Art at the extremes (1): Anselm Kiefer

dsc04368dsc04370In his 1970 reflection on slavery, The Hidden Wound, Wendell Berry writes this insight into art, challenging the western, individualistic assumption that art can somehow transcend the culture which nurtured it:

A work of art that grows out of a diseased culture has not only the limits of art but the limits of the disease – if it is not an affirmation of the disease, it is a reaction against it. The art of a man divided within himself and against his neighbours, no matter how sophisticated its techniques or how beautiful its forms and textures, will never have the communal power of the simplest tribal song.

I read this on the train on the way back from seeing Anselm Kiefer’s phenomenal Walhalla exhibition/installation at the White Cube in Bermondsey yesterday. I have not seen, for some years, an exhibition of such power and completeness. Kiefer has created a whole world to experience, with his customary breadth of competence and relevance. At a time when the right are on the rise in Europe again, it served as a mockery of the pretensions of men and the vanity of historical romanticism for a “lost past”. It is however, a vision of our culture that grows from disease, and that is constrained by the disease. In fact Kiefer makes no attempt to go beyond the disease but finds deeply imaginative ways of revealing it to us.  The scale of the paintings – 9 of them, all at least 4m x 3m and the intensity of the application of paint, plaster, shellac and metal – induce a vertigo even from 4-5 metres away, and surround you with what I can only describe as a warning. Walhalla of course refers to the Norse place of rest for slain warriors (the ways that this is interpreted is wide and sobering), but also to King Ludwig’s 1842 temple of heroes that bears the same name.

dsc04400Two or three of the paintings in this exhibition are covered with the names of literary, political and artistic figures attached to the tottering towers that appear in much of Kiefer’s work, referencing Ludwig’s temple. Overall, however, the impression created by Kiefer – and this is perhaps why I felt warned by him – is a post-apocalyptic, post nuclear world that the follies of man could bring about in an instant if we were to give way to our least communal, most power-hungry, libertarian instincts. The installations are no less sobering. 3 of the exhibition rooms and the central corridor are lined with oxidised lead, and much of the sculpture is likewise in lead. One room, entitled the Armoury, is simply overpowering in its level of detail – a storage room full of burnt materials, metal boxes, old wheelchairs, safes blown open, and lead and steel everywhere.

The most throught provoking piece (rather than those that just hit you in the face with theit power) was a staircase of discarded clothing entitled Sursum Corda that described the ascent of the Valkyries to Walhalla. Covered with all sorts of photos printed or attached to lead sheets, and hung with encrusted garments, it represented perhaps the purification of those ascending to Walhalla after war. It was a moment of relief in some ways in a testimony of apocalypse.

Jonathan Jones’ review for the Guardian comes to useful conclusions that I found myself resonating with, and is worth a read. Go and see this exhibition – it is free, and startling. The photos here do not do it justice.

I originally intended this post to be an exploration of the two parts of Berry’s contention above, and was going to contrast this work with the work of the American artist Harlan Hubbard, whose work has also been much in my mind recently, but it will take two posts, at least! Part 2 will be here shortly.


Choosing an appropriate standard

On Friday I had a short conversation with two inspiring leaders from the Islamic Shakhsiyah Foundation schools in Slough and Tottenham. I asked them whether they were a good school – did they think of themselves as a good school? They hesitated, giving the usual answer of “well, it depends what you mean by….” In reply, I said to them “Are you successful in terms of the values and standards that you set yourself, your goals and vision?” And both of them beamed and said “Yes”. It was really refreshing to hear. And I had to say that we too, by the measures we value and have worked hard for, are a successful school.

This is important for us, because as useful as external verification could be, it is what is verified and the external values implicit in that verification that are being assessed, not the values that the school or organisation holds to. As we discussed on Tuesday morning at the branch meeting of NAHT, it is not assessment that we are struggling with, but the uses to which it is put in the accountability measures devised by the government. We all as school leaders understand the wide variability in, for instance, writing moderation outcomes that have been flooding across English education this summer. We recognise the variation in judgments between any two inspection teams looking at the same school or the same set of figures. We also know that this year’s KS2 and KS1 outcomes (and, actually, the outcomes at Foundation Stage in terms of the measurement of a Good Level of Development – GLD) were a travesty of what constitutes good assessment. Yet, they are written down. They appear in documents like RAISE Online, in the sledgehammer-to-crack-a-nut language of the Data Dashboard (one colleague told me this week that her data dashboard said that “this school has no strengths” which is hilarious if not so discouraging) and in the panicky reaction of some Local Authority advisers desperate not to lose another school to the cess-pool KPIs of the so-called “regional schools commissioners.” And being written down, they assume a life of their own. They become real in the writing.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESWhat may have been an aspiration or an intention now becomes a measure to be striven for – a target, if you will, and at that exact point, our relationship to it changes. As Charles Goodhart has it – when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to have any value as a measure. Even if the data was trustworthy enough to believe, Goodhart’s Law says you can’t believe it anyway, because in treating it as a target, our own striving to meet it renders it useless as a measure of our progress! How else can we explain the fact that our “allegedly low” Good Level of Development of 61% in 2016 is the same as the MK average just two years ago? People have been “reassessing” children’s progress, that’s what has happened. As a result, the average GLD in Milton Keynes has risen by 10% in two years. The national data, in the same time, has risen 9% and the regional data also 9%. Everybody is “reassessing” in the light of the data of the year before. And Milton Keynes Schools are “reassessing” a little bit better than the national average, or so it seems. Are Foundation Stage children getting better by 5% every year? No, of course not. This means that the only value the measure can possibly have is that of “lateral competition” – comparing yourself with other schools in the same time frame. We cannot use it at all to prove year on year progress. It makes it the absolutely worst measure of any we have to justify progress in schools. For this reason, and I NEVER thought I would hear myself say these words, I give thanks for the Year 1 Phonics Check, as awful as it is, as the only measure whose methodology has stayed reasonably reliable  over the last 4 years of assessment chaos.

