A (new) gardening perspective (Part 1)

In their 2011 book, Gardens of Democracy, Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer argue for a change in mindset to the US economy, its democratic processes and thus its civic life. They suggest that this is best done by shifting from what they call the machinebrain to a gardenbrain in our thinking. The fundamental difference is in how we exert influence: a machinebrain sets up a system and then allows that system to function, more or less effectively, but is unwilling to interfere with the system that it has set up because it attributes certain power to the machine (and therefore, presumably, authority) and hence accepts its unchanging role in society, the economy or government. It thinks in terms of self-regulation, and believes that “the markets” or “the democratic system” will sort themselves out because they are the systems we have set up.

The gardenbrain, on the other hand, sees everything as open to being tended. It accepts stewardship rather than self-regulation, and therefore sees that gardeners, rather than a system, have the controlling hand. It accepts complexity rather than simplification of economic and political models, and sees things as interrelated in that complexity. It accepts a large ecosystem with a wide number of “players” rather than a model where everyone has to fit their lives, thinking, work, etc. around a self-regulating system.

I came across their work through reading Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, which in turn I discovered through George Monbiot’s review of it in the Guardian in April. Raworth has written one of the most exciting books I have read since I discovered Wendell Berry and I have read her work with a growing sense of alarm, joy, deep stimulation and relief. Apart from anything else she restores the importance of the household economy to its proper place. She applies the gardenbrain metaphor of Liu and Hanauer to a concept of economic gardening which accepts that we are tending an evolving, interconnected economic society which is on such a global scale that

“gives added importance to novel initiatives, from new business models to complementary currencies and open-source design. Far from being mere fringe activities, these experiments are at the cutting edge – or rather, the evolving edge – of economic transformation towards the distributive and regenerative dynamics that we need” (p158)

This is not the place to review Kate Raworth’s book, and I will need to read it again before I even absorb the power of what she is proposing (it is reviewed here and here and here, besides George Monbiot’s review mentioned above), but I am grateful to her for referencing Liu and Hanauer’s work because it has begun to spark in me a complete review about the work I do as a headteacher.

They write:

To be a gardener is not to let nature take its course; it is to tend….Gardeners don’t make plants grow but they do create conditions where plants can thrive and they do make judgments about what should and shouldn’t be in the garden. (Gardens of Democracy, Sasquatch Books, 2011, p11, p87)

Humans, it is said, originated in a garden. Perhaps that is why we understand so intuitively what it takes to become great gardeners. Find the right ground and cast the seed. Fertilize, water and weed. Know the difference between blight and bounty. Adapt to changing weather and seasons. Turn the soil. That is how a fruitful economy grows. (The Machine and the Garden, NY Times, July 2012)

There is much here to contemplate in my own leading of a school, and as I do, regret also arises, for missed opportunities, for lack of clarity of purpose in my own work, and in a concern that a failure to lead by example, above all, in missed opportunities to take the courage to teach, has led to plants – children and teachers – not growing in the way that I intended. I have exalted autonomy for teachers as a public good for the school without tending to their needs more carefully. I have tried to maximise teacher’s impact without giving careful thought to my own.

All that is about to change, and I will begin some sort of extended meditation over the coming months on my role, how I deploy myself, what I spend time on, and how I nurture – and intervene (a posh word for interfere, sorry) where necessary – with teachers and children. It will mean being more public in school and less public with colleagues. Kate Raworth says that “economic gardeners must get stuck in, nurturing, selecting, repotting, grafting, pruning and weeding the plants as they grow and mature.” (p158) All of these lovely present participles have got direct application to the work that is coming up at Christ the Sower.

Before Easter, I signed myself off work for three days because of the accumulation of stress, exhaustion, bad sleep patterns and over work. It was always going to happen, given the way I have gone about things, but it took me by surprise even so. I tried to come back on days 4 and 5, but failed both times. In 36 years of work I have never been away from work for more than a day at a time. What finally really worried me was that I was getting bad/slow at decision making and needed to get out of the way so that those who needed to make the decisions could get on and do so. A number of things about the future were sorted out in my mind during those three days, and in subsequent conversations with those who looked to support me, I began to evaluate some of what my personal impact has been and where I have actually made a difference when I have been at my best.

