Sunday, 6 July 2014

Blue Labour and Education

Below are the outline notes of a paper I gave at the Blue Labour conference at the University of Nottingham yesterday, on what Blue Labour can offer education. 

For those who asked for copies - hope this helps!

Vocational Education

The first area Blue Labour might look to challenge contemporary orthodoxy can be summed up with the simple question: ‘what do we educate our children for?’

It seems straightforward, perhaps tedious, but I’d argue that for too long we have transformed that question and actually answer a subtly different one that can more accurately be rendered ‘for whom do we educate our children?'

The shift is slight, but telling - if the first suggests inherent virtue, then the latter points toward an outside demand. And once we define education through the service of an outside demand, we shape its offer to better support our preferred outcomes in relation to that demand.

It is in this spirit that Labour have for too long bought into an error. An understandable, perhaps even noble error, but an error nonetheless.

They have bought into the idea that our children are split into two types, the academic and the non-academic. In so doing, we have tacitly supported the notion of vocational training not as a good in itself, but actually as a good for kids who are deemed to be non-academic.

The corollary has been the idea that for everybody else, only an academic pathway was legitimate, one that followed naturally to completion of a degree. The natural consequence was an excess stress on degree level education, deemed good in so far as it services our service economy.

In other words, we submitted education to the demands of the market, and in so doing segregated our children according to which aspect of that market they might service. And you can be sure that this has influenced what we teach our kids and how we assess its delivery.

This has nudged schools and society toward a similar segregation, reinforcing a subtle denigration of the very socio-cultural classes with whom Labour traditionally stood shoulder to shoulder. The contribution of those in the vocational is less valued than it might be, even despite frequent protestations otherwise, because we have accepted the notion that the vocational is the other side of the coin to the academic, which is at any rate the more desirable.

Put frankly, this stinks.

Yet one can see where it comes from. The romantic ideal of hands-on work is replete with core ideas of relationships, reciprocity, contribution - but also, and importantly, with pride and dignity in work. And rightly so. Yet as a movement our stress on vocational schooling seems too often to have been less a recognition of skill and production as a virtue in the pursuit of the good life, and instead the acceptance of the pernicious idea that our workers cannot also be educated - or at least not in an academic sense.

In other words, we have given ownership of the educated to the service economy, when we should instead be claiming it back, for all.

Social Mobility

But Blue Labour’s challenge of orthodoxy doesn’t have to stop there. With its stress on rootedness and place, it can also challenge this omnipresent fad of the professionally concerned: ‘social mobility.’

Put simply, it has become a fashion for every change in education to be justified with a hand-wringing appeal to social mobility. It must be said Govian revolutionaries are particularly good at this, and very much resemble the liberal left when they do so (no surprise there). Determined to display their compassionate credentials, they present their reforms as self-evidently enlightened because self-evidently about helping-poor-people-get-a-job-more-like-ours-for-a-change

Thus we’re no longer in the game of developing intellect to help human flourishing, but have instead turned education into the harlot of the markets. What use, after all, within a marketised utilitarianism, for appeals to refinement of intellect? For human flourishing? For the feeding of the soul?

Or, to quote a leading Labour figure: 'Overcoming educational inequality is a huge challenge. However, we know the cost of doing nothing. It's bad for social mobility and ultimately bad for Britain's economy.'

No desperate romantic, he.

Yet the objection to social mobility is more than than the cold-fingered grip it places round the throat of any sort of expansive view of learning. For social mobility effectively means, in contemporary parlance, the ability to move away from those you know and love. With the heavy implication that failure to do so somehow represents a mournful loss of potential and indeed choosing to do so is itself a signifier of success.

Maybe I’m being unfair, and such definitions of social mobility will always exists whilst the regions are effectively supplicant to the economy of the South-East. But at the same time, we cannot scratch our heads and wonder at atomisation whilst we have spent a generation and more telling anyone with talent that the reason we educate ourselves is to walk away from who we are, or at the very least from where we are from.


Which brings me lastly to institutions.

Now I should say to start us off - I support free schools, and I think Blue Labour should too. They are the embodiment of Blue Labour insights into associative society. The left, understandably perhaps, are broadly more critical, wedded as we are to an idea of tiered central control - this does, after all, give political power to influence outcomes but also help create infrastructure to guarantee standards.

However, as a movement we ought to be comfortable with and full of admiration for those who, driven by common interest, create a learning community. Of course there are checks and brakes needed - a minimum standard and protection against the growth of conglomerates - but the idea of communities coming together to share in the education of their children also has this virtue: it reminds us of the primacy of the family and the community to self-regulate and create with the support of the state, rather than in sole dependence on it. Education done with, rather than done to.

Thus it’s a lesson in humility for the left, but also of liberty, and the importance of horizontal and vertical ties (both generational and social) that can more closely wed folk to a place and a common purpose - and therefore each other.

And when our collective futures are interdependent - and when we see that up close - then we work for one another, and not just ourselves.

This is Labour.

But... whilst there is implicit in this idea that institutions embody virtue, we must be weary of thinking that these become virtue manufacturies.

Virtue can indeed be passed through institutions, and be embodied within them, but it is a not a static product passed to an individual. It is instead something generated through the spirit and circumstance in which it was created and then supported.

In other words, the cart must follow the horse - high-minded notions of schools instilling virtue in our young must first consider the possibility whether our institutions possess virtue themselves, before then asking where this comes from (there can be little doubt our schools have lost this, which I hope we can discuss later).

Thus, when we hear about a virtuous elite reinvigorating society through some sort of Reaganite trickle-down effect, I’m more inclined to wonder if this is precisely the wrong way round - that virtue is in the bricks and mortar in the sense that it was embedded with the sweat and tears of those who toiled at its creation, and thus its ongoing legacy. 

When we contracted this out to the state, we lost something important here.

This being the case, it is associative relationships - or to use the more straightforward terms of love and honour and pride and dignity - that generate virtue, and our institutions stand as testimony to them, rather than factories of it.

(For which reason you’ll gather I’m a fan of faith schools. Though I deeply fear for their future, partly because of Labour’s inability to value tradition and lived lineage over sterilised accounts of equal access to goods and services. The only thing that will preserve them will be pragmatic, rather than intellectual, support. - as I have said in the past, the government could buy all our schools if they like, but it’ll cost them a fortune and we’ll only use the money to build a whole load more.)


So, to sum up, what can Blue Labour offer education?

Well we need to be able to situate education within a healthy vision of the good life, and not just talk about the pernicious effect of coldly utilitarian systems but also to live out the consequences of that thinking too - this means a recovery of the value of the vocational, sure, but without excluding from the beauty of our cultural inheritance those whom we deem to be non-academic.

Blue Labour can also recognise the vital role of schools in forming our young and instilling within them the virtues that we have decided ought to be cherished, even where they might be rejected by wider society - but we must not think that such a thing can be contracted out over and against the family and the communities that act as both creator and guarantor of these institutions .