Yesterday I had the joy of appointing a new TA to work in our Early Learning Phase. Following the interview, she expressed gratitude that we had made it easy for her to be at ease and had made it plain we were employing a person, not just a person to do a job. Her reaction really helped me to see something important – that we have to live fully by the standards of the life we choose.

Sometimes we hear people say that a managerial stance has to be robust and challenging – because that is what the “real world” is like. If you don’t meet your targets, then that’s just tough, you fail and lose your job. “That’s what the professional world is like,” they say. “Your results have slipped three years now, so you will have to find yourself another job. You are obviously no good at this one.”

This is predicated on a key assumption that we live by the law of the jungle, of the fierce competitiveness that characterises huskies pulling a sled, and not by the law of love and of affection. We are expected, therefore, to find it necessary to fight our way to success, rather than to work at it in fellowship with others and to find our pleasure and success in terms of the good goals we have set ourselves, learning to achieve those using the ordinary kindnesses and, occasionally, self-sacrificial love . This is, as in so many instances, summed up most eloquently by Wendell Berry, in the essay “Economy and Pleasure”

Rats and roaches live by competition under the law of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy. It is impossible not to notice how little the proponents of the ideal of competition have to say about honesty, which is the fundamental economic virtue, and how very little they have to say about community, compassion and mutual help.

But what the ideal of competition most flagrantly and disastrously excludes is affection. The affections, John Ruskin said, are an “anomalous force, rendering every one of the ordinary political economist’s calculations nugatory; while, even if he desired to introduce this new element into his estimates, he has no power of dealing with it; for the affections only become a true motive power when they ignore every other motive and condition of political economy.”

Thus, if we are sane, we do not dismiss or abandon our infant children or our aged parents because they are too young or too old to work.For human beings, affection is the ultimate motive, because the force that powers us, as Ruskin also said, is not “steam, magnetism or gravitation” but “a Soul” (in “What are People For?” p136, Counterpoint, Berkeley CA)

This dovetails right into another area of substance. If we are committed to being followers of Jesus, then everything we do in a school or in a business is held to a different standard than that demanded of us by the professional world. God’s standards are resolutely amateur, being that of love and of the strong giving themselves to the weak, of the rich making space for the poor. If we as leaders in a school are told to “clothe ourselves with gentleness, humility, kindness and patience” and to “bear with each other” and “forgive whatever grievances we may have against one another” as Paul in Colossians 3 bids us, then we cannot primarily look to a competitive standard, a “business model” to inform our thinking. The basis has to be rethought, and in the rethinking, of course, comes the subversion. We cannot rethink the whole basis of western economic activity, predicated as it is solely on competition. That Jesus’ gospel is subversive we sort of know, and have been told. In the rethinking of how we should live between these two constructs of affection and competition, the former completely subverts and destroys the latter, for the benefit of schools and businesses everywhere.

Choosing a standard to work by is of first importance to school leaders. And with the kind and thoughtful leaders of the Islamic Shakhsiyah Foundation, I choose affection over competition, and choose to orient this school around the purposes God has called us to, and the life he has called us to live in our community.

What might have been

dsc04336In the opening paragraph of his influential book written in 1911 entitled What Is and What Might Be, the Anglo-Irish educator, poet and writer Edmond Holmes wrote the following:

My aim, in writing this book, is to show that…the prevalent tendency to pay undue regard to outward and visible “results” and to neglect what is inward and vital, is the source of most of the defects that vitiate Education in this country, and therefore that the only remedy for those defects is the drastic one of changing our standard of reality and our conception of the meaning and value of life…(p v)

How did the belief that a formal examination is a worthy end for teacher and child to aim at, and an adequate test of success in teaching and in learning, come to establish itself in this country? And not in this country only, but in the whole Western world? In every Western country that is progressive and “up to date”, and in every Western country in exact proportion as it is progressive and “up to date”, the examination system controls education, and in doing so arrests the self-development of the child, and therefore strangles his inward growth……The Western belief in the efficacy of examinations is a symptom of a widespread and deep-seated tendency, – the tendency to judge according to the appearance of things, to attach supreme importance to visible “results”, to measure inward worth by outward standards, to estimate progress in terms of what the “world” reveres as “success”. It is the Western standard of values, the Western way of looking at things, which is in question, and which I must now attempt to determine (p8-9)


I spent yesterday in London at the Cambridge Primary Review Trust (CPRT) conference at NUT headquarters; the conference title, referencing Holmes, was Primary Education: What is and what might be, and Robin Alexander, in his role as lead writer and co-director of the CPRT opened his talk with a discussion  of the prescience of Holmes’ writing. More of that anon.

Holmes goes on, through an argument that rejects a mechanical model for education, to emphasise the self-realisation and self-actualisation of children in their learning. He looks for the fostering of the spiritual within children and attacks (only partly rightly) the Christian concept of original sin and rebellion in a child as being over-emphasised in the very schooling which should have been able to show mercy and grace. In the chapter entitled “Education through mechanical obedience” He writes:

THE God of popular theology has been engaged for more than thirty centuries in educating his child, Man. His system of education has been based on complete distrust of Man’s nature. In the schools which Man has been required to attend – the Legal School under the Old Dispensation, the Ecclesiastical School under the New – it has been taken for granted that he can neither discern what is true, nor desire what is good. The truth of things has therefore been formulated for him, and he has been required to learn it by rote and profess his belief in it, clause by clause. His duty has also been formulated for him, and he has been required to perform it, detail by detail, in obedience to the commandments of an all-embracing Code, or to the direction of an all-controlling Church.

It has further been taken for granted that Man’s instincts and impulses are wholly evil, and that “Right Faith” and “Right Conduct” are entirely repugnant to his nature. In order to overcome the resistance which his corrupt heart and perverse will might therefore be expected to offer to the authority and influence of his teachers, a scheme of rewards and punishments has had to be devised for his benefit. As there is no better nature for the scheme to appeal to, an appeal has had to be made to fears and hopes which are avowedly base. The refractory child has had to be threatened with corporal punishment in the form of an eternity of torment in Hell. And he has had to be bribed by the offer of prizes, the chief of which is an eternity of selfish enjoyment in Heaven, – enjoyment so selfish that it will consist with, and even (it is said) be heightened by, the knowledge that in the Final Examination the failures have been many and the prize-winners few.

