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…

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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!

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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!

References:

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). 

On craftsmanship, again

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A search through my blogs for the word craftsmanship has generated 20 posts in which it is mentioned, so I imagine there won’t be much more to say here that I have not said already. It is just such an important feature of our work, though, that talking about it again keeps it fresh in my mind. The government have just published the Standards for Teacher Professional Development, a well-thought out and mercifully short document that will help schools focus on the technical aspects of how to develop their teaching workforce effectively. In the middle of it all, though not mentioned by name, is the craft of teaching. There is nothing startlingly new in the document, but it has the curious effect of making you want to put it into practice, possibly because it all seems so do-able. Having attended a conference on the subject a month before its publication, I sort of knew what was coming, but still, I am pleased to read it, to affirm its intentions and am looking forward to seeing it put to use through performance appraisal and our own CPD program this year.

Changing tack, but not by much, this quilted blanket, the possession of my eldest daughter, was made for her by her best friend from New Zealand, who grew up in southern Germany. The number of school leavers in the UK who could design and make something so wonderful is, I am certain, not large, and yet my daughter’s friends said that all of her classmates made these when she was still at school. It made me think on the link between ourselves as creators – teachers I am talking about – and the way we impact on children’s creativity and craftsmanship. The link between intentionality and craftsmanship is well established and I have commented on it at length here and here. I am more interested here to think about the link between ourselves as creative people with a deliberately purposeful and intentional approach to crafting good things for our children, and the craftmanship they learn from us.

Modelling work for children is clearly important. I know several talented artists who happen to be teachers, but few of them think about demonstrating their talents to the children, to inspire and to motivate them. I know some people who write well, but who are reticent about bringing that writing to children. Ditto sportsmen and women, and musicians. Modelling how to listen to music, how to learn to “read” a painting or a sculpture – I don’t see as much of this as I expect to.

2014+14oakeshott2(1)If my much-loved quote from Michael Oakeshott is correct, and we must “make available to our children their inheritance” then some of that is in the skills and crafts that we ourselves have learnt. The idea of teaching children to do something you have not yet mastered is crazy. Surely, as teachers, we learn to do those things effectively and then teach them to children. Next term I want to lead my art club in printmaking, because I think it has an immediacy that I love and I think children will love it too. So, I have to learn to make prints myself, otherwise I may as well be a Youtube video – deeply uninteresting to a child on a wet Tuesday afternoon. I am not going to be the world’s greatest printmaker, but if I know three techniques well, and can demonstrate them with confidence, I can help and evaluate their work when the children try it out. So far, this week, I have learnt one – lino-cut, and am practising it every day for a little while. If I am not a competent writer, then I practise until I am one. I do no child a favour by demonstrating handwriting that is below the standard expected in Year 6. What we value, what we treasure, we pay craftsmanlike attention to. I was a hopeless PE teacher when I began teaching, and despite the 28 hours of PE in my PGCE course, really did not know what I was doing. So I spent hours planning and practising, learning to do jumps and sit-ups and press-ups until I could demonstrate a reasonable approximation of these to children.

The Standards do not really talk about this except obliquely. However, the first standard is: Professional development should have a focus on improving and evaluating pupil outcomes. In the back of somebody’s mind, pupil outcomes are often those measurably assessed in the core subjects, because this is what matters to government. However, a focus on improving art outcomes for children must surely mean that the teachers themselves become better artists. This is a professional matter, of course, but the standards are really amateur, driven by love of the children and love of the material taught, and by the delight of learning.

Now of course I really am beginning to repeat myself, so shall stop.

Too good to ignore

One of the two pages of jobs I seem to have accumulated over the summer holidays has been to take down the displays of children’s art that has colonised various display boards and walls at school since Christmas, and then find a way that all this (mostly unnamed!) material gets back to its owners, thence to find its way to bedroom walls or oblivion or somewhere in between. This seems a great shame, and so I have photographed the best of the work that I have encountered over the last two days of dismantling. My art club, which has now run for over 5 years on a weekly basis, is a constant challenge to me, because I want to explore new techniques and improve old ones, not just for the children but for myself as well. So here I present the work that has appealed most directly to my taste or which is most technically competent or which seem to me to express the child’s inner sense of self. Be patient, there is a lot of material here, and it includes (in no particular order) mosaics and collages (from Autumn 2015), contour drawings, pastels and acrylics (Spring 2016) and watercolour studies and landscapes (Summer 2016). There has been a huge amount of other art produced across the school – from seascapes in Year 1 to sgraffito in Year 3 to some beautiful drawings in Year 6, and lots in between, and in particular the wonderful photography exhibition organised by Sue Mitchell in May. Our art club serves hopefully as a motivator of new technique, quality and display that all children can learn from, whilst holding clearly to the principle of the club, that children learn technique in order to strengthen their choices and imagination as artists.

