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The Olympic Legacy

‘The Tories should leave this bankrupt ideology to New Labour and embrace instead an organic communitarianism that graces every level of society with merit, security, wealth and worth.’

So said the Red Tory in this article back in 2009 entitled the Rise of the Red Tories, calling for an organic communitarianism to rise from the ashes of the broken settlement bequeathed us by the political left and right. Some ridiculed him as a romantic (neo-) medievalist, others as merely providing the sweet-smelling rhetorical roses to adorn the foul-smelling austerity assault planned by the Same Old Tories. To others, however, the language appealed, with varying levels of success, to something more primal, something instinctively appealing because innately known – dusting off long neglected notions of how we kind of knew a good society to be, or how we knew it should ideally be, or how we would ideally wish it to be.

It should be said from the outset that to speak of the good society does not require a particular party allegiance: it is no possession of the political right, even if we can admit it is properly conservative, which means it also finds articulation within the best traditions of the political left. And when Red Tory’s jousting partner, Blue Labour, entered the scene, we saw precisely why: diminished were the antagonistic accounts implicit in asocial atomism and back were traditional notions of commonality in ideal, mission, identity and purpose.

Which brings us to the Olympics. Many words have been written about Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, many of them congratulatory, and rightly so. Boyle’s opener caught the essence of this feeling, this emotional response to the vexed and vexing political questions of our times. It touched on something most basic, something felt, yet something fundamentally social, uniquely ‘us’, and incredibly affirming. Hitchens’ words on the triumphalism of the cultural revolutionaries might have weight, particularly during the latter phases of the programme, but the point was the story encompassed all and in this manner was incredibly honest, precisely by including those bits which some of us might not like quite so much – though I’d be surprised if Hitchens did not find something in the Tolkien-esque openings to stir his soul.

The allusion to literary accounts of our unique national ideal throughout the ceremony was appropriate, for this is where the Olympics proved so wholesome, so Merry England. It unapologetically celebrated the quirky and mundane, showing the decency and serenity of the England we recognise and simultaneously aspire to, as diverse groups of people stood in awe and wonder at diverse groups of people – those of all classes cheered and admired those of all classes, both what they had achieved and the sacrifices they made in achieving it, whatever it might be and however distant to our own everyday lives it might be. For most, the social background of the Olympians was incidental, part of the heroic story they had to tell but certainly not an impediment to the reception of it. The sacrifice and achievement, the commitment to the very thing in itself, be it making a horse dance, jumping into a sandpit or doing flips on a carpet – each of them, received in a reverent attitude of respect and pride by all.

In other words, each contribution was valued in itself, for what it was. The ugly class antagonism of left-wing ‘radicals’ was as absent amidst the throng of the cheering crowd as was the sneer of condescending classes higher up the social ladder. This truly was Bevan’s platform, or perhaps podium, big enough for all to stand on.

It was this spirit of commonality, of sharedness, that was the defining aspect of the Olympics. We have heard lots, in the weeks that have passed, about the legacy of the Games, which for the Lilliputians will mean political point-scoring about how many hours of PE children receive each week or whether our children receive enough competition at a young age.

Yet if the Olympic spirit everyone agrees we must seek to preserve was anything, it was the demonstration of how we as a society can once more learn to love ourselves for what we are in all our splendid difference and variety. We can look and admire the products of both Eton and the East End. And celebrate the virtue, specifically the virtues, that were and are the distinctive products of both.

Football and Misogyny

A couple of weeks back there was a Twitter storm surrounding the tweets of one Leon Knight, marginally successful football player who came up through the ranks at Chelsea F.C., who decided to publicly verbally assault Jamie O’Hara and his wife Danielle O’Hara (née Lloyd) about her alleged colourful past. Knight went into great detail in listing the sexual encounters Danielle Lloyd had had before she met Jamie O’Hara and in the process demonstrated himself to be a misogynist of the most vulgar variety. To Knight, Danielle O’Hara was tainted goods, she had been ‘used’ by other men, and for that reason she was game for exposure as unclean and unworthy. Simultaneously, Jamie O’Hara was game for ridicule and exposure, for having been ‘hoe trapped’ in marrying a woman who had been the ‘bike’ of other men in the world of professional football.

