A question to trouble us

I am reading a book that I would, had I the money, give to every pastor (or vicar – perhaps especially vicars) of every church that I had ever met. It is Michael Goheen’s The Church and its Vocation: Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2018). As a summary of Lesslie Newbigin’s thinking it is unparalleled, and reinforces (and predates, in many ways) the work that Tom Wright has been urging Christians towards for the last 30 years. I am absorbed currently in the section on Newbigin’s understanding of the missionary encounter with culture – particularly Western culture. This speaks right into the heart of how we as Christians have become so modernist and positivist in our approach that we cannot see the degree to which we have been subverted and co-opted into western culture. Newbigin has addressed this in both of the books he has written that I have read this last year – Proper Confidence (on the nature of knowledge) and The Open Secret (an introduction to missiology), but it is most fully addressed in one that is still on my reading list: The Gospel in a Pluralist Society

However, Goheen provides a wide ranging discussion of each aspect of Newbigin’s thinking on the church and I am grateful to Jon Kuhrt for bringing the book to my notice. There is much more to get from it than I can possibly do justice to in this blog, but I came across a question that brought me up short, and which speaks to the heart of what I am thinking about in my doctoral work:

How can Christians fall in line with the idolatrous purpose of public education?

This absolutely essential question (found on p.147 if you are blessed enough to have a copy of the book to hand) is fundamental to the work of church schools, or at least it is to those of them that conceive of themselves as Christian. It certainly takes a well-honed axe to the wishy-washy concept of Christian distinctiveness, and forces them to think about exactly how they have positioned themselves philosophically with regard to the stated national economic purpose of education that has become the orthodoxy since the Education Reform Act of 1988.

That God in Christ longs for a different purpose in educating than do the neoliberal principalities that have controlled education in Britain through successive governments since the ERA, is plain to even the most basic reading of scripture. Those working in the (largely private) Christian schools of North America and Australia, whether tertiary or K-12, have written volumes on this subject – yet even in their more rarified Christian atmosphere, they have often struggled to find a form of educating that does justice to both reason and faith. They have tried, though, and valiantly. I am not convinced, to be blunt, that we have tried so hard in our English state-run “church school” culture, where class distinctions and “we know what is best for the children” cultures run amok. At present, it seems too revolutionary, and leaders’ eyes are focused elsewhere, on budgets and defending their schools from the inspectorate.

For now, I leave the question niggling to those who feel that it applies to them. Here it is again, in a little more context:

In a paper on education, he (Newbigin) grapples with the question of how Christians can be involved in the public school system when there are two different understandings of education based on two different visions of the purpose of human life. The secular state mandates that education fall in line with their purpose of national interest based on their public doctrine. Yet their “secular” involvement in the school system will bring a tension with their “apostolic” calling to be faithful to the gospel. How can Christians fall in line with the idolatrous purpose of public education? Faithfulness in the midst of this painful tension may bring suffering…

Quoting Newbigin on this (from a book called Trinitarian Doctrine for Today’s Mission, 1963, Paternoster), Goheen continues:

The idea that we ought to be able to expect some kind of neutral secular political order, which presupposes no religious or ideological beliefs, and which holds the ring impartially for a plurality of religions to compete with one another, has no adequate foundation. The New Testament makes it plain that Christ’s followers must expect suffering as a the normal badge of their discipleship and also as one of the characteristic forms of their witness.

Unlike many in the Church of England school system, Newbigin was convinced of the “incompatibility of the gospel with the dominant doctrine shaping culture and public institutions” (Goheen, p. 148).

I too am convinced of that. I am currently writing a paper which demonstrates precisely the need for school leaders in Church of England schools to model a form of leadership and build school communities that will deliberately undermine the “dominant doctrine” and in so doing provide an attractiveness and beauty that will draw families to them. Like iron and other metals within quartz distorting the silica lattice so that white light is absorbed and refracted into emitting the beautiful purple of amethyst, so church schools with a deliberately Christian practice will distort the dominant doctrine (even whilst being pressured by it) and release a witness of beauty rarely seen in English education. This is already starting in some places, and I look forward to more missional church schooling of this sort.

Power, leadership and FE: a reflection (2)

Following the previous post on this topic, I have been asked to get on with writing up part two. So here we go.

The second part of the BERA Special Interest Group (SIG) in Educational Leadership meeting at the OU last Tuesday revolved around a more “activist” than “leadership” axis. As this was after lunch, it was just as well. The day was entitled Educational Leadership, Power and Activism (in FE): a reconciliation. Anybody who attempts to reconcile anything large within a day is just asking for trouble, but it was noticeable how far we got, principally because of Azumah Dennis’ framing of the questions in the morning session, but also because in FE, activism as a form of student and teacher voice and as deliberately created opportunities to think hard and act on what you have thought – seems a lot more alive in FE than it does in schools – or perhaps even in HE. Over the course of the day it appeared that the “holy grail” that we were straining for was an integrated mechanism within institutions that would repeatedly, generation after generation, challenge leadership, self-renew, constantly be open to the voices of the marginalised and the poor, and challenge itself not to become institutionalized. Whether this is achievable depends on the willingness of leaders in subsequent generations to being open enough, humble enough and aware enough of their blind-spots to allow such activism.

The speakers in the afternoon were Kay Sidebottom and Lou Mycroft who were trying to explore the future of the research/activism agenda (it was more fun than that actually sounds), and Rob Smith and Vicky Duckworth, speaking about college leadership and social justice.

Kay and Lou led us through what was less a talk than an experience. Thinking about the nature of power, particularly in the light of the work of Rosi Braidotti at Utrecht (where even the nature of humanity is problematized, in order to allow us to address the complexity of our modern life – avoiding easy polarisations, embracing differences and avoiding linearity in our thinking), they hoped to find an “ethical navigation” as cartographers through issues of power that recognised our own complicity in the situation we live in. Braidotti’s debt to Spinoza and her coinage of the term “posthuman” were much in evidence. Kay and Lou quoted Braidotti & Hlavajova’s (2016) question: How do we come to terms with breathtaking transformations of our time while being able to endure and to resist?