And lastly, Blue Labour can reject this obsession with social mobility as the judge and jury of educational success and offer an account of flourishing set within rootedness and love, rather than atomised and essentially selfish conceptions of success.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Gove and the English Literature GCSE

They say that a lie is halfway around the world before the truth has even got its boots on. That was before the internet came along. Now it can spin a whole web before anybody notices that something is not quite right. Which happened today, as a whole army of teachers lined up to denounce Gove for issuing an outright ban on anything written by Johnny Foreigner from being taught in our schools. Or insisting all children recite Dickens by heart. Or something like that. Anyway, whatever the details (and please, don’t bother me with such things), the general consensus is that Gove has been really bad and has re-written the English curriculum, by hand and to the tune of Rule Britannia, and we’re All Really Angry about it.

Of course what has actually been said, and what will eventually be proposed, is irrelevant. The very suggestion of change is enough for some to dust off their favourite sanctimony-pants and take to the Twitter dancefloor, strutting along issuing poignant comment about the day they communed with the noumenon whilst reading Of Mice and Men back in their Year 10 English class. No other book, it seems, can offer this. And even if it could it wouldn’t be as good ‘cos, y’know, yeah. Thus to propose any sort of change is not just callous, but a spiritual violence: the Child Catcher has nothing on old Gove.

And that’s just the tamer end of the Outraged spectrum. Gove the racist? Yep. Imperialist? Yep. Xenophobe? Yep. Mysogynist? Why, of course. The whole stinking, steaming, rotting dung-heap has been aimed at him. For many, this is not a debate about what literary treasures should be passed on to our children, but a simple battle between Good and Evil, between the Enlightened Elect and Gradgrind Gove, with his uneducated obsession with Dead, White Males.  That’s all there is to it. Argument over. Go back to your homes.

There are some chinks in the armour, mind. The Crusaders for Literary Diversity seem remarkably comfortable with the fact that, according to OCR, around 90% of school kids have all read the same text for their exams. Nor the fact that, looking at the guidance issued to date, there is nothing whatsoever to say foreign literature is banned, nor to suggest that it needs to be. But hey, why let reality get in the way of spittle-flecked anger? I’m outraged, goddammit, and the world shall know of it. Reason has no home here. Instead, those who swing the Sword of EduJustice have worked one another into an orgy of righteous indignation , using the #GetGoveReading premium rate hashtag as a kind of speed-dating service for the self-evidently superior. Calvin’s Elect does Take Me Out, digitised.

The real root of the issue – that kids should be given the opportunity in school to read a broader range of texts, and most don’t get the opportunity to do so - has been crushed by the weight of a thousand slurs about the moral and intellectual deficiencies of He Who Rocked The Boat. If this really were about the kids, and not Gove, they might find some sympathy with his remarks. After all, if most children leave our schools never having read a classic novel from the 19th century, why is that to be celebrated?  If few children have had the opportunity to engage with the literary fruits of the culture in which they are being formed, then why not question how that should be?  I once wrote that it is a tragedy that too often we deny our children access to high culture because of the hang-ups of their teachers. One or two folk pulled me up on that. I feel increased resolve to insist on it today.

And so we find ourselves in the curious position of being angry about teaching things to children that the parents of those children might deem broadly worthwhile and desirable. And by and large they would not understand the resentment of teachers that this should be so. I’m sure I don’t take too much of a risk in confidently predicting that few parents will write into school demanding an explanation for why little Joan has taken to pulling Gaskell off the shelf.

In other words, we don’t seem to be on the side of their kids. And that’s fairly fundamental.

Take a bow, everybody. Good job. 

Monday, 12 May 2014

Do we need fewer Catholic schools?

Set against personal struggles, moral confusion and fragmentation of knowledge, the noble goals of scholarship and education, founded on the unity of truth and in service of the person and the community, become an especially powerful instrument of hope (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI,2008)

There was a time when Catholics fought tooth and nail to build their schools. In the face of prejudice and obfuscation they persisted in their task, holding clearly before them a truth which we seem to have often forgotten today – that our kids deserve a Catholic education. And more, that a Catholic education is something distinctive, something unique, important enough to make the sacrifice and hard work necessary for bringing it about worthwhile.

And it has left us with some legacy. Over 2000 schools in the maintained sector alone, many of which were built decades ago in the midst of a birth-rate boom and before contraception culture really took hold. Buildings and land, sure, but also a living history, a testament in stone and mortar to the fortitude and sheer bloody-minded determination of those whose feats live on, even if the vision which energised them increasingly does not.

Knowing the history of our Catholic schools, of the hardships involved in securing first the freedom and then the capital to build them, makes one all the more determined to fling a defiant pair of fingers in the direction of any who would seek to restrict our right to educate our children in the way we see fit. To do any less would in some sense be a betrayal – of our faith, yes, but also of the toil of those who bequeathed to us such a gift.

But then, a squandered fortune need not be confined to a property portfolio, and there has emerged the distinct feeling that too often our schools are not quite what they say they are, and thus not quite what they were intended to be.  And if we were to scratch around for a reason for this, then we might move beyond buildings and onto a question at once more fundamental: why do we do this?

The more politic, having long learned the placatory language of faith schools, will here mouth pieties peppered with hazy references to ‘gospel values’ before rehearsing clichés about academic excellence. This keeps the charade forefront, hiding the fact that too often we stop short of delivering the kind of authentic answer we could be expected to give: ‘to build the foundation [of] our spiritual development, our learning and teaching, the formation of culture and our society in Christ’ (Mgr Stock, 2012).

All very well, some will say, but that is just words on a page, a pleasant stroll through a bit of theory swiftly forgotten once OFSTED rolls up and want to know why English results have taken a downturn and FSM kids did not receive enough C grades last year.

But here’s the thing: that quote, that primary mission; it’s not irrelevant. It might take an effort of the intellect to translate it into practical terms, but it nonetheless lies at the heart of what we should try to do. And it underpins why we do it. And it informs the goals we set and the decisions we make in trying to bring it about. 

Catholic School DNA

Only, too often it doesn't. Whilst we rightly acknowledge the achievements and popularity of our schools, the question of what makes them distinctively Catholic has been quietly sidelined, deemed impolite or just bloody awkward. Yet in the midst of growing costs, a poorer church, demographic change and wider cultural transformation, the issue of what our schools are and how they ought to operate is pertinent. Indeed, both the Tablet and the Catholic Herald have recently given special attention to precisely this.