We are thinking and musing as a leadership team about our annual gathering of teaching staff and governors that is taking place a week on Friday (26th May). We have a model for how we will deepen our work – in fact depth will be a key concept in what we talk about – and there is an excitement about us as we approach it. However, a rootedness in who we are and what we can realistically achieve has underpinned all our discussions. It means finding ourselves as a school in God again, looking at the new uncertainty of the educational landscape, with assessment, funding, governance models all under scrutiny and pressure, and knowing that He is able to lead us and protect us. It means taking on His yoke, I suspect, and walking at His pace as we tend to one another. It also means being rightly yoked together as leaders who lead, but who share that work more equably – in this matter I have probably failed my co-leaders this year by not taking my fair share of the load – so that those who follow grow in confidence to be the leaders that they in turn are called to be to their children.

More to follow, doubtless.


For the display of His multi-faceted wisdom

Just what, exactly, is the church for? I have been pondering this question a lot recently, mainly because it seems that whilst a huge amount of energy is poured into thinking about what we do, how we reach out, how we meet together, how we serve one another, it seems to me that the lack of a unifying “big picture” can often cause us to limp and lose confidence as Christians when it comes to mission and to living out our daily lives as disciples.

The question also stems from my dissatisfaction generally with church leadership not engaging with its ordinary members that are serving Jesus in their workplaces, and therefore often not seeing (never mind appreciating and supporting) the work of the gospel through the lives of those who may not do much in church but are pouring themselves out in the mission in businesses, hospitals and other areas of service that are not directly “supported” by the church. This sounds really harsh, and I don’t mean it to suggest that the church is not functioning well, worshipping well, evangelising well in many parts of the UK and the world. However, I think that many of us have forgotten, or never been told, what it is that the church is for – not who it is for, which is clear as anything in the gospels, not its nature, which is demonstrated in manifold metaphors (bride, body, building, rock etc) in the New Testament – but its purpose, the intent for which it was created, the role it is to play in the world in which it is placed. Early Christians, who by their persistence, faith and love brought the church from an obscure Palestinian sect to being the dominant cultural force in the Mediterranean area within 250 years, knew this, and knew it intimately.

The New Testament is full of detailed information about how to function and serve within the church as disciples. However, information about the church’s purpose in the world is almost taken for granted, and energy given to other areas of exposition – how actually to live in this church that God has planted. The information on purpose is there, as we shall see, but it is not front and centre. This means that while the actions and activities of the church are well known, the big picture of why we are doing what we are doing is less well known, either to Christians themselves, or to the world into which we are placed.

I think about this a lot, because to me it is a vital corollary to the resurrection of Jesus and his proclamation of a new kingdom, with death defeated and a new way of being in the world – what Dallas Willard liked to call living the “eternal kind of life.” I don’t want to be too programmatic about this; we need everyday to rely on Jesus and his strength and on the Holy Spirit’s revelation and insight to do the work we are called to. However, seeing ourselves empowered for mission by the presence of the Holy Spirit within us is of much greater meaning, and strengthens our intent if we can see ourselves as part of God’s greater narrative purpose for the church. As Walt Disney says to PL Travers in Saving Mr Banks “That is what we storytellers do: we restore order with imagination. We instill hope gain and again and again.” Knowing the story, seeing our place in it, will give us the hope for its eventual completion.

So, I want here to revisit an old scripture and posit a new metaphor for our work as a church in the world.

The scripture is from Ephesians 3:

10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.

The New English Translation has “the multifaceted wisdom of God should now be disclosed…” which is lovely. The word for multi-faceted is polupoikilos, much varied, and gives huge scope for action. It is not used anywhere else in the NT, and the poikilos bit of the word itself means multicoloured, dappled, spotty or variegated. Thus Paul is using the polu- prefix simply to overegg the description. God’s wisdom is so varied, Paul argues, that the church’s mission to reveal it to the rulers and principalities encompasses all it does and is the motivating “big picture” of our purpose in the kingdom. We do this through all the various (multi-coloured?) aspects of our discipleship in the world, but always with the intent of demonstrating the wisdom of God to those in power, whether political, economic, commercial (the “rulers”) or “in the heavenly places.”

