At BERA’s Special Interest Group on Alternative Education held on Friday at the OU’s Camden site, English schooling got a right kicking from academics, home-schoolers, alt-ed researchers and those on the left of the free school movement.
I had gone to the meeting because it was cheap, for a start (well done, BERA!); secondly, I went to do some networking, because that is the world I seem to be in at the moment; thirdly, I went because I wanted to see what people were up to (and what worked) when school as a concept was dismissed as basically ineffective, poor value for money and a restriction on children’s learning (good arguments can be advanced for all of these positions, whether or not they are immediately practical or not). Assessment was given the treatment it justly deserves by Peter Twining from the OU (why should assessment and national tests govern what we teach and thus narrow the curriculum?) and opportunities provided for very engaged, but quite middle-class, home-schoolers to demonstrate some of their networking and philosophical approaches. The self-managed learning group from Brighton got more of a say than perhaps they deserved, but that was more of a chairing issue than anything else (if you can’t say what you want to say in an hour, then…)
In the midst of it all, forming the period before lunch, was an opportunity to hear a series of five short presentations about different aspects of the alt-ed world, and it was here where the impact was really felt. The session began with Darren Webb (Univ Sheffield) talking about pedagogies of hope, and this was followed by Nikki O’Rourke talking about their “Institute of Imagination” – a multi-generational space that constituted a “museum” in Vauxhall. It was interesting because it took family as a guiding principle for the heart of what they wanted to do. Anything that got in the way of that, or imposed any kind of homogeneity was rejected or challenged. Also speaking in these small slots was an impassioned Luke Freedman from Phoenix Education, who had started out trying to be a primary teacher in Scotland and ended up working alongside people with a much wider view of what education should be. This was followed by Sophie Christophy, also from the Phoenix Education Trust, talking about an initiative in consent-based education called the Cabin. Peter Humphreys from the Centre for Personalised Education finished the session, but by that time, the boundaries of our thinking had been pushed quite wide and his input did not have any impact on me.
There were some genuinely really imaginative and committed people trying to find ways of educating outside the mainstream perception of what school looks like, and I enjoyed the challenge.
I came away with the feeling that just one presentation – that by Darren Webb at Sheffield – had really raised the important questions. Peter Twining’s input did cover a lot of the necessary ground as to why the current approach to teaching and learning is failing children, but somewhere in the middle of it the sharpness of the main questions was erased. And being a professor of education futures, there was not a respectful view of the past. In fact, trying to find a respectful view of the past at all during the day was hard. People talked about learning as though families and children had no historical hinterland. People talked about “spaces” without any appreciation for the role of place in our lives (Peter Kraftl’s presentation later did mention this to some degree, but I had left by then). The understanding of community as a place of learning was not included in these spaces, as far as I could see. Everything was detached from what had gone before.
The one exception, and the presentation that got me thinking – because it asked the right questions – was Darren Webb’s. His short talk was entitled Pedagogies of Hope. The title harked back to Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and it was the only presentation that began to point to issues of social injustice in our education system. Most of the rest of what we saw was at times, very middle class (a point that Peter Kraftl’s presentation made forthrightly, and which Ian Cunningham’s self-managed learning presentation made by default).
The central philosophical question Darren approached was how to define hope in the current climate. His view of hope was that if it had any traction at all, it had to be transformative. He therefore approached it like this:
Transformative hope is characterised by:
- a profound confidence in the capacity of human beings to construct (both imaginatively and materially) new ways of organising life, and
- a commitment to purposive action through which humans become the agents of their own destiny and wilfully strive to create a new and better world.
This led to the key question of the day:
How and in what ways can the school, the university, the classroom, the seminar room, become sites of transformative hope and utopian possibility?
This cut right through the “middle-class-ness” of some of the other presentations, and through the theoretical mire (my notes had a ruder word!) of those who dismissed mainstream schooling as passé or irrelevant. Quoting bell hooks’ description of a classroom as “a place where paradise can be created,” Darren asked (and this was the second best question of the day):
What places and spaces of possibility can still be found within educational institutions and how can teachers and and lecturers best position themselves within these spaces in order to nurture and cultivate transformative hope among their students?