Because of this new (to most) conceptual framework, much of the language used in the talk needed redefining against standard usage – this was slightly confusing, as the posthuman framework was adopted without criticism, whilst the talk remained firmly in a more orthodox social science frame and its associated language. Some key messages from the talk were very helpful to showing how activism might be sustained:

  • David Cormier’s idea of the community as the curriculum, and the concept of rhizomatic education, where new ideas formed on the margins of the old, akin to rhizomes popping up in unexpected places. This is subversive and activist simply by the deprofessionalisation of knowledge that takes place as a consequence, and the resultant re-establishment of agency. As Lou put it: “rhizomatic constellations can be genuinely revolutionary because they grow agency in places where agency has forgotten to grow.” In seeking to establish the “thinking environment” as a pedagogy in itself, Lou and Kay directed us to the ETF-sponsored study “Creating Spaces to Think” which has more ideas and explains the conceptual framework more fully.
  • Potestas v. Potentia: these alternate ways of seeing and describing power differentiate the “power as usual,” hierarchical, bureaucratic, institutional (often male) form of power (POTESTAS) with the Spinozan concept of power as hope, power as affirmation, power as transformative (POTENTIA). Lou asked us to think about a group of people in a situation we were working in, and then assign each person a value between  1 and 4 for their “potestas” – usually where they were in the hierarchy – and also a value between 1 and 4 for “potentia” – the unreleased, influencing, hopeful power that these people brought to the group. Plotting these on a Cartesian graph and dividing up the space into four quadrants gave this:Picture8
  •  Following this exercise, which we all found absorbing and enlightening, Kay and Lou returned to the idea of cartography, making the map of our lives, our learning environment, the teams and people we work with and the way in which we interact, through:
    • establishing the politics of location
    • mapping our own background
    • bringing in identity markers
    • recognizing theoretical orientations
    • using scholarly as well as practical interests
    • connecting personal knowledge and histories to active experiences
  • Finally, referencing her own TedTalk on the subject, Lou encouraged us to think harder about the ethics of joy, which sustains rather than betraying activism (Rebecca Solnit’s full quote from Hope in the Dark is here). The talk finished with a brief reference to Jasmine Ulmer’s paper on writing slow ontology, in which reality emerges as we write. She writes: “If materiality and merit became as important as metrics, Slow Writing might lead not only to more joyful, productive writings, but also to scholarship that is more responsive to the landscapes and cityscapes in which we live.” (Qualitative Inquiry, 2017, Vol 23 (3): 201-211) – which brings us back to the importance of the learning environment.

Rob and Vicky’s talk, entitled “College Leadership and Social Justice” tried to locate what leadership might mean within the context of the challenges facing FE: cuts in funding and provision, “classing” of FE – a determinant of whihc backgrounds were likely to end up in FE rather than HE, instrumentalisation of training simply for “jobs,” social justice being a contested concept from the government perspective, the rise of agnotology (purposeful production of information to create ignorance through metrics and big data), marketisation as the enemy of social justice as it creates division and competition, history – and the transmission of values, etc.

What does leadership mean in this context? Rob suggested that it had to remain committed to social justice, as seen in the redistribution of public goods (whether material, intellectual or democratic) and in a deliberately relational dimension so that community is sustained. Leadership also had to be deliberately transformative (of itself and of leadership in FE generally) and also transformational (of the settings, colleges and working life of each institution).

This talk was illustrated with the colleges used as part of the research project, where the commitment to “social justice was locally and historically defined” – relating to a college’s history, the geographic and communal position it was created in, the extent to which it had passed on and enriched its founding values (and found those reflected in the life stories of teachers, governors and leaders), and how it had embedded them into its administrative processes and curriculum.

A great day all told. I felt like a fish out of water, in some respects, being from a different sector completely, but already I have incorporated some of the insights into my writing, whilst the vistas opened up by Lou and Kay in particular have made me begin to think differently about the purpose of learning in schools.

Scales of untruth

–  “So you lied to me just then?”

–  “I’m a politician, Ainsley. Of course I lied to you just then”

This little snippet from the West Wing, between recently appointed lawyer Ainsley Hayes and White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, is meant to remind us of the “normal” of politics. It is humorous and is just part of the majestic writing of Aaron Sorkin.

But we currently have a prime minister – a chief servant of the nation – who lies so habitually, with such appalling disregard for any consequence of what he says, that, as Peter Oborne says,

Many…believe that it is in the nature of politicians to dissimulate and lie. They say that it is as futile to complain about this as to complain that wasps sting. My answer is simple. Yes, it is true that politicians lie and cheat regularly. Yes, the culture of political lying and cheating has grown deeper and more pervasive. But that is no reason to let politicians get away with it. Least of all Boris Johnson, who is uniquely deceitful among British prime ministers. I make this statement with authority having been a political correspondent for approaching 30 years. In a short time, Mr Johnson and his ministers have set new standards. They tell untruths at a faster rate than the governments of Theresa May, David Cameron and Gordon Brown. Even more than the Tony Blair government. And I was so appalled by the dishonesty of Mr Blair’s administration that I wrote a treatise, The Rise of Political Lying, on the subject.

So, whilst I shy away generally from directing people to political choices, it would be irresponsible to vote for any party at all before reading the catalogue of calumny that has been compiled by Peter Oborne and colleagues at the website Boris Johnson Lies. Read it, read the explanations, check the facts with those sites linked to, and only then vote.

If we have not got truth, we have nothing in our political culture at all. There are times when politicians have to hide truth for the national good – in matters of security this happens all the time, and because we have a generally inquisitive journalistic culture (well, nosey, anyway), then politicians have to invent cover stories for all sorts of things. That is par. What is really below par is the intentional and amoral distortion of the truth by the current prime minister who is seeking to get re-elected on the basis of those precise lies. As Christians, I do not believe that we can vote for a party whose approach to public policy is consistently based upon lies, where lies form part of the policy making and whose manifesto commitments must of necessity be therefore founded upon untruth. You might want to say, well, what about Labour? The point about Labour is that they have not been in power for 9 years. There are reasons for that, as there are reasons why they may not get elected again for some years. Boris Johnson is lying about things that have actually happened while his party has been in power. This is not a critique of the Conservative Party or an admonition to vote for any other party. It is simply that, uniquely, we have arrived at a place where the rulership of the governing party, who just happen to be the government of the day, use lies so consistently and ruthlessly that they have undermined their own credibility among those who think clearly about the past, who observe the present with care, and who long for a future freed for a more truthful politics. Nothing that they say now can be trusted, because the criterion for whether something is true or not has been completely eroded.