More often than not, emphasis is placed on the Catholicity of schools as determined by the faith composition of those who attend or work there. Here, the statistics point to a clear trend: the number of non-Catholics attending Catholic school has risen dramatically – from 2% in 1974, when sizes were clearly more suited to constituency, to around 30% now. For some, this is evidence of bloated capacity, since if Catholic schools are about providing a Catholic education for Catholic children our size must remain correlative to the Catholic birth rate. But this gets it wrong. The religion, or otherwise, of the individual who rocks up at the start of Year 7 is not altogether crucial. If we take our mission seriously then the free offer, the encounter with that foundation, will be made regardless. Yes, Catholic children should get priority for entry – assisting in their education is why we built these places, after all – but if evangelism trumps statistics then the faith of the person who stands nervously at the gates is neither here nor there. Within reasonable limits, having fewer Catholic children need not undermine what we do, nor how we do it, and need not be an obstacle – unless some choose to make it so. Which is by far the more common problem.

As such, to suggest our schools are inhibited by the declining number of Catholic children is to grasp the wrong end of the right stick. For if we’re talking about the capacity to generate and sustain an authentic vision of Catholic education, set within the context of an authentic institution, then one must instead turn to Catholic teachers, or rather the lack thereof.

According to the CES census of 2013, only 44% of those teaching in Catholic secondary schools are Catholic. This figure refers to ‘baptised Catholic,’ and is drawn from schools self-reporting (by ‘headcount’ and including peripatetic staff), with the accompanying incentive to inflate numbers in the hope of keeping diocesan spreadsheets looking healthy and diocesan inspectors looking pleased.  If one were to refine the data to qualify Catholicity with reference to active faith and worship, then I would guess (the best I can do, since I know of no data which collects such information) that we would barely break 5-10%.

One can see why, in this context, the task of pursuing a Catholic vision of education would be quite a challenge. After all, how does one keep a Catholic school distinctively Catholic, as opposed to instinctively secular, when so very few who comprise the fabric of the school either subscribe to or live by that vision? The answer is: not very easily. The ‘Catholic’ becomes superimposed, an added ingredient to an otherwise secular model that is distinguished from other forms of school organisation primarily by how many hours RE the children get per week and how many Masses might be inserted into the school calendar in any given year. Or, as James Arthur puts it, ‘many Catholic schools look no further than the secular models of education that surround them. They adopt a dualistic model of the curriculum, which divides education conceptually and practically into a religious section and a much larger secular part… Religious identity is eroded in these secular models, with links to Catholic educational principles becoming historical memory.’

This erosion of identity trickles down throughout the school, as one might expect: after all, how could we reasonably expect someone of no faith to lead prayer? Or uphold the truth of teachings that, in all conscience, they reject? Indeed, it would be callous to do so. And what trickles down also rises up: with so few Catholics in the system, finding leaders is a key challenge. Since school governance rightly insists that key positions are held by Catholics with an active faith who commit to living by the teachings of the Church, so the pool for leadership becomes incredibly narrow. This has an predictable impact on recruitment, but it also encourages further erosion in Catholic identity and presents another obstacle to the fulfillment of that founding vision - in such constrained circumstances, which diocese has never turned a blind eye to such requirements, choosing to appoint someone whose enthusiasm for the Mass was sparked around about the same time as the job advertisement went out, or whose commitment to the faith could be said to be lukewarm at best, where it exists at all?

Some might declare this justified, indeed moral, on the basis of inclusivity and the avoidance of discrimination, though this logic always seems to sit on the doorstep of Catholic schools and rarely moves itself off to harry other groups where freedom of association would be presumed an automatic right. Either way, it presents a challenge. Of authenticity, yes, of honesty, of course, but also of mission. If Catholic education is something distinct, more than mere secular models with some colourful festival thrown in, then having so very few of those delivering it also being adherents to it brings its consequences. Or, in the words of Pope (Emeritus) Benedict, ‘Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual.’

Too many?

Which necessarily brings us to the key question: do we have too many schools? Can we retain an authentic mission within the framework in which we are forced to operate? Can we really claim to be doing what we promised to do when we first opened our schools? If we spread ourselves so thinly, can it really be a surprise that what is presented is often a pale reflection of the fullness of the vision with which we originally sought to vitalise in our schools?

These questions are not new of course, and Bishop Michael ofLancaster probed the very same themes in his pastoral letter of a couple of years ago. Or, in his words: ‘Is it right or sustainable to expect our Mass-going population of 21,000 to support our schools and colleges in which often the majority of pupils, and sometimes teachers, are not practising Catholics? Is it time for us to admit that we can no longer maintain schools that are Catholic in name only?’

Answers to those questions came there none, but the contexts in which such concerns arose have not gone away. They might even be said to have intensified. And so we come to the point where we must at least consider another possibility.

One must admit that in so doing we are thrust under the duvet with some uneasy bedfellows. There are plenty, after all, who will happily cheer the closure of Catholic schools as an aberration in an enlightened secular society, that being their own eccentric understanding of liberty and freedom. Whilst the presence of anti-Catholic voices automatically causes one to react in anger – or fear – and assert the status-quo as a means of retaining social and political leverage, there is little reason to believe that this is what the status-quo really delivers. And as time goes on, and demographics change, we become prostrate before a change we have failed to respond to, instead busily working against ourselves by upholding within our schools precisely those secularised models that we ought properly to be countering. And if we become merely secular schools with some festivals thrown in, with enough protection to let three or four post holders be determined by faith criteria, then those who protest our existence have a point about the (in)justice of our privileges.

We need, therefore, to consider that Caesar’s shilling might have become the millstone around our neck, perhaps even the thug at our door, rather than the enabler it once proved itself to be. As I have written before, the culture clash is making its way to our schools and we are not well placed to resist it. Whilst all focus is currently on the ‘extremism’ deemed present in certain schools in Birmingham, it is a small jump for the mischievous to pronounce that the Catholic church teaches Truth that some would caricature as equally extreme. Indeed for some Headteachers, being Catholic is already a disciplinary issue, and legal action has been threatened for any exam board that allows anybody the opportunity to express an orthodox Catholic viewpoint. A grandstanding legal case similarly demanding the abandonment of Catholicity is surely just around the corner – the defences have already been scouted. All things considered, it might be best to organise a suitable settlement before that becomes the case.

 Of course, pulling down a temple demands none of the effort or intellect needed to bring about its original construction, and so alternative accommodation needs to be considered carefully; these might range from micro-schools, to the development of free-schools (but not under current regulations), to reconfiguring the geography of our provision, to re-envisioning the nature of our delivery, to a quiet curiosity as to whether religious orders might do for our schools what one order in particular has done for the churches of Philomena and Walburge. It is worth noting, also, that there are nearly one hundred Catholic independent schools, whose rates of Catholicity compare even less favourably and whose contact with their state maintained counterparts tend to be, by and large, limited at best. Withdrawal from public provision would undoubtedly be difficult, but it might also prove an important social corrective, allowing us to confirm our belief that education is fundamentally the responsibility of the parents with which schools assist, a principle long since abandoned by the state sector and an important restatement of liberty in a world increasingly hostile to Catholic witness.