Unfortunately, Leon Knight has merely become the particularly crass poster boy for a culture that is endemic in football. The words he uses and the attitude he displays are not peculiar to him, even if he happens to be the one who caught the public eye with his particularly cold-hearted pursuit of a happily married couple. He is simply the latest to give public voice to a reality embedded in football changing rooms the length and breadth of the country – misogyny rules, and a particularly aggressive variety at that.

Often this is given the whiff of justification through shoulder-shrugging explanations of the reality young men in these positions often face. For proponents of this approach, young women often throw themselves into such situations willingly and then regret what happens afterwards. This was the general thrust of Stan Collymore’s position in The Verdict – this regret, the implication seemed to be, was at the root of a false cry of rape. That the responsibility might be equally that of the male is a foreign concept – if she was asking for it, or at the very least willing, then whatever the context or circumstance the responsibility is solely hers.

Now it must be acknowledged, uncomfortable as it is, that this logic might not be solely one way. As Louis Saha recently claimed, the position of women in the eyes of footballers appears to coincide with the assumption, sometimes even the reality, that certain women seek the company of footballers solely for their fame and fortune. For this reason, in the eyes of some the woman becomes fair game for that which the footballer assumes she is trying to do to him – if she would use him for her own selfish ends, then he can certainly use her for his. That some might pursue this approach is a matter for debate – that it poisons the way in which women more generally are viewed is beyond doubt. This has a corrosive effect on stable relationships, since the paranoia of the footballer merely increases and re-affirms itself each time an encounter comes to an end. The spiral leads to an ingrained misogyny, if not aimed at all women then certainly at the majority who move in the kind of circles which footballers most readily come across, an attitude summed up in Leon Knight’s appalling phrase ‘beat and delete’. It is this which leads some to think women deserve what they get – and show little compunction nor regret in giving them precisely what they get.

Such an attitude was most clearly on display in the recent case with Ched Evans. The lady willingly consented to have sex with Evans’s team-mate Clayton McDonald, they claimed, and then consented to a complete stranger brought into the room (who had been called solely for the purpose), it was suggested, whilst a bunch of lecherous goons attempted to film the encounter through the bedroom window. The jury decided against Ched Evans, much to the chagrin of he and his many supporters. That a young nineteen year old lady, alone and almost unconscious with drink, could be in any sort of condition to give consent, or that they as a group of men should even treat her in such an undignified way whatever the circumstance, did not cross the minds of those who immediately attacked the lady as ‘money-grabbing little tramp’ following the verdict.

Yet what occurred in that hotel room is hardly uncommon. Indeed, it is pretty much the norm, something that modern technology has made a good deal easier to document and share. One need hardly produce here the extensive list of sordid stories that have leaked just over the last few years, stories ranging from sexual assault, to underage sex, to leaked sordid videos, to prostitution, to public sex, to (familial) adultery and betrayal. A Google search will furnish you with dozens of examples – these were simply the unlucky ones that attracted wider public knowledge. Anybody who has spent more than five minutes in football will have a plethora of other stories to tell, enough to fill the gossip columns for years. From the inside, such events eventually become unremarkable, so common are they.

Yet this merely fuels the very thing that causes the unhappiness. If an endless series of meaningless encounters lead footballers into a spiral of paranoia, instability and lack of confidence (as Louis Saha claims), then constantly pursuing the same path is unlikely to solve things. As Alex Ferguson once said in an interview, when reflecting on the growing maturity of Wayne Rooney, he likes it when his players settle down – it makes a man of them. Or in his own words, ‘Seriously though, marriage helps footballers, I’ve always thought that. I’m an advocate of that. It helps players settle down, I really think that. You know where are they are and it’s good for the stability of a footballer.”

If this is true, then all too often clubs really are failing in their duty of care in refusing to counter the kind of culture which agitates against such a view. When a sixteen year old walks through the door, he is expected to indulge in and endorse the culture described above as a central part of being one of the lads – it is an initiation ceremony as much as a necessary means of social protection. It helps increase social standing and reaffirms masculinity, something being forever silently weighed in the testosterone drenched confines of the dressing room. In this atmosphere, I knew one lad who remained a virgin until he was 17 – the taunting he received was merciless, and the lengths others went to reverse this state of being was simply perverse. When combined with the constant Leon Knight-esque weighing up of any lady who proved more than a short-term encounter, the attitude toward women more generally soon showed itself to be noxious and yet all too often irresistible

