet the requirements of some pieces of paper thought up by those who want nothing better than to turn our children into economically-motivated earners and spenders.

One of my teachers was talking to a parent the other day about the stress that his children’s friends at some schools were under because of KS2 SATs, and wondered why his son was not similarly being stressed at Christ the Sower (it wasn’t, I presume, a request for more stress). The teacher replied that we teach everything to children, not just English and maths – the whole curriculum for the whole child the whole of the time (Oakeshott’s “whole of his inheritance”) – and that we prepare the children in the curricular space available. She mentioned that of course we are under stress as teachers, but that we don’t pass that onto the children, and would not think of doing so. I was pleased to hear of the parent’s reaction to that – appreciative of the work we do, and even more appreciative that there was not the pressure on his son that his peers had – but saddened that we have created this monster, driven solely by the fear that schools have of accountability, progress measures and the inspectorate. That this has impacted some parents is obvious: last year I had a child in a set of able writers who asked me not to give him any homework because with the amount he had from his teacher and the amount his parents gave him from his home tutors, he would only fail me, and that he didn’t want to do. At that point he burst into tears from the stress – too many people that he loved were putting too much pressure on him to perform.

As I muse to myself from time to time, a school system driven by fear and the big stick is hardly worth teaching or leading in, and most days I wonder how long it is worth me staying in it. However, I have a statutory responsbility to protect children from abuse in school, and whilst children need protection from a curriculum and assessment system that will damage them long term unless heavily modified by love, I had better stick around.

Elephants and rooms

I have been a headteacher of three different primary schools since 2002 and the current funding settlement is by far the worst I have come across in all that time. For the first time in my school career the issue at hand can be put down simply to there not being enough money provided to operate a school efficiently and successfully, never mind kindly. There are no areas of local authority or central government incompetence to be blamed, not can we point to local mistakes in allocation, imbalance in school budgets or simply mismanagement at a school level. I have worked for the past five years to nurture an investment budget, one that does credit to the desire of senior leaders to see the school grow and develop, to be in excellent repair and to be safe; to provide for the future leadership of our school and other schools; to be innovative in the amount of time we can release teachers from class to develop high quality curricula and reflect on practice; to provide for the weakest and poorest and those with greatest needs. We have maintained a healthy surplus in spite of growing staff costs. We have worked hard also to generate alternative sources of income, and know that we are in a much better situation than many schools.

But at a stroke, this year, all that has been removed. We wrote, along with many many other schools, to parents yesterday telling them about the likely impact of this year’s budget settlement on staffing and resources, and upon the educational prospects especially of those who need high levels of support. This cannot be laid at the door of the Local Authority. There are many things that we as heads would want to put at the door of the LA, and they know it, but funding is simply an issue of there not being enough, especially for the poorest and those with greatest need. Milton Keynes Council budget settlement is, proportionately, a LOT worse than the schools in that authority!

Primary schools are in a particular position – hardly ever do they have “extra” teachers in the school where money can be saved by releasing them. We have grown a system where teaching is a deservedly well-paid profession, a desirable investment in the future of the country’s children, and we are stuck with that. The edifice we have created has some ratios, such as teachers in a class, that cannot be shrunk without a huge disadvantage to children, and so we have to look elsewhere. The next most expensive items in a school are found in adults other than teachers – and even there, most schools are operating on a bare minimum for the needs they have: for years now, children who have been provided with necessary (because a statement of SEN or an Education Health Care Plan said so) support have tended to be granted less money for that support than it costs to employ the adult who provides it. So schools operate at this incremental loss all the time in order to help and support those who our society should be the best at caring for. And the more children with needs there are, the generally poorer off are the schools.

I cannot honestly see an answer to this except by increasing taxes on the most wealthy. The trouble about the way our society is structured is that the most wealthy generally do not use the state education system, but perpetrate the social divisions in British culture that says “if you don’t like the way that the state education/welfare/health system is providing for you, buy a different product outside that system.” There is nothing in the way we currently do social or political discourse that speaks of social responsibility of the wealthy for the weakest – and that this is worth doing because the prize is social cohesion, higher employment and a level of national harmony that will ultimately benefit everyone and create a society that is much more at ease with itself.

