It’s not often that you get two stories on the Radio 4 6.30 bulletin that deal with education – and that then these go on to form the first two features. The first is the concern about a group of schools in Birmingham, including Park View Academy, that are being “Islamified” – a couple of unnamed teachers were quoted in this article. I don’t know where this is going, but it is important for us all to consider. The struggle for free thinking and the freedom of the human spirit against those who want to restrict it, in whatever form, is an ongoing one, and one that this blog tries to challenge both in myself and in others. This story may blow up into something bigger, and I can see the DfE not exactly wanting to let things lie on this one. Sooner or later there will be some intervention. And it will not be pretty. Two worldviews are competing here and the state is currently threatened at an intellectual level by those who hold a different worldview from itself – never mind extremist Islam!
The other story is of course about yesterday’s comments by Mike Wilshaw about the way that early years provision is not getting children ready for school. All that needs to be said on this issue (at least from the point of view of us who believe that nursery education is a replicant for the family) has pretty much been summed up in this article by David Whitebread and Sue Bingham. Their conclusion is:
The model of ‘readiness for school’ is attractive to governments as it seemingly delivers children into primary school ready to conform to classroom procedures and even able to perform basic reading and writing skills. However, from a pedagogical perspective this approach fuels an increasingly dominant notion of education as ‘transmission and reproduction’, and of early childhood as preparation for school rather than for ‘life.’ In this paper, we have reviewed the now extensive evidence that the curriculum‐centred approach evident in many Key Stage 1 classrooms, and the idea that rushing young children into formal learning of literacy, mathematics, etc. as young as possible is misguided. This leads to a situation where children’s basic emotional and cognitive needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness, and the opportunity to develop their metacognitive and self-regulation skills, are not being met. The problem is not that children are not ready for school, but that our schools are not ready for children.
This quote sums up tidily the basic debate here. The questions involved are:
- Do we regard school as something to serve children, their families and the communities in which children grow up, or something to serve the state and the needs of the industrial economy?
- Do these two competing visions have to be mutually exclusive, and is there a sensible cross-over point – around puberty, say – where children’s views of learning and their growing ambition are better served by providing the opportunities for them to engage in work that will serve the economy and the state?
- Does the education of children within the industrial economy actually help them grow as flourishing young people, or is there something deep in the heart of the industrial model that is antithetical to human flourishing? And does the adoption of a “learning for life” model provide enough intellectual resources and communal purpose to replace the industrial model? This would be the stance that Wendell Berry would take – the alienation from a working community being seen as the root of nearly every social ill we face.
- If Einstein privileged imagination over knowledge, and the Bible privileges the knowledge of God and the growth of character over the acquisition of wealth or personal ambition, how do we as a modern, Christian school position ourselves in this debate so as to bless children as deeply as we want to bless them?
In essence, we want to know how to react (in thought, word and deed) to a government that insists on seeing (for the most altruistic of reasons, apparently) children as in need of more formal learning to get them ready for school. (The cognitive assessments for 4-year-olds in the new Assessment and Accountability Framework are just a part of this).
I suspect that they (whichever shade of the political spectrum they come from) cannot change; for them, as for the media, the economy is all that matters, and their reputations rise and fall by how well they can enable education to serve it. This is a strong argument for returning education to educators and those who have done the “hard yards” of research. In the meantime, it is children we work with, and they must be thought about, spoken of and taught, differently.
Thinking differently, and seeing children differently is where we start. The doctrine of creation has far more to offer us here than a rather tired doctrine of evolution. The intervention of a personal God is a good starting point for considering children as being full of life, of being able to be more divergent in their ways – and to celebrate that, and of being able to receive and perceive spiritually far more readily than we can as adults. God has made man and woman, and boy and girl, for a purpose – to know him and rejoice in hime, to be sure, but to embrace and live a life of service in community, excelling in all that he has given us. Anyone who stops this happening is guilty in some way of the abuse of childhood. Putting a cap on what children can do, say, think, feel as they are growing up will restrict them. To be sure, they will learn how to control the wilder excesses of imagination and action, but it is for us to encourage that. Keeping a doctrine of creation before us will help in every way.
Speaking differently, and speaking with children to release them into learning, rather than speaking so they are forced into a channel, is the second thing we can do. The government may hate this – releasing the imagination and an awareness of God and life is a great gift we can give. It will challenge, and even undermine, some of the ways in which we are told to teach – it replaces the didactic with the faciliation of learning, and the teacher-led with the opportunity of children co-owning their learning – choosing the didactic if they wish, rather than having it forced. But we must speak of it with children and to one another as educators. Speaking of these things will strengthen our resistance to the world that the politicans would delight in.
Acting differently is more challenging. It begins with hospitality, welcome and imparting a sense of guesthood to children. Jesus had this in mind when he said Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them. It is at the root of the Reggio Emilia 100 Languages of Children, and offers children a place at the table of learning from the first day. Again, we must learn and practise the language and actions of hospitality.
Beyond hospitality, and the invitation to children to learn, it involves revelation – we reveal to children, or allow them to discover, the beauty and riches of learning, through modelling it ourselves. Today I gave a Governors’ Award to a Year 2 child with this lovely citation for her work:
For showing joyous and determined perseverance and delighting in the rewards of hard work!
This is much of it. A child who has learnt and displays these qualities has pretty much got all the important things already.