Of course, there is an extent to which none of this is surprising. It has probably always happened and probably always will, wherever a collection of highly athletic and socially adored young individuals get together in groups. Indeed, if the scurrilous tales emanating from the Olympic village have any truth to them then clearly this is not a culture confined to football. Yet this culture, in my admittedly limited experience, is never countered from within the confines that serve as its ultimate protection and allow it to flourish. Such behaviour is seen as a way of earning one’s stripes, and it is not at all uncommon for the stories (and any documentary evidence) to fling back and forth between management and playing staff. Indeed, clubs will sometimes go yet further – being careful what I say, I’m sure I’m not the only one to have heard of jilted ladies walking pregnant into a training ground whilst a young star has the ‘problem sorted’ by the club and agent. You think the Manchester United ‘piece of meat’ party was a one-off – not a bit of it. Alex Ferguson may have put his foot down, but similar things happen and have happened at clubs up and down the country.

Corrosive as it is, the myth has been allowed to prosper that this is what being a real man is all about, a myth increasingly finding its voice within wider society and popular culture. Yet this is also where it leads – to a place where women really are pieces of meat, where some come to think that being treated like a piece of meat is a worthwhile gamble, and others think treating people like a piece of meat is not only acceptable but thoroughly justified.

At which point, people might say ‘well, what is the answer?’ To which my response can only be, unhelpfully, ‘I don’t know.’ All I know is the culture is destructive, both to the people engaged in it and the wider society that houses the repercussions of it. And that in a culture where many of our greatest role models tend to be footballers, it is lamentable that football culture should embody to such an extreme degree one of the ugliest aspects of human prejudice.

*Disclaimer: I have not been in nor experienced the world of professional football for ten years. My commentary is based on the experiences I had then, combined with the stories I hear now. Things might well have changed, either for better or worse.

Gove’s traditionalism and Catholic education

For those unable to purchase the Catholic Herald, this article of mine appeared in today’s edition;

Whilst the increasingly fractious education debate has been simmering for a couple of years now, there has been a significant rise in temperature of late with the revelation that Michael Gove intends to abolish the GCSE in favour of a return to O-levels and CSEs. Cue bouts of frenzied reaction and overreaction: what Michael Gove is doing, and why he is doing it, has given an opportunity for all sides to dust off their best caricatures and head for the moral high ground.

Sifting through the numerous myths, peddled by both sides, is no simple task. Even the issue which has generated such frantic debate is far from clear cut. Questions abound on the details of the policy, the potential consequences of any such move, the planned responses to those consequences, and whether all this will be politically viable anyway. As is the nature of policy-by-leak, there is not much we can say for certain; those who respond with the air of authority are fumbling around in the dark.

Yet one thing can be said with reasonable confidence: Michael Gove intends his legacy as Education Secretary to be the re-emphasis on academic excellence in our schools. Or to borrow the words of Matthew Arnold, quoted by Gove in his speech on the elements of a liberal education, education shall be about about introducing ‘young minds to the best that had been thought and written.’

Perhaps predictably, this has been labelled as educational ‘traditionalism’, usually used pejoratively and standing alone as both condemnation and dismissal.  Yet it provokes important questions for the Catholic community about how we educate our young. If this is the direction the tide is beginning to flow, Catholic schools and those concerned with them must consider the question: is Gove’s educational ‘traditionalism’ compatible with a Catholic understanding of education?

Leaving the issue of pedagogy aside, the  focus on development of the intellect sits comfortably within a framework of Catholic education. Nuance is needed, since the intellectual virtues extend beyond mere possession of knowledge, though knowledge can be seen as an end itself, as Newman argued, when seen as invariably pointing toward the acts and works of the Creator. As such, training the intellect has long been held as central to Catholic education since it deepens discernment and helps us make proper use of the gifts bestowed upon us by God. As Ronald Knox said, ‘God wouldn’t have given us an intellect, if he didn’t want us to think straight.’

Accordingly, the traditionalist approach offers opportunities to access aspects of formation long neglected by many of our schools. There is currently little opportunity for children to study the Doctors of the church, or the mystics, or the apologists. Theology and philosophy find themselves pushed to the outside of a crowded timetable, their relative absence from the qualifications curricula rendering them indulgences few teachers, weary of exam results and the league tables constructed from them, are bold enough to address in any sustained manner.