Every government since Thatcher has been petrified of taxing the wealthier members of our society. She didn’t have a concept of mutual responsibility, and being from the Hayek-Friedman stream of libertarian economics and market freedoms, her political convictions gave rise to, and allowed voice in British public life, the sort of demonically libertarian and plutocratic thinking that we now see in the thinking of people like Milo Yiannopoulos and Patrick Schumacher. The landscape of where we have got to now is a result of the triumph of this kind of thinking in our social, economic and political life. Until it is rooted out, personal liberty, perversely, will not flourish, because people do not feel safe; and, in a possibly unintended consequence in Thatcher’s thinking (but as a deliberate consequence in, say, Schumacher’s) people who do not feel safe are generally meaner, unkinder to neighbours, more selfish and less likely to want to imagine or contribute to the common good: all for the sake of increasing the number of very wealthy individuals in our tax base.

I mention this philosophic point only because we need to see clearly that the gospel is in direct contradiction of this philosophy. The failure of churches to stand up for the poor and to articulate, in their common life, a commitment to the common good has been disastrous and has led to the rise of philosophies, since the second world war, that now play far too free a hand in our national psyche, so we only have ourselves to blame. We also need to acknowledge that most local authorities and nearly all schools (exceptions are growing every day, unfortunately) are also committed to the common good, and to their communities, and to do that effectively, at this time, they need more money.

Rumour has it that some conservative MPs are now openly talking about tax rises to fund public services: these are the social democratic Tories whose arm must be strengthened if our national life is not to go the way of the “democracy” across the water.

Doing the little things again…

nid-wyf-gofynSince my last post it seems that there has hardly been any time to sit long enough to collect myself and reflect on the weeks that have gone past. Government (at least ours) have been mercifully quiet about education (the insistence on teaching sex education notwithstanding), whilst there is a new confidence among us at school about the future. The narrative we have prepared for OFSTED is defensible and clear, with more work being done to raising the quality of children’s learning all the time. We have prepared and taught some good training on What if Learning and Dialogic Talk – two aspects of our Theory of Learning that require regular encouragement lest they fail to embed as deeply as we would like. We have enjoyed another week celebrating Shakespeare’s work, and have been more aware of the work we are doing to prepare for a SIAMS inspection in the summer.

And it is the start of Lent, of course. Lent this year coincided precisely with St David’s Day, and we made a valiant attempt to link the two together in Collective Worship. The key was to focus on St David’s famous dictum Gwnewch y pethau bychain – do the little things well. As a school, we have, along with thousands of others, signed up to do the 40Acts of kindness and generosity during Lent: doing little things well is pretty much what it is all about.

We began by singing Calon Lan in both Welsh and English – 60 or so of the children had learnt the song as part of this year’s Young Voices material – and the English translation above is poetic enough to be sung well by children. The verse in English actually links beautifully to a Lenten theme of looking at the heart and motivation of our actions, and we used it as part of a prayer:

I’d not ask a life that’s easy,
Gold and pearls so little mean,
Rather seek a heart that’s joyful,
Heart that’s honest, heart that’s clean.

Help us, Lord, do the little things well, so our friends but also our enemies, our families but also strangers, our school and our home, are blessed with Your love and generosity.

Doing the 40Acts has been a good thing for us, because it has rooted a theological understanding with a practical outworking, and thus contributed to the best kind of theology.

Alongside that. since the start of term, we have been trying to help children learn about Jesus through his “I am” statements in John’s gospel. Again, these require a lot of explanation to make them real to children and I have been really impressed by the role of imagination in the chaplaincy team’s thinking in being able to make these things real. It causes me to think that imagination is therefore a key component of the theological process, rather than simple exegesis and systematic interpretation. Bringing these statements alive for children has been both important work and hard work, and some of what has worked has been the following:

  • A strong visual focus – both of display as we go through the statements, but also objects of interest at the front of the hall that raise children’s expectations and excitement about what is going to happen, and the use of film.
  • A strong involvement by children, as actors, contributors and active listeners, so they become co-creators of the learning that emerges from the collective worship
  • A good awareness of the scripture and its traditional interpretation so that “wacky” interpretations are less likely to be given airtime
  • A focus on story to interpret the scripture, so that children have a narrative understanding of something rather than a static one.
  • A sense of mystery and “set-apart-ness” that has helped children and adults refocus their mindset.
  • A variety of adult voices.