And as, under this system of education, obedience is the first and last of virtues, so self-will – in the sense of daring to think and act for oneself – is the first and last of offences. It is for the sin of spiritual initiative – the sin of trying to work out one’s own salvation by the exercise of reason, conscience, imagination, aspiration, and other spiritual faculties – that the direst penalties are reserved (my emphasis). The path of salvation is the path of blind, passive, mechanical obedience. To deviate even a little from that path is to incur the penalty of eternal death.

If only for directing me to this text, I am grateful for Robin’s initiative in putting on the conference. Just reading it puts me in mind of Dostoevsky’s grand inquisitor in chapter 5 of Book 5 of the Brothers Karamazov, and therefore part of that effective late 19th century striving to understand God apart from the way (and more compassionate than how) the church said he was.

My final quote from Holmes just makes me laugh. At Christ the Sower we follow our collective worship often with maths, and this paragraph hopefully is completely wide of the mark!

After Scripture comes as a rule Arithmetic. During the former lesson the teacher, acting under compulsion, does his best, as we have seen, to deaden the child’s spiritual faculties. During the latter, he not infrequently does his best to deaden the child’s mental faculties. In each case he is to be pitied rather than blamed. The conditions under which he works, and has long worked, are too strong for him. If we are to understand why secular instruction, as given in our elementary schools, is what it is, we must go back for half a century or so and trace the steps by which the “Education Department” forced elementary education in England into the grooves in which, in many schools, it is still moving, and from which even the most enlightened and enterprising teachers find it difficult to escape.

The conference overall was a good day with learning coming from odd corners, not from the mainstream. Robin’s opening address was a thoughtful review of the main aims of the Cambridge Primary Review and the political impact it has had subsequently. It was not new to anyone who has walked with the CPR or CPRT over the last 7 years, but it was a reminder that we fully understand primary education in England because of it. The degree to which government officials and ministers read the final report is the degree to which they have the understanding necessary to do their jobs with regard to the primary sector. If they want, they could look at the summary document, which will be enlightening to anyone in Sanctuary Buildings, and should be required reading for anyone with a curriculum to enforce suggest.

The highlights of applicable thinking came from two presentations late in the day, from Melissa Benn and Andrew Pollard. The applicable practice came through the presentation in break-out sessions of work presented on the Mantle of the Expert, on the applicability of neuro-biological approaches to cognition, research into mastery and work on enhancing the voice of the child in the classroom.

November is usually the time I go to the Whole Education conference (this year in January), and I found it hard not to compare the two. What the CPRT conference had over Whole Education (as I have learned to love it over the last four years) was a richer, more determined and politically-expressed integrity. It was more confident of its findings and more purposeful in its intent. It has better research evidence from which to work, and well established principles and curricular guidance that puts the principles to work. But it is a younger conference – the first – and as such had less variety, it seemed to me, and was not as broad in its reach. Whole Education has been conferencing a lot, and has pitched its tent on the “this is the way things are so we will make the best of it” plot. CPRT asks “why should things be this way, and why not seek to alter that?”

dsc04342Anyway, I have had time to write up the notes from Melissa Benn and Andrew Pollard. See what you think.

Melissa Benn: Melissa spoke “as an outsider, a campaigner, and I have seen again today what a complex, interesting and professional place schools are.” In plumping for a completely frank approach, she asked the question What has shaped policy-making for English schools?

  1. Far too much shaping by the individual obsessions and back stories of ministers. This “personal” touch was both new and problematic.
  2. The marginalisation and exclusion of progressive and professional (and especially “progressive professional” opinion. The LAs have been stripped to the bone and under continual pressure, along with teacher trade unions which have been pushed out of the policy process completely. In the period 1944-64 it was rumoured that education policy was essentially made in a gentleman’s club by the head of the Local Authorities Education Committee, the General Secretary of the NUT and the permanent secretary at the Department of Education. These days it is a different cabal, a different voice.
  3. The emergence of new actors – philanthropists (especially in the US charter school world), hedge fund managers, corporate executives, think tanks – are bringing new imperatives into the field.
  4. The emergence and use of social media to define policy: 140 characters is a long way from Plowden!
  5. Passing fads in political life, which has got faster: PISA influenced Gove, as did free schools and the idea of superheads. All of these are passing, but their disruption and centrality to policy was huge.
  6. The politicisation of the DfE which is unprecedented. Political points were made by “unnamed” DfE spokesmen, rather than by the ministerial team. The DfE press office is now very “on message” – partial and imbalanced.

What do we know from the period 2010-2015, a period which Melissa has studied in depth? There has been:

  1. Massive structural upheaval in the school system.
  2. A darkening and damaging narrative being perpetrated onto schools.
  3. A hankering after a golden age of national glory – and the feeling that it is failing. This is blamed on state education, and primary schools have been urged to be more like prep schools. Two narrative events characterise this period most brutally:
    1. Gove’s 2013 speech to the Social Market Foundation, which was deeply disingenuous, and which betrayed a willed ignorance of the history and purpose of comprehensive education from the era of Plowden to the Cambridge Primary Review. In invoking sources as varied as ED Hirsch, Jay Goody and Antonio Gramsci, he argued for the sort of education that only conservatives could bring, and therefore should bring. Melissa said that this was typical Gove. Beautifully written, cogently presented and utterly batty.
    2. The Centre Forum report on Aims for Primary and Secondary Education. This report, published in early 2016, was simply a call for ratcheting up of SATs results – it had no more vision than that. It thought that 85% of all schools should be at Level 4 (old money!) and played into the academy chain idea that 5-6 year olds should be prepared for university!!
  4. Absent in any discussion of education by the government in this period is the role of poverty in shaping education and impacting the role of childhood as an emotional or developmental stage to be cherished. Like so many of the government’s thinking at that time, every stage was seen as a readiness test for the next stage, with the ultimate aim of scoring more highly in PISA tests.
  5. The new curriculum of 2014 has exacerbated inequality by creating a much broader area of failure for children.