The large part of Ephesians 3 (verses 2 to 13) is a parenthesis in which Paul somewhat reluctantly gives some credentials and testimony about his work, so you do wonder that if he had not been provoked, this gem would not have come to us.

The metaphors we choose to see the church through are vital, and tell us much about who we are – just the mention of being the bride of Christ or the body of Christ opens to us an immediate way of thinking, being and serving. It changes the paradigm in which we function; it alters, even, the way we think about the experience of “going to church.” We do not use them enough. I remember years ago reading an article which said that the church ought to think of itself  less as a hospital than a warship. This stayed with me for a while and changed the way I thought about worship, teaching and the purpose of the church. I don’t know, now, whether this was helpful, but to us visual thinkers, it shifted the way we talked about the church.

So now, when we come back to the polupoikiolos church, a new metaphor presents itself, that of a carpet of flowers of hundreds of species that comes to life when the rains fall in the desert. There is little that is as breathtaking or surprising or as welcome. It is a useful metaphor because it is so dependent upon grace, upon the life of the Spirit, and because it posits the church right in the middle of where she should be, blooming in the desert.

In 1980, in the most influential sermon that I have probably ever heard, David Pawson quoted a contemporary of the Wesleys who said that their church was like a fragrant rose growing on a foul dungheap (or something like that – it’s been a while). But this has real power, this metaphor, and helps push the mission of the church outside the walls (where unfortunately, the bride, the body and the hospital all tend to congregate) into the world that Jesus loves and where we are all – all – called to serve, to the display of his multi-faceted wisdom and glory.

Earth laughs in flowers, said Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he is right. They are seasonal, temporary, fleeting in glory, but speak of a long dormant root, that even in the places where flowers are not often seen. This year, spectacularly, the bloom of flowers in the western USA has reached “superbloom” proportions and can be seen perfectly well by satellites. Nothing is more certain than that the flowers will come when the rain does. But for a combination of the glorious, the humbling and the beautiful, these things, however short-lived, are some of the most wonderful things on earth. This is not as substantial a metaphor as a bride or a body, and better ones will emerge, but I think it is useful in our work as Christians in the world, showing in as many different colours and sizes as we are created in, the multi-faceted wisdom of God.

Politicians catching up

This morning sees the publication of the report on the impact of assessment on children by the House of Commons Education Select Committee. Entitled Primary Assessment, it tries to deal with a range of issues, and comes at an opportune time, whilst the consultation on Primary Assessment in England is still open (it ends 22 June).

The summary of the report contains the following highlights:

  • Regarding the introduction of the current KS2 SATs, the report finds that “The Standards and Testing Agency did not oversee the implementation of the new assessment system in 2016 effectively, with guidance delayed and test papers leaked online. This caused significant disruption in primary schools as schools felt there was too little time to implement effective new assessment systems and prepare teachers and pupils for SATs.”
  • Regarding the design of the tests and assessments, the report finds that “The design of the new tests was also criticised, particularly the reading and writing assessments. One issue with the writing assessment is the focus on technical aspects, like grammar and spelling, over creativity and composition. We are not convinced that this leads directly to improved writing and urge the Government to reconsider this balance and make spelling, punctuation and grammar tests non-statutory at Key Stage 2. There are also questions over the appropriate role of teacher assessment within the assessment and accountability system that the Government should explore.”
  • Whilst the report does not explicitly make the link to the decrease in financial support given to local authorities to provide high quality CPD, it states that “While the new assessments were being introduced there was little additional support offered to schools to implement new assessment systems to cope with ‘life after levels’. Primary school teachers only receive limited assessment training during initial teacher education and must have access to continuing professional development on assessment, as well as high quality advice and guidance on effective assessment systems.”
  • Regarding the link between accountability and assessment, which the committee notes is chiefly for the purpose of school accountability, not pupil progress, they state: “the high stakes system can negatively impact teaching and learning, leading to narrowing of the curriculum and ‘teaching to the test’, as well as affecting teacher and pupil wellbeing.”