All of these could apply to all our collective worship at Christ the Sower, but it has been somehow richer and deeper this term because of the level of challenge to the adults preparing it!

Bringing the Vision Alive: Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good (2)

churchouse-frontIt has been nearly two weeks since I attended the Church of England’s Education Conference in Westminster with the above title. The first set of reflections are here. Whilst it was Anglican, and therefore had its fair share of frustrating moments, it has provided a good set of angles to hook thinking on. Some “second” reflections, two weeks on:

  • When the Anglican church talks about education, it means schooling. Parents and families were not mentioned during the day and are not mentioned in the Vision for Education, and they should be there, front and centre, as the people on whom the bible places the chief responsibility for the education of the young. Further, the church as an educating influence of young people was not mentioned, and perhaps that should have been included.
  • captureDefining the word Christian also requires some thought. To say that something is “deeply Christian” is very nice, if a bit self-congratulatory (oh, we are not like some, who are just shallowly Christian; our education goes really deep!). But what does it actually mean? During the day there was no explanation of this, probably because the Anglican communion is so broad and so varied in its interpretation of scripture that it cannot really define the thing. In my work I have tried to define terms formally, because we get into terrible trouble otherwise. It is worth the effort, because sometimes it yields some really powerful theological insights. Think of the problems we have created by saying that all children are “children of God” – a lack of clarity can mean that a generation of children can go through life thinking that they have to do nothing at all about their response to the gospel of salvation, because they are already God’s children. The title of the CofE’s otherwise excellent document on challenging homophobic bullying falls into just that trap.
  • The conference as a whole, and the vision document as a written representation of it, was remarkably light in the way that it interpreted and built upon scripture, on the role and activity of the Holy Spirit, on the role of discipleship and on the place of education in the overarching purposes of God. These are there, but often just as quote texts, rather than as a statement of a strong theological position. It is not as though the church is not blessed with great expositors and preachers at the moment, and I was disappointed to find the day not more rooted in our primary source of authority.
  • The word mission occurs just three times in the document, and yet those of us who are called on to use it and put it into practice in our schools see ourselves as being in the forefront of that more than anything. One of the references to mission is excellent, and bears all the signs of Prof David Ford’s authorship:

    In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ signs are all signs of abundant life, such as healing, feeding, and raising the dead. And the first, archetypal sign is gallons and gallons of water turned into wine at the wedding at Cana (John 2:11). It is a sign that does what is necessary to save the day, and far more than is necessary. It was a quiet, untrumpeted sign, done for the common good of the host and guests, to celebrate one of the most universal social realities, coming together in marriage; and it seems that most of those present were not even aware that Jesus was responsible for it. Yet some, his disciples did have eyes to see it, and believed. In the previous chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus had begun to gather a community of disciples, learners. His first words to his first disciples were the fundamental question for any learning community: ‘What are you looking for? What are you searching for? What do you desire?’ and his disciples’ first title for him is Rabbi, Teacher (John 1:38). And as Jesus later breathes his Spirit into his disciples, he says: ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you.’ (John 20:21). If we put together Jesus as teacher with Jesus giving signs of abundant life for the common good, and ourselves sent as he was sent, then ‘Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good’ makes deep sense as part of our mission. Schools are signs of fullness of life for all, as they educate children for wisdom, knowledge and skills, for hope and aspiration, for community and living well together, and for dignity and respect. Many will enjoy the wine and not recognize where it comes from; some will, with our help, trace it to who is responsible for it; but whether our inspiration for doing what we do is acknowledged or not, it is the right thing to do – as followers of the One who came to bring life in all its fullness, to do signs that give glory to God.

    One of the enduring frustrations of church school leadership is the extent to which clergy (and not just Anglican clergy, by the way) see their mission as that which the church does. This nearly always results from a seriously faulty reading of scripture and a poor understanding of the inaugurated kingdom. The impact on church school leaders is huge, because they are trying to find ways of impacting their schools for the kingdom of God often without any proper support from their churches. Talking about this with an old friend who is involved in mission in South East Asia earlier this week made me see that it is possible to support mission in the workplace as church leaders, but you need a certain shift in your theology of the Kingdom of God to incorporate it into the fullness of the mission of the church. More of this anon.

