Tesco logoApparently our schools are so rubbish that Tesco supermarkets are having to come to the rescue. According to Sir Terry Leahy, who is not only the top man of Tesco – Britain’s largest private employer – but also an education adviser to the prime minister:

we depend on high standards in our schools… Sadly, despite all the money that has been spent, standards are still woefully low in too many schools… Employers like us … are often left to pick up the pieces. From my perspective there are too many agencies and bodies, often issuing reams of instructions to teachers, who then get distracted from the task at hand: teaching children.

Naturally, the government disputes his view.

I was chair of governors of a voluntary controlled primary school during the 1990s. As a governing body we frequently objected to the rate of initiatives pouring out of Whitehall, the forests of paper pouring through our letter boxes and the deluge of regulations that were demoralising teachers. These were the nadir years for many teachers who felt de-professionalised, despised and demotivated.

But all this would change when New Labour got in and concentrated on education, education, education – wouldn’t it?

Well, again, some strides were made, but the deluge of initiatives, paper and policies got worse. I was relieved to leave behind being a governor and having to cope with the sheer weight of paper and pace of ‘change’.

So, will anything change next time? Will teachers be trusted to teach and specialists be funded to advise? Or will we face another bout of endless change, initiatives and paper? Because I can’t see any new government leaving things alone for a while without wanting to change it all again. And that will mean more paper,  more initiatives, more bureaucracy. And, if conversations with educationalists yesterday are anything to go by, funding will be cut, governance will become more difficult (the demands on voluntary governors are ridiculous already) and schools will continue to be a political football. Will any party prove me wrong?

St Andrew's croydon crestSo, I was really pleased to be in a Church of England secondary school this afternoon where I met highly motivated, really articulate and very pleasant young students who were leading the drive for greater student involvement in their local community in Croydon. It was the students (supported and encouraged by staff) who were driving their colleagues into taking responsibility for changing their community by serving it. It was very impressive.

And this is not the only school in Croydon doing such things.

But what really encouraged and challenged me was the imaginative way the school is tackling its engagement with daily worship. Many schools find the concept of daily worship embarrassing and difficult and I understand the reasons why. But here at St Andrew’s School they have devised a way of bringing assemblies alive in tutor groups by providing simple, creative and mind-teasingly stimulating resources for group reflection and conversation. It is web-based, is called Soul Food and is projected in tutor rooms onto the interactive whiteboards.

Based on their website www.andyblogs.co.uk, Soul Food is used daily to enhance the spiritual and social side of the school. It is designed to encourage students to think about the world around them and the part they play in it – using the Bible as a springboard for discussion of everyday issues. It includes pictures, videos, music and youtube clips as well as text. The structure is simple: (a) introduction to the theme, (b) the Bible bit, (c) the thinking bit, (d) the activities, (e) a prayer. Students and staff can then leave comments and offer feedback on how it went for them or their group. This is, of course, in-house.

But the school has also created the andyblogs.community at www.andyblogs.com and this is open to the world, linking school to church to community and wider world. This is all very imaginative and excellent stuff, superbly managed by an art teacher at the school, Elysia Willis.

This is a creative approach that should be copied by other schools which are looking for simple and engaging ways of creating material for assemblies. Is there a ‘resource bank’ for such material/approaches anywhere?

Perhaps Sir Terry Leahy might pay them a visit and see where his criticisms don’t apply – in an urban school with a commitment to growing young people as whole human beings: body, mind and spirit.

Andyblogs croydon

theohobsonpicture-full3binit_Theo Hobson has an interesting piece in today’s Guardian newspaper. I have met Theo only once – doing a joint interview with the Today programme at the beginning of the Lambeth Conference in July 2008 – and I liked him. I have read some of his writing, but wondered at him being profiled as a ‘theologian’. He comments on religious (particularly Christian) culture, but the theological critique does not seem always to be consistent. Given his claim to liberalism, I am sure he won’t mind me questioning a series of statements he makes in today’s Face to Faith piece.