The worst thing about this new culture of calumny is that Johnson (ditto Trump) has created a political culture in which all parties feel that they may as well play fast and loose with the truth. He has used lies to divide (something that lying always does) and to exacerbate the differences between left and right. In this of course, Corbyn and Momentum have helped. But because the vast majority of newspapers back the Conservatives in this election, these lies are being less challenged than they should be. This is the reason that Oborne and colleagues have launched their site, so that we at least have a chance to compare the pronouncements of our foremost public servant with the truth he may or may not be alluding to, distorting or subverting.

Apocalyptic epistemology

Susa-Chogha-ZanbilThis ridiculous title is neither inspired by a postgraduate seminar I attended on the book of Revelation on Wednesday at Spurgeon’s College (thank you, Joshua Searle, not least for the awful joke that if you don’t understand what the word apocalypse means – don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world) nor by a year’s worth of trying to situate myself with regard to a theory of knowledge that will underpin my doctoral research, but by a simple verse found in the futuristic visions of the prophet Daniel, living as an experienced, prayerful, imperial administrator in a Persian capital city – maybe Susa, above, where he is traditionally buried – and in conversation with angels:

A hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. He said, “Daniel, you who are highly esteemed, consider carefully the words I am about to speak to you, and stand up, for I have now been sent to you.” And when he said this to me, I stood up trembling. Then he continued, “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them.” (Daniel 10:10-12)

…you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God….

What a thing to say about a human, especially from an angel who knew about these things. I think that here is a true Christian epistemology, a view of knowledge that places understanding precisely in the context where God longs for it to be. Eugene Peterson’s translation is:

…you decided to humble yourself to receive understanding…

which makes the link between heart attitude and cognitive gain more causal.

3250847002cce2b446ff9fbf8aeabc7bLuther used the words: du von Herzen begehrtest zu verstehen und dich kasteitest vor deinem Gott – which adds a note of desperation (begehrten – coveted) and of self-abasement (sich kasteien – mortify oneself, chastise oneself). This shows us a Lutheran theme, that the longing for knowledge, the longing to understand, is geared powerfully to the seeking of God. William Morgan’s 1588 translation into Welsh, which predated the English Authorized Version (though not Tyndale’s not Luther’s), has a different understanding: rhoddaist dy galon i ddeall – you gave your heart to understand: “you put your entire desire, motivation and personhood on the line for the sake of this understanding of me.”

So here we have a complex of emotional and psychological factors underpinning our epistemology. Here there is no standing back with a clipboard and observing, nor is there a creation of new knowledge through constructivism. Daniel is not consulting books nor is he speaking to other people to covet new angles of vision. He is not trying to get a feminist or liberation theology reading on his ancient scriptures. He is taking steps, as he has in his great prayer in the previous chapter to place his whole self into the knowledge, knowing that the level of understanding he will gain is completely related to the desire and state and submissiveness of his heart. We know that God esteemed him and told him so (Daniel 9:23; 10:11). We know from modern socio-linguistic study, that our epistemology, our theory of the construction of knowledge, has to impact ourselves, and that we and our experience are complicit and implicit in the theory we create. However, what that hardly imagines is that our understanding will grow to the degree to which we allow ourselves to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. Consider this passage from Peter’s second epistle:

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1: 3-9)

Knowledge here – the supreme knowledge as Peter sees it, is the knowledge of Jesus Christ, as mediated into our transforming character. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:6, tells us that God “made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” What this means exactly is hard to pin down. A parallel idea is in Colossians 3:10, where Paul talks of “the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” as we give ourselves over to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and engage in those practices that build new habits in our hearts and minds.

Even if we can’t grasp the dynamic of this fully (and I am of the opinion that it is probably impossible to do so) the essential link that Peterson makes between understanding and humility is well known and scripturally unremarkable. What is really interesting to me though, is the way that it undermines traditional modernist evangelical approaches to what is considered biblical knowledge and biblical authority. The relationship between humility and understanding means that in all our seeking of wisdom, of reality, of what can be known of God – unless we come at it from a humble position (and the most humble position is that which will allow God to dethrone our self-made understandings of the Bible), we may never know anything of God with any certainty at all. Even the certain things cannot be approached with the prideful, modernist, propositional approaches. The postmodern movement has thus done us a favour, in fact, in helping us a few steps along in our love of God and the way in which we might be conformed into his likeness. It is no mistake that Peter, above, enjoins us to add knowledge to its predecessor, goodness, and that having acquired knowledge, then to remember self-control, perseverance and love as the hallmarks of a life to whom that knowledge is granted.

So let us give ourselves to Jesus Christ in humble devotion as a first step in seeking understanding. This is surely an epistemology that will find favour with God.


Power, leadership and FE: a reflection (1)

Blue-Sky-Walton-Hall-Campus-e1500993683202I attended yesterday’s BERA Special Interest Group (SIG) meeting on Educational Leadership, which was held at the OU and thus bikeable from the house. What attracted me was the chance to talk about and listen to scholarly reflections (and some new research) on the relationship between leadership and activism, mainly through the lens of power relationships and construction within Further Education. Obviously I was coming at it from a primary phase perspective, but the theory and a large amount of the application was very useful and in places inspiring. And I met some very brave and highly motivated people from a “sector” (bad word for FE!) which I have never really encountered before.

This matters because I have a view of my own leadership as activist, and allowing of activism, whilst having to have trod the more careful line of both complying with and simultaneously militating against and seeking to undermine the policy initiatives that descended upon me. I think that many leaders in education have this view of themselves, and it is not for me to say how successful I was in doing so. I just hope that had I the chance again, I would be less compliant and more activist, and more allowing of the Hegelian perspective on allowing antithesis to challenge my leadership to better syntheses.

The notes I took on the day are copious and it is too early to get hold of the presentations, so what follows is a reduction. I was listening to the speakers with a particular pair of ears on: what scope was there, in what I heard, for the exercise of servant leadership? This was not the only thing I was listening for, but it meant that I pricked those particular ears up at the issues surrounding transactional and transformational leadership, and on how power was constructed and distributed. The afternoon presentation (second post in this short series) from Lou Mycroft and Kay Sidebottom on notions of power deriving from potestas and potentia placed all we had heard into a different lens, and made me look at servant leadership in a more complex way. I shall return to this.