Reviving the notion of knowledge acquired for a greater purpose than the adornment of a CV might help rehabilitate, even if only in theory, those core aspects of Catholic intellectual formation currently deemed superfluous. In short, introducing our young to the riches of our shared intellectual heritage would help, not hinder, the delivery of an authentic Catholic education. It would also help us more effectively furnish them with the confidence and capacity to boldly live out the faith in an increasingly hostile environment.

For these reasons, the initial response to whether or not Gove’s new traditionalism can be welcomed must be a tentative: ‘yes’.

There are other considerations which have to be taken into account, however. Catholic education is nestled within a framework that does not contradict Gove’s traditionalism, but certainly outgrows it. Catholic education, after all, emphasises holistic development over narrower pursuits of intellectual aggrandisment. It is better summed up by the word ‘formation’ rather than education. Refining the intellect may be a noble pursuit, but it is one noble pursuit among others.

It is this holistic account of education which lead some Bishops, most notably Bishop Michael Campbell and his predecessor Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue, to use the word ‘evangelisation’ when contemplating the fundamental nature and purpose of our schools. This reveals an approach to schooling which extends beyond knowledge and into the realms of our relationship with God, a goal which is both personal and communal. Catholic education has an unapologetically communal nature, seeking to develop organic communities of faith that, to use Lord David Alton’s words in a recent speech on the subject, infuses the school with an ‘all-pervading presence of God; with His signature writ large on the school’s values and objectives.

This means concern for the development of the individual as part of the living community is entirely legitimate. We strive to develop intelligence, but we also care deeply about what kind of person walks out of the gates at the age of sixteen. ‘Citizenship’ was the political attempt to artificially embed this into the school curriculum, a wrongheaded approach which largely aggravated the very problems it was intended to solve. Catholic education, however, has this instinct embedded within its core vision of formation: the school, in theory, is an organic body focused ultimately on God, rather than merely the building in which knowledge is imparted to a line of atomised vessels.

This links into the notion of service and the ways in which our schools offer themselves to their communities. Many Catholic schools serve communities with diverse educational priorities and needs – responsiveness to these needs ought to be praised, not traduced. If Catholic schools have a duty to cultivate the whole spectrum of talents, then its ethos and organisation must reflect this duty. Whilst the utopian wing of the traditionalist spectrum might decry this as ‘dumbing down’, Catholic schools can pursue such outcomes secure in the knowledge that the Catholic vision is set within a wider framework of faith and wisdom which compliments, not contradicts, intellectual development.

Gove’s vision of a liberal education does not necessarily conflict with this, since the wider development of character is seen as the benign consequence of the development of intellect. The educational traditionalism which gains ground under his name, however, often does. So whilst any renewed emphasis on academic excellence can be welcomed by Catholic schools, we must nonetheless be bold enough to appeal simultaneously to a broader vision of what a specifically Catholic education entails.

Of course, such deliberations might prove immaterial whilst the very existence of Catholic schools remains under threat. Some maintain Equality legislation will expand and do for Catholic schools what it did for Catholic adoption agencies. Others believe an increasingly re-energised laity will demand from their schools what they can neither genetically nor legislatively deliver and choose to abandon the project as a result.

In that sense, the debates thrown up during Gove’s short time in office might prove most useful as a catalyst for reflection on what we think Catholic education ought to look like and how it should be delivered. The time might not be so far away when we have the blank canvas upon which to enact it.

The Long March

A couple of years into Coalition government and all is not well.

The warmth with which the Tories were greeted by some in the Catholic community, as a haven from the constant attacks endured under years of Labour rule, has proven just a touch optimistic. In particular, the hope that there might even be a space for *whisper it* social conservatism has turned out to be a cruel illusion peddled by a class of politicians who always believed much the same as those on the benches opposite and who have proved every bit as legislation-happy in order to demand the rest of us conform to it.

What has become obvious is that this chafing phenomenon, lazily termed ‘leftist’ by normally astute commentators, is very much in the ascendancy in the Tory Party and beyond – semantic sorcery which for years convinced people the attacks would only, could only, come from one direction on the political compass, a betrayal which has left a whole lot of people feeling politically homeless.

