For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Saturday, 1 February 2014

What's Wrong With Schools

I was trawling through the websites of so-called "free" schools set up over the last two or three years: where a group of parents or religious organisation can demonstrate that they have the numbers of pupils required, they receive government funding to set up a school. For faith schools, they can specify 50% of their intake according to their own admission criteria. Anecdotally, this isn't quite enough to satisfy parents who want to be sure that the school is a Christian foundation, and with only 50% it is difficult to uphold an ethos - something like 60-70% is needed, I am told.

I had thought, however, that free schools were an opportunity for those disappointed by modern educational practice and standards to do something very different. Perhaps a traditional approach with classical languages taught; or a school incorporating the ideas of the liberal arts education movement that has taken off in the United States; something, anything a bit out of the ordinary. That wasn't what I picked up from the websites. They were, it is true, marginally better designed and glossier looking than their established state secondary counterparts websites. But the rhetoric - innovation, promoting creative learning, every child matters etc. which tells you nothing except that the people who wrote the stuff have no imagination at all - was no different. (Look Dearest, this prospectus says Every Child Matters! There we were expecting all the promotional literature to say they couldn't stand the little brats.) Even the Christian free schools are infected with this timid lack of specifics and thralldom to Creative Nice-Speak: they tentatively whisper a few things about ethos and catering to spiritual development and "Christian vision" (meaning precisely what?) in the Our Mission page.

So, I was thinking, why - even when people have the opportunity to set up whatever kind of faith school they like with public money - is there nothing more virile and hard-edged in outline, more ruggedly counter-cultural? These are some suggestions.

1) It is difficult to hire enough godly teachers to give an overall Christian ethos to a school; and is this something to do with teacher training, too, and deficient notions of pedagogy imparted thereby? I suspect one needs a very dedicated core of teachers with a common purpose to give a school a really Christian ethos.

2) New schools do not have a long tradition and atmosphere into which new teachers can be assimilated and informed by, thus compounding problem (1). I think this could be overcome: see next point.

3) The problem is not so much that the free schools are necessarily new, but to do with modern eduction itself. The modern school becomes the place it is not because it isn't old, but because it does what it does and aims at what it aims at. The aim is in fact A-levels. No matter how much one puts on extra-curricular activities, or even fiddles around with the syllabus or gives teachers freedom to teach outside the curriculum, the school will always take its cue from its "highest" form of specifically academic activity (for it is an academic institution by definition). This will not change until there  is a collegiate life among the teachers themselves: the ultimate aim of the school will therefore not be A-level results or (slightly better) A-level knowledge, but the adult and lifelong pursuit of wisdom. And in a Christian school this could be united around a life of prayer and sacrament also - again, not a school assembly and Eucharist every so often, but something to which the teachers as a college are devoted. This again presents a difficulty - because one would need a core of teachers willing and called to pursue this kind of life, almost like a religious order.

4) Perhaps they don't want to scare the horses with a too aggressively Christian publicity: but I think that people actually want a Christian school to be Christian. I am told that the restriction on the specified intake for faith schools was a pragmatic one, to prevent all-Muslim schools springing up everywhere and creating ghettos. But the restriction has had precisely the opposite impact - when a Muslim school is advertised, they aren't shy, and people know it is going to be a properly Muslim school. And so, surprise, the pupils are overwhelmingly Muslim. Christian schools on the other hand, where the parents are concerned that it might not turn out to be very Christian at all if only 50% of the pupils are of Christian family, are smothered by the restriction because they cannot garner enough parental support. Well, perhaps this is inevitable - more non-religious Britons would send their child to a Christian than a Muslim school - but I am not so very sure. Call the school St John the Evangelist with St Michael the Archangel; put a picture of a few boys warbling in choir robes on the prospectus, candles burning before them; stipulate that the pupils will attend chapel for 15 minutes at Prime and Sext every day, and Sung Eucharist every Wednesday; and explain that R.E. is mostly catechesis and that the curriculum will be shot through with the light of Christ. I would be very surprised if there was a huge uptake among people who would actively resist a Christian ethos; and at least the non-religious parents (who should be welcomed with open arms) would be aware of what they were getting their children into, and wouldn't be left wondering what the vague "Christian vision" on the Our Mission page was about.

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