  • That teachers and headteachers need to do theology was clear from the first afternoon session that I attended at the conference, led by David Ford, entitled “The theologian and the headteacher”. David’s two guests were Chrissie Milwood, head at Holy Trinity School in Crawley, and Simon Atkinson, head of St Stephen’s Primary School in Paddington. Both, interestingly, are ordained.  Both talked about the need to be a hospitable community, hospitable to diversity, whilst keeping a firm view of their Christian roots. When David asked “Can we expect teachers and leaders to engage with theology?” Chrissie gave a resounding yes, because grappling with the nature of the divine, and enabling others to grasp and understand it, is something that Jesus came directly to address, and it is a concern for all children and adults. If we are created in the image of God, then for all staff it is a challenge to live that out in practical terms – and that means doing theology. We should see wisdom-seeking as theology, leading us to explore and think harder, so that wisdom becomes foundational to the way a school is organised. When David asked “what are the practical ways in which this theological vision can make a difference to children?” the answers were many and varied: underpinning financial decisions in order to allow children to flourish; child protection flowing from the dignity of the person; humility and creativity springing from the questioning of wisdom – and many more (which I did not note at the time). One question remained with me, and led to more thought then – and since: How do we take the values and virtues of this vision and make sure that everything we do in schools flows from them – how does it inform pedagogy?
  • The answer to that, partly, is in the role played by What If Learning, as developed by Trevor and Margaret Cooling and Trevor’s research and teaching team at NICER in Canterbury.  What if Learning assumed a much greater relevance to our work at Christ the Sower once I had attended the second afternoon seminar run by Trevor, Caroline Thomas, Anne Lumb and a young teacher called Kate Charlesworth who really convinced me of its effectiveness in schools. Some of what we will do at Christ the Sower next week is derived straight from the What if Learning Character Development Project funded by the DfE and the Jerusalem Trust. This is too important to deal with in the context of this reflection, and needs its own post.
  • The day finished with speakers from the morning sessions (Bill Lucas, David Ford, Ndidi Okezie) summing up the impact of the day: Bill warned us against a binary view of the work of education, and urged us to celebrate better the schools that have already done some of this work; David spoke of the need to love God with all our minds, and asked us to have an intelligent faith used in everyday education; Ndidi reminded us of a truth that is easily forgotten – that if we are not working together with others as a leader, you are simply not working.

Some final thoughts: if it is true that the better we know God, and the deeper we learn to love and trust Him, then the better we will know ourselves – if that is true, and surely the Bible points wholly in that direction – then why did I leave thinking that I did not know much more about God? Why was the relationship between us not explored? Why was prayer so stilted and forced? Why did we not talk about discipleship as servants and worshipers of the King? How come that God, in Jesus, was not exalted in worship among us?

All of these things troubled me. It was almost as if, in the rush to ensure we catch the train of relevance, we have left large parts of our luggage at home, or at best, in the taxi.

It was a great conference, and it did a great service. But we serve a great King, and we could easily have been forgiven for not noticing Him there at all.

The beauty of real learning

It is not often that I am reduced to tears by eleven Year 3 children, but this morning, in front of everybody in the school and some equally weepy parents, I was moved beyond mere admiration by the most beautiful collective worship I can remember any class presenting to us since I have been at Christ the Sower, and couldn’t stop the tears coming.

redclover2You need to know a little bit about these children. Last year, when they were in Year 2, they were a class of 31 children with 24 having moderate to severe special needs – not just learning needs but issues of anxiety, learning resilience (a huge issue for many of them) as well as the range of cognitive and behavioural issues that most schools have scattered across a year group or two, but here concentrated in a single class. After much consultation, prayer, thought and weeping, we decided to approach their parents with the idea of splitting the class into two – a group of 19 and a group of 12 – corresponding to the size of rooms that we had available. We bought in another half-time teacher as cover and went for it. The class is called Clover, and the two groups have been “Red Clover” and “White Clover”; it was Red Clover who made me cry this morning!