There remains, nonetheless, a broad coalition of dissent. Call them what you will – social conservatives, postliberals, normal –  a whole array of worldviews continue to plough on, occasionally planting a defiant flag into the mainstream, refusing to bend the knee to the socio-cultural hegemony.

What is lacking amidst all this diverse dissent, however, is any sort of organised response.

This is important, for this increasingly noisy air of dissent will not go away. If anything, it is beginning to become more and more prominent. Occasionally, this is a sign of defeat – like the lobster’s scream as it is thrown into the cooking pot. Partly, though, it is a show of resilience, a small sign that the real world beyond the socio-cultural oligarchy is rather more anarchic than the monotone ‘radicalism’ of the political zeitgeist.

Unfortunately, however, such resilience all too often exists only at the margins of the public forum, usually because that is the only space it has reconciled itself to owning. Knowing itself to articulate the views of a great many, it has been negligent in its duty to defend the views of this great many, lazily assuming or naively believing that numbers will win out and the Silent People will roar each and every occasion on which they are prodded.  As such, it approaches the game and consents to playing by the rules of those who already dominate – and who are implacably opposed to their involvement.

For my own church this is the kind of attitude that has left us unable to find homes for orphans, which will soon hinder our freedom to educate the young, and which has turned once-vibrant notions of the Common Good into an emaciated PDF file full of trite truism and feel-good clichés (yet which remains strangely silent on the Osbornian liberalism which is attacking the family every bit as effectively as the Harmanite variety ever did).

Inaction, naivety, lack of courage – too often, these are defining features of the cultural recusants, the very reason why they remain on the outside looking in rather than inhabiting their rightful place as protector of the mainstream.

And there is a paradox in this – groups that instinctively eulogise and adore social and civic institutions are yet useless at generating, preserving or influencing institutions themselves. The political landscape is currently determined by an extreme minority often with extremist views – the majority upon whom they parasitically prosper have proven useless at doing the same. Maybe, just maybe, the broad and well organised coalition against the abolition of marriage by the Tory Party marks the beginning of a new politics in this regard.

But it must only be the start. For these groups speak a language that most people understand and sympathise with, even if their courage weakens in the face of the often vicious, sometimes legislative, attacks to which they are subject. As such, there is a moral duty to shape the public space and the institutions which reside there.  And those who undertake the task must be unapologetic in doing so. They must actively agitate and re-narrate the public space, delighting in being despised by the power interests who reside there. They must not only walk into the Lion’s Den, but must also be willing to shout loudly and kick over the ornaments when they get in there.

And if the institutions cannot be taken, then new institutions must be created and nourished to challenge and replace them.

For this Roman Catholic, this means continuing to stand within the traditions that are legitimately part of our heritage and yet within which we are actively despised, insulted, mocked and dismissed. It is to refuse to be meekly banished by an unrepresentative crust of misanthropes and extremists who would deny us entry because we refuse to be exactly like them (and less like everyone else). It is to remain an agitating cog in the very machine that has been most actively involved in our harassment.

It is, in short, to be a small part of a long march through the institutions.

The rising tide…

I have written extensively about Catholic education on this blog, and for those who have somewhere between little and no interest in the topic, I can only apologise that I am about to do the same again. Whilst I intend, in future, to write about what a specifically ‘Catholic’ education looks like, I thought I’d throw down a few more comments about the cultural and political vice which Catholic schools, both now and increasingly in the future, continue to find themselves in.

Firstly, and most predictably, Catholic schools shall come under increasing pressure to conform to metroliberal mores, particularly with regards to a) the teaching of sexual ethics; b) the eschewal of the presumption of objective truth in teaching. The latter is a pedagogic matter very much inherent to current teaching culture and practice, whilst the former is primarily political and has reared its head rather prominently of late. Whilst Michael Gove appeared, in his response to the latest bout of attacks, to give Catholic schools some breathing space by stipulating that the Equality Act did not apply to the school curriculum, what he actually did was identify the next obstacle for activists and campaigners to seek to overcome. When that goal is achieved, Catholic schools will have little place else to go – appeals to ‘conscience’ and ‘freedom’ will fall flat on those who have assumed unto themselves the status of moral infallibility and who have pronounced, ex cathedra, that no deviations from their dogma shall be permitted. In the meantime, the slow drumbeat of opposition will further weaken the any hopes of countering the narrative – heads of unions trotting out myth and outright slander, politicians doing much the same, and even the (suspected/alleged) use of OFSTED inspections to further promote the ‘progressive’ judgment.