Since 2015, the May/Greening regime has produced nothing more exciting than the grammar school initiative. We need to protest long and loud about this. In those areas where grammar schools exist, the 11+ has proved a disaster for primary school education, skewing it badly, and has fostered the massive growth of tutoring. Greening, Melissa thought, should know better, being comprehensively educated.

So, how do we get to be part of the policy process? One hopeful sign is the shift in thinking amongst the “middle class parents” for whom so much of Gove’s policies were geared. The “let our kids be kids” campaign last summer, and the “more than a score” movement have shown that such parents want to see their children as holistically educated. Whilst not the centre of attention, working class parents are more likely to hold to a more holistic view of education. Overall, we see that accountability has got harsher, resources too low, academies are not the way to go if we want more educational success. So what can we do?

  1. Get the CPRT views across to the political parties, especially on the left. The National Education Service of Jeremy Corbyn is a good idea, but politicians not in power do not have much in the way of resources, and need us to help them, to encourage them and to provide ideas and evidence of what is working well for us.
  2. Make the broader argument in society. Rigorous progressivism is not a huge vote winner as a name, but it is the right approach. We need to convey the message that we have university level thinking and trusted teachers – this is a message that many parents can understand. They can also understand the efforts of schools to be at the heart of their communities and that we are ready to serve families as trusted professionals.

dsc04337Andrew Pollard: Andrew, from the UCL Institute of Education, and a researcher of high regard and experience said he wanted to talk to the heart of professionalism: what works and what matters. The need to balance the visionary and evidentially secure is never easy, but is vital for the future of education.

He made the distinction between evidence-based education – which is poorly defined and leaves only application as an option for the teacher; and evidence-informed education – this is more valid and secure, and realistic as a concept. It allows for the exercise of judgment, meaning that the teacher has opportunity to evaluate and to think of the purposes to which such evidence can be put.

However, evidence-informed professional judgment requires very high levels of expertise. The conventional wisdom among politicians is that teachers are important, but that is often as far as it goes. They don’t know what to say next, and they have little idea of the teaching and learning that takes place in the moment. It is the teaching and learning “interactive moment” that matters in schools, and because politicians do not have the skills or understanding to respect that, they create an understanding gap, which they fill with disrespect.

The DfE runs a range of consultations on public opinion and professional opinion, but these are often pseudo-consultations and they work whilst public opinion is uninformed and compliant. We have a situation in England where there are many social representations that are simply untrue or untested. One really common one is the popular idea of ability, that children are bright or thick – they are unaware of Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets and learning, of course – so this idea gets in the way of the debate. Another social representation is the idea of transmission: that teachers are just there to get information and pass it on.

As a result, we need a more public expression of our expertise as teachers: not a tacit assumption that we are doing good for children, but an explicit, well-articulated understanding. To help us, Andrew proposed a model of the architecture of teaching whereby the aims, context, processes and outcomes are explained and interpreted within the three teacherly areas of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment.

The aims are, for example, societal (encompassing the vision that our provision could aspire to), and contain the elements of learning. The context could be that of the community or of the institution doing the teaching. Processes might be those that meet social needs, emotional needs or cognitive needs, whist the outcomes could be those that are developmental or those certificated by some external exam, etc.

He felt that this could be a useful way forward, and proposed inhabitants for each box in this graph:

dsc04341In conclusion, we must be more confident about what we do, and find ways of representing that effectively to parents, MPs and to society.



City futures: competing visions

mug-vistaprint-300x284cvlamuv4Milton Keynes, our great city, where even those who have lived here a short time (like me!) have learned to hold it in huge affection, is 50 next year. We are beginning to think of ways to celebrate that fact, and to stand at that point, where you stand at all great anniversaries, of looking back to the previous 50 years, and looking forward to the next. MK is a city that is designed – it is therefore more unitary in its concept of itself than many places in the UK. However, as a civic identity, Milton Keynes-ness is not shared by everyone, particularly those who lived in the pre-existing towns and villages over which the MK Development Corporation spread its net in the 1970s and 1980s. How you see the civic history and its environmental impact will depend on your own history. Farmers, with good arable land to tend, will mourn the compulsory purchases and the loss of a way of life that had been substantially unchanged from the beginning of mechanised farming. Newcomers may wonder what all the fuss is about. Modernists may rejoice in the triumph of the sort of architectural landscape exemplified (in Britain at least) in this city. Those dwelling in Newport Pagnell and in Bletchley perhaps mourn the transfer of their strong commercial life to the new city centre.

All these things matter, and all matter to the future because they form constructs of the past. We cannot plan for the future without addressing the emotional turbulence of the past.

I will probably think a great deal about this over the next year or so. But what strikes me immediately is that I have come across two different visions for the future of Milton Keynes which appear on the surface to function as if completely unaware of each other.

The MK Mission Partnership, the umbrella group for ecumenical mission in the city, linking the outreach work of all the ecumenical parishes, has published a vision called MK: A city alive to God. You can buy the mug and there are good postcards to remind you of its importance. The interesting thing to me about the vision, which with thought and prayer can inspire the churches, is that it has no demographic, educational, national or regional context. It is a mission statement to the church for its work. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that – our own church vision at St Mary’s Bletchley is the same – little context of what it means for a growing city over the next thirty years or so. But I know that is not what people are thinking about – both in the mission partnership and St Mary’s, people are keenly aware of the way our city is changing. And yet we do not relate our faith ro

On the other side of the coin is the very interesting, well thought out and widely consulted on Milton Keynes Futures 2050. I have only read the summary document so far (and been very inspired by it, to be honest) but there is a fuller report here, and much research, compiled in 3 commission working papers sitting behind it. Because I have not read the full report, I am a little hesitant to say the next bit, but it appears that there is absolutely no cognisance taken of the fact that many people in Milton Keynes, and certainly the vast majority of the newly immigrant population over the last 15-20 years or so, belong to faith communities all over the city. We have an abundance of churches, many well attended, and the majority of those coming to this city from the subcontinent, the Middle East and Africa bring with them real expectations of faith being taken seriously. And yet the MK Futures document is determinedly secular. Still inspiring, though!

