'Putting religion at the heart of school life works'

22nd December 2016 at 13:11
It is no coincidence that the school chapel is central to life in many top public schools

While handing out copies of A Christmas Carol years ago, I responded to the predictable moans from some that they had seen the film, with: “I don’t care if you’ve seen The Muppet Christmas Carol a dozen times, we are going to read Charles Dickens’ version, the real thing.”

A thin, pale arm rose timidly at the back of the class. A sea of faces turned as, Oliver Twist-like, its white-faced owner looked intent on dissent. I nodded permission to speak, still handing out books then watched him beam: “I was in The Muppet Christmas Carol, Sir.” And indeed he was.

These days every Christmas needs a bit of humbug to offset all that prefabricated jollity and goodwill, much of it down to Dickens.

So in my bid to entertain TES readers, many of whom will be genuinely exhausted by school, just in time for all the energy needed at home to celebrate the festive long weekend this year, I thought I’d offer some serious confection.

The recent response by one organisation representing independent schools, the Independent Schools Council’s (ISC), offering to (in effect) partially subsidise 10,000 school places for disadvantaged children, met with predictable criticism, sneering and some good old-fashioned inverted snobbery. Dickens would have felt very at home.

But as with the whole issue of grammar schools, I would like to invite people to think more deeply about what is all set to become the defining educational policy of the Brexit era.

What the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), many able research institutions and less altruistic data dolts fail to achieve, in spite of all the hours they dedicate to juggling stats, is to get anywhere near capturing what it is that distinguishes one school from another.

And when you are an individual child, hoping for a school that suits you, that’s not a peripheral concern or minor consideration: it is, quite appositely as it turns out, the heart of the matter.

Thinking pragmatically about school types: comprehensives, academies, studio schools, primary schools, prep schools, boarding schools, special schools, etc, etc is actually a very useful strategy.

Because once you do that, you start to discover characteristics and aspects of them that research efforts rarely even glimpse, but which are often central to their success or failure when looked at from the only point of view that matters, the experience of the children educated there. 

And since it’s Christmas, I want to pick on just one of those to illustrate my point. There are many others.

According to the House of Commons library, at the start of September 2015 there were 6,817 state funded faith schools in England. The majority were primary schools; 6,182 or 37 per cent of all state funded primaries. The 635 secondary faith schools made up 19 per cent of all state funded mainstream secondaries.

I don’t have the percentages for the independent sector but experience suggests they would be substantially higher. As some kind of benchmark, 80 per cent of the private schools in the US have a religious foundation.

Religious activity will vary enormously across these schools but there is one thing many will certainly do, and for good reason. They will bring the entire school, staff and pupils together, for some form of religious meeting at the start of a school day. It is no accident that the school chapel is the beating heart of many traditional English public schools.

For generations it has been the place where the school day begins. In less well-endowed schools the same kind of event might take place in a modest assembly hall, but the crucial, educational idea is the same.

Spiritual reflection, that quiet considerate space for everyone who is part of the same community to enjoy moments of peace and calm together, before entering what should be the intellectual and social maelstrom of the classroom, is a huge benefit.

Now come with me, and the Ghost of Christmas Past, and think back to a decade ago when a previous government was smilingly spending billions of Monopoly money building new schools under the Building schools for the future (BSF) programme. Those of us who were employed to advise educationally on this programme will recall how technology was placed right at its core.

Technology was going to “transform” everything.

That was the precise word used, to which any commercial company bidding to win a lucrative BSF contract had to respond. Not just individual schools, but whole local authorities, like the ill-fated Knowsley, were swept up in a feeding frenzy of utterly specious technoptimism.

That festive, ghostly nightmare might include a vision of Alastair Campbell claiming on behalf of his boss that, “We don’t do God.” Coincidence? Of course not.

Those of you fortunate enough to have taught for some time in schools that take their religion seriously, to heart as it were, will also have learned a great deal about human nature in that time, especially about its frailties.

You will have learned to detect a lie at fifty paces and how to unpick the most Byzantine of narratives built in an effort to avoid the consequences of childish mistakes.

You will know how to recognise and manage the difference between commonplace adolescent aggression and bullying.

You will have seen friendships blossom and wither all around you, picked up the fragile pieces and tried to glue them together many, many times.

And you will, without doubt, instantly recognise a bully, a thug or a liar when you meet one, even through the rose tinted spectacles of a TV screen. 

What you put at the heart of a school matters

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author

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