Education


This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

It's perhaps indicative of the original trauma itself that yesterday I got the shivers when I heard the A Level results were being published. I remember well – when I went with my dad to my old comprehensive school in Liverpool to get my results nearly forty years ago – the feeling of dread … the sense that the whole of the rest of my life depended on what would be revealed in the next ten minutes. Melodramatic? Maybe. But, I've never forgotten the experience.

Looking back, I think I saw education in rather narrow terms. Qualifications were a means of advancement – allowing me to move on to the next thing I wanted to do in life, which was to go to university. There was something functional about the whole thing: get qualifications in order to get the place in order to get the degree in order to get the job, and so on. And there are plenty of commentators today who would observe that this functionalism has become the be all and end all of education. Perhaps we should recover the German distinction between 'education' and 'training'.

Well, the whole process surely must be more than creating incarnated CVs. When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome nearly two thousand years ago he stressed that we need to be transformed “by the renewing of our minds” – that is, to allow our world view, our assumptions about who we are and why we are here, about what matters and why, to be re-shaped over time. But, Paul refused to accept that this can be done apart from consideration of how we use our bodies and spirits – what we choose to worship and how we do our ethics.

Funnily enough, this is the understanding that gave rise to universities in the first place. Education was seen as the development of the character of a person in community, and not just a means of getting jobs to earn money. Not surprisingly, it was primarily about expanding the world of a student into a freedom to live universally – an opening up and not a closing down of perception and experience. And, contrary to some of today's dominant cultural worship of 'success', this approach assumes we have something to learn. It is rooted in the humility that knows how little we know, and how hard it is to change our minds.

Essentially, then, this suggests that we need to recover – at the heart of our assumptions about education – that education is a means to an end and not an end in itself: the end is the formation of character, and qualifications simply help us to measure how far that character is being shaped.

There are many homes in England today that burst with celebration or are quiet with uncertainty. It can only be hoped that all students will see their value going beyond results that only measure a little of what matters … and possibly say nothing about who they are as persons.

 

I have been a little occupied recently. I legally became the Bishop of Leeds on Sunday in a legal ceremony (called Confirmation of Election) at York Minster. We did the legal preliminaries before the big event, then concluded during the service attended by nearly 3,000 people. This was the first event at which all parts of the new diocese came together to celebrate a new beginning – and it was, thanks to the wonderful Minster staff – a great event: four cathedral choirs, a brass ensemble, an excellent church worship band, visitors from home and abroad, and full of colour. My friend and German counterpart as co-Chair of the Meissen Commission, Bischof Professor Friedrich Weber, did a reading – as did Professor Michael Clarke, chair of the Dioceses Commission which kicked off the whole transformation business in the first place.

What didn't come over in the service was the enormous amount of sheer hard work put in to the transition towards the creation of the new diocese by an army of brilliant people. The closer you get to the detail of the processes we are going through and the more you realise just how complex and demanding the whole business is. I would want to pay tribute to the unseen shapers of the infrastructure upon which we shall build the new diocese, orientated by a fresh and creative articulation of our vision. Watch this space, but hats off to the 'workers'.

While all this has been occupying my mind and time, some big questions have arisen in the world around us. I haven't had time or space to follow all the detail, but, sitting on a train to London, the following questions come to mind:

1. What are the 'British values' that Michael Gove wants taught in our schools? In what way are they 'British'? Who decides what is a 'British value'? (As I keep proposing, 'Britishness' is something we keep creating and not merely something we inherit from a real or imagined glorious past.)

2. Who is driving strategy for the British Humanist Association? To ride on the back of the 'Trojan horse' to attack faith schools seems particularly inept and disingenuous when all the schools involved are state schools. Has someone missed something here – or is this just another case of prejudice leading to narrow propaganda?

3. When did 'diversity' become a virtue as opposed to a phenomenon? The word describes a reality, but it has become elevated to a virtue or value that has to be uncritically revered. As Mark Easton points out, one man's diversity is another woman's extremism. So, what are the limits of diversity, who sets them, and according to which criteria?

4. Does Ofsted retain any credibility? Either they were inept when they last did their work on these schools, or they are inept now. How are we to judge the judgements of any Ofsted inspections – a question asked well before the latest credibility crisis? (This is tied in with the question of centralisation and accountability: a political dogma that proclaims decentralisation and the virtue of the small state has somehow managed to remove local accountability and replace it with centralised accountability to the Secretary of State. And nobody laughed…)

5. Who allows Sepp Blatter to run world football as a personal fiefdom, refusing even to disclose his salary? And why does the rest of the footballing world collude in this travesty?

That's all.

 

I haven't been writing much recently. Too many other things going on (or not going on, as it were) and not much to say.

The Pilling Report needs more thought and the House of Bishops meets next week for a first discussion of it. So, silence isn't a bad policy before then – even if I am reading other people's views and weighing them up.

Our educational standing has caused loads of polemical analysis. I am not inclined to join in when I haven't got time to say anything useful.

Then, last week someone on Twitter asked if my blog is just a 'vanity project' as I am always telling where I have been or whom I have met (like in the Chris Evans studio a couple of weeks ago). Well, er, yes, I guess it is. A blog is by definition an online journal and I use it as a record of things I might otherwise forget.

Anyway, to continue the theme: today I received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Bradford for my contribution to the university and the city. It is a real honour to be considered for this as I have only been back in Bradford for under three years and will have to leave after Easter when my post comes to an end. I owe the university a huge debt: my time studying German and French here between 1976-80 opened my eyes to a bigger world, challenged my world view, stirred my curiosity about language, shaped my mind to an interest in and understanding of German politics and culture, grew my confidence, and in so doing fulfilled the fundamental purpose of a university.

I am grateful.