It makes me wonder why. Part of the reason, surely, is that faith communities in the UK particularly, have not, for at least the last 100 years, really seen their role as impacting on the urban environment that their churches sit in. We have supported the people, but generally (there are wonderful exceptions) we have not seen civic engagement, the development of healthy families and communities, and the protection and care of the earth as priorities. This is not just misguided, but wrong. It means that civic leaders have no expectation of support for their civic responsibilities from the churches. They might get it, but it is not an expected norm. Conversely it means that Christians do not see their civic duties as part of their discipleship and servant calling.

When Jeremiah’s contemporaries had been carried away to Babylon at the time of the great exile of Israel because of disobedience, Jeremiah sought God for what to write in a letter, and this is what he was told to say:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7).

Christians need look no further for an encouragement to civic engagement than this. There might be more, conceivably, but there is not less.

In the shadow of last week

I have refrained from talking about Donald Trump’s electoral victory partly because everyone else has not so refrained, and there are enough words out there to sink – or launch – a battleship.

My conviction, politically, is that social democracy, however defined, has had the greatest success in bringing the greatest contentment, productivity and social advances of any major political philosophy in the history of mankind, rooted as it is in some very fundamental factors – the desire to support and help one another that is part of whom God created us to be, and the desire to be with each other, because in that way we reflect more of the character of the Trinity into our society. It is a wholly constructive, basically unselfish setting aside of our own desires to serve the common good, that has been authored and sponsored by people, mainly on the left, who have fought hard since, probably, 1848, for its place as a serious political philosophy against the rise of fascism, militarism and communism. It has had some great manifestations, and has been a hallmark of peaceable international relationships in Europe for two generations. Lately, and devastatingly, it has also of late fallen foul of a strong neo-liberal philosophical position that has its main manifestations in such things as the G7 meetings, the G20 and the World Economic Forum held annually at Davos. The story of how and why well-meaning social democracies in Europe fell headlong into the inequalities of neo-liberalism is best told in two books: Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land and Yanis Varoufakis’ And the weak must suffer what they must?

I have re-read the first last month and finished the second last week. Both together constitute a serious polemic on behalf of a renewed social democracy of the sort that would create jobs as a public investment, that would see a wholly responsible, compassionate role for the state that stood its ground against the banking sector and did not think it a good idea to steal from the poorest, as European governments (including ours) have done, in order to fund massive bailouts to the banks. Both books make me angry and both make me understand why Americans in their droves voted for the one of the most uncouth, untutored, uncultured, unsuitable leaders on the planet. Varoufakis’ book is a must-read for anyone who, like me, finds the terminology of the trading floor indecipherable, and has no real clue about how international finance has played out in the last 60 years since the Bretton Woods conference set up the post-war international finance system in 1944.

Then today I have read an excellent article by George Monbiot on the Guardian website that fundamentally reaches the same set of conclusions as Judt and Varoufakis. Like Judt, Monbiot focuses on the negative political philosophy of Friedrich Hayek (in particular his book The Constitution of Liberty, 1960, beloved of, and carried around by, Margaret Thatcher) and its impact on the Chicago group of economists that came from Hayek, and upon Reaganism, Thatcherism and their inheritors, so that competition was seen as key in the markets, that inequality did not have much political significance, that markets should not be interfered with, and that it was the right and duty of every individual to have the “freedom” to get as rich as they could.

This is, sorry, a vile philosophy that is wrong about humanity (it is only right about our worst instincts, not our best) and which does nothing to recognise the social nature of man, or the willingness that we have to be compassionate and reach out to support and help others. Monbiot sees a huge irony in the fact that in the widespread voter repudiation of the political class’ enthrallment to the banks and to wealth (at the expense of the poor) the Americans have elected a man whose values are very close to that espoused by Hayek:

If the dominant ideology stops governments from changing social outcomes, they can no longer respond to the needs of the electorate. Politics becomes irrelevant to people’s lives; debate is reduced to the jabber of a remote elite. The disenfranchised turn instead to a virulent anti-politics in which facts and arguments are replaced by slogans, symbols and sensation. The man who sank Hillary Clinton’s bid for the presidency was not Donald Trump. It was her husband.

The paradoxical result is that the backlash against neoliberalism’s crushing of political choice has elevated just the kind of man that Hayek worshipped. Trump, who has no coherent politics, is not a classic neoliberal. But he is the perfect representation of Hayek’s “independent”; the beneficiary of inherited wealth, unconstrained by common morality, whose gross predilections strike a new path that others may follow. The neoliberal thinktankers are now swarming round this hollow man, this empty vessel waiting to be filled by those who know what they want. The likely result is the demolition of our remaining decencies…

Monbiot concludes with this intriguing statement which has some profound theological implications.

(We) can discern what may be the beginning of a story. It’s too early to say much yet, but at its core is the recognition that – as modern psychology and neuroscience make abundantly clear – human beings, by comparison with any other animals, are both remarkably social and remarkably unselfish. The atomisation and self-interested behaviour neoliberalism promotes run counter to much of what comprises human nature. Hayek told us who we are, and he was wrong. Our first step is to reclaim our humanity.

Reclaiming our humanity may be, at root, something of what the revolt against the elites has been about. We are not numbers or economic units, but real people with real voices and real desires that count, and must count, in a democracy.

If Trump has in any way begun to recognise this, see it for what it is, and enact policies that meet the need, then there may be hope for the US. Otherwise, it looks awfully dark over there.

The purpose of government with regard to the schooling of children: a parable

reine-3-lofoten-islands-pngIf you were an alien (and many of you reading this blog must be), and came to visit schools in Scandinavia, you would rapidly come to some conclusions, whilst feeling slightly chillier than when you had left your home planet.