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An ending of joy

I have been a bit absent from this blog for a fortnight or so. Not that there hasn’t been tons going on – it has been the tons going on that has kept me from writing. And over the holidays there will be a chance to reflect and write more. In the meantime, we have said goodbye to a gorgeous and hugely loved cohort of Year 6 children, many of them here for the full eight years! This morning’s presentation was moving and deep – hearing Y6 sing to us “Everything’s changed for the better/nothing’s the same, we’re together/New schools, hope you won’t forget us” and then the school singing to them in return “May the road rise up to meet you/…May God hold you in palm of His hand” was too much for those stoics in Y6, and lots just sat there sobbing. Just writing about it now, and missing them like crazy, is enough to get me going.

Anyway, I am filled with gratitude for having known and taught them – they have truly given me FAR more than I have ever given them, and it is a delight in all sorts of inexpressible ways to have been their headteacher for the last 5 years.

For the record, and because some parents asked me to, here are my valedictory remarks from this morning:

Today is a time for sorrow and for celebration, and both of these emotions have more power when they come together. Sadness and joy come together in an ancient and somehow inspiring Jewish song that says “Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.” This morning, we have truly seen the harvest of of what each teacher, in tears, frustration and intent, has sown and planted into these lives.

But what sorrow and celebration add up to, where their power lies when they come together, is in resolve and in determination, and in the promise we make to ourselves that we will change, we will improve, we will intentionally alter what we do and how we are. And this is the story of your children as they have grown and built lives with you and with us – the Bible calls this repentance, an unfashionable word, but one that just means changing direction. Many of your children have already made that choice, to determine the direction of their lives. Others will make those decisions over the next few months: for others, it will be a while.

We have all learnt how to live from somebody else: therefore we are all disciples, and all of us have engaged in a form of either conscious or unconscious discipleship. As adults we are the product of our decisions and our intentions and choices – the same for your children.

So, the Bible’s take on this is really simple and straightforward, and goes like this:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

When you get your Bibles, go to the book of Romans, chapter 12, and verse 2 and you will find it.

The world – and here the writer means the culture we live in, its attitudes and its purposes, are not necessarily good for children. Advertisers, gaming merchants, TV program makers, the press and the online media all are trying to create a world of values and virtues that will convince young people to buy their products, watch their programs, play their games. We as a school, and I as a leader in that school, in what we have taught and in what we value, have tried hard to disciple your children in a different direction to this, to be deliberately counter-cultural, to be thinkers for themselves, not accepters of garbage, to recognise rubbish when they see it, and to build their lives on a different and more solid foundation. Some of you have cooperated fully with us in that intention; others have chosen not to. All your children have learnt to live from somebody else!

So this scripture really shows us a way forward. Be transformed, change, live differently, through having your mind renewed, by changing perspective, by not following the crowd, by nurturing the relationships of family and community, of temple, or church or mosque, that are constantly under threat from a materialistic view of life and education, by learning what true self-respect is, and walking as though that mattered, in learning that relationships are more important than stuff, and wisdom is more important than knowledge.

But the world is also a beautiful place, a good creation of a great and kind God who made all of the children and adults in this hall in His own image, so we could show one another what he is like. The world gives us an opportunity to learn. The American humorist Garrison Keillor, writing about this scripture from Romans, said:

Our lovely world has the power to make us brave.

This is from a book called Life among the Lutherans, and it’s a reminder that next year is a great European anniversary – not just 50 years of Milton Keynes – which we must celebrate vigorously by the way! – but 500 years since the Protestant Reformation began in Germany with Martin Luther. So before we present the bibles and dictionaries to the children, can I finish with a poem from one of the greatest Lutheran pastors of the 20th century, martyred by the Nazis in Flossenburg Concentration Camp in 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“Choose and do what is right, not what fancy takes,

Not weighing the possibilities, but bravely grasping the real,

Not in the flight of ideas, but only in action is there freedom.

Come away from your anxious hesitations into the storm of events,

Carried by God’s command and your faith alone.

Then freedom will embrace your spirit with rejoicing.”

(Widerstand und Ergebung, DBW, Bd 8, S.571)

Thank you.

 

 

Today’s the day

Today is the day when the KS2 SAT results go online, providing all the markers are up to the job and have met all their deadlines. The numbers are going to be disastrous at first sight and there are thousands of children who will end up with an acronym that means “has not met the required standard”. The words we are encouraged to use for the writing results, using the infamous Interim Framework, is “working toward the expected standard.” All sorts of chickens will come home to roost once we see the numbers and Nicky Morgan, for one, has tried to sidestep the situation by claiming that the government is just a neutral arbiter in all this, rather than the ideological force that led us to a pass/fail test in the name of alleged higher standards. Many children will receive the acronym that stands for “has met the required standard” which is hardly a ringing endorsement of their amazing abilities. Some children may even be credited as “working at more depth” which actually means nothing of the sort. Depth is not something for which the current administration is famous, and they would probably not recognise it when they saw it.