Then come the important conclusions and recommendations around accountability, which I suspect will not impact schools for some time to come. However, it is important that we acknowledge that the evidence base (which includes at least some  – not enough – discussions with Y6 pupils) has been thorough and that the committee’s publication is timeous and helpful to those campaigning not in what seems to be one of the duller general election bunfights on record, but on behalf of what is going to help 11 year olds prove to themselves and to us that they have been effectively taught without doing themselves any harm (the following are direct quotes from the conclusions and recommendations):

12. Ofsted should ensure that it reports on a broad and balanced curriculum in every primary school report. Every report should specifically include science as a core subject alongside English and maths, as well as a range of other areas of the curriculum and extra-curricular activities. (Paragraph 59)

13. School leaders and governors should support a culture of wellbeing amongst staff and pupils and ensure that external assessment does not result in unnecessary stress for pupils. The Government should assess the impact of changes to curriculum and standards on teacher and pupil wellbeing before they are introduced and publish plans to avoid such negative consequences. (Paragraph 60)

14.Many of the negative effects of assessment are in fact caused by the use of results in the accountability system rather than the assessment system itself. Key Stage 2 results are used to hold schools to account at a system level, to parents, by Ofsted, and results are linked to teachers’ pay and performance. We recognise the importance of holding schools to account but this high-stakes system does not improve teaching and learning at primary school. (Paragraph 66)

15.The Government should change what is reported in performance tables to help lower the stakes associated with them and reduce issues of using data from a small number of pupils. We recommend publishing a rolling three year average of Key Stage 2 results instead of results from a single cohort. Yearly cohort level data should still be available for schools for use in their own internal monitoring. (Paragraph 67)

16. We welcome the increased focus on progress in performance measures and the Government’s commitment to introduce an improved baseline measure. However, in its consultation document, the Government fails to appreciate potential harmful consequences of introducing a baseline measure used for school accountability in reception (Paragraph 76)

17. The Government must conduct a thorough evaluation of potentially harmful consequences of introducing any baseline measure, involving early years experts and practitioners, including impacts on pupil wellbeing and teaching and learning. The primary purpose of a measure of children at age 4 should be a diagnostic tool to help early years practitioners identify individual needs of pupils and should only be carried out through teacher assessment. We welcome the Government’s commitment that no data from a baseline will be used to judge individual pupils or schools. (Paragraph 77)

18. For future reforms, the Government should carefully consider the impact of setting thresholds for schools with short lead in times. We agree with the Government’s aim of raising standards at primary school but think that setting extremely challenging targets only leaves many students feeling they have failed, when in a previous year they would have succeeded. Expected standards should be raised over a much longer time period to give schools a chance to adjust to new expectations. (Paragraph 84)

19. We recommend a thorough review of how Ofsted inspectors use Key Stage 2 data to inform their judgements and whether inspectors rely too heavily on data over observation. This could include a pilot of inspections where data is only considered following the inspection. (Paragraph 85)

Well done, the Select Committee. It would be nice to think that the DfE, when they review the evidence from their current consultation, listen especially to paragraph 16, that baseline assessment is done to support children and that (para 17) that the primary purpose of a measure of children at age 4 should be a diagnostic tool to help early years practitioners identify individual needs of pupils and should only be carried out through teacher assessment.

I hope that parents will read this when it is filtered through whatever media channels they read. A quick trawl through the early online edition of the Daily Mail suggests it is not going to make the headlines there, and I may have to publish the findings to parents as a separate news-sheet.

The dailies, already, are focusing on the mental health issues of both pupils and teachers, though the report has disappointingly little to say on this – a submission by an organisation called Achieving for Children referenced in para 55 seems to be the only substantive voice dealing with this subject.

The importance of a broad curriculum, and science in particular, also comes out in the detail. The Wellcome Trust and other science bodies are not keen for a return of the science KS2 tests, according to the report (para 53-54), but want to see OFSTED mention it more. One key observation gets to the heart of this issue:

Ofsted has significant power to influence school behaviour, and neglecting to comment on core parts of the curriculum contributes to the overemphasis on English and maths teaching at primary school (para 54).

Enough for now. I am glad this has come out at the time it has, and hope that sensible parents will read it and begin to support, even more than they have already, what schools are trying to achieve for their children.