Right at the beginning, and without any supporting evidence or illustration, he makes this unequivocal statement: ‘…churches seem to gravitate to authoritarianism, and they seem unable to grasp that secular liberalism is a good thing.’ Does ‘authoritarianism’ mean ‘the wrongful imposition of authority/power in order to control’ – or does it really mean ‘churches believe things that are not always fluid and won’t change them to suit me’? Secondly, what is it about ‘secular liberalism’ (undefined) that is unarguably ‘good’ and that churches cannot grasp? Thirdly, does he not see the illiberal irony of categorising all churches as monolithic, centralised and monocultural? And we are still only on the third sentence of the first paragraph. So, let’s press on…

‘We dislike the fact that Christianity is assumed to take institutional form. If you are a Christian, the assumption is, then you will be in favour of policies that defend the interests of these institutions, the churches, which run Christian culture. This ties Christianity to illiberalism in a way we can’t accept.’ Theo, please explain the logic behind these assumptions. It seems to me it is you (not ‘the churches’ as institutions) who is setting up the churches in a way I don’t recognise as being universally true. Just take the Church of England (as just one of, and uniquely different from, thousands of other manifestations of Christian ‘institution’): aren’t the current debates in the Church happening precisely because your statement is false and your assumptions awry? If you were right, the ‘institutional church’ would have slapped down its internal ‘heretics’ and prevented other denominations or ‘churches’ from setting themselves up in the first place. (In South London new churches – mainly, but not exclusively, black majority or ethnically defined – are being established almost every week.)

And please explain how a ‘Christian church’ can define itself in a way it pleases, even if it departs from the nature of the one whose name it bears. The call for a ‘church made in my own image’ is like asking for Marxism without the dictatorship of the proletariat, the common ownership of the means of production or an uncritical acceptance of the Hegelian dialectic.

The then goes on to cite ‘faith schools’ to support his complaint. But he can only do so by caricaturing ‘faith schools’, ignoring the rationale behind them, avoiding any cognisance of how (for example) Church of England schools behave and actually understand their role. Has he ever been into one? (Come to Croydon and I’ll arrange meetings with headteachers…) Or is this just the simplistic reflex we have become used to in the schools debate where the basis of ‘church’ schools is either misunderstood or ignored because it is inconvenient?  ‘But some of us Christians are deeply uneasy about the way in which churches use education to bolster their power, and encourage phoney church attendance among pushy parents. This is horribly at odds with the sort of Christian culture we want to see.’ Not a shred of evidence: just propagation of a tired but unassailable myth.

‘The loudest voices, almost the only voices, seem to belong to atheists on one hand, and conservative church leaders on the other… People now face a starker choice of identity between “secular liberal” and “institutional Christian”. Really? So, why all the complaints from elsewhere that church spokespeople are too liberal or wishy-washy? It is clearly nonsense to say that only particular voices are heard in the public discourse – perhaps this is just the common complaint most bishops face: ‘If you didn’t write it in headlines in the newspaper I read, then you are not saying anything at all.’

Theo goes on to ‘demand’ (!) a new and alternative sort of ‘church’ capable of engaging with liberal culture. He maintains that the established (and other) churches cannot do this. Claiming (without evidence or support) that ‘all churches itch for social control’, he states that ‘a new sort of Christian culture must be attempted, away from the churches’ before admitting that he has no idea what this might look like. He also seems ignorant of the huge numbers of Christian communities now meeting outside of church buildings and opening up contexts in which Christians of all sorts of complexions engage openly with ‘liberal’ (and every other sort of) culture.

And so to Theo’s conclusion – a rallying cry to those who share his muddled ignorance and personal fed-up-ness.  ‘What do we want? We demand a new way of proclaiming Jesus Christ, one that feels authentic, contemporary. We hope that, by accepting the truth of secular freedom, Christianity can enter a new phase, in which communication with liberal people is possible, and new cultural forms emerge. Maybe, with such a new direction, this religion can recapture the imagination of the culture.’ I am speechless. Get out more and see what churches are already doing.

I hope that this article might lead to a greater debate – not about ‘institutional’ churches (what other sort can there be?), but about why the Theo Hobsons of this world are so illiberal and irrational in the assumptions they make and claims they state.

If I as a bishop made such claims – even in a newspaper article of limited length and space – without evidence or further reference – I would be castigated as arrogant, unthinking and arbitrary. So, what is it that allows others to write such unsubstantiated stuff without hearing that same charge?