Responses to these challenges will naturally oscillate between those who prefer reform and those who counsel reformation, but it is nonetheless a reality we need to face. Integrity and honesty demand it. Those who sit in the pews each week and dig into their purses for yet more pennies to support our collective mission present us with a moral responsibility to be what we were intended to be and what we still say we are. It was the hard labour of their and our forebears that built what we possess today, in order that we might proclaim to their children the fullness and joy that is the Word made flesh. Should we cease to make that proclamation, should we cease to be able to make that proclamation, indeed should we buckle before modern day authorities who demand a rebuke for those who dare do so, then we betray those who came before us. And the very stones cry out.


Other articles which might interest:

RE in Schools - Evangelise or Secularise?

Not For a Fire in Ely Fen

Catholic Schools and Education

Catholic Schools and Education - Redux

Gove's Traditionalism and Catholic Education

The Rising Tide

Teaching (anti-Catholic) History

There May Be Trouble Ahead

Marriage and Schools

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Loony Liberals and the Unions

I feel that, through no fault of the the parents, there is an expectation to work before looking after your family. Living costs mean it is unaffordable for only one parent to work and there is less importance attached to bringing up children.

An appalling Tory dinosaur, perhaps?

Well no, actually. One of those liberal types at the yooniuns as it goes. Mourning the loss of family life and the outcomes that have accompanied the move toward nationalising parenting putting children in school for ten hours a day. Expressing the concerns of a vast majority of teachers in so doing.

But then this is the world Michael Gove envisions, encapsulating his less than rigorous protection of that keystone of conservative thought: the family. Which cheers his liberal allies in the Labour Party, at one as they are with him on this precise point.

And all the while social conservatives on his own benches cheer and laud him as their hero, precisely whilst he pulls the rug from under their most cherished beliefs.

But then caricatured culture wars are a bit like that - close your eyes and your ears and you'll soon unwittingly smear your allies and cheer your foes.

And so whilst Michael Gove and the rest of statist liberals at the DfE continue to nationalise parenting reform education it'll be down to the loony-liberal teachers and the loony-liberal yooniuns to oppose this most insidious and incessant creep of liberalism.

And it's against the whole political system that they do it.

Backwoodsmen, indeed.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Gove's liberalism might just prove useful

I've long said that Michael Gove is far more liberal authoritarian than any Labour occupant of the DfE hotseat ever dared to be. Such as here. And here. And here.

Well, since that analysis of Gove is starting to take off, it turns out that he might just be the useful idiot those of a postliberal hue have long needed in order to highlight the nature of their critique. This from Mary Boustead, general secretary of the ATL:

We are the poor man of Europe when it comes to unpaid overtime and there is a massive pressure to be present in the workplace and there is not a culture in the UK as there is in other European countries, particularly Scandinavian countries, which understand that raising a family is hard work and that if we're going to have a healthy next generation and if we're going to make family life do-able and if we're going to do something about the breakdown in families, the incidence of divorce and family break up then we have to do more to support family life, whether that's both parents working, one parent working or no parents working.
Those loony liberals at the yooniuns, huh?

Saturday, 29 March 2014

'Not for a fire in Ely fen...'

It was at a dance festival where the thought first occurred. A rather good dance festival, as it goes. Featuring 16 or so (I confess I lost count) local schools who put on their own particular dance for an auditorium filled with proud family and friends. All ages, all abilities, all themes.

Did I mention it was good? It really was. The kind of thing that leaves one with a warm glow and a feeling of satisfaction that we, too, in some small way, help make this. That for everything we have to carp about, the kids will be alright.  They will.

And my own daughter? Well, her and her Reception class danced the story of Noah. It was excellent. I, on the front row (like any self-respecting embarrassing Dad), could not have been more proud. It was the only dance with a religious theme, mind (another school [rural, CofE] performed an excellent telling the story of St George, with full Wagner-esque pomp ). These four year olds, telling the story of Noah, each movement meaning something, each child in his or her particular place, moving at a particular time, along to particular music, a sort of beautiful, post-toddler kinaesthetic symphony.

And then I heard it: ‘what’s that then?’ It was from an adult couple in my vicinity. They were referring to the rainbow. And the appearance of dry land, I think. Anyway, it soon became clear that they were not the only adults sat round and about who did not know much about the story of Noah. Or what happens in it. Or what certain fundamental aspects of the story mean. Or what they tell us. Or how they shape us. Still.

And so that thought with which I started: my four year old daughter, and her colleagues, already in possession of more knowledge, in this regard more cultural capital, than a selection of perfectly respectable, intelligent, discerning adults. And if it’s Noah for four year olds then we might imagine where the boundary lies come sixteen.

Mad, that.

But it linked to something that has had me curious for a while. It’s this Hirschian revolution thing, which I’m a fan of really. I’ve always wondered why it is so light on the theological. So scant with the scriptural. Hirsch, to be sure, does give (brief) mention to these things, and his devotees at least tip their hats in that direction, but it rarely goes farther than that. And the question would have to be: why not?

If cultural capital is an important thing, then scriptural knowledge is central to that. Indeed, if cultural capital and intellectual heritage is an important thing, then theology is central to that. Literature, art, music, science, philosophy, law, language – take your pick. To the extent that I’ve just deleted a paragraph worth of apologia for such a claim on the basis that it seems so startlingly obvious that anyone who either cherished or possessed any of the above couldn’t really fail to acknowledge or be aware of it.

But then that last bit is the key, isn’t it? Being aware of it. Our canon is currently fighting a war against claims of imperialism when it should be fighting a war against threats of philistinism. For currently it sacrifices too much in the name of being open minded, and in so doing gives away the key to distribute precisely that cultural capital which really does open minds. And so the philistinism creeps on and consumes the canon, as those charged with populating it become less and less aware of that with which it might be populated.

It’s a common enough recognition, that the Dark Ages were a period of time when Western culture was nearly drowned by philistinism, to be preserved only by the monks in their scriptoria, East and West, frenziedly copying down the jewels of human thought, Christian and heathen alike. They saved the West, or so the annals tell it.

The thought never occurs that such a project might ever be needed again. Not because the knowledge will disappear in a flurry of ashes as libraries burn to the ground, but because it might lie as dust, itself the sign of neglect, forgotten in plain sight, a relic that disintegrates through lack of curiosity from a modern day Eloi who have decided there are more important things to pursue. 

And so we should raise a glass to our Catholic schools, indeed to all faith schools who authentically live their calling, busily preserving the treasures of our culture, the roots and foundations of it and all, the modern day monks in their scriptoria, frenziedly preserving what the contemporary has decided, in its own fit of philistinism, to casually cast away.

And a casual reminder to those who don’t of why they really should.

Remembering (Boarding) School

I once blogged in nostalgic though, I hope, still grounded terms on my year in an English boarding school when I was a junior.