A home place

One of the things about having moved around the world and the UK in the last 35 years is the need to have a home place where all is familiar, where the family can gather and where memories and artefacts that trigger those memories are kept. For me, this has been my Dad’s house, which he bought in late 1978 at a location which at the time was the highest house (in elevation terms) in the town of Brecon. The tree surgeon recently cut down one of the more straggly pines that Dad planted in 1979, with 38 growth rings clearly to be seen. The house has been a home from home for both my sister and I, and Dad has lived there continually, improving the place, planting a garden, many trees and an orchard, and levelling bits of the slope out to use for sitting and relaxation. It has the most amazing views, and is the most annoying lawn I have ever had to mow.

Most importantly, besides being a home, it has provided, over thirty years, the centre for our wider family to gather each year on the first Sunday in August in a celebration of one another, entitled The Cousins’ Curry. This is one of the great cultural events of my lifetime and is the key mechanism of keeping our family together, scattered as we are across England and Wales. This is a time of tremendous joy and excitement, of great curries made by various experts in the family (the concept of a curry lunch is rooted in Dad’s military culture), and a chance to help and support and catch up, and update the (by now) extremely complex family tree. My grandfather, John Stanley Humphreys, was one of 9 siblings, and cousins therefore abound – not to mention the enormous family he married into.

I have no idea how long this property will be in our family. I would like to think forever, because it is so beautiful, especially on days like last weekend when the sun was warm and the leaves in early leaf. Dad will be 94 this November, and as content in his home as anyone I have met. But, in the spirit of homesickness of my last post, it is more that it is our one remaining effective link to Brecon, a town I have lived in for nearly ten years of my life.

For years I have swallowed the lie that upward mobility was good, that getting more money, travelling the world and not being rooted in one place, was a desirable outcome of a generalist education. But it is a lie. Being rooted to one place, giving yourself to it, developing it and building a life there – this is of great value too, and our education of the young should somehow take notice of this and teach it as a desirable thing that you give back to the community that raised you. Living in a military family meant that rootedness was never part of our experience, but it something I have begun to appreicate in those who have experienced it.

At root, though, and in the light that of the fact that all these places are included for us in an eternal inheritance that can never fade, spoil or perish, I find myself just grateful for all the places that God has graciously allowed us to live, root and build friendships in.

Another farewell to Europe

One of the most transformative experiences in our school life, in the last 5 years, has been our involvement with 6 partners in European schools and kindergartens. This ended nearly two years ago with our visit to Fryslan in the Netherlands and the maturing of a wonderful friendship and the completion of a lovely piece of work that really appealed to the children in Daisy, Poppy, Sunflower, Conker and Thistle classes.

When 52% of eligible voters persuaded the government last year to take us out of the European Union and into a future where the current hostility could easily have been predicted, it was as though someone had hacked into my identity. I “became” a European through the good offices and generous kindness of the European Union, and I was and am and will be a convinced European before I feel British. It was a deep sense of loss when, for what I still hold to be largely selfish and xenophobic reasons, the “country” voted to leave.

So today, I took down the display that has graced our foyer describing all the wonderful, colourful and stimulating work that 12 of us experienced fully, and another dozen experienced virtually, over the 2013-15 period. It was a joy in every possible way, and, talking to a friend today, we both reflected on the homesickness that it felt like in saying good bye to such a rich part of a shared inheritance, even one that was only experienced by some in a short, 4 day visit to another country.

And it is an inheritance. Everything we are as a nation has been created because of Europe, because of our proximity to Europe and because of our willingness to share and learn from nations even when we were at futile war with them.

On top of this sense of loss, we are losing, at the end of this term, two fine members of staff who have come to us from a rich European culture and background. Both are thinkers, both are rooted in the importance of culture-informing-education that seems to have deserted so much of the UK teaching workforce, and I shall miss both terribly, not just for the wonder that they themselves are, but also because I feel at home with the cultural strength that they have brought to the school and to me personally. With both, I have some of the most satisfying conversations; with each there is an unspoken respect for the cultural hinterland we have each grown up in or learnt from reading, listening, experiencing. The Oakeshott quote which I have used over and over again comes into the picture again: the “whole of our inheritance” is a rich, heady cultural mix that spans a variety of cultural influences from around the world, but which is principally shared with many in Europe, simply for reasons of geography, war and trade.

