I have just started reading Philip Gourevitch’s terrifying account of the Rwanda genocide “We wish to inform you…” and it got me thinking again (like I have not stopped thinking about this) about how people who own the name of Jesus Christ can be so deeply swayed by nationalism, obsession or just plain bad teaching that they end up participating in or supervising the massacre of thousands of their fellow countrymen, who, in their better moments, they would acknowledge were made by the same God with the same affection and purpose that they themselves were.
That might seem a long way from the west flank of Milton Keynes, where I live and work, but it is not really. The crux of it is – what do we teach our children about how to live, and what do we teach them about how to build relationships and how to view one another? How do we reinforce this, model it and live it out in the way we treat and encourage them? I suspect that the evidence of something like the Rwandan experience is that these questions are a little more vital for the world then getting a Level 5 in your Maths SATs at the end of Year 6. Not that the latter is unimportant, but its importance is ( how shall I put it politely?) relative.
So, as this is my first attempt at writing a public blog (there is a sort of “pre-blog” on our school site at http://www.cts.milton-keynes.sch.uk/head/HT_Blog.html) and the idea is twofold – try and tidy up the school website by not having me clutter up the front page, but also to launch an exploration of what it is that Christian educators are trying to build and grow, especially those, like me, sitting in the priviliged position of leading schools that have a strong Christian ethos and foundation in the public sector.
I am the headteacher of Christ the Sower Ecumenical Primary School in Milton Keynes, but also a musician, passionate educator (you would hope so, wouldn’t you!), a Christian for the past 32 years with interests in lots of things – history, theology, politics, education, literature, the arts, languages, rugby union as played by Welsh teams, and science. Naturally I want children to grow up having a reach into as many worlds as they can, but also be built into the sort of people who would respect faith and its deep contribution to every area of human endeavour. Being whole is the essence of the Hebrew concept of “shalom”. This has all sorts of ramifications, most of which have to do with collective peace, relationship building and internal spiritual equilibrium. If we do not teach these concepts and their consequent practices to children, we have failed them at a fairly fundamental level.
Whole Education – a day of inspiration
The “holy grail” of education in the UK – that all can learn according to their needs and would come away from the education system with a deep longing to learn is largely unattainable because of the deep class divides that underpin our society. There is a resolute and seemingly unbridgeable gulf between an elitist view of education and the comprehensive ideal that has been longed for by millions (but often only imperfectly realised for those same millions) since the 1950s. A debate that has that class-driven conflict as its backdrop is beginning to take shape in the UK and across the western world (and a lot of other worlds too) is “what kind of education should we be expecting to provide for our children in 30 years time?” And the question that sits behind that is “what should we be doing now in our schools if that is the sort of education we want for our children in the future?”
To help me understand this debate, I went on Tuesday to the Whole Education Conference in Kings Place near St Pancras, and listened to some very high quality presentations (and one forgettable one) from people actively seeking to improve education but not particularly of an “obedient disposition” when it came to the secretary of state. Indeed, the whole OFSTED and exams agenda was quietly relegated to the role of “proxies” – in other words, they may serve as indicators of attainment, but cannot describe the true effect of education and are a million miles from the purpose of learning. These were a serious-minded bunch of educators who you would not hear say the phrase “the purpose of school is to pass exams”.
First up was an inspiring talk by the leader of Whole Education, Dr John Dunford, who urged us to grasp the opportunity to build a relevant curriculum for the children in our care, and said that as far as the government was concerned, it was for educators to look out (to the prospects for the future and a curriculum worth having) rather than looking up (to a government obsessed with 19th century models of education). This was followed by an extraordinary talk by Dr Keri Facer, part of the Education and Social Research Institute at the Manchester Metropolitan University, and one of the UK’s leading thinkers on future education. She works with likely scenarios and has various models for testing what the impact would be on educational issues. Arguing against an “all change” approach (replacing “business as usual” with an apocalyptic vision) or an approach that tried to “future proof” and thus risked banality and a lack of aspiration, she suggested we jettison a fearful view and adopt a “future building” approach. This of necessity has to be networked and collaborative, and for schools would involve creating space for ourselves to develop new ideas and for seeing the future as we want it to be, re-evaluating the place we want our children to be, instilling wonder, engaging in dialogue and stressing the importance of relationships. Above all, schools would have to recognise our own powers as employers, consumers, buildings, public spaces, researchers, and educators. We needed to slow things down, not speed them up with technology, and get back to play as the basis of creativity. One great quote “play is prefigurative and disruptive of boring systems…it is regenerative and the basis for imagining possibilities”. She showed us a fun video from IGFEST, the Interesting Games Festival, held every year in Bristol, a chance for grownups to play! Then, in a telling comment, that showed us her value as a long-range thinker, she showed us what the Victorians had done in response to the challenges of the Industrial Revolution – when electric light, mass production, extreme poverty and the beginnings of globalisation were all upon them, they were brave and banned child labour (think of the economic consequences for a moment), built public parks and playgrounds, invested in entertainment and public education for all – and gave us the world we live in now. We are, said Keri, at another such moment, a tipping point for action. Curricula should be more local, more negotiated (what would our community choose as a curriculum if it had the chance?) and more co-constructed with children as partners.