You can see where this might be going, and duly we went there. Utopia is the opposite of dystopia, and dystopia describes the kind of fictional world in which many young adults now choose to immerse themselves in, a “cultural milieu in which many young adults now live” – a world without rules or order, without constraints, where alternative means of social organisation have to be formed, often by young people themselves, to make sense of their world. Because of this, the link between dystopia and education is in need of close examination if we are going to restore what Darren called the beauty of possibility to our schools.
My own reflections on this were sad ones, actually. Partly because the need for such utopian thinking by all those present was obviously needed in a world constrained by narrow assessment-driven agendas, and by the failure of the intellectual and political classes to proffer any kind of hope at all; but more because there are a body of schools, 25% or so of the national total, whose hope is rooted in the certainty of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we do hardly anything about it. We don’t make it count, and our view of what that hope could be is constantly submitted to the overarching standardisation flowing from the DfE and OFSTED.
(OFSTED, by the way, did not get a look in all day at this conference. It was – literally – as though they did not exist. Only Ian Cunningham mentioned them once, and it was so refreshing to hear educators and academics do their work and live their lives outside of the inspector’s remit.)
I came away thinking: where were church schools in all this? Why are we not at the forefront of utopian thinking? Why are we not pushing the boundaries of what true freedom could mean and challenging some of the alternative educational models on display today?
In my notes I wrote that “a church school imagination should be able to root such a great hope not in a utopian structure, but fully in the liberty of the gospel and the transformative hope of the kingdom of God.”
Some may answer: well, look at the CofE vision for education – that has a whole section on hope. The Diocese of Ely summary of that section of the vision goes like this:
Educating for Hope and Aspiration: Educating for “Hope” is about how we approach the future and, in Christian teaching, is bound up with hope in God’s future for the world. Every pupil should be encouraged to stretch themselves spiritually, morally, intellectually, imaginatively and actively as well as being well-educated. Hope also helps us cope wisely with things and people going wrong. It shows us that bad experiences, bad behaviour and wrongdoing need not have the last word, there is always room for healing situations, forgiveness and reconciliation.
The section from the full vision text includes these words:
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. Church schools and others with which the Church of England is involved, provide the opportunity to set out this vision of what it means to live life in all its fullness. We want pupils to leave school with a rich experience and understanding of Christianity, and we are committed to offering them an encounter with Jesus Christ and with Christian faith and practice in a way which enhances their lives.
Aaagh! It is all so terribly Anglican! This would not envision a frog! I longed to let some church school leaders see the energy that was on display on Friday’s meeting and start to harness the reality of God’s affectionate hope for the weak and marginalised and start kicking ass a bit.
Steve Chalke, writing in the foreword to Joshua Searle’s Theology after Christendom, writes about a phone call he had with a journalist who had been to HTB (I presume), who had described the contrast between the high level of prophetic input he had heard at the service and the need he saw on the streets of London on the way back home. This is the last part of the conversation:
So, the question is this. Why is it that your God can’t stop seem to stop talking in private, yet has lost his voice in public? Why has he gone silent on the streets? Why has he so much to say behind shut doors to his chosen flock, but so little to bring to the complexity of civil society’s conversation about community? When did your God lose his confidence?
Ouch. That is the nub of it. If transformative hope, according to Darren Webb, is a “profound confidence in the capacity of human beings to construct (both imaginatively and materially) new ways of organising life, and a commitment to purposive action through which humans become the agents of their own destiny and wilfully strive to create a new and better world,” what is it that church schools are offering that is better than that? Are church schools and their school and diocesan leaders showing any interest in a pedagogy of hope, and are they making any effort to root it in the hope at the heart of the Christian faith?
I know that many are. They must be. But I didn’t see any evidence of them or their thinking amongst the brave souls sharing their near-heroic efforts on Friday.