So taking the display down felt a little like a betrayal, the loss of a holiday romance, one more disjuncture in lives that already have enough. The European imperative remains one of the central drivers of my educational life, and I shall have to find a way to respond to it.

What schools need from the government right now

We have a wholly unnecessary general election to get distracted by. Talking to a colleague the other day, we agreed that there is now no mainstream party that represents either of us politically. I have lost my faith in the Labour Party to be able to take us anywhere at all, though I am reluctant to abandon them completely. A new vision for social democracy that works is badly required and we do not have a Labour leader who can do the second of those two things, as much as he might have a good plan for the first. As a social conservative and a political leftist, it is hard for me to fit into any political category right now. I filled in one of those “who you should vote for” online surveys at the last election and it told me I was oscillating between UKIP and the Green Party. Does that not describe just about everyone? The Tory party are playing “cuddles with the workers”, but only, I suspect, to haul them off further to the right of the spectrum once they (inevitably) win this coming election.

So what do schools need from the government. Here is a statement from Russell Hobby, current (and sadly retiring) general secretary of my union, the National Association of Headteachers:

We believe it’s crucial that parliamentary candidates listen to the concerns of school leaders in the run up to the election, and beyond. That’s why we’ve laid out five priorities for all political parties to take note of. They are:

  1. To fund education fully and fairly, reversing the £3bn real terms cuts that schools are facing and providing enough money to make the new national funding formula a success.
  2. To put forward a national strategy for teacher recruitment and retention that recognises teachers as high-status professionals and guarantees enough teachers for every school.
  3. To adopt fair methods to hold schools to account, recognising that test and exam results are only part of the picture when judging a pupil’s success or a school’s effectiveness.
  4. To value a broad range of subjects in the school day so that pupils’ opportunities are not limited and they are properly prepared for adult life.
  5. To make sure that schools are supported by health and social care services to allow schools to fulfil their role to promote pupil wellbeing rather than making up for cuts to other services.

You can find more information at www.naht.org.uk/generalelection.

This is an excellent summary of the main areas of need. I strongly welcome the government’s recent Primary Assessment Consultation that is strongly influenced by the work of our association, and which represents a real victory for us. We will look at this as a leadership team later in the term and I will publish our views here once we have done that. However, we do not yet know what use the DfE will make of the data in terms of accountability (schools have a much bigger problem with simplistic accountability systems than they do with assessment per se), but it is a step in the right direction. In this respect I want to honour the work that the DfE have done so far to meet the demands of concern No 3.

But all the other areas are areas of ongoing pressure for each of us, particularly numbers 1 and 2 – resources and recruitment. We have just clawed back a funding deficit (year on year) of £65k by making some difficult decisions that directly impact children’s learning: we were 3.5% worse funded this year, in terms of money coming from MK council, than we were last year. This is all grist to the mill, a useful exercise, and we are aware that we are considerably better off than many schools, but still. How does the DfE’s settlement to MK support their intention that schools improve?

These questions are not ones that the Labour Party have to answer, because it is inconceivable that they will be in power in June. They are questions that the Conservative government would have to answer whether or not they decided to hold an election.

Good being back

There seems to be a general consensus today that it has been very good to be back at school – teachers are rested, children have grown in maturity and kindness and there is a new energy that is lovely to tap into. The “holiday club” feel of the last two days of last term, spent given over to artistic endeavour, has set the tone for this term, it seems.

The spring holidays getting in the way of the celebration of Easter in schools, today we shared a short meditation on the nature of generous service during collective worship, thinking about Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. In his dealing with this topic, Justin Welby, in his Lent book Dethroning Mammon talks about the fact that Joseph did not need to spend a ridiculous amount of money on 75 pounds of spices and balm with which to anoint and care for Jesus’ body – the guy was dead and as far as Joseph knew for certain, he was not coming back to life. However, Joseph assigned unlimited value to Jesus’ body because of what it meant to Joseph, and this, Welby, argues, reflects the extravagance of God in the way he loves us. In an earlier chapter of the book, Welby offers as astute and moving exposition of the anointing of Jesus feet by Mary as I have ever read, pointing out the limitlessness of worship and the fact that in God’s economy, there is no balance, just overwhelming generosity.