So where does that leave us? With quite a lot of meaningless data – meaningless in part because the tests will necessarily come to us as raw scores which then must be converted to a pass/fail system by the arbitrary choice of cut off point amongst the raw scores so that, in effect, the government can get the numbers it wants (reputedly about 65-67% pass). This is foolish because for a child to meet the expected standard in writing, every single criterion in the Interim Framework must be met (if they miss one, they do not get the “working at expected standard” grade). In the test, on the other hand, it is statistically impossible to check this – marks might be scattered all over the place  – and therefore in choosing a cut off point, it will necessarily be the case that some children “meet the expected standard” whilst not having been able to do all the things in, for instance, the maths Interim Framework.

The chickens on the horizon are therefore:

  • pressure on secondary schools over the retesting of those children who don’t meet the expected standard.
  • the confusion amongst parents for whom this (as it is for the rest of us) a confusing, unfair way of testing.
  • disillusionment among teachers because all their work will be seen as “nought” – we are more discerning than this, actually, but the government don’t think we are.
  • worry for a whole summer amongst 1/3 of all English 11 year olds who have just been told that they are simply not good enough.

Take a bow, Nick Gibb, and have a little think about how you could plan this better next year, perhaps hurting fewer people en route.

Sacrificing your friends for your convictions: an idea whose time has come?

The Times, this morning, reports:

Mr Gove, the justice secretary, was unapologetic as he faced accusations of committing an “enormous political treachery”, saying that he was prepared to sacrifice his friends for his convictions.

I am not a natural fan of Michael Gove, nor have I learnt to respect him yet (according to the BBC, he is respected by both wings of the Conservative Party, which is nice for him). I have however noticed that he was more than happy to sacrifice other things – teachers, parents, schools and children, for a start – for his convictions, so why not his friends too?

I hope that in a few days, or weeks, or months, he will reflect back on that position and think about it. It is hard in the hype to know exactly what the reasons were for Gove yesterday so spectacularly undermining his erstwhile pal from the Leave campaign, but something to do with his convictions is in there somewhere.

This does not win public trust – all of this knifing (you think of Gaitskell and Wilson and the Labour Party of the 1950s and 1960s) used to be done in private, now it is done in leaked e-mails and the like – and it undermines the trust that politicians deserve but find so hard to retain. The issue in leadership, it seems to me, is that you win (whatever winning means) on the basis on the quality of the relationships you build, and on the quality of the trust you create. You also do it by not holding so clearly to your convictions that you cannot modify them, through debate, robust defence and disagreement. The fact that this is widely understood, and yet Gove (and others?) appear to think that they can treat this as a game, a replay of the EU referendum (also treated as a game by some) or a bit of boys’ club oneupmanship, highlights the disrespect they have for the people they lead. Contrast Gove’s approach with Theresa May’s speech yesterday, steeped in a public service ethic, and you can see why one will win wide respect, whilst the other has gone a long way to losing the bit he had.

Where the ideology is headed

abandoned-detroit-schoolI am often grateful for the strength of UK public services, however embattled and derided they are by the policy makers of the right. But in a country where there are not the necessary checks and balances on the storming of public services by private enterprise, then the result is truly appalling.

Welcome to Detroit. I have written about this city before, but a report in the New York Times today just shows what the end-game is for those educators when the tigers of the charter school movement get unleashed into a city possibly too poor and too poorly to defend itself; what happens when new educational “projects” and “initiatives” come with every tide, and with every new charter sponsor. Read the article, then read Diane Ravich’s commentary on it:

Detroit schools have long been in decline academically and financially. But over the past five years, divisive politics and educational ideology and a scramble for money have combined to produced a public education fiasco that is perhaps unparalleled in the United States.

While the idea was to foster academic competition, the unchecked growth of charters has created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students, enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles. Leaders of charter and traditional schools alike say they are being cannibalized, fighting so hard over students and the limited public dollars that follow them that no one thrives.

Detroit now has more students in charters than any American city except New Orleans, which turned almost all its schools into charters after Hurricane Katrina. But half the charters perform only as well, or worse, than Detroit’s traditional public schools.

“The point was to raise all schools,” said Scott Romney, a lawyer and board member of New Detroit, a civic group formed after the 1967 race riots here. “Instead, we’ve had a total and complete collapse of education in this city.”

Why is this important? It is important because in a country that values money and wealth over every other single public good, the opening up of the public service to private competition can only, philosophically, go one way: to a diversified, money-led system where nobody has enough money to run a school. We are not there yet in the UK, and there is a powerful lobby across the academy system for a whole-education-for-every-child movement. The game is not lost, and in fact, in turning the entire school system into an academy, the UK government may both have shot itself royally in the foot, and made it somehow easier for the plutocrats and money-addicts to be identified, isolated and ignored.

The ideology is certainly headed towards a charter-school type system. At present, the government has not had the guts to “go private” in the way that some of its critics say it already has. For that we can thank the strength of elected local government in England, the strength of the unions, the good sense – and role in the education debate – that parents have, and the fact that market forces, no matter what we think of them as drivers, are not quite such tyrants as they appear to be in the US.