…of the Christmas Term, that is, for all you eschatologists who were getting excited suddenly.
It has been, by common consent amongst the cognoscenti of the teaching profession, one of the hardest and longest terms we have experienced. The level of anger amongst heads against the government, the frustration with the inability of Local Authorities to fund serious support to schools and teachers, the ratcheting up of high stakes testing and its significance, and the blunderbuss that is Mike Wilshaw at the “helm” of OFSTED all mean that there is more concern amongst those who love teaching and who love children than ever we have experienced before. So much seems to be done nationally to less and less purpose. This article in the Guardian about Tricia Kelleher describes the “parallel universe” that our political masters are travelling in very well. One paragraph here sums up what is happening to the teaching profession under the madness of the narrowed curriculum forced on us by international comparisons:
Kelleher’s criticisms come just days after the headmaster of Eton college, Tony Little, warned that a relentless focus on exams and assessment targets in schools risks turning teachers into “functionaries in a service industry”. He had never seen a generation of teachers who defined “their purpose as teachers in such a limited way”…. Kelleher, whose school recorded the joint top score worldwide in the international baccalaureate diploma in the Sunday Times table published last month, urged Gove not to narrow education goals to the pursuit of Pisa scores: “My worry is we are now going to be driven towards Pisa because Pisa becomes the next altar we worship at. But it is really a cul-de-sac in learning terms.”
She said Pisa took no account of individual countries’ cultural differences, including the unrelenting pressure on pupils in top-performing countries, nor did they recognise the creativity of British learning. “If Michael Gove is saying we should just value what is in Pisa, then we might as well just collapse the curriculum and teach what will come top.”
And yet, despite all this curricular and industrial-educational pressure, we have achieved great things for our children and for one another. The introduction of coaching to all teaching staff and some senior support staff, the improvements in all aspects of teaching, the launching of the school’s chaplaincy team and the beginning of the Comenius Project in November have all meant that the place feels a lot different. Christmas has been thoroughly celebrated amongst us, with pupil performances and sung worship, quietness and wild exuberance, giving and receiving. I have never been so moved by the interplay and articulation of warmth and good will between the staff, as well as the willingness to lean on each other and root their work in the relationships that surround them. It has been easier than ever to encourage others, and more and more we are able to receive that encouragement. Governance has improved so that its effectiveness grows with every meeting. This morning I gave out the Governors’ Awards to children – 14 pupils who have in some way lived the ethos of the school with such impact that they are a testimony to their class of what hard work, an open attitnde to learning, a willingness to cooperate and share and contribute to the life of the school will do for their character. It was a special moment and the applause from their classmates was loud and prolonged.
This is important. The community we serve is more broken and fragmented than it has ever been. There is an alarming increase in family breakup, in the number of children with attachment disorders, with poor speech and language facility on entry to school, in the number of parents who themselves were not well parented struggling to make a home for their children. These families need the love of Jesus made manifest among them more than ever. Children without that understanding of God’s love are suffering from disadvantage, and the kind of school we are should be able to plug that gap and demonstrate affection and acceptance as much as we are able. The joy and hardship of working here is that we do plug that gap again and again, not perfectly, but with a good heart and a willingness to serve. We are called, both as a school and as followers of Jesus, to serve as agents of healing.
I spoke last week at our Christmas carol service – a joyful blend of all sorts of things from singing, brass band playing, the school orchestra, prayer and story, to reflection on what Jesus actually came to achieve. A Year 6 girl had read the following story beautifully (it is not original – I have heard Rob Parsons tell a similar story) and it encouraged us all to stop and allow love just to squeak through and heal us a little – it we let it. The story was called, loosely, Christmas in Milton Keynes, but it could be anywhere.
There was once a 6 year old girl called Ella, whose father was a man with a fearsome temper. He had learnt how to be angry from his father, who in turn had learnt it from his father before him. It seemed to be a family thing – and nobody really knew how to stop it.
It did not help at all that this man had served in the army during the Iraq war where he saw enough things to make him angrier than he was already. And even if that was not enough, he had commanded a unit of soldiers in southern Afghanistan and saw things done there that he could never tell to anyone. Not anyone.
All of these things made him angrier, and his wife and children who loved him, were also in fear of him. They tried their best to understand, to help him and to love him. But it was hard, and the marriage was under strain. There was lots of shouting in the house those days.
Ella’s dad finished his tour of duty in Afghanistan in September, and once he was home, it was soon time to get things ready for Christmas. Ella had seen how the grown-ups used to wrap presents up for each other. Her mum had told Ella how we did this to remind us of God’s great love for us. We gave presents to each other because God, in his wisdom and care, had given the gift of his only son Jesus to the world. Ella didn’t get all the meaning of that – she was only six, after all – but she knew that if she had love to give, then this was a good time to give it. It would make her mum happy and it was one little way that she could show what God was like.
But what to give her daddy?
This was hard, and made Ella scrunch her face up with all the thinking about it. She didn’t have any money, but in her room there were some things that might do, presents she had been given and which she had looked after carefully. She planned and she plotted and thought about what she would give and how she could help her dad. Then the light went on in her head, and she knew. She got a shoe box from under her bed, carefully put what she had chosen inside it, then wrapped it up with a bright red foil paper and LOTS of sellotape and wrote on it in thick black pen: To daddy, from Ella. All my love. And some kisses.
Christmas day came. Ella woke up, and suddenly had second thoughts about the present for her dad. But it was too late. The thing was under the tree now. The day would have to bring what it would bring.
After lunch, Ella and her two brothers gathered around the tree and they began to open each present excitedly. The boys were making a lot of noise, but Ella was quiet, waiting to see what her dad would say to her present. She took it from the tree and gave the box to her dad, who began to open it. It didn’t weigh much, and once her dad had taken off the wrapping paper, all he found was a shoe box. Inside the shoebox was another small cardboard box with a gold lid, and inside that, nothing.
Immediately, Ella’s dad lost his temper: “What have you given me here? What’s this? There’s nothing here? Are you trying to make a fool of me, you stupid girl?” And he stormed into the kitchen. Ella could hear him crashing around. She screwed up her courage and went and stood at the door of the kitchen.
“Daddy, the box wasn’t empty. I filled it.” Brave she was, but she could feel the tears pricking her eyes.
“Don’t be silly, Ella. There was nothing in there. What do you mean you filled it?”
“Daddy, I couldn’t think of what to give you, so I got the little box that mummy gave me which had the necklace in it and gave it to you. I put all my love in it, and all my hopes that you would feel better after being in the war”.
Her dad was silent. He stood there whilst Ella went to him and leant against him. Neither of them said anything for a long time. Her dad began to cry, then stopped.
Ella’s mum put her head around the door. Experience had taught her to take a light-hearted approach to dealing with this situation. “Everything OK, you two?” she asked.
Seeing the tears in her husband’s eyes, she too was quiet.
Her dad spoke: “Jenny. Ella has given me the best present I’ve had this Christmas. I’m really sorry for the way I haven’t controlled my anger. Ella has shown me that love might heal me, if I just let it”.