Setting the scene

The scene was set by Carol Azumah Dennis from the OU who as well as hosting the day tried to frame some of the questions we would be looking at:

  • Are power and activism oxymoronic?
  • What are the levels of depoliticization possible in leadership and management? How do these change and how are they managed?
  • In a world driven by survival (for all sorts of reasons, chiefly to do with FE funding) how can we fight for “what the institution is for” (the holistic education of – often disadvantaged young people and adults – within a frame of social justice) over against its simple continued existence?
  • How does activism arise from the risk and ambiguity created by (inadequate?) leadership responses to a fast-changing policy landscape? Is it inevitable?
  • How do we as leaders of institutions both implement and militate against the policies we are called on to enforce?

In beginning to address some of these, Azumah called us to think particularly about the level of politicization that occurs in institutional leadership and how that can lead either to the “street level bureaucrats” of Lipsky, seeking to turn received policy into something that can be managed and made effective at the level of implementation, and where the ambiguity that we work in is that of being “targeted but not scripted”; or to the “negative capability” of leaders working under such intense constraints that the ambiguity that they operate in leads inevitably to increased activism among those led. The start for us is in the space we create for thinking about these things as Azumah posited that critical thinking, resistance and activism were all sitting along some sort of continuum, and the challenge was to be able to move beyond simple resistance to the creation of worthwhile forms of activism that was both tolerated by (better, planned for!) and which also reflected the best intents of, educational institutional leadership.

Towards a clearer understanding of power

At the heart of this dilemma is an understanding of power, and particularly, power in the context of leadership, where relationship, institutional/structural needs, individual perspectives and policy all intersect. This was addressed by Megan Crawford from Coventry University. Starting with a rejection of the idea that power is the property of any one individual, she drew on cognitive emotion theory (that helps us rationalise policies, and our responses to them, that we are not happy with) to argue that organisations are not simply rational places, but emotional ones as well.

the lion and the gazelle

This story of the lion and the gazelle often described how most leaders sense their work in the changing policy setting, Megan maintained. Seeing power as a property of the interrelation of individuals (I), structures (S) and relationships (R), she posited that the power of I and R reflected the structures. Referencing Gareth Morgan’s work on organisational complexity, she challenged leaders to work out where the power lay within an organisation. Frames to help us think about this were:

  • Power as a function of the individual: this is related to politics and the structures the individual works in, and the power is demonstrated in an episodic form.
  • Power as a function of relationships: this is rooted in belief systems (often unexamined and unchallenged) and are dynamic, but also show their power episodically.
  • Power as a function of the structure: this power is more deeply embedded, and is pervasive. It is the reason that think tanks, schools, government departments acquire a persona of their own, reflecting an inherited and maintained culture.

ldth0501Going back to the work of French & Raven (1959) and their theory that power is based principally within the beliefs of followers: that people have power when they can influence or affect others’ beliefs, attitudes or actions, Megan reframed their power bases into positional and personal (not that different from the potestas and  potentia we were to meet later in the day: see the next post!). Positional power, related to one’s position in an official system, was mainly legitimate, reward and coercive power, whereas referent and expert power was located in personal power. Power occurred in relationships and was reciprocal. Although there have been critiques of French and Raven’s taxonomy, the fact that power is a relational, emotionally “donated” entity (Foucault’s field of force relations within a web of power from which people either seek to break free or to manipulate shifting  networks of alliances) seems to describe power in many organisations. Leadership, and the power it wields, necessarily reflects the relationships within any organisation.

Another lens to look at power through is that of motivational studies (David McClelland’s motivation theory, 1961). In this lens, power is culturally acquired and either settles within us as personal power  – which can be used for good or evil – or as socialized power, where we long to influence and make a difference to others and to our organisations. This is where servant leadership tends to be located in most taxonomies of leadership. This socialised power brings people together to work and move forward together, is communal and developmental, and seeks to create a climate for the common good.

And how does this relate to the leader/activist oxymoron? Two possibilities that Megan advanced were the idea of a committed change-maker group at the top or near the top of organisations, where activist thinking could be both influential and have enough power to make things happen; alternatively, leaders could actively develop new leadership and new leadership structures to allow activism to find a home for the foreseeable future: one way of focusing that is to build activist capacity to fight the -isms within an organisational culture. Questions she left us with at the end of the talk were:

  • Does power always involve manipulation of others?
  • Do leaders motivate, or create the conditions in which people are influenced and motivated?
  • What influencing strategies can activists use? How do they connect to the traditional framing of power?

From transactional to transformational leadership?

The final talk of the morning session came from Matt O’Leary (Birmingham City University) and discussed the ways that structured autonomy and taking on professional responsibilities by teachers enables the shift from transactional toward transformational leadership (particularly in FE institutions). Whilst acknowledging that the two types of leadership were not binary opposites, and nor were they sector-specific, the context of leadership is always critically important, and the features, characteristics and practices of any organisation have a strongly moderating impact on any discussion of leadership. Matt argued that over the years the role of leader in FE has come to resemble that of a CEO, with responsibility for corporate strategy and policies, reporting to governance on the educational mission, leading and managing staff, managing the financial health of the organisation and looking after the estate.

The traditional distinction between transactional and transformational leadership looks like this:


Matt referred to the 2013 LSIS report in arguing for the move from heroic leader models to broader and more distributed leadership in FE:

Such change within the further education and skills sector as outlined cannot be achieved by individual leaders acting in isolation. One of the key challenges facing the sector is to move away from the age of the heroic leader to one where leadership within organisations is a genuine team effort; where leadership is distributed throughout the organisation, and senior teams and governance structures are created that contain the right individuals with all the skills, knowledge and qualities needed to lead and manage in a complex changing environment (LSIS, 2013, p.6)