The main one would be that most school leaders and teachers in the country you had ended up in felt trusted and appreciated by their government and that public education was well funded and that teachers were well thought of – esteemed, even. There would be a recognition that these teachers and leaders knew that they were responsible for the future of their country and that their political leaders knew the school system well because they had actually been through it and prospered. As an alien, you would be welcomed in many parts because these are countries that have a long and honourable history of welcoming the stranger and assimilating them into your country. You would find exceptions of course, but you would be allowed off your craft and not stuck in a detention centre with other aliens on a small island in Papua New Guinea. Your children, if you had them, would be asked to attend classes at your local school to learn Norwegian or Swedish but then, once competent, they would join their peers and invited to climb trees at breaktime. It would feel like education was a public service, publicly funded and wanted, and that there was a degree of local control – if you wanted things to change, you didn’t have to go very far to seek that change. Above all, whilst you would see economic pressures (you are in Europe, after all) you would appreciate that the government regarded education of its young as a civic duty, the quality of which being something by which the government would be happy to be judged on. One of the countries you go to did have a flirtation with something called free schools, but the outcomes from these are mixed and the consensus is that most schools in that country are much better run by civic municipalities with some measure of local democratic control. Another country you visit has decided, between both main political parties, that the amount of the GDP that will be spent on education will be fixed at a very high level – not to be debated!

birmingham-8th-april-10Then you get on a ferry and arrive in England. Here, you quickly find, hardly any of the members of the government have used the nation’s schools, which seems just weird to you, weirder even than some other things you will encounter in this new country. The government do not “get it” that these schools are a public service. Rather, many of them were educated at places where their parents either paid for them to go, or used a selection test of a limited range of ability to get in. They are all well educated, these leaders, but very soon, when with them, you see that schools are something to be criticised and judged, and not organisations the quality of which can be used to evaluate political leaders. The idea that government can be judged by the quality of its schools is not in common parlance. Rather, the press of this new country seem to be full of vitriol about anyone in authority, and that includes teachers, who are regarded as rather lazy and uneducated. You investigate further and do indeed find that the government of this country has such a low opinion of these “common” schools that they cannot find the money to train teachers properly. They even have a special organisation just to judge schools, demonstrating straight away their distrust of these “common” schools. Compared with your experience in Northern Europe, the teachers are indeed pretty undereducated, and in fact education is not seen as requiring an intellectual background at all. In fact, there have been recent efforts made to discourage the nation’s many good universities from training teachers, because they are not practical enough. A recent minister for education has even said that experts on a subject are not to be trusted, and you wonder and reflect back on your 3 year degree on your home planet – how good would I be at this space travel thing if I didn’t have experts in interplanetary travel teaching me? You recall that in one of your Scandinavian schools, teachers had to go through a four year vocational training. In a school in England you struggle to find a teacher who has not simply done a one year course attached to a “teaching” school. And still the government says it cannot supply enough teachers. You find out from the local trainer of teachers, a pleasant woman with a willingness to answer questions from an alien, that last year her teaching school was allowed to train 35 students, but this year has been allowed only to train 25, and you wonder where the sense of that is. You remember another Scandinavian school, filled with teachers with Masters’ Degrees in Education, and are overcome with awe that the English teachers you know, actually manage to achieve so much with such little training.

Here seems to be a country that only values money – the only explicit purpose of going to school seems to be to get a job when you finish. The only purpose of getting people a job is to raise taxes for the government. What the government does with the taxes is a mystery. The country has a large and well-funded health service (your guide for aliens that you read on the trip here says it is the largest organisation in Europe), yet the people do not seem to be any healthier than those in Scandinavia. The country seems quite bellicose, and you have heard that they are buying new weapons to hide on special underwater ships – that sounds expensive: maybe that’s where the money goes. They seem to have a lot of banks which keep all the money, yet many of those banks have been receiving money from the government, so economically, you are one confused alien.But you are getting some clues about the status of schools here.

Unfortunately, and this makes you sad, after your experience in Scandinavia, the government here seems to have no vision for what its nation could be, and you cannot see clearly why it is educating its populace at all. Yet the people seem straightforward and kind, hospitable and warm, and you wonder what miracles these teachers do with so little training and so little commitment from their government, which clearly despises them.

It’s warmer here, you think. There is more sunshine and plenty of openness from the children you meet, and perhaps you would like to stay.

This is slightly rose-tinted, I know, but in the light of the current funding crisis for schools and the lack of any sort of plan for making enough new teachers, I am left with not much faith that the UK government loves and honours its publicly-funded schools enough to meet their needs and to take responsibility for them.

If you are a government, there are certain responsibilities you need to accept, and one of them is to educate your children well, to provide and take responsibility for finding and training good teachers to do that, and provide adequate and safe buildings for them to learn in. Once you have done that, you can start talking about curriculum accountability, assessment and variable governance structures, but not before. As long as we do not have enough teachers or enough money to fund schools effectively, and to repair those that have fallen into dangerous disrepair, our political masters have no business talking about assessment, inspection, academies, free schools or grammar schools. Find the money, train the teachers effectively (and PGCEs don’t really count as effective) and then, only then, ask for some value for money. Because, you guys in Sanctuary Buildings, right now, whether you know it or not, with the teachers you have, the training you have given them, and the amount you pay to schools, you are getting better value for money than you have ever had. It is you who owe us, not the other way around.


Looking back with intent


In 1983, while accompanying some 3rd year geology students at the University of the Western Cape where I was registered as a MSc student, I visited the Fish River Canyon in southern Namibia. It was one of the most beautiful and inspiring places I had ever seen. We were mapping some Precambrian rocks at a farm called Aussenkehr, on the Orange River, and the trip to the Fish River was by way of a break for the students. These paintings were made subsequently from two slides I took at the time with a lovely Yashica SLR that my dad gave me when I graduated and left for “the deep south” two years earlier. The camera was the tool through which most of my geological career was mediated. The paintings were hanging in Bristol for nearly 20 years and have recently reappeared over my dad’s mantelpiece in Brecon.

