What keeps me awake at night - Losing faith in assemblies
This week: the writer works with schools in central England on community outreach programmes.
What keeps me awake at night? Bringing faith visitors into non-faith schools - whether they are priests, imams, rabbis, shamans or Jedi.
Once, such visits would just have been an ad-hoc way for schools to give kids interesting and stimulating encounters with "others", the kind of people they might not come across in the normal run of things. The visits would be a talking point among the students or something for them to ignore completely, as they saw fit. For staff, they had a sort of "broadening horizons" or "humanising" objective with no specific or quantifiable agenda beyond it seeming an appropriate thing to do - and "good for the kids".
Yet increasingly, during the Noughties, schools began to see faith visitors as a way of meeting their duty to promote "community cohesion". But thousands of schools have since updated their development plans to mention the "spiritual, moral, social and cultural education" of their pupils. Faith visitors can be seen as a way to tick that box. (I'm not sure about the phrase "spiritual, moral, social and cultural education" - how is Ofsted supposed to assess the spiritual? Will it be pressing clairvoyants into service? Will schools have to show their angel residuals or demoniac restraint policies?)
Part of the problem with faith visitors is they can expect to have a genuine dialogue about religion with pupils, so they will sometimes ask them questions. Even those from the more authoritarian, old-fashioned faiths are used to some kind of call-and-response.
Instead they are met with confused, embarrassed silence from ranks of teenagers. Morning assembly is a graveyard slot. The pupils are not just shy about speaking out in front of their friends, they have specifically been trained not to speak freely at this one event, which many schools use, for the sake of convenience, to meet the obsolescent requirement for an act of common worship.
At one of the schools on my patch the discipline policies are so tight that the senior team is expected to have wordless control over the student body. If a student fails to have their top button fastened tightly it is treated as a a sign of imminent zombie apocalypse, so they get a laser stare and are swiftly exited.
Thus, ironically, it can be at the best-behaved schools that the ministers find it hardest to promote their moral message.
Yet we continue to invite faith visitors, and rack them up over the years for the calendar events: Diwali, Ramadan, Passover and Easter. They are all politely tolerated for the duration of their visit. They have their pictures taken and are offered refreshments. They leave and will now become evidence of the spiritual work of the school - without ever engaging in real debate with anyone.