Like their teachers, who constantly talk about the assets and difficulties that these children bring with them, I know these children almost better than any others in the school, and I love them. I love being with them, and I love celebrating their successes and joys, and I admire deeply the two teachers, Christine and Tracey, who in rich imagination, care and a thoughtful, sacrificial and craftsman-like professionalism, have brought them to a position where they have learned resilience, trust and a joy in each other that was on full and riotous display this morning. Alison, Lavinia and Rachael, TAs who work with them regularly, have also enabled much of the learning to stick. They are building on the constant and committed work of teachers who had them as a full class in Year 1 and particularly, in Year 2.

The class brought us songs, a lovely dance, a poem by Carol Ann Duffy and some really gorgeous poems that they had written about their fears and how to get over them. They talked about being fearful of making mistakes and how they have now learnt that mistakes help them learn. “We also know that it is important to try new things and have a go even if we don’t think we are good at it yet! We might feel afraid, but we don’t need to because we are here to help each other.” This was followed by the children telling us what they had learnt in science about light.

They then got up, with specially painted word cards and gave us a jumbled version (which was then rearranged properly) of Jeremiah 1 v 8 (what they actually said, hilariously, was Jeremiah One Point Eight – which sounds like a prophecy computer program): Do not be afraid for I am with you. And a great action-version of Trust in the Lord with all your heart from Proverbs 3.

The children finished with a prayer and a blessing, which was one of the few times when I have “seen” the Holy Spirit inhabit the prayers and praises of young children:

In our class Collective Worship we thought about dark places in the world where people might be scared. Let’s pray for those people and places now:

Dear God, Let your light shine in dark places.

Shine in Syria.

Shine in places where people are hungry, like Africa.

Shine where children live in fear.

Shine out in places where people are sick and lonely.

Thank you that we can trust you to be with us whenever we are scared. Give us courage to face our fears.


And just as we were thinking – ah, they are going to thank us for coming, the whole class appeared in a line and pronounced blessing on us: May the Lord bless you, and keep you, and make His face shine upon you, and give you peace.

The perfect start to a day at school. Thank you to Tracey and Christine, and to Alison, Lavinia and Rachael, and to J, B, F, D, M, A, G, L-A, A, T and T, who made me cry!

Widows and orphans

This article in the Guardian about the secondary school at Easingwold makes for difficult reading. It underlines the fact that there is an increasingly hostile culture among some academy chains and smaller MATs in England where the moral purpose of supporting schools in difficult circumstances is being eroded where it threatens the overall standing of an executive principal or the financial status of an academy chain. It is not as though we could not see this happening from afar. As soon as we get away from the organisation charged with a “whole-community” responsibility, namely, local authorities, it stands to reason that those with money as a key focus (either implicitly or explicitly) will make decisions where the weakest are sidelined and abandoned, rather than helped.

As schools get “better” (judged by OFSTED’s ratings, anyway), we will get to a position where there are fewer and fewer weaker schools to support or take into MATs. Eventually the culture will emerge that MATs are just an organisational structure, with no overarching moral purpose. Already questions are being asked in MAT formation about taking on schools in tough circumstances: will this school be a drain on us, on our capacity, on our expertise? The RSCs should have the power to attach schools to MATs, surely?

I am at the Capita Schools Funding Conference today – these issues are at the forefront. How do we make savings in our budgets and wisdom in future investments in the current climate? Nearly all voices here acknowledge that the purpose of schooling is not to save money, and that we are simply called upon to be sensible, wise and imaginative spenders of the same.

The “orphan” schools like Easingwold desperately need parents. We need to stand next to each other and remember that we are called to provide the best education we can for all children. And that to give one another to grace to lean on us, and receive from us, is part of the same moral purpose.

Learning from Lucas

Seeing Bill Lucas on Saturday reminded me that I had done nothing very helpful with the learning gained from when he came and spoke to a group of Milton Keynes heads and deputies back in November last year. What follows are some pedagogical notes taken, handwritten actually, at the time and slightly tidied up. I didn’t get as far as typing… If you want them as a PDF, they are here, but otherwise, these photos may suffice. Bill’s original presentation is here.

Actually, it’s not true to say we have not used them effectively yet – they were a key component in our work on assessment and feedback in January.