This, from Peter Hitchens, on the same topic, really is a great read -

Such, Such were the Joys

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Why I'm Striking

I have a child in school. In Reception class to be more precise. I also have three other pre-school children. And, God willing, who knows what else the future might bring.

And so, as I send my child off to school each morning, the hope and emotion I feel is that of a parent, not a professional. I want the best for my kids. We all do. It’s only natural.

What does this mean?

Well, it means I want a qualified teacher standing in front of her. A teacher who is not so exhausted from the excess demands of the job that they have not had time to plan lessons properly. A teacher who has the time to look at her work and tell her what is good about it, and tell her how it could be even better. A teacher who is not so creaking with workload that the intangibles which really do shape an education are not forever competing with an almighty focus on the measurables which can distort so much. A teacher with the time and freedom to talk to my child, to cherish her, to help her flourish, to keep her steady as she makes her first steps in this complex and sometimes confusing world. And to educate her. To make her cleverer. To open doors for her and give her the confidence and grounding to walk through them. Not a number on a progress sheet, but a person. A human person. A beautiful soul.

Teachers, on the whole, really are heroes. My child’s teacher certainly is. But it is often in spite of the demands of this system, or wearily in the face of it, rather than because of it. This is as true for secondary as it is for primary.

An education system that alleviated these conflicts would be a better education system. And if striking is one way of trying to bring about those improvements, then so be it.

Which means that I’m striking for my kids. And I’m also on strike for yours.

And I’ll stand proud in doing it.

And for those who have chosen to cross the picket line, just one question: who are you really doing it for?

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Top Teachers Don't Teach

There is no more pernicious idea in education than the idea that teachers should not teach.

Of course, it is never stated as explicitly as this, and there will be those who will reject outright that this is where their ideas and methods lead, convinced that their own particular variant of this noxious ideology is not actually all that noxious nor really an ideology.

Most commonly, we hear it expressed in the benign sounding context of empowerment, a romantic liberation of the constricted child from the chains of the didact – no mere brick in the wall shall they be - free to spread their wings and work out for themselves the intricacies of the Trinity, or the photosynthetic process; teacher talk is bad, oppressive, a cruelty inflicted on blossoming flowers not created for the passivity necessary in the act of listening to someone else speak for a bit; it is student-led learning, the independent and the free, that is Good.

When phrased in such way, and with such moral certitude, the possibility that these ideas might be rejected on philosophical grounds, because they are bad ideas, or on pragmatic grounds, because they are not really very effective strategies, is alien. Better by far to assume the recalcitrant lacks confidence, or capability, or a soul.

Well, if you wish to play like that, let us turn the tables: if you genuinely cannot comprehend that people might oppose student-led learning on firmer grounds than their own character flaws, then you yourself are intellectually stunted. And the responsibility for addressing that is more yours than it is mine.

Truth be told, this whole student-led gig is nothing but the desire to diminish the role of the teacher. It might be delivered in pious power ballads, evoking tear-jerking personal testimony of how Bob in Year 9 once explained the intricacies of quantum mechanics more effectively than I, the teacher, ever could have managed, as if this is a cause for celebration rather than concern. But at root it says nothing more than this: we don’t really need an expert sat at the front of the class. Or anywhere else, really.

No, in reality we are just dispensible task-setters, useful only up until that point at which someone else comes along and delivers tasks with more and better whizz-bangery, or fills in admin records more efficiently, or is willing to do longer hours and more break duties.

Maybe this is the result of weary necessity: the de-skilling of the profession and the institutional morale hit that has come with it. Maybe it is that lingering ‘progressive’ ideology that always was uncomfortable with traditional hierarchies of power. Maybe it is just lethargy, a profession seeking to take the line of least resistance against an OFSTED that, for want of anything insightful to write, reaches for the ‘too much teacher talk’ when struggling to fill in the blank space on their lesson observation forms. Maybe it is a wilful misunderstanding of the nature of teacher talk – truly a piece of theatre when done well – or maybe it is the perceived kudos that comes from appearing to be in control by, well, giving away control, avoiding the responsibility conferred by authority by reconfiguring the demands of that responsibility and the nature of that authority. After all, student-led learning is all fluffy and nice, and one must be terribly self-assured to do that kind of thing, no?

That it might not be all that effective? Pah. You’re missing the point. And who asked you anyway?

I dish out my fair share of stick to the NewTraddie herd for blithely indulging in their own sloganeering and tilting at their own windmills, but one response that cannot really be denied is this: that beyond the realms of the digital NewTraddie Wonderland, the Blob reigns supreme.

And it’s still telling teachers they shouldn’t teach. And I’m not really sure what our kids have got to gain from that. 

Friday, 14 February 2014

Our Island (Cock and Bull) Story

One thing has to be said for post-Reformation propaganda - it has serious longevity. As I outlined a few weeks back in an article on anti-Catholic history, the myths and propaganda of the anti-Catholic narrative have become such common currency that, even after hundreds of years and patient refutation, they continue to be peddled as fact by those who might otherwise pride themselves on their erudition and intelligence. 

Well, as a handy example we have here Rev Pete Hobson, involved in organising the burial of Richard III, responding to the suggestion that integrity would demand that Richard III be given a Catholic ceremony;

'There’s been widespread misunderstanding on this point, which might be summed up in the way people use the word ‘Catholic’ when what they really mean is ‘Roman Catholic’. Richard lived before the Reformation when the very term Roman Catholic wasn’t in use – and all English Christians were Catholic, that is they all saw themselves as part of the one, world-wide church. But what is clear is that since the English Reformation, the Church of England is, in law, the true Catholic church of the land, in full continuity with the earlier generations. Moreover the churches Richard worshipped in are, where they still stand, the churches that now belong to the Church of England – and St Martins Cathedral is a case in point. It was there in King Richard’s time, and it’s still there now.

So of course our service will be catholic – how could it not be? But it won’t be Roman Catholic as such – a later innovation! [yep, he did just say that]. 

As far as historical and theological reasoning goes, that requires some serious mental gymnastics.  

Yet it’s not altogether new. Whilst fables can give succour, they will continue to be employed – let history, truth, be damned.

Which bring us to Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland, who is credited as having delivered such a rousing speech at his martyrdom as to have affected the conversion of several bystanders, including Margaret Clitherow, who would later become another of Queen Elizabeth’s victims (and, the legend goes, her unborn child too), martyred for her faith. Percy was offered his life for recanting, which he refused, and his speech proved something of an embarrassment for those seeking a propaganda coup from his recantation. The following comes from the Historical Papers of Blessed Thomas Percy, Vol. V:

"On this the Earl, turning towards the people, said : I should have been content to meet my death in silence, were it not that I see it is the custom for those who undergo this kind of punishment to address some words to the bystanders as to the cause of their  being put to death. Know, therefore, that, from my  earliest years down to this present day, I have held the Faith of that Church which, throughout the whole Christian world, is knit and bound together ; and that in this same Faith I am about to end this unhappy life. But, as for this new Church of England, I do not acknowledge it.