I would very much like to live this term in this spirit, and develop the skills of deeper selflessness. I am learning to be freer in God, in my understanding of his immeasurability, and therefore this term I would like to try and give myself away more, knowing that as I do, God has me in his hand, and can restore to me all I give out, and more (because he doesn’t keep accounts in that way!).

I will probably fail at this, but the intent – the longing – is there.

On Easter Saturday I consciously stood again before Jesus and willingly allowed him to look me over, to accept me as a servant again, only given more fully than before.

Again, I will probably fail, but there is one who holds me who can restore me.

On Easter Sunday, receiving communion as we celebrated the “greatest day in history” I realised again the power that is there for us through God raising Jesus from the dead and defeating death as he did so. What this means for school this term is unknown, but in the realm of excitement and God’s powerful surprises as we deliberately seek to get the flags out and celebrate this wonderful festival, becoming a little more like an Easter community in the process.

Printmaking delight (2)

These photos do not do them justice, but this is a good place to celebrate the focused and detailed work of a group of 14 printmakers who have been working together as a group on Tuesday afternoons after school during the Spring Term 2017. I have not included two of the children as their prints included their name. Short evaluations of their work are displayed next to the prints in the corridor outside Beech Hall, should you want to go and have a look and read what I thought about them (I have been completely honest, so one or two of the girls may guess what is in store).

It has been particularly great watching 4 of the printmakers from last term really deepen their understanding and constantly challenge themselves to more complex prints – one was determined to produce a 5 colour print with four reductions, but ran out of time.

The children who only began this term soon differentiated themselves into those who were naturals and those who needed a lot of supervision and encouragement. There was not quite as much blood spilt this time as there was in the autumn term, though we had the odd incident, mostly from children forgetting to place their non-working hand behind the working hand when cutting lino, and not cutting away from the body.

The impact of printmaking is often in repetition or a design, so placing sets of work alongside each other has had a greater impact than seeing them alone. I am really proud of these children and what they have managed to achieve. I am giving formal printmaking a rest now in my art teaching, but hopefully children will choose it as one means of expression when we come to deal with the mixed-media work I have planned for the coming summer.

A spring flourishing

This spring, it has seemed to me, has had fuller and more long lasting fruit blossoms than we have had for a few years. This is just a guess, actually. I have not measured anything, but the impression is very strong. Maybe I have just stopped longer to look at them, but everywhere I go at the moment I am aware of the cherry blossom. In Wales, there is a tradition that blackthorn (draenen ddu) is the harbinger of spring, and certainly around Bradwell, it is the first blossom to form, early in March (February this year), closely followed by the Pershore Plums that the Parks Trust have generously scattered along the redways and which provide lovely yellow, red and black fruit in July. They have both finished now. It was then the turn of the cultivated plums (my tree has shed all its blossom) and then the pears and finally, this year, the cherries, which are both still going strong. Apple blossom will be along in a bit, then those trees bred for their flowers not for the fruit. The cherry blossom everywhere has been wonderful and long lasting in Milton Keynes. This cycle is one of the most beautiful things about living in this city, where the abundance of trees means that you notice the seasons so much more.

Back in 1984, we went on a road trip from Cape Town, where we lived, to Bloemfontein, where we stayed with friends. One day, we drove to the kingdom of Lesotho, which I had visited two years previously. Apart from a bizarre incident at the border, where we failed to get our passports stamped with an entry visa (meaning the Lesotho border cops would not let us leave the country for South Africa in the evening because we had never actually entered Lesotho in the first place: I am lucky to be here, really), the most spectacular feature was the peach blossom that is found everywhere in the “lowlands” of the country (as the lowest point of Lesotho is higher than Ben Nevis, I use the term lowlands pretty loosely). For a poor country, subject to decades of not-terribly just rule, it was a sign of God’s blessing and promise, as blossom always is. The picture above gives you exactly the sort of abundance of blossom that I recall. Biologists doubtless know the exact purpose of blossom, but when the prophet says “though the fig tree does not blossom…” he is referring to the absence of hope for a nation. It is a sign of God’s renewed commitment to the earth and to humans and animals who eat the fruit, cook with it, dry it or otherwise preserve it. No matter the weather, this blossom comes, and sometimes, like this year, it comes with a flourishing that causes real excitement to me, whether as gardener, jam-maker or inveterate forager.