The Yashica did not survive a spectacularly kak-handed burglary we suffered two weeks before leaving South Africa in 1991 and where it is now, and in how many parts, I have no idea. But all of the early lives of our family were seen literally through its lens. I miss the camera itself, and modern digital SLRs don’t seem to have the same dense feel. Painting the scene from the slides brought the clarity and care to mind that SLR users took on their 12, 24 or 36 shot film cartridges I remember from pre-digital photography, when every shot counted.


These senses matter, I think. Wendell Berry talks of the tragedy of “not talking” and not rehearsing the stories of our lives through talk and the telling of stories to each other, with all their embellishments, false memories and particular points of view. The habit of “sitting till bedtime” whereby families would visit each other after supper and before bedtime in his farming society, has faded away, and in a beautiful poem, written to the author Ernest Gaines, Berry talks about how the common thread between the two writers, one white, one black, both southern, lies in the fact that they “both knew the talk of old men” on porches and in back yards. And this talk would often be of the form “D’you remember when old so-and-so did such-and-such? Oh, how we laughed!”

This talk is valuable because it reflects the past to the present and gives both fuller meaning. We are so often urged to “look to the future” – the undefined, undescribed future. We cannot do this of course, because we have no idea what it will look like, and those ideas we have are invariably wrong and take too much account of technological salesmanship. Who, for instance, forecast the absurd and damaging impact of hand-held digital devices and iPads on relationships in families? And who cared? Not Apple and their imitators, for sure. We have to look firmly to the past for the models by which to live in the future, if only because the vast majority of what we have valued and trusted, by their very nature, are there. This is not nostalgia, but a trying out, in the present, of sound and effective models of relating, learning, teaching, understanding, building together, remembering, that have been learned in the past and experienced there. We take of this past deliberately and use it to shape the present. It is the love and joy and internalising of what we do today that will be the limit of our powers in shaping the future. This is why 80% of what a teacher has to offer students is who they are not what they know.

I was reflecting on this in a different way last night as parents and children came for their “participative education consultation” aka parents’ evening. It was a very good time, with lots of smiles and encouragements and new clarity about how to bless our children. However, amongst the children were some Year 7, Year 8, Year 9, Year 10 children who are educated at the Hazeley Academy or other secondary institutions and returned with their parents and siblings. These children are still part of us, and knew it. We are part of them, and some of them know that, too. Whilst some, every year, leave without a backward glance and launch out into that undefined, undescribed future that they are yet to impact, those who came last night were all very physically present, wanting to be welcomed, recognised, admired, hugged even, seen both in their individuality and as part of their families, wanting both their own personhood and the importance of their families to be honoured. So it was a complete joy to walk around classes, greet parents, talk to former pupils and celebrate their achievements, which are many.

However, there is a caveat, and it comes back to a recurring issue in our education system: how quickly we forget those who have gone before, in the mad rush to cram everything we can into the present. This is not education; this is fast food processing, and the way we have to live and the attitudes we are pressured into owning and adopting, mean that reduction to the present, reduction to the numeric, reduction to the technically productive, is everywhere. Only some of this is good – the good that comes from a deliberate craftsmanship or intentional and purposeful planning for good pupil outcomes. Whether the current administration, and the 5 before it, could ever recognise that this was their doing, is moot, but in adopting then encouraging an increasingly choice-filled and individualistic philosophy, they have ensured that we have not just broken ties with the society around us in the present (space and community), but increasingly have done so in the past (memory and history). This should be resisted at ALL COSTS, and we start be telling each other the stories that made us the school, the community, the families, that we find ourselves to be, pulling the past and setting it among us in the present.

Who does the schooling? Where is the school?

dsc04207One of the best pieces of fiction in Wendell Berry’s oeuvre comes in his short novel Remembering, written in 2008. The context is that of the adult Andy Catlett (the “type” of Berry himself, as much as any character is) who has lost a hand in a corn-picking machine, “remembering” himself back to wholeness and self-forgiveness. In the course of remembering the momentous event that took him from being an urban journalist in the service of industrial agriculture back to being a farmer again, he writes this:

More at ease, he remembered something that as a child he had learned about, but now saw:

Mat, his grandfather, as a little boy, was sitting on a board that Jack Beechum had nailed to his plowbeam to make him a seat. As Jack walked behind the plow, Mat sat on the beam, and they talked. They talked about the pair of mules that drew the plow, and about the plow and how it was running, but they talked too about everything that a small boy could think to ask about, who had nothing to do but look and think and ask, except maybe, up in the afternooon, go to the srping to bring back a fresh drink of water in the gourd.

Was that a school? It was a school.

Andy thought of his own young children, who had descended, in part, from that school on the plowbeam and did not know it. The mares strode lightly with their burden, the birds sang, the furrow rolled off the plow in a long fluent motion, and a thrill grew in Andy at the recognition of something he had forgotten.

The pun in the title is that this re-membering, whilst not restoring physical health to Andy, does begin to rebuild his experiential life and valued history, so it has a future and a hope beyond the brokenness.

Pan forward to an interview I heard on Libby Purves’ Midweek program on Radio 4 this morning with Marcus Wareing, the chef. “I didn’t realise at the time that my father was giving me a 5-6 year apprenticeship to deal with raw ingredients” says Wareing toward the end of the programme. His father was a potato merchant, a workaholic and had an intimate knowledge of fresh produce, of how to procure it, care for it, present it for the customer. Young Marcus, in order to be with his dad whom he adored and looked up to, would go and join him in the warehouses after school – and thus began the 5-6 year apprenticeship. His dad has been a model for hard work and a high level of competence that Marcus has inherited as an adult, and can say, as a focal practice, what it is of his father that impacted him as an adult.

This really struck me. We talked about it later in a small group of sane headteachers that meet termly for the Restorative Practice network with Paul Carlile and Tom Macready, where we often talk about parents and the way that we can engage them more deeply in school. There is something so broad about schooling, so rich, so participative, so inclusive of all the influence that we bring to bear on young children, that those parents who “send their children to school” should pause and remember that they, and not us, are the principal educators of their children, and should therefore make sure that everything in their family life is scooped up and put to good use. It is said of Samuel the prophet in 1 Samuel 3.19, that “The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground.”