 Here Palmer [the protestant minister], interrupting him, cried out in a loud voice: “I see that you are dying an obstinate Papist ; a member, not of the Catholic, but of the Roman Church.” 

"To this the Earl replied : That which you call the Roman Church is the Catholic Church, which has been founded on the teaching of the Apostles, Jesus Christ Himself being its corner-stone, strengthened by the blood of Martyrs, honoured by the recognition of the holy Fathers ; and it continues always the same, being the Church against which, as Christ our Saviour said, the gates of Hell shall not prevail.”

Just what he said, Rev Pete. 

Friday, 3 January 2014

Teaching (anti-Catholic) History

For those who might be interested, this article of mine appeared in this week's print edition of the Catholic Herald:

If history is concerned with recounting the past, then integrity demands that it hold regard for truth. To admit otherwise is to relegate the historical to the whimsical demands of the present. 

William Cobbett, himself a Protestant, recognised this. While writing a history of the Reformation he repeatedly outlined the motivation for (and the manner in which) history had up until that point been distorted to tell a mischievous, anti-Catholic tale. Yet he also, at times, struck a surprisingly hopeful note. “But TRUTH is immortal,” he wrote, “and though she may be silenced for a while, there always, at last, comes something to cause her to claim her due and to triumph over falsehood.”

It is this pursuit of truth that must lie at the heart of the teaching of history in our schools. Sadly, it frequently does not. To recognise this is not to broach something new. Rather, it is to return once again a recurring theme. Indeed, in 1920 Catholics, including Belloc and Chesterton, gathered to discuss the problem of the teaching of history in our schools. Their assessment could be republished today as a more or less accurate account of the state of history teaching in our schools.

The social landscape has changed from the early 20th century, but not much. While wider cultural prejudices towards Catholics have receded, the bias that permeates our historical sense of being has not. Myths still abound: Catholic monarchs were uniquely brutal (post-Reformation that is – little is made of the Catholicism of the Coeur de Lion or King Alfred); Protestantism brought with it prosperity and freedom; and Catholics are not quite English – or, at least, their allegiances can be legitimately questioned. Whether it is in the telling of key events or in the evaluation of key figures, there exists a whole artifice of anti-Catholic orthodoxy which permeates popular culture.

This is not to say the bias is obvious. Anti-Catholic history is not in the explicit statement. It is far more subtle than that. The selection of sources, the weight given to particular events, the omission of key details, the general tone, the assumption of progress – all go to shape a very particular understanding of historical events. As things stand, popular school textbooks used in many schools perpetuate this subtly anti-Catholic history. The most obvious incidences can be brushed away, but the rest, seemingly innocuous, seep quietly into growing minds and disrupt any sense of continuity between our faith, our sense of who we are and that of our ancestors. 

Of course, one could easily respond that teachers should be countering anti-Catholic history as a matter of course, but that misunderstands the position in which many teachers often find themselves. First, it is not uncommon for history, particularly in the early years of secondary school, to be taught by non-specialists whose knowledge of key eras is limited.

Secondly, the subtlety of the anti-Catholic narrative is such that it can be perpetuated unwittingly, especially when this same anti-Catholic story is what most teachers will themselves have received during their own schooling.

Thirdly, teaching workload means that many teachers will simply not have the time to create such a huge store of plans, resources and materials, or indeed undertake the research required to begin to haul down some of the myths presented to us as truth. The temptation will be to use what is already present and seek to challenge any obvious issues as they occur.

There are wonderful historians, past and present, who can and do tell a different tale. Yet little of what they say gets much of a systematic airing in many of our history classrooms. This is because their accounts contravene the standard narrative and so provoke caution, limiting the likelihood of any publisher taking up the cause and thereby limiting wider broadcasting of such views. To question the established narrative is, after all, a political act; better to politely submit, or remain ignorant, than be deemed a reactionary. This is a tragedy, both for the neutral and disinterested pursuit of truth, but also from the Catholic perspective of equipping our young to counter a world that will misrepresent who we are, where we have come from and what we believe. 

Yet, as Eamon Duffy has argued, the established myths cannot hold – in the name of intellectual integrity, if nothing else. This might sound like a call for historical 'revisionism'. It is, rather, an appeal for our schools to increase awareness among our young of what Newman referred to as the fables and myths of the anti-Catholic record. The issue here is simply truth. It is, after all, our island story, too.

The Church in England and Wales has long helped to fund the development of resources and work schemes for the RE syllabus offered in Catholic schools. It might be time to focus attention on our history departments, too. Could the more eminent among our number collaborate to create high quality resources to challenge the anti-Catholic chronicles? We can only hope. But what is clear is that a sense of who we are is entwined with what we believe. And a more accurate sense of the former might just help us more effectively communicate the what and the why of the latter.

Michael Merrick is a teacher at a Catholic secondary school in Cumbria 

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Catholics between the (spread)sheets

In the last couple of days I’ve been chewing over some poll data published by YouGov, commissioned by Lancaster University and linked to the Westminster Faith Debates initiative, which popped on to my radar through a link to this article in the Tablet written by Linda Woodhead, who uses the data to makes claims about what most Catholics think ‘about sex, the family and ethical matters surrounding it.’
From the outset, it should be said Catholics and those who care about the Church should welcome studies like this, engaging with the information they reveal about our Church and our people.  Whilst we might, with the help of a certain Roman Prefect of Judaea, point out that Truth is not a thing determined by the numbers of those who assent to it, that doctrine is not developed or revised on the transient whims of plebiscites, nonetheless there are valuable lessons to be learned, be it for the catechist, or or the parish priest, or the church hierarchy generally. Numbers can, when reliable, add specific texture to what might otherwise remain a hunch - anything that might add substance to the usual cliché of ‘nobody believes x anymore’ ought to raise an eyebrow of interest.

And so we come to the polls, reported on by Professor Linda Woodhead, fast becoming the public authority on the country’s religious habits. The written report is detailed and fairly extensive, and generally confirms those societal trends and changes in attitudes about which we are regularly told, and of which most of us could acknowledge as probably broadly true.

So far, so uncontroversial.

And yet, on reading the article, one cannot help but feel that between the numbers and the conclusions drawn there exists an epistemic gap bridged with an interpretative vigour lacking in the sobriety one might expect to find in such a high profile piece of research. To declare an interest, I am a Roman Catholic: maybe it is the recusant DNA, but I’ve long been wary of accepting at face value any official information about who Catholics are and what they believe. Yet in this report, non-sequiturs and questionable inferences seem to jump out of the page quite apart from whether one is predisposed to look for them.

