Evangelical fervour, but no clear message

20th March 2009 at 00:00

As a historian, I should not be surprised to find enlightenment coming from the past. There I was, standing in front of the assembled staff on an in-service day, drawing attention to the tension between the need for structure and timetabling in schools and the vision which lies behind A Curriculum for Excellence, of enabling teaching staff to take the initiative and shape the new curriculum from the bottom up.

It was intended as a humorous aside when I drew attention to the fact that my local authority, in trying to resolve some of this tension, had adopted the presbyterian solution of creating a committee to address it. Whether the analogy was appropriate or otherwise is immaterial, but it did prompt one staff member to inform me later: "As a good Catholic, I would prefer someone to tell me what to do, and I'll either do it or say sorry."

Two days later, we received intimation of the outcomes of the research on the consultation on the next generation of national qualifications in Scotland. I started thinking about the teacher's comment and my mind rambled ...

When Martin Luther nailed his Theology for Excellence to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, he was flying a kite. He was putting a new approach to God up for election, and he just had to wait and see what the reaction was. John Calvin got fired up with similar ideas, and a young student called John Knox had a few innovative thoughts of his own. The underlying theme of their "Bible is for reading" approach seemed to strike a chord with the public and the Reformation was soon under way.

Reading spread like wildfire. Henry VIII didn't bother about the theology stuff, but thought that this was an ideal time to get to be top man, and nationalised the Church anyway, thus showing how a politician with a bit of enterprise can profit in the most unlikely situation.

The problem with ACfE is that it is not firing up a high enough proportion of professionals in the schools for this new "reformation". The recently-published research bears this out. A division of 51 per cent in favour and 44 per cent against a consultation question gives a mandate for nothing. The evangelical educationists who are encouraging decentralisation and promoting their priesthood of all believers by abolishing orthodoxy are finding it less easy to make conversions than Messrs Knox and Calvin did.

Too many classroom teachers are simply not convinced as the new "theology" lacks clarity and is a bit short on redemption. At least when you challenged Knox about what he was doing, you got a clear answer and the classrooms of the day were summarily rearranged because the ordinary mortals had a clear understanding of his message.

In the 21st century, we have too many teachers who aren't getting a clear understanding of the reforming message. When they comment that the delivery of the message doesn't suit their learning style, then, paradoxically, they are told that they need to pay more attention.

The new educational theology has been nailed to the door but the next steps are unclear. The communion in the classroom is evolving, but people are asking: "What must we do to be saved?" If Luther or Knox had fudged the answer, the course of history might have been radically different. They spoke to the people where they were - not where they thought they should be.

However, at the end of the rambling, I remain slightly perplexed about my RC colleague's comment: she made no reference to guilt.

John Burnside is depute head of Portobello High in Edinburgh.

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