Bringing the vision alive: Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good (1)

The Church of England, last summer, launched its vision for education, entitled Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good, and at the back end of August, I published two blogs on it. On Saturday, at the Bringing the Vision Alive conference at Westminster, they launched both the vision itself, and the Church of England Foundation for Educational Leadership. This foundation took a large part in the leadership of the conference.

photo0331The conference itself, attended by 300 people, was extremely well organised, well thought-through and well-resourced. I was slightly surprised to see it being held on a weekend, because two groups of people – headteachers and parish clergy (often chairs of governors of aided schools) – were automatically disadvantaged, and apart from those heads who were presenting in the sessions, I only met two others. There were plenty of diocesan staff, researchers and people working for and with the Foundation for Educational Leadership, and I know it was a launch, but I think that a regional roll-out of this vision is vital, especially as the content of the vision it is likely to define the direction of the next SIAMS framework.

However, I was delighted to be there, partly because I reconnected good working relationships with half a dozen people I have not seen for a while, but also because I found a ready and interested audience for the work we have been doing on spiritual development and the awareness of God working among us, at Christ the Sower. The book that I am writing for Grove publications now looks as though it will appear in 2017, and judging from people’s responses, will fill a gap in the market, as I hoped it would (no point writing, otherwise).

The conference began with a set of prayers and singing led by John Sentamu, archbishop of York, who then went on to talk about the church’s involvement and leadership of education as a key tool for making Jesus Christ visible in the world. People were desperate for a new kind of education, one that valued people, that privileged fruitfulness and creativity, that was continuous through people’s lives and which enabled them to live life to the full, rather than being “stuck in the processes that industrialised the earth.” People, in his experience, wanted educators to find the balance between academic rigour and blessing the hearts and minds of children, and we as church school leaders had a greater opportunity than anyone else to do that. Using Michelangelo’s famous quote about the task of the sculptor being to get the beauty of the sculpture out of the block of marble, he described the work of educators as to shape those given to us in beauty as well as in function.

The vision itself is rooted in the four areas of education for wisdom, for hope, for community and for dignity (WHCD). This WHCD model sets us apart as a church school community, and Sentamu illustrated this with a wonderful quote from William Temple: Maximum output is not a true end of human enterprise; the end is fullness of personality in community.

There was much more from him, and his whole speech is published here.

His address was followed by a short presentation from Alison Peacock, the newly appointed head of the Chartered College of Teaching. It was really good to see Alison there, and a testimony to the fact that the CofE is serious about engaging with the teaching profession not just through the leadership foundation but with classroom practitioners as well. Alison reminded us that vision is  a powerful thing, and that if we are going to work with children and benefit the common good, it will be impossible to do without it. She emphasised the importance of kindness in educational leadership, saying how undervalued it is, or can seem to be, in the way that the profession is spoken to, and in some of the models of leadership that are held up by those who ought to know better. What really struck me as a challenge is that just as we as teachers are charged with ensuring the progress and contentment and well-being of every child in our class, so we as school leaders are charged similarly for every adult in our schools. All of us, said Alison, should make progress through encouragement and learning together – talking to and with all, so that all can experience the gladness of heart that enables teachers and leaders to grow. Are all of our leaders and teachers experiencing success? Have we articulated that success to them? These are vital questions for any school. She then told us a little about the Chartered College of Teaching, its values and its purpose, and the reliance it has on partnerships and collaboration for its own success.

Following Alison’s talk, four people talked to the four streams of the vision – wisdom (Prof. David Ford), hope (Ndidi Okezie), community and living well together (Prof. Bill Lucas) and dignity (Bishop Libby Lane).