One holds back, of course, from accusing Woodhead of intentional bias, since there is no reason to doubt her integrity in these matters (though I’m inclined to think the Tablet would welcome such findings with analysis-free glee) – still, the eyes through which one looks will indubitably mould the way something looks. And if the overarching analysis of socio-religious climate is one of culture clash between the religiously orthodox and everyone else, then perhaps we ought to be sensitive to the possibility that such conclusions might just find themselves as the tease and temptress of the data analyst charged with interpreting the mass of numbers on a screen before them.

And so, to choose just a couple of examples, we read that, on the basis of the fact that almost three-quarters of British Catholics think sex is important for a fulfilled life, therefore ‘traditional teachings about the value of celibacy have largely been abandoned’. Really? Can that interpretation reasonably be drawn? Or again, ‘Marriage has ceased to be an essential element of the family in most Catholic minds, with only a quarter disapproving of unmarried couples raising children.’ Such a conclusion strikes one as being so obviously flawed that one wonders how it was able to be drawn in the first place. And there are numerous other examples where an interpretation might fit snugly into pre-existing assumption (‘ordinary Catholics ignore church teachings’), but cannot reasonably be drawn from the data presented in the article. It must be acknowledged, of course, that Woodhead is trying to distil large chunks of data into a small article, and so broad brush strokes are to an extent inevitable – but such statements are at least enough to encourage one to probe further rather than take such statements at face value.

At which point, other issues begin to appear.  For example, we are told that ‘Catholics also depart from church teaching when it comes to contraception: only 9 per cent say they would feel guilty using it, and 12 per cent of weekly churchgoers.’ That sounds fairly conclusive, fairly authoritative. But looking at the three polls commissioned, the only reference I can see to the issue of contraception is the first poll commissioned, of 4437 adults, of whom just 354 self-identified as Catholics. Of this 354, which was weighted up to 391, only 125 (of the weighted number) said they ‘currently engage in religious or spiritual practices with other people’ (which might not include Mass) and of whom 65 (weighted number) said they do this at least once a week (again, which might not include Mass).

Thus, use of the phrase of ‘weekly churchgoers’ is already a doubtful one, whilst the broader claim being made is substantiated by the responses of just 57 people.

One need not be a looking for mischief, or even questioning the truth of the broader argument (that most Catholics do not follow church teachings on contraception), to point out that as far as evidential basis goes that really is wafer thin.

Of course, such claims might be given the weight of other studies, and indeed of generally accepted social norms, enough to allow a certain amount of confidence in reporting them in such robust terms. But that in itself can lead one to question the moderation of the reporting. And if a suspicion exists of a certain exuberance in dealing with the numbers and what they tell us, then it is only heightened when one notes some of the language used: we read, for example, that differences on sexual ethics is a ‘rift runs right through the Catholic population in Britain, isolating a minority who hold fast to the current official teaching from a majority who do not. [my emphasis]’

Setting aside the already questionable phrase ‘current official teaching’, and letting slide the fairly provocative description of those who remain orthodox Catholics, it must be noted that any talk of a rift, age-correlated or otherwise, is more of an insight into the one reading the numbers than anything else – to make such a causal link is entirely unwarranted.  Indeed, perhaps it is the use of that word, ‘rift’, which best encapsulates the question of whether Woodhead’s interpretations come from the prior acceptance of a culture war narrative - it evokes an image of people in the pews being engaged in personal conflict with one another about the truth and observance of fundamental church doctrines, with all the younger liberal folk on one side, and older conservatives on the other. In my experience at least, this is simply not true (the only ever issue on which I have experienced anything even remotely similar is the issue of liturgy).

Most people in most pews simply don’t know what most other people in most pews believe about most things. To say there is a rift is to either misuse the word, with its related connotations, or to submit lived reality to the expectations of a macro-level sociocultural analysis. And all that on the basis of some pretty feeble numbers (the questions that make up the sexual ethics category largely appear in the two general polls, which have small Catholic numbers, and even smaller active Catholic numbers, and are largely absent, curiously, from the poll aimed specifically at Catholics.)

One can speculate as to why that might be, but for those slowly inclining toward suspicions of bias, unwitting or otherwise, then the wording of some of the questions asked is unlikely to disabuse the cynic of such a notion. For example, in the third poll aimed specifically at Catholics, two of the questions which might conceivably, though tangentially, be linked to any category on sexual ethics (Catholic adoption agencies and the Peter Hazelmary Bull B&B case), are so appallingly worded (and factually inaccurate)and so obviously weighted toward a particular response that they should be classed as junk, with no conclusions to be drawn from them (*see below). Indeed, when a question is so hostile to a presumed target, one really cannot but help question either the motives, or the unwitting but thorough bias, of those asking the question. Peter Hitchens once said that polls were often used to drive public opinion, not inform people about what it is. I suspect that this data is a case in point.

And so, whilst the polls make interesting reading, they must also be approached with an element of caution - one would surely be foolish to draw too many concrete conclusions from them, despite the authority one might expect of data coming from a well-funded and high profile organisation, publishing their research in mainstream media. When probed, the data can tell different stories, stories which will, of course, never be told. We also see, for example, that those who identify as humanist/secularist are more likely to feel bad about contraception, support gender segregation in worship and education, and feel guilty about premarital sex than Christians are. We see that Labour voters are more like than any else to look for support or guidance from God or a higher power when making crucial decisions, and we see that euroscepticism seems to be the preserve of the less well qualified in educational terms. Lastly, we see that only Londoners think society has got better since 1945, whilst most of the rest of us think it has got worse.

All of which I’ll take with a pinch of salt. Except for the last one, which pretty much confirms my pre-existing biases. And if I was so inclined, I might even jump on it to substantiate those pre-existing biases, using it to reinforce a narrative I have long cultivated, about London getting all the best of everything whilst the rest of us get shafted. ‘See!’, I’d say, ‘I bloody told you southerners were spoiled – this proves they’re smug about it too. I was right all along. We need to abolish London.’ But then, that would be a questionable conclusion. Drawn from a questionable interpretation. Drawn from a distinctly squiffy evidence base. 

*Q1 - Do you think that bed-and-breakfast (B&B) owners should or should not be allowed to refuse accommodation to people based on their sexuality?


Q2 - In 2008, a gay couple were refused entry to a bed-and-breakfast on grounds of their sexuality based on the Christian beliefs of the owners. The bed-and-breakfast owners have since been ordered by the courts to pay damages of £3,600 to the couple. Do you think it was right or wrong that the bed-and-breakfast owners were ordered to pay damages to the couple?

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Teaching RE

So, the latest way in which schools have failed children has been revealed today, clear as it now is that standards of teaching in Religious Education, and the teaching of Christianity in particular, are well below any minimum expected standard.

As one might expect, the more excitable tribalists have jumped immediately on their mounts and declared TOTAL WAR on Michael Gove, uniquely responsible as he is for the falling standards that have been identified at various points over the last few decades or so. Whilst it cannot really be denied that his reforms have had the kind of impact on RE that just about everybody said they would, nonetheless Gove is more harbinger than the Doom itself. He may well have made it easier for schools to drop RE – but that schools should wish to do so is nothing for which Michael Gove can be held culpable.