In particular the need to “de-individualise” leadership was a priority if room for more autonomy was to be created within organisations. Quoting from Hughes et al’s 2014 report for the Education and Training Foundation, Matt argued that the response of leaders to complexity, with the subtlety and challenge that that involved, was the most important aspect of FE leadership presently. Arguing from Greatbatch and Tate’s work for the DfE (2018) that many in FE showed a preference for a combination of top-down leadership with more collaborative approaches (the eternal combination of safety and trust!), he highlighting the concept of “diffused leadership” – not democratic, but not anti-democratic either – from his work at Hill Top College. Whereas distributed leadership can just cascade responsibility, diffuse leadership could lead to a structured autonomy: a loosening of the top-down control so that leadership is devolved to teachers who take responsibility for, and ownership of, their own practice. This is strongly similar to the approach we took at Christ the Sower on 2015-2016 in seeking to give teachers much greater control of their own growth. Matt felt that this autonomy, linked strongly to an accountability and professional responsibility that saw itself in terms of civic duty and an ethical responsibility to colleagues and students, safeguarded leadership within an organisation that was always under pressure, and placed responsibility at a more ethical level within the teacher. As he argues in O’Leary & Wood (2019: 132-133)

If metrics are the impetus for change, once predefined targets have been met, then in turn so too has the full extent of individual responsibility. Where an emergent model of change is accepted, the wider ethical and democratic nature of responsibility over accountability leads to an imperative to continue to question and improve. Here, everyone is responsible for bringing about sustainable change that leads to better practice for the organisation from below, rather than relying on targets and accountability from above.

Finally, Matt looked to middle leaders as the glue that had a role in both implementing change and daily provision, but whose “effective” leadership behaviours differed and were more affiliative (?) than senior leaders could sometimes afford to demonstrate. He asked, to conclude, are middle leaders “policy activists”? 

I will finish here, but part two will follow in a couple of days…

On the dangers of having a vision

51AbDCMwq1LAbout a year ago I read Julian Stern’s A Philosophy of Schooling. As well as doing school leaders the service of rooting the thinking of John Macmurray more deeply in the way that we think about schools (though others, notably Michael Fielding, have had much to say on Macmurray), Julian’s book challenged me as a school leader in the area of school vision.

In an important argument that reflects what the rest of his book is driving at, but more as an exemplar of “misdirected performativity,” he argues that the creation or adoption of a school “vision” by school leaders contains the seeds of performativity – responding to the overarching requirements of the DfE and Ofsted – but also the danger of an instrumentality that can be enforced using a vision: its very unchallengeability gives it an authority and voice that is close to being divine. He writes:

…vision was originally used in religious contexts, and it implies access to ideas from God rather than from other people. Having vision is a ‘special’ quality, therefore, in religious traditions, and its conversion into a leadership characteristic retains some of that quality. Asking for visionary leadership means enacting the visions of those outside the school, and especially those of the (god-like?) central government policy-makers. If having  ‘vision’ matters, in the sense of having pseudo-mystical insight into (rather than dialogically generated understanding of ) what is needed, then school leaders are both ‘separate’ and are looking outwards for inspiration. In such ways, being expected to practice ‘visionary’ leadership is precisely to ignore the people you lead, and taking ‘inspiration’ from outside that group. Vision is one of the ways of directing performativity outside the school, and is dangerous for precisely that reason. (p. 123-124)

I have had one discussion only with Julian about this, but the possibility of being accused of misdirected performativity made me look back very strongly at the kind of vision we built together in 2012 as a school. What I found myself defending in conversation was the public nature of the vision: how we wrote it, how it was adopted with different groups and how, year after year, we tested it out and measured our own actions against its requirements which we had come to accept. I have no idea now whether it is still the vision for the school. It seems still to be on the website, but I hope that, rather, it has been internalised by those who for a long time held it very dear. One important role it played was its directive, discipling nature for those in the school – children, parents, staff – who did not identify as Christian. It was this aspect, I think, that made me most proud of its prominence: that those who didn’t quite understand how to live life and teach in a church school, could find actions inspired by the vision that would, in their eyes and ours, make a wonderful contribution to young children and to our communal life.

A more serious and germane point that Julian makes in his book is that having a vision as a leader marks you out as a leader rather than as simply a community member (he spends a lot of time on the relationship between leaders and followers), and that therefore you as a leader also get “tainted” by the unchallengeability of the vision. The vision thus has the power to distort both others’ perception of the leader as well as add layers of undeserved and even unwanted grandeur to him/her as the inheritor, or writer, or “lead pursuer” of the vision. That a “vision” is fundamentally necessary to direction and also religious in character should not deflect us from seeing the dangers that it possesses in its power to make other people do precisely what we want.

I am challenged sharply by this, as I have always held the idea of vision as very important, and people have looked to me, throughout 16 years of school leadership, to live out and remind others of the vision we have adopted together. My caveat with Julian stands, I think. Visions are important, but need to be communally held. Even Moses, going up Horeb to collect the tablets of the ten commandments, had a vision of a mountain covered in fire and smoke which was shared with the entire Israelite company. He was scared; they were scared. Shared vision.

Earlier in his chapter on leadership, Julian writes:

Sharing a purpose does, as Northouse says, provide an ethical underpinning to a system in which some get paid more than others (and some—the pupils and their families—get paid nothing), and in which some have significantly more power than others. (p. 109)

This ethical underpinning depends largely on mediation: how is such a vision of what could be in a school brought to those whose job it is to put it into practice. I would maintain that I did that well, and my senior leaders might even say that I functioned worse when I did not fasten my eyes closely onto the vision we had (jointly) given assent to.

So far, so reflective.

0334009049Then, last week I picked up a book that I have read often – Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. It is a most wonderful, challenging and orderly book – orderly because in a very reformed German way, it directs individual and common practice with clear prose and high expectations of the way that the Christian life, whether individual or communal, should be lived. I tend to feel told off by a thoughtful humble professor every time I read Bonhoeffer. It is a good feeling and I ought to get used to it. Obeying him would do much good for me, and I should read him more often. I was re-reading it in search of any understanding of the way that Bonhoeffer served his seminary community at Finkelwalde, for whom the book was first written. Bonhoeffer tends not to write about his own motivations in this book, and his voice is didactic rather than reflective. But what I did find, and which I had either ignored or forgotten, was some fascinating writing about vision. Of course, in this context he is talking about the vision that a leader has for his community. This community could be a seminary (as it was first applied) but also it could be a church, and by extension, a school, or at least a church school.

Bonhoeffer writes about the nature of “visionary dreaming” in a section suitably entitled “Not an Ideal but a Divine Reality”

The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. (p.15)

Of course, he is right. It is God’s church, and He knows – He alone knows – what his vision of church and Christian community can and should be. The things that happen to a fellowship must come: they are a direct consequence of the sin that we carry with us. We can dream all we like of a noble community, but this is the only way.

Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

This, using starker language than Julian Stern would use, points to the same reality: a vision for a community has to be spoken only by Him who called the community into being. Earlier in the book, Bonhoeffer argues that there is no Christian fellowship at all except for Jesus Christ, and he hints that there is no true friendship either without Him. There are dangers for those who think in this way, because the powers that are at work in a Christian community are so rooted in the sin that each member carries with them that it will be impossible without God’s grace and forgiveness to live in such a community. He or she who tries to build one in his or her own image is doomed:

The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly.  He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

The root into genuine community, that of Christian fellowship, argues Bonhoeffer, is a grace-filled thankfulness. Learning to be grateful for the small things that occur within friendship, within the sharing of bread or sharing the scriptures, enables us to find the gratitude to which we are called in a church community:

Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what He has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by His call, by His forgiveness, and His promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what He does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of His grace?

This is very male language, of course. Bonhoeffer led a community of men, men with a serious purpose to find what faithfulness looked like in the German church of the 1930s. That in such a community, Bonhoeffer should be focusing relentlessly on thankfulness, on grace, on living a life of Jesus Christ together might surprise us, when there was such prophetic work to be done. He concludes the section with a reminder of where our true fellowship lies:

The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases. Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.

I realise that in drafting in Bonhoeffer to my overall argument and reflection, I have moved from a discussion of a vision of a school to that held by a Christian community. I do not see much difference, I must confess. If we have a public faith that motivates the church to be light in the darkness, then we have to give due consideration that what is good and right for the church is good and right for all. As I wrote in July, the overlap in terms of mission, is substantial between those called to be church and those called to serve as church in teaching and learning. Where it is not, it is the recasting of the definition and purpose of education – not mission – that will need to be rethought and remodelled.

But it is not our mission, and not our vision: it is “God’s reality in which we may participate.” What this might look like for church schools will almost certainly be locally determined through prayer, discussion and the putting aside from ourselves the demands we make of one another in fellowship. In doing this, we might attain to the reduction of the distance between leadership and followership, and a humbler, more affectionate community might arise.

Character education as envisaged by the DfE: a review

One important thing to bear in mind about any governmental initiative in education is that children are rarely the reason for a policy, but merely an end towards its fulfilment. National prowess, national wealth, reduction in crime, a more peaceable and compliant population, reducing expenditure, how we perform against other countries, and how these translate into “electability” or civic contentment – these are the reasons that govern education policymaking in England at present. The child at the centre of this all, as described by Fazal Rizvi and Bob Lingard in their excellent Globalizing Education Policy (2009),  is supposed to become:

…the self-responsibilizing, self-capitalizing individual that is the desired product of neoliberal education policy reforms….This emphasis on self-capitalizing required across the entire life-cycle replaces the older, more liberal humanist and social democratic constructions of education which were underpinned by education’s multiple purposes. The best economic outcomes for a nation are now deemed to flow from the production of individuals pursuing their self-interest. This is a conception of human beings as at base individual economic beings, an account that fails to recognize the collective social and cultural aspects of human behaviour.

A great example of this is seen in the new guidance from the DfE on character education, published earlier this week, which draws a line directly and in several places between the teaching of character and children’s and young people’s academic outcomes. The former exists to serve the latter. In Rizvi and Lingard’s terms, the policy outcomes desired frame the question that is asked, and also dictate its terms of reference. Thus in the DfE document, character is described as:

  • the ability to remain motivated by long-term goals, to see a link between effort in the present and pay-off in the longer-term, overcoming and persevering through, and learning from, setbacks when encountered;

  • the learning and habituation of positive moral attributes, sometimes known as  ‘virtues’, and including, for example, courage, honesty, generosity, integrity,  humility and a sense of justice, alongside others;

  • the acquisition of social confidence and the ability to make points or arguments  clearly and constructively, listen attentively to the views of others, behave with courtesy and good manners and speak persuasively to an audience;

  • an appreciation of the importance of long-term commitments which frame the successful and fulfilled life, for example to spouse, partner, role or vocation, the  local community, to faith or world view. This helps individuals to put down deep  roots and gives stability and longevity to lifetime endeavours. (p. 7)

But in the next paragraph, the DfE gives the game away by focusing exclusively on those aspects of character education that fit its policy aims – educational attainment, engagement with school and attendance. All three represent a policy triad that seeks to keep children in school and getting better grades. The character argument does not flow into areas of communal health, love, worship or care for one another. It is individuated in its entirety:

  • High self-efficacy, or self-belief, is associated with better performance, more
    persistence and greater interest in work;
  • Highly motivated children (linked to tenacity) driven internally and not by extrinsic rewards show greater levels of persistence and achievement;
  • Good self-control (or self-regulation, the ability to delay gratification) is associated with greater attainment levels;
  • Having good coping skills (part of being able to bounce back) is associated with
    greater well-being.
  • Schools which develop character well help drive equity and social mobility for their pupils.
  • Access to character development opportunities in schools can lead pupils that take part to be highly motivated, report fewer absences and have lower levels of emotional distress, amongst other outcomes. (p.7-8)

The papers that are referenced in making these assertions have titles like “the impact of non-cognitive skills on outcomes for young people“; “out of school activities during primary school and KS2 attainment“; and “using social-emotional and character development to improve academic outcomes.”

This is not to say that academic outcomes are not important. But it is to say that they are not the only purpose of schooling, or even the main one. And in choosing academic outcomes as the benchmark for character education, which by necessity and assessment are individual achievements, it is no wonder that the steps which are advocated, and the  implication of any character definitions chosen, will focus solely on those aspects of character education that lead to higher educational attainment.

The same policy stance then is clearly evident in the thinking behind the 6 questions that schools are encouraged to benchmark themselves against. Despite the policy implication, these are great questions for any school to ask, and in answering them, some serious undermining of the policy agenda is possible.


Question A is a question that all schools should ask, either in this form or in my preferred form “What are we for?” (this is a question that all churches should ask too!). Many schools have not addressed this, not even in their “vision” or “mission statement” which is often construed without the necessary philosophical thinking.

