Brian Wakeman Tells How He Teaches

Wendy Wallace

Name: Brian Wakeman. Age: 49. School: South Luton High School, Bedfordshire Post: Deputy head Brian Wakeman is a Christian teacher in a secular school. A deputy head, he is responsible for staff training, mentoring of student teachers and has a half timetable teaching religious education, in a school where 30 per cent of the pupils are Muslim.

In his teaching, he describes himself as walking a mountain ridge between the slippery slopes of preaching and moral neutrality. "Anyone who works in the area of morality and values is walking across Crib Goch," he says. "On one side, there's the danger of falling down into authoritarianism and brainwashing. On the other, there's the relativity, saying that anything goes. And clearly it doesn't."

Brian Wakeman believes that in an age of increased materialism, selfishness and social breakdown, moral values are a crucial part of education. "I think that where some personal and social education falls down is when all it does is explore the alternatives," he says. "It puts no value on particular responses. And I think we should."

Mr Wakeman teaches a non-examination course on marriage for all Year 10 and 11 pupils. He looks even-handedly at Christian, Jewish and Muslim forms. "There's 'grounding' and there's 'owning'. So you say - well Christians believe that, or Sunni Muslims believe that, then you're grounding it. But sometimes I will say 'this is what I believe'. That's owning."

When children ask Brian Wakeman his own views on controversial issues, they get answers. "I will give my viewpoint as a Christian. I will say that I didn't have sex before marriage, because I believed it was wrong. I don't try to persuade the children to my viewpoint. But I do want them to have the opportunity to consider Christian ideas, because I think they are of profound worth, and they've had such an influence on our society."

Many teachers do not believe they should reveal their own moral or religious positions. But Brian Wakeman believes children need to see an adult who has a moral point of view, and is prepared to defend it. "Because then what you're doing is inducting them into the moral discourse. And they have the opportunity to see whether you're consistent - the way you treat children, the way you listen to them, the way that you deal with their parents or arrange crowd control - with what you say you believe."

In South Luton High, the religious studies syllabus reflects the multi-cultural nature of the school. "We affirm the culture of the children while giving them an opportunity to question and learn from each other and work out what they themselves believe."

The school has one assembly a week with a social, moral or religious nature. "We don't ask children to sing hymns or say prayers because that could be mutually offensive," says Mr Wakeman. "For Muslims to have to call Jesus 'Lord' in one of the new chorusy type songs would be quite heretical. We try to do things that are of worth in the community to the boys and girls. We may be criticised whe we have our inspection, but the act is not workable in our school."

His keen interest in moral philosophy led him to a masters degree in philosophy on the development of personal and moral values, and to writing a book on personal and social education. After 25 years experience, Brian Wakeman believes that to get children to consider moral questions seriously, teachers have to engage with young peoples' own experiences. He uses stories of other young people facing dilemmas to engage children in discussion, games, drama and role play. "Just talking to children is the worst possible way," he says. "It's like the Chinese proverb - I listen and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.

"In this school we're keen on actually getting children out there, cleaning up the litter themselves, or sorting out a bullying problem, not just talking about responsibility."

At earlier stages in his career, Brian Wakeman has found his own philosophy of education at odds with aspects of school culture. "If you're trying to get children to think for themselves, and a school is very repressive, then you can find there is a clash," he says. "When pupils had to have their hair cut a certain way, and skirts had to be certain lengths, that for me was not developing the individual - it was not giving enough respect for their worth."

He says he would love children to come to a Christian understanding about life - "obviously, as a Christian, I want God's truth to be transmitted to children. But in a way that's in accord with a secular school function. So I'm treading across this ridge, and sometimes I slide down one side a bit and sometimes down the other, but it's worth doing. It's worth taking the risk. Because children are developing morally, just as they are intellectually and socially, and they need somebody to help them."

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