  • Educating for Wisdom, Knowledge and Skills: David Ford spoke on the importance of wise leadership being cultivated through mistakes. John 10:10 is clearly at the heart of Jesus teaching on the abundant life, but how he modelled that is interesting: he crossed divisions, he taught freely, he fed thousands without charge, and healed many from all backgrounds. The impact was on the whole of his 1st century Judaean society. The wine at the wedding at Cana (Jn 2) was not just a miracle, but is a sign for church schools that although Jesus has given us high-quality “wine”, there are only a few in the know who actually understand where the stuff comes from. We bring wine to our society, full and rich and satisfying, but it is the fruit of the relationships with God that our schools have. Part of that is forming leaders in wisdom, knowledge and skills, so that they can do the same for children. Wisdom, along with imagination and the development of character are key to answering the deep questions of life and death. What would, David asked us, be a key element of wisdom be for you?  He took the view that we needed, today, all the wisdom we could find, from all the traditions available to us that have learnt something of value: this makes us healthily plural. Can we, as Christian leaders, contribute something distinctively Christian in wisdom for the common good? Our contribution will be one of “multiple depths.” It is important too that we take faith seriously, a deep and imaginative view of the nature of faith. In a world where there is far too much foolish and dangerous faith, and ignorance of faith, we need a wiser faith and a wiser understanding of faith. The vision we have today is not a new one; rather it is one distilled from existing school practice. Finally, our wisdom must reflect that of Jesus, who grew in it, within a rich God-centred tradition of wisdom that shaped his life and thus has shaped ours. We require a wisdom of love and a love of wisdom, hungering for it, and seeking to “Get wisdom” Seek understanding! For it is better than jewels.”
  • Educating for Hope and Aspiration: Ndidi Okezie spoke about the fact that many people have lost hope in the British state education system and are looking to the selective or private model for their children’s schooling, believing erroneously that state education is no good. Many parents she knew were tempted to opt out, whereas there are countless people who know that the state system is rich, sincere, communal and full of great and rich diversity. This particular viewpoint was all news to me, because virtually everyone I speak to is engaged in the state system and respects it! Ndidi said that the “prevailing narrative is that success is only achieved by selective schooling” – thus speaks someone out of her own limited experience. What this led to was that unless we recapture a broader vision of education, we cannot have hope. Can we have hope, she asked, that all can aspire to a quality education, regardless of income? Are we committed to segregation on the grounds of economics? Whilst these questions were just strange, her answer was challenging and right: as leaders, we all have to “deliver” for all children, and proffer the hope that we can do that. She was clear that those working in the state system have uncompromising hope for their schools as quality communities for all. Whilst many opt out and move on, others relentlessly pursue, in hope, the needed changes in the state system. It this were easy, it would not require hope. Anyone working in education needs to have an unrelenting commitment to social justice, not just for our own children, but for our neighbours’ children too. We can’t stay content with the fact that “my child is OK” – we must want a good system for all. She concluded with a challenge to undermine the rhetoric that only a small minority can succeed and access high-quality education.
  • Educating for Community and Living Well Together: Bill Lucas referred back to his original mentor, Bob Moon, who said that “education needs to have a core focus on relationships and commitments.” From there he asked how we should frame education today – what is it for, actually? His view was that it was for the formation of character, and character in action, a plural collective noun, the answer to community and to living well. This had to encompass a broad education, such as those described in the trivium and quadrivium in medieval times. Rather than get into the endless binary debate about the state’s view of education and that which was more child-centred, we had to encompass a wide view of all that had worth to us.. Bill’s answer to that was to stress not subjects but capabilities: craftsmanship, curiosity, confidence, collaboration, communication, commitment and creativity. His line of work has been to examine the prevalence of these capabilities within a wide range of public spheres from the Church of England (the Fruits of the Spirit document, 2015), to the CBI (the work of Heckman and Kautz, 2013) to the IoE and Education Endowment Foundation (Gutman and Schoon, 2013), and people like Carol Dweck and Marty Seligman.  Bill concluded that despite those who see a narrowing of the curriculum as the best way forward, there was (for them) a worryingly large amount of agreement that these capabilities are good in themselves and good for the society where they are learnt and put into practice.
  • Educating for Dignity and Respect: Bishop Lane started with one of the most important questions of the day. “Do we engage with the problem we see before us, or with the child who is a reflection of His glory?” If the answer is yes, then the next question becomes “Do we therefore provide consistency, opportunity, honour and delight in their achievements, and see them as treasured contributions to our school?” The text sitting just underneath these questions is: If we educate our children for dignity, we provide for a fuller life that will flow out to others to live lives more fully. If on the other hand we are diminished, dismissed or disregarded by institutions, then we are unlikely to be able to access fullness of life – nor to offer it. In this, said Bishop Lane, one-to-one relationships are the key, because all relationships were an opportunity to bestow or demonstrate dignity. This goes from the child-child interactions we foster and shape in class, up to the governance of our schools and institutions. The heart of this is that in Christ, we belong to each other, creating a community where value is given to the poor, the simple, the weak and the marginalized.

This gets us to lunchtime, and in the interest of brevity, I will publish this post before going any further!