Question B is also a really helpful vehicle to undermine the sort of thinking that lies behind the document, and speaks right into the issues dealt with in the previous post. There is a real piece of work to be done here, that should be significantly different for those schools with a Christian foundation.

Questions C-F are to a greater extent pre-determined by the required policy outcomes, and more work is needed by each school to answer them in a way that is true to themselves and their self-understanding in Question A. This is not impossible, but the DfE agendas are more out in the open and will steer the answers to a greater extent than some school leaders would be happy with.

But here comes the crunch. Each of the above questions has sub-questions, to help “summarise the most important features of character education.” Many of these are much more focused on the policy agenda (articulation of the kind of education provided; making sure all members of the school share our aims; clear on the importance of discipline and good behaviour; does the curriculum teach knowledge and cultural capital, etc).  Whilst others are more explanatory, the sub-questions less wiggle room, intellectually. If you are a school leader and are going to complete this benchmarking tool as a self-audit, best stick to the form above and ignore the direction of the sub-questions until you have finished the audit with a clear mind.

(For a better perspective, much fuller and better reasoned than this DfE report, on how we might think about character education, I refer you to Andy Wolfe’s great Leadership of Character Education (2016) and the talks from this year’s CEFEL conference, which I have summarised here and here.)

Finally, the DfE character education guidance has two annexes: one is a list of organisations that can help schools develop character education; the other is a list of case studies. Some of these are helpful, others are chosen to back up the neoliberal direction of policy travel.

And that’s it. Use, but with great caution.


Kathe Kollwitz at the British Museum

IMG_20191029_164918758Kathe Kollwitz was the most accomplished printmaker of German expressionism (and it was a crowded field), pioneering mixed printmaking techniques, learning to print colour lithographs at a time when they were often handpainted onto the black original. I have loved her work since I was put onto it by an artist cousin (thank you, Susan) and then saw her work first in a magnificent War Art exhibition in Manchester and more recently, the largest UK German Expressionist collection at New Walk, Leicester. The British Museum has been bequeathed many of her prints and they are on display in Room 90, the BM’s home of print, in an exhibition lasting until 20 January. I shall probably go again as the half an hour we could spend there last night was not enough. There are the famous group of war woodcuts, which many will recognise even if they do not know the artist, and then the series of self-portraits, piercingly honest and deliberately unflattering, and also the “Peasant’s War” series of prints, with proofs and alternate editions shown as well. The prints are brilliantly described and the story of Kollwitz as an artist in Konigsberg and Berlin makes for a very complete experience.

39599392_303I find her inspiring as a relief printer but even more so as a lithographer. What is amazing (I have experienced this in reading books about her work too) is to return to the woodcuts after you have spent a while amongst the intaglio prints, whether etchings, drypoint or lithographs. It is like returning to a raw pain after somebody has tried to describe the nuances of life. The very medium forces you back to a different perspective on life – literally – black and white.

IMG_20191029_164821005Most of her lithographs were printed for her, but in a couple of letters and comments you can see the joy she gets when acquiring her own press and being able to control the whole process. Her pictures paint her as an austere woman, but this is constantly belied by a childlikeness in her writings. A convinced pacifist of the left (her famous print  commemorating Karl Liebknecht’s assassination is here), Kollwitz was never going to flourish under the Nazis and there are pieces of her work that have only been printed from the plates well after her death in 1945. The RAF destroyed quite a lot of her work in bombing Berlin in 1943.


Just go and see it. It’s free, because the BM owns most of the stuff. Beautifully curated, you get to spend time in another world, but one whose concerns and conflicts and threats are not unlike our own. And having done that, you find yourself in a frame of mind to hold reality and tragedy together in one artistic perspective.

Making the dodgy dossier look respectable

The complete failure of the present government to provide information, political, economic, social or any other kind, about the impact of our (possibly imminent, but who can say?) departure from the European Union is a shambles, and I am fully behind those MPs and others who insist that the highest quality information, the best estimates, and the most accurate forecasts are given to them before they vote on a deal whose speed through parliament would, unhindered, make a photon look short of breath.

I parted ways with Tony Blair over Iraq, as many of us on the left did, but his political wisdom now would stand us in good stead. He hardly did anything without explaining it ad nauseam, and as for his dodgy dossier and the way that it was handled – well it seems quite tame compared with the lying, obfuscating, adulterous character who is apparently being channeled through our prime minister. At least Blair had an actual enemy, and was responding to an actual threat. All Johnson is doing is ramping up his own career on the back of a dishonest referendum campaign (and on a downtrodden and bullied predecessor) that had little bearing on what we actually think as a nation (who knows, right now?).

The best reason for another referendum is simply a reality check, and to remind the tabloids that they too, are generally not to be trusted as bearers of truth or exactitude. What is it we all thought was a good idea? And is it still? And can we please talk about this? Otherwise, the current EU withdrawal agreement bill going (or not going) through parliament will end up on the list of great political hoaxes we have let ourselves be bamboozled by.

Scrutinise the flipping thing. Please.

A neoliberal perspective on creativity

I had a wonderful hour-long conversation with one of my best friends among the headteacher community of Milton Keynes last week who encouraged me to get back into headship because “OFSTED were valuing all the sort of things that I valued” and they needed people like me in headship.

There is quite a lot to unpick in that statement – about me, my intentions and about OFSTED. I am not going to try any analysis here, except to highlight the apparent (and I believe it is apparent but possibly not yet real) OFSTED commitment to what is loosely called creativity.

If you have been following this blog for any time you will realise that I do not really hold with any concept of creativity that disallows human creativity as a subset of God the Father’s own creativity in the world. We are not creators – we are co-creators and discoverers. There is nothing “new” that God has not already intentioned. However, that is somewhat, in the debate about creativity in schools, beside the point.

There is an urgent need to see the school curriculum as a source and outworking of the human creativity that comes from being made in the image of God, and it is to the shame of western educators in the last 30 years that we have made it about standards and at a time of great human flourishing in education, narrowed the curriculum firstly to the 11-12 subjects that have always been in there, and then to the EBacc and then to the core subjects and finally, in many Year 6 settings, to English and Maths, themselves narrowly defined. “Creative” education has been relegated to “the arts” as though scientists, writers and mathematicians are not naturally creative people.