This will be the battle that makes the headlines. And this is the battle that would be the most comfortable to lose.

For in reality, it would not prove all that difficult a transition for many Catholic schools to make. Indeed, it would hardly be controversial to say that this is where many Catholic schools are already at anyway, such that bending the knee to this new master would only be a matter of doing it publicly rather than in private. In short, this would be the easier step – it would provide very little body shock to the Catholic schools system.

By contrast, there is emerging an alternative pressure from pretty much the opposite direction, one rarely talked of amidst caricatures of decline but also one with the potential (or so it seems to me) to be rather more potent. This is the increasing presence and prominence of a re-enervated laity, and indeed of a newly energised clergy, particularly among the younger generations. Whereas older generations, where they cared, might have avoided conflict by merely gritting their teeth or (which is not at all uncommon) abandoning Catholic schools altogether, there seems to be blossoming a generation with more of a stomach for the fight. They want their Catholic institutions to be, well, Catholic, and they’re willing to challenge those whose stewardship has lead to a weakening of this sense of identity and, indeed, mission.  In short, should the new ‘creative minority’ of younger Catholics prove more demanding of their schools then this would apply a new pressure on the Bishops, and indeed the schools themselves, that would prove far more uncomfortable than the slogans thrown about by the ‘progressive’ brigade.

The reason for this is that the demands of the Catholics would prove, in many cases, more alien than the demands of the ‘progressives’, meaning that those demands would also be more difficult to assuage, particularly from within the current legislative framework within which Catholic schools operate. Many Catholic schools have simply outgrown their supply lines, such that they have effectively become non-distinct save for the occasional mention of ‘gospel values’ in the Mission Statement and a few superficial dainties to keep the governors on board (where, of course, the governors care). Further, whilst the Equality Act has made recruitment more of a sticky issue than it previously had been, nonetheless many schools have essentially jettisoned the consideration of faith in the employment process (except, perhaps, in R.E.) and plump primarily for teachers who promise an exam results boon. As such, the staff body of many Catholic schools is very rarely majority Catholic, let alone actively Catholic, and often contain voices that outwardly undermine any claim to the label ‘Catholic’, thus presenting obvious problems for instigating, developing, cultivating or promoting an authentically Catholic ethos.

Indeed, it has been suggested at various points that the biggest problem facing Catholic schools is not the diminishing number of Catholic children, nor the diminishing number of Catholic families, but rather the issue of Catholic staff. This is not all down to individual schools. The Bishops have rarely taken anything near an active enough interest in the formation of Catholic teachers, just as they have not taken anywhere near enough active interest in the development of the school curriculum nor, indeed, the creation and provision of suitable qualifications, particularly in Key Stage 4 and 5 (something that could easily be rectified).

Whilst there is an element of horses and stable doors about this, the sum effect is that the emergence of an energetic and demanding laity and/or clerical class, which is basically where the church is heading, will cause the greater body shock for Catholic schools. Trapped between these two poles, one demanding what schools can neither genetically nor legislatively deliver, the other demanding that which would be rather easy to deliver though not whilst remaining ‘Catholic’ and/or whilst taking public funding, one suspects they will simply buckle – and dioceses will have to rethink the way it helps parents bring their children up in the Catholic faith. It would not be too alarmist to say that, in a setting in which the battle for Catholic education has been definitively lost, the models from which the Bishops could learn most are those networks that both educated and catechised the faithful through the recusancy era of our forefathers in faith (more of potential ‘solutions’ in a later post).

As such, that the continuing existence of specifically Catholic schools remains in jeopardy is beyond question. Don’t be surprised, however, if, contrary to popular caricature, the final blow is delivered from within rather than without.

The Flag of Heritage

Flying a flag is a political act. It means something, even if we cannot always explain quite what it is or why it is important. It is more blood and guts than bloodless theorems, and it can imbue a place with an identity and dignity woven from the diverse and sometimes imperceptible threads of a shared heritage.

So, what does it say that flying above the buildings of some our greatest historical treasures is the banal logo of a government agency?

