Thursday, June 12, 2014

Faith in Education

The prayer handbook Operation World devotes much of June to prayer for India. Today I read the entry for the state of Mizoram, an Indian enclave between Bangladesh and Myanmar inhabited by almost 900,000 people. It is reckoned that 85% of the population are Christian. OW records that, "Awakenings and revivals in recent years have dynamised the Church and transformed society. It is now the most literate and well-educated state in India." The entry made me reflect on the relationship between Christianity and education. During the Medieval period learning was kept alive by the Church. The Reformation stimulated increased levels of literacy and gave impetus to scientific inquiry and artistic flourishing. The role of faith in education has grabbed the headlines in recent days. But not in a good way. 

As a school governor I've been keeping a weather eye on the so-called 'Trojan Horse' story. School governance was seemingly part of the problem in at least some of the Birmingham schools that have been placed in special measures by Ofsted. Hardline Muslims were found to have infiltrated governing bodies. They used their power to force through drastic changes to the curriculum. In one school students were deprived of expressive and performing arts lessons. Systems of governance intended to ensure that decisions were not made by a small, unrepresentative number of board members were used to block measures with which radical Islamists disagreed. Cliques would walk out of meetings when agenda items they opposed were up for discussion. Committees were consequently rendered inquorate and incapable of making a decision. It is reported that some governors became far too involved in the everyday running of their schools, creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation for senior leaders and staff. Religious preachers were allowed to use extremist language in school assemblies, such as labelling white women 'prostitutes'. 

The affair has caused a huge spat between Michael Gove and Theresa May on who was to blame for allowing this situation to develop. Was it the Department of Education, or the Home Office? Part of the problem was a misuse of the freedom that comes with academisation. Unlike LA maintained schools, Academies are not bound to follow the National Curriculum. But that educational liberty was never intended to become a licence to ban music and drawing lessons because they are 'un-Islamic'. Head of Oftsed, Sir Michael Wilshaw has suggested that there needs to be some tightening up in that area. Schools should be free to vary the curricula they offer, but not to the extent that key components such as the arts are dropped altogether.  

Some commentators have used what has been happening in Birmingham as an excuse to call for all faith schools to be closed. But there's a subtle difference between having children sing All things bright and beautiful in your local CofE primary school and the dark goings on reported in Park View and Oldknow Academies. The Church was the main education provider for children in this country before the State ever got in on the act. Church schools are often academically successful and provide a strong Christian ethos that enables children to thrive and develop. 

That said, all schools are expected to give their students a rich social, moral,  spiritual and cultural diet that will help form them into reflective individuals with a strong sense of moral purpose. RE lessons rightly teach pupils about all faiths. Having some understanding of different belief systems is important for young people growing up in a multicultural society. It isn't the job of RE teachers to proselytise, but to inform, explain and provoke reflection. It's a great pity that Gove chose not to include RE in the range of EBacc subjects. The predictable result has been that the subject has been sidelined in many schools. Nevertheless, Ofsted will no doubt be keeping a much closer eye on the ethos of schools, to ensure that they are promoting 'British Values' such as democracy, freedom, tolerance and the rule of law . 

Some Christian parents may wish to home-school their children, others may opt to send them to Christian schools. That's their right. But many believers send their children to the local State school. It is the responsibility of Christian parents to bring up their children in the 'nurture and admonition of the Lord'. But it has never been part of the faith to shun what may be learned from those who do not share our beliefs. John Calvin has a wonderful passage in the Institutes where he says,
If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver. How, then, can we deny that truth must have beamed on those ancient lawgivers who arranged civil order and discipline with so much equity? Shall we say that the philosophers, in their exquisite researches and skilful description of nature, were blind? Shall we deny the possession of intellect to those who drew up rules for discourse, and taught us to speak in accordance with reason? Shall we say that those who, by the cultivation of the medical art, expended their industry in our behalf were only raving? What shall we say of the mathematical sciences? Shall we deem them to be the dreams of madmen? Nay, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration; an admiration which their excellence will not allow us to withhold. But shall we deem anything to be noble and praiseworthy, without tracing it to the hand of God? [Calvin, John (2008-04-03). Institutes of the Christian Religion (Kindle Locations 4899-4906). Signalman Publishing. Kindle Edition]. 
Believers often get involved in PTAs or Governing Boards because they want to be of service to their communities in some way. But a Christian governor will not use underhand tactics in order to impose their beliefs on a non-denominational school. Christian teaching on the moral frailty of all human beings underpins a proper emphasis on transparent systems of  scrutiny and accountability. 'Power corrupts, absolute  power corrupts absolutely' and all that. Accountability in the world of education means that there needs to be a clear separation of powers between the Governing Board at the strategic level and the operational running of the school by senior leaders. That separation of powers breaks down when governors routinely meddle in the everyday affairs of the school, often with deleterious results. What's been happening in Birmingham is a rather extreme case in point.

Speaking with some governors you would think that the strategic/operational dividing line is only in place to stop them having fun. But it is not the job of governors to 'play schools'. It seems passing strange to me that any Board of Governors would wish to descend from the commanding heights of strategic leadership to muddy their fair hands in the everyday running of the school. Others are well paid for doing just that. Governors should simply focus on what they are not paid a penny to do: set the overall direction of the school and hold senior leaders to account to make sure the school is heading in the direction they have set.

Checks and balances should be in place to ensure that governors do not abuse their power. The clerk should advise the board if it is acting inappropriately. Should their advice be ignored, irregularities should be minuted and the LA or Department of Education informed of what has been happening. Action should then taken quickly to investigate alleged improprieties and  the situation remedied before things get out of hand. Heads and other concerned governors should also be prepared to sound an alarm. The problem with Birmingham was that warnings concerning the conduct of governors went unheeded by the education authorities. The situation was allowed to deteriorate and schools ended up being  placed in special measures. Better not to turn a blind eye while schools sink into a swamp of extremism rather than having to take drastic action to 'drain the swamp' when it's too late.

However, there is a role for faith in education, both in terms of faith schools and believers getting involved in various ways. The Christian faith especially has often gone hand in hand with a strong emphasis on the importance of broad-based, value-laden education. I also have faith in education as a driver of social mobility, helping every student, even the most disadvantaged overcome barriers to achievement in life. But even the best of educations can only do so much. That's why my ultimate faith is not in education, but the God of the gospel. 


Mark Pickett said...

Excellent post Guy. I am also the Chair of Governors and heartily concur with your comments. Excellent quote from Calvin too!

Guy Davies said...

Thanks, Mark.

Ben said...

It's noteworthy that those who have taken the opportunity to call for all faith schools to be closed haven't apparently taken into account that the schools in question are not faith schools.

It's also concerning that measures to counter "extremism" in schools could well be set up to limit the freedom of Christians to teach according to their convictions. Secularists will be looking for the opportunity to class belief in ex nihilo creation, for example, as "extreme".