Picture3This is the burden of a new report on creativity in schools from the University of Durham. So prominent is it expected to be that it has been given the informal title the “Durham Commission Report” in much the same way that the “Cambridge Primary Review” took the name of a university and attached it to a document. Over two years in the making, the report’s commissioners are from the great and the good in the world of creative arts (principally, but not only) and they have interviewed across the spectrum of education – teachers and leaders among them – to come up with something that they hope will pressure the DfE and other government bodies to give creativity a purpose and home in the curriculum.

It is an interesting exercise. They have paid due attention to the work of previous reviews and commissions on the subject of creativity over the last 52 years, starting with Plowden in 1967 and the 1999 Robinson Report (NACCCE) which did so much to alter the thinking of the government and to define creativity for us (the process of having original ideas that have value) – rooting it in the concept of originality rather than in the development of what already exists, or within the scope of beauty or goodness (which might serve as better criteria than originality).

The essential conclusions of the report are few and straightforward:

  • that creativity is expressed through and in life, as an embodied concept;
  • that it can be taught and that its exercise is beneficial to all people at all stages of their lives.
  • that creative approaches to teaching as well as the teaching of creative approaches will “result in young people who have an ability to express their creativity and have the personal creative confidence” to support their lives in work, play and community.
  • that the teaching of this creative capacity should be an entitlement for all young people, regardless of school or background.
  • that as well as schools, parents, local communities and cultural institutions have a role to play in developing this capacity, and that a more creative-aware approach by all these bodies will help change the milieu in which young people grow.
  • that this work is at its infancy and faces many obstacles.

sona_jobarteh-6The vision that underpins this work is one that seeks to support wellbeing, identity, community and what they call mobility (a different concept to that commonly understood but relating to technological advances) through 5 areas:

  1. Schools to be better enabled to provide for, establish and sustain the conditions for the promotion of creativity from early years to post-16.
  2. Teaching for creativity to be part of the academic rigour sought by schools across all subjects, even if creativity looks different from discipline to discipline.
  3. Teaching for creativity will include a range of classroom and communal practices and approaches that provide for both creative thinking and creative learning.
  4. The provision of opportunities will develop young people’ creative capacity by a combination of creative learning and good subject grounding.
  5. Cultural, industrial, collaborative, innovative, future-proofing and problem-solving advantages will accrue to us as a nation through the enlargement of creative capacity of young people entering the workforce.

The authors are no starry-eyed dreamers. They correctly identify a number of barriers to this – school focus on achievement in a narrow curriculum, unwillingness to collaborate, lack of courageous leadership and the lack of engagement of both educational and arts organisations – all are cited as possible problems.

The recommendations of the report can be summarised thus:

  • Establish a network of 9 pilot Creativity Collaboratives across the country, to be evaluated after three years and enlarged upon where successful, funded by the DfE, Arts Council and educational trusts.
  • DfE and Ofqual to have a good look at how the current exam structure and content is hindering the development of scholarship and craftsmanship.
  • Schools that have gone down this creative path successfully to be recognised and noted by Ofsted, with “case studies of good practice” shared.
  • DfE to support English schools’ participation in in PISA 2021 evaluation of creative thinking in order to influence and shape the framework.
  • HE institutions to with with Creativity Collaboratives to develop research-informed practice to evaluate creativity and measure its impact.
  • The_Arab_Room_Ceiling,_Cardiff_CastleThe education system should support young people in engagement with digital technologies, through training teachers in digital literacy/creativity, and asking NESTA to manage a pilot program to find out how digital education in schools can develop the creative digital skills needed by employers.
  • Arts and culture to be fully in the curriculum, essential in every phase, via a National Plan for Cultural Education (CE), full NC arts provision to end of Y9 at the earliest, a rethink of the ArtsMark to focus on creativity, arts and culture, and CPD provided (by the Arts Council and DfE) for teachers in arts subjects.
  • Start as early as possible: 0-4 curriculum should have creativity and teaching for creativity at its heart, with new ELGs from 2021.
  • More extra-curricular creativity, through the sciences, arts and humanities, to be established across the country through existing and new hubs of provision.
  • Creative capacities required by employers should be built into qualification frameworks, including that for apprenticeships. so that “the creative capacities that employers seek and which will enable [young people] to be resilient and adaptable, to pursue portfolio careers and engage in lifelong learning.”

As you will have seen from the last of these ten recommendations, this is a thoroughly neo-liberal, market-driven document, rooted in the OECD’s vision for young people and for western economies, where any mention of “community” is only made in the sense of being the milieu in which the self-referencing, resilient creative individual is meant to pursue lifelong learning in order to better the national wealth. There is nothing here about community as being the generous recipient of work done by its members, of the cultural life of communities as an end in itself.

There is nothing in this document about issues of faith, religion or personal belief. There is nothing in it about family or community except in the sense alluded to above. I suspect, though cannot prove, that the commission started with a deep concern for the kind of lives that children could have if they were enabled to develop their creative capacity better (this is a highly godly desire and one we should give a huge welcome to), but in order to get a hearing from the DfE had to show “impact” and “relevance” and a match to the national needs as perceived by the ministry. It feels like that. There are some passages in the document that promise much in the title and fail to deliver. There is, by way of example, a long section (Chapter 3) dealing with the “value of creativity” to identity and community (individual and collective creativity), to mobility (economic growth, creative competencies and employment skills, and automation) and wellbeing (mental health, young people’s relationship to technology) that focuses almost exclusively on economic benefit and on those aspects of personal and social health that will result in economic benefit. It is as though the commissioners, despite themselves, and enshrined in a neo-liberal bubble and can only see one definition of success.

This is why their definition of creativity is so weak – even Ken Robinson’s is weak, and that was one of the best. It simply leaves out the creative purpose of human life, to walk before God humbly and grow in knowledge of Him through the use of all the faculties that He has graciously poured out on each one. It is a good and worthwhile report, this Durham Commission report, but it only meets half the human need, even within its chosen brief.

I have ordered David I Smith’s 2018 book “On Christian Teaching” which I think will give many new perspectives on the pedagogies that enable children and young people to flourish. I will need to revisit creativity in the light of that book, I think. There is so much more to what we mean by creative development of young people than that contained in even the wildest aspirations of the authors of this report. Creativity, like so many words, has been re-branded in the contemporary discourse, and needs rethinking once again in the light of the life of God who made us the creative wonders that we are.