Bookends (3)

These three drawings were made from memory by the British artist Howard Hodgkin, and feature near the start of the current exhibition of his portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. He is not a painter who I have ever been drawn to, but he demonstrates one of the basic rules of artists whom I persevere with, even if I find their work challenging. If he can draw people with such insight and skill, then anything that happens thereafter has to be worth looking at. These lovely drawings, and the one below, from his website, of Mrs Ash, Asleep (1952), made when a young man, are reason enough to keep exploring. They serve, as does the early work of Picasso (when a student in Madrid) and Frank Auerbach, to demonstrate the immense competence as observers and accurate representational recorders that such artists possess, and which makes them worthy of joining them on a journey of exploration. They represent one bookend, a marker if you like, of a creative repertoire that honours the creation, that represents that created individual for others.

The other bookend is what Hodgkin or any artist makes of his artistic sight. In Hodgkin’s case, the key is memory, and in the Absent Friends exhibition at the NPG, it was about the interpretation of his friends through the long-lasting impression and impact they made on the artist and the significance their character had for the friendship itself, mediated through memory, rather than anything representational. In fact, once you got past the first gallery, anything truly representational was restricted to about 4 paintings. But as abstract as the paintings were (I know some people who would have just hated this work!), you could truly tell something of Hodgkin’s feeling for them, their relationship to him, and the care which Hodgkin, in his turn, took in painting them as portraits. The NPG thoughtfully did tell you what you were looking at, so unfortunately the viewer was more influenced by words than by art, and this coloured (sorry!) the experience for me.

What this art does for me is to remind me of those I love and have known, and to think, of them in terms of not just the surface of their lives, but the contours of their conversation, of their impact on me, on how I have changed because of them. They serve (and I know this because Hodgkin often took years to complete these paintings) as a living conversation with those who are painted, seeing them in a loved context, in a favourite room, and therefore rooting them in time and space absolutely. They are only abstract in the sense that the meaning has been abstracted and re-interpreted. In fact, abstract might not even be the right word for many of these paintings. It makes me realise that art has this un-eternal sense: it is about time and space and memory far more than many suppose. Even where decorative, it preserves for the artist – and by extension, his or her viewers – a particular experience. Somehow, if this is absent from a painting, then we feel it.

Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends 2000-2001

The clever thing about the exhibition is that the very first painting you come across is the 2000-2001 Absent Friends. It is a true abstract, with nothing figurative about it whatsoever. It is challenging, by any standard, but by the end of the exhibition I understood it a whole lot more than I did at the start, and could see it as a summary of the entire collection.

This artistic reflection does speak directly to the issue of surface and depth, of immediacy and fullness of life. Weirdly, it relates most fully in my mind to the debate over school uniform – and the extent to which we restrict the view we have of children because we insist that they are clothed in a school uniform. When, on the last two days of the school term, we asked children to come to school in their own clothes, and clothes they didn’t mind getting dirtied by artistic endeavour, we actually got different people turn up from the ones we had had on Friday. The liberation from school uniform was that significant. I have commented on this at length before, but had another conversation with a member of the school staff about this during the two art days and the thinking developed a bit, I felt. We keep saying, don’t we, that we educate children, and want to refer to them as children, not pupils, yet we dress them not as children but as pupils. This becomes a problem which Hodgkin can help us solve. If we had the sight, the ability to take all the conversation, joy, play, learning and pleasure that each child gives, it would not, in my view, result in a painting of a Christ the Sower School Uniform or anybody dressed in one. QED.

Grantchester Road (Howard Hodgkin, 1975)

The Tilsons (Howard Hodgkin, 1965-7)

Howard Hodgkin: Interior with Figures 1977-84

Mrs Nicholas Monro 1966-9 Howard Hodgkin http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01117