This was followed by an outstanding talk by Kristiina Kumpulainen, director of the Information and Evaluation Services Unit at the FNEB (Finnish National Board of Education). Her talk tried to address the challenges that face what is acknowledged to be the world’s most successful education system. She gave some of the reasons that Finland had such educational success:
- virtually complete public funding of education
- local autonomy in nearly everything
- percentage of GDP spent on education remains at 13.3% by agreement every year between the parties
- huge respect for teachers
- all teachers qualified to Masters’ level before being able to work.
- a relatively classless society
- no inspection regime, but locally managed evaluation and monitoring of progress.
However, she felt that there were some serious threats and challenges – security of schools (after some fatal shootings in the last 5 years), aging, welfare expenditure, migration, multiculturalism (which all Scandinavian countries have experience of and are wrestling with), maintiaining the high level of funding, pupil welfare services (they have 30% of children with Special Educational Needs), regional variations in quality of provision, digital technology challenges and challenges both to mandate and implement centrally an approach to educational innovation whilst trying to be decentralised and locally-based.
These are not dissimilar challenges to those in the UK, except we have the class-driven debates going on in the background (private/state, grammar/comprehensive, elitism/mass education, multiculturalism/strong national identity) and an educational culture far from united on everything from funding to the curriculum. Jesus’ words that a house divided against itself cannot stand seem to pop into my mind here….
After the coffee break we gathered to here a slightly disappointing talk from the Director of People and Policy for BT. We all wanted to hear what the sort of curriculum business might want, but at the end of the talk I was none the wiser. However, I noted down one interesting point made – that BT would prefer to have young people who were schooled in developing the capacity and capability of ethical thinking and an insight into self was more important that the range of skills and body of knowledge that schooling might instil into them. I really don’t know if Mr Gove is listening to business, but this struck me as an important voice from one of our most important firms.
After this talk I attended a breakout session led by two experienced heads – Alison Peacock from Wroxham in Potters Bar and Mary Foreman from Dogsthorpe Junior School in Peterborough. Dogsthorpe are working with the RSA on an “Area based curriculum” for part of Peterborough. The emphasis was on ensuring that the community that a school was part of was fully involved in the life of that school. Both leaders had done this in imaginative ways, and I came away with plenty of ideas to use in the future, but also was able to contribute to the discussions as we all sought to find ways to engage with and then contribute to the leadership of our communities.
The highlight of the afternoon was a video oncerence with Larry Rosenstock in California. He is the CEO and founding principal of High Tech High (HTH), a group of 11 K-12 public charter schools and a graduate school in San Diego. Many of the delgates to the conference had visited HTH, and were very enthusiastic about the project-based, production-based approach that his schools use. They were founded in order to develop thinking students to meet the needs of a telecom and biotechnology sector short of engineers and to develop public leadership in San Diego – quite a vision. Their tuition is free and public, and entry is by blind lottery across the school district, ensuring a non-selective admission policy. All teachers are on 1 year renewable contracts (this focuses the mind!) and 80% of them are pursuing a masters program of some sort (imagine that here!). You need to browse the HTH site to get a flavour of this, really.
There is more to say, but I need processing time before I write again. Anyway, Sebastian Vettel is driving his car up and down Milton Keynes centre this afternoon, and I want to go and have a look.