No, the reason RE is expendable is because RE has made itself expendable, being racked with an existential uncertainty regarding the value and indeed justification of its very soul. RE is too often the Woody Allen of the school curriculum, the gallic shrug of the school timetable: like apologising when someone else bumps into us, it is that part of schooling which we do without quite knowing why, before apologising again for the uncertainty. In short, RE has become a subject of which the majority are fundamentally unsure – of what it is and what we are trying to achieve in delivering it.

To formulate some kind of response, or rather tentative explanation, a degree of commonality with non-RE comrades must be acknowledged -  just like many other subjects, RE is racked with indecision on whether our goal is to teach students how to know, or what to know. What forms the fault lines between ‘progressives’ and ‘traditionalists’ throughout the curriculum plays out acutely in the RE classroom – though of course with extra hand wringing. Obviously. And you can bet those hands and that wringing will be Fair Trade. Probably.

Which brings us to popular conceptions of what RE actually is. For some, especially prevalent amongst those who don’t teach it, RE is just citizenship with some colourful festivals thrown in. It is there for us to study all about these religious types of whom we have heard tell, with success defined by how well such teachings helps create that kind of textbook civic society to be found primarily in the wet dreams of PPEers. This approach is already institutionally detached from, and condescending toward, those who hold religious belief, treating their subjects as curious artefacts in much the same manner that colonial navigators viewed their fur-clad, machete-wielding charges before writing home to their countrymen about how we must seek to protect and understand these primitive cultures.

Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the ATL (and supporter of the Accord Coalition/Secular Society Lite), summed up this this citizenship-lite approach in saying that RE is ‘vital for our young people so that they understand the role of religion and belief in society.’

Well, when you put it so seductively as that Mary…

Yet, in fairness to Bousted, she is only reaffirming the standard presumptions of many in the political and educational echelons. Which illustrates the irony: whereas OFSTED now pose as the warrior guardians of rigour in RE, it was they who helped set it on its current course by placing such emphasis on 90s buzzwords like ‘diversity’, ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘community cohesion’. And what OFSTED wanted OFSTED got –a touch of humility might just be in order before the Finger of Shame gets pointed at teachers suddenly finding themselves on the wrong end of an unexpected step-change.

However, the identity crisis goes further than just this. If the influence of the political classes turned RE into the propaganda arm of the Ministry for A Lovely Civic Society, so the academy must shoulder its own portion of blame. Indeed it is the academy, more than any government, which has given RE an identity crisis the likes of which would leave the average postmodernist looking overly dogmatic.

For too long, RE teaching has been beset by pedagogical presumptions that strike at the very heart what RE ought to be about. Just as JFK reassured a prejudiced public that he had the schizophrenic capacity to indelibly separate faith and the political, so teachers arriving on their training courses have been for too long bombarded into believing that RE can only be delivered through a pedagogical version of the same. To do otherwise is ethically dubious, or intellectually dubious, or probably both, and whilst we’re at it you’re probably not safe to be left with kids anyway, a kind of teaching Pied Piper of Waco just waiting to indoctrinate children and lead them away from the safety of secular presumption.

And this secular presumption is the largely unchallenged King of the academy. It sees itself as the guardian of neutrality and disinterested pursuit of knowledge. For those who ascribe to it, this approach opens up the airwaves to the crowing chorus of religious diversity, allowing us to dispassionately pluck the juiciest fruits of each. That such an approach might not be neutral, nor indeed disinterested, is rarely countenanced: that it might severely limit understanding considered a heresy. No, the terms of debate are clear – you either accept scholarly secularity or you are dogmatic/fundamentalist/bigoted (delete as appropriate).

Which is a touch inconvenient for those of us who insist such a paradigm is reductive and distorts true understanding and, indeed, authentic exploration of religion and the metaphysical. After all, how can one really inhabit the sacral heart of religious belief if one has, from the outset, detached oneself from the validity of its truth claims? In RE it has become normal to reject the heart of the religious instinct precisely in the name of better grasping it. It is the equivalent of teaching students about football by giving them the rules of rugby.

The outcome is that RE either becomes the loose conglomeration of trite clichés that fail to connect with students on anything like a personal or experiential level, or else turns into a self-consciously (though false) philosophical approach which fetishizes the act of thinking whilst being negligent in the duty to develop thought. Which is why RE has the tendency to oscillate between feel-good touchy-feely slogans or beard-stroking sessions designed to inflate the ego more than the intellect. 

Some RE teachers genuinely think that in pursuing this approach, within these secular paradigms, they are opening minds, precisely by encouraging their charges to abandon (or sideline) any relational or intellectual context within which they may embed understand of the complex themes that decent RE teaching must necessarily tackle head on. Where this occurs, we hear the buzzwords of intellectual superiority that has followed the secularist approach round ever since those with many letters after their name decided to teach those without many letters after their name that this was what all clever people thought. 

We hear words like 'critical', and 'analysis', and 'evaluation', but the very foundation upon which such activities can take place is a mere chimera, asking as it does that the student to affirm a prior rejection of what it is that that which they study demand they take existential account of. We ask students to adopt a mindset that every single one of the religions that they study would reject at the most fundamental level. If that sounds bonkers, it is because it is. 

As such, this is not the development of thought but the teaching of a sterilised skill, which in the end becomes more like a game of blind man’s buff – asking an eleven year old to walk into a classroom and choose their favourite metaphysical vantage point, on the basis of they-know-not-what-and-grasp-not-yet criteria. We might as well offer a monolingual child a selection of twelve texts written in different languages, before asking them to choose their favourite translation. Can it be any wonder that for so many children RE seems detached from real life, even though it is in RE that one ostensibly encounters those things that will shape many a life and love over the course of a lifetime.

For this reason, some argue that confessional RE still has a role to play, not to create devout soldiers of God but to facilitate precisely this critical mindset – it gives a skeletal framework upon which to grow understanding, to pin criticism, to explore complexities and develop critique, precisely by hanging on and against viewpoints already interiorised.  To do so is the difference between throwing a punch at fresh air and aiming one at a particular target. Or to put it glibly, for demonstration, the RE teacher who seeks to explain Sukkot by comparison with Harvest better be sure students grasp the depths of Harvest – and if the very language and grammar of thankfulness and fasting is alien to a student’s understanding of life, then we need to acknowledge that RE has failed to do its job, and stop asking students to answer vanity questions about which festival they prefer and why.

In short, asking that an RE teacher can teach from the inside rather than the outside, indeed that RE is initially taught from the inside rather than the outside, can have its benefits – not only does it guarantee that the teacher is a genuine specialist, but it is also a more productive and rigorous framework for critical thought than the false presumptions that currently beset RE pedagogical orthodoxy.