Let none of our words fall to the ground. That is a real challenge – and a vision for a true intentionality and craftsmanship both for teachers and for parents, educators both.

Off to parents’ evening now – or perhaps, “a participative education consultation”…

Heart of the matter

Yesterday I completed (I use the word loosely), a manuscript I am sending to my nominated editor, Trevor Cooling, for eventual publication in the Grove series of books. It has nearly been two years since I first met Trevor and responded to his suggestion that Grove might be a place to publish what I was wanting to write. During that two years, whilst my fundamental belief system has not shifted at all, I have found it ever more clear that as soon as we (Christian people to begin with, but then everyone!) depart from the action of Jesus in our lives and in the world, we are in a mess. In trying to come up with a decent title for the manuscript, I suggested “Let’s make Jesus real in our schools – and here is a way to do it” which is not pithy or very Grove-like, but it is exactly what I want the book to say.

So when I took some time last week to re-read Carl Medearis’ excellent book Speaking of Jesus (I have now read it four times, and will doubtless read it again) I was confirmed somehow in my belief that the gospels really do show us what God is like. Jesus really is just like God, reflecting the character and wisdom and beauty of the Father into the world. The things he said and did are the things that God says and does in our lives and we are nuts to relegate the gospels as some sort of preamble to the heavy duty stuff of atonement, propitiation and salvation. The latter are not unimportant, but they do not help us know that much about how to live and what God would be like if He was sitting in a room with us. It is a day-to-day consideration of the gospels that does that, and which teach us, in Dallas Willard’s words, how to live our lives as if Jesus were living them instead of us.

As church school leaders, we have a duty to find ways to allow the life of Jesus into our schools. We need to see Him released into everything from curriculum to management of pupil conduct, to assessment, to how we use the buildings – as well as inviting him into the heart of the worship and teaching that we bring to our children. We have to imagine Jesus better. We have, first of all, to imagine him with the poor and the outcast. The wonderful thing about Medearis’ book is somehow he finds a way of de-churching, “de-Christianizing” the gospel so that we find that Jesus is the whole gospel. There is no gospel without him, and any presentation of truth without Him misses the point. Medearis’ great skill is to show that it is possible to be a follower of Jesus and not yet a card-carrying, self-identifying Christian. I find this really helpful, as do many in the Muslim world, who love Isa/Jesus and want to know more about Him, but without all the religious garbage that gets in the way. It raises the question, which I have loved since I heard a fantastic story from Watchman Nee 30 years ago – is it possible to love and follow Jesus and still not be a “Christian”? And does it matter? And if someone decides to follow Jesus, as He commanded, and yet never gets to the 4 spiritual laws, never gets to read Romans, is he “saved”? Just writing that question shows how ridiculous it is. We are not the judge, in case we hadn’t noticed. By one version of an evangelical theology, I am “saved” – but until my life reflects my discipleship of Jesus, I am certainly not Christian. It is those who follow Jesus, who build on the rock of His calling and love, that he accepts and gives life to.

Don’t get me wrong about religious garbage, by the way. I love liturgy for the way that it helps me, or us, corporately, bring content to our worship. The psalms are like that – liturgies of experience that help us gaze fully at God’s desire for us. But they are not the gospel. The gospel is simply the person, work and teaching – the good news – of Jesus. God became human and showed us how to live to please him, and gave us (more importantly) the power to do so. In the church I attend, we sometimes are enjoined to worship God “so that the Holy Spirit has freedom to move among us”. I am a charismatic evangelical by background, so I get the language. I just am less sure that it helps us to think of Jesus clearly. If we think of him as a disembodied spirit rather than a thoroughly embodied Jew, we create trouble for ourselves. If he is spirit, that is because he dwells with our spirit, in us, to reflect the glory of the Father.

For those of us for whom the established church of all stripes is more of a barrier to faith than a help to it (and I have been in that place for about 10 years now), it is very exciting to see myself, as Medearis also sees himself, as “someone who is trying to follow Jesus,” rather than as a Christian. This should help us a lot, I think. If we introduce Jesus as a person who is for people, for our friends, for our enemies, for the children and adults we work with in schools, then whether we are a “church school” or not, we carry around the life of Jesus in order to help people get to know him. As Medearis points out in his book, it is far more likely that Jesus would want to spend time with those who can’t believe that He cares about them, than with us, who believe it but struggle to live it (most of the time!).

This is harder than just “being a Christian” or “leading a church school”. But then, the rewards are better.

Courses that should not exist

The CPD world has gone nuts. Everywhere you turn there are courses for anything that any public body has mentioned is a concern. Nobody knows who validates a lot of them and occasionally you come across one that should have been deleted as a thought before it became a word, and edited as a word before it became a course. Here is one, from the Swan Teaching School Alliance in Towcester. It is called

Your complete guide to preparing years 3 and 4 KS2 SATs – Maths.

You will be guided through this one day course enabling you to develop practical techniques to develop core skills in Preparing Years 3 and 4 for KS2 SATs – Maths

Erm. Y3 and Y4 do not sit SATs, and won’t for nearly 3 years, or nearly 4. And when they do, whatever else is certain, SATs will look different, either because the government has listened to common sense from the profession and their professional associations, or because they haven’t, and then been subject to widespread industrial action, and then have listened. Or, if none of that happens or has an impact, they will look different because this lot cannot leave well alone and will have fiddled with it.

The course, by the way, only costs £150 for a full day, presumably with lunch thrown in, and I expect it will be worthwhile for some who attend, just for the input and reflection that all courses offer. But you can bet that whatever else the course does, it will not prepare Years 3 and 4 for KS2 SATs. What does that is a combination of good provision in teaching, high expectations in learning, and deep understanding of how children learn maths.

If anyone else has course names that should not exist, please tell me!