Now at this point, I might as well lay my cards on the table: contrary to received wisdom, I do not believe the flag of St. George requires detoxification. Nor do I believe that it is indelibly linked with an attitude of mind violently opposed to the tenets of contemporary society. Indeed for a great many, the flag is no more offensive or sinister than are jeans and trainers because thugs often wear them. To my mind, those who traduce the flag are often those whose principal experience of its flying is filtered through the sensationalised glare of a controversy obsessed media. In short, those who would make synonymous the flag and violent (often racialised) expressions of political activity are wide of the mark.

Yet it also worth rejecting the common slogan appearing from the opposite direction, that lazily claims the left is unpatriotic (usually whilst quoting some part of Orwell that the interlocutor never actually read), by pointing to the rather inconvenient fact that a great many on the left are not. After all, one is rather more likely to see the flag of St. George draped from the bedroom window of a council-house in a Labour stronghold than from the quads of an Oxford college or the sash windows of a thatched Cotswolds cottage.

And this is important, for it is here one most clearly glimpses the cleave in attitudes toward the flag of England. What the flag requires is not detoxification. What the flag requires is social and cultural extension. That it could for so long be maligned as a symbol of vulgarity and boorishness could only occur because it was for too long absent from association with the lived experience and valued institutions of those who would so willingly jump to such lazy conclusions (and who have often had a disproportionate role in public discourse with which to do it). There has been an element of social capture of the flag of St. George, unwarrantably narrowing its capacity to bestow identity and embody unity; quite simply, more people need to be able to share in it.

As such, we need once again to weave together the principal symbol of our national identity with those things that cut across social and class boundaries and point toward a history and identity in which we all share.

The English Heritage flag cleanses some of our most important sites of any emotional ties, erecting a sterile symbol of state bureaucracy more suited to road traffic signs and office stationery than marking the landscape of our shared history. Where an expression of our communal identity and possession ought to be, there is the logo of a government agency.

We ought to dismay at this riding roughshod over our collective heritage. We ought to reclaim our heritage for the flag of England, and have our heritage shared and secured for all by flying under this same flag. We ought, quite simply, to put the flag of England back into English Heritage.

‘Oh, they’ll be alright…’

Question: why is there outrage whenever anybody suggests an idea or reform that will primarily benefit the highest achievers in our schools?

It’s odd. Not least because whenever anybody suggests an idea or reform that will primarily benefit the lowest achievers in our school, there is nothing but rapturous applause from the gallery.

And indeed, this seems perfectly natural. The plethora of schemes and funding that have accumulated over the years, the majority to help lower-achievers, is undoubtedly A Good Thing. To suggest otherwise would be… well, odd.

And yet, any modest proposal that would primarily benefit the higher achievers is often greeted with scorn, as if the person offering the idea is on a mission to deny the Bob Cratchetts of this world any opportunity to improve their station in life.

And this gets at the nub of it: the educational landscape is too often seeped in a class narrative that lazily equates underachieving with being poor. Whilst this is itself a serious problem, it nonetheless provides the cultural and moral rocket-fuel that keeps a whole army of pious ‘educationalists’ in well-paid jobs: one can etch out a very well paid career out of being sanctimonious. You doubt me? Attend a teacher training college for a week. You’ll see what I mean.

For which reason, it is interesting to play with the framing of the question a little, the better to draw out the central point I’m trying to make. How about this: should a hard-working, well-motivated and intelligent kid from the wrong part of town receive a helping hand in line with the effort and perspiration expended upon the lazy, insolent, spoiled underachiever from the middle-class suburb?

All of a sudden, the question looks a little different – though I’d maintain this is no less likely a scenario than the stereotypical ‘let’s move heaven and earth to help the (poor, obviously) kid to learn to read and become a success in life’ picture which usually features in the wet dreams of professional hand-wringers and film-makers.

But why should this be so? Does the high achiever, regardless of background, not have the same demands as the low achiever? Is there less of a moral obligation to help the high achiever than there is to help low achiever? Whilst there are unlikely to be high-fives in the staff room or Hollywood tearjerkers about the teacher who patiently helped a student turn their As into A*s, this does not mean the student is less worthy of the attention or the teacher’s efforts any less honourable. Quite the opposite, in fact.

At this point one often hears, or sees the results of, the educational philosophy which says something along the lines: oh Jimmy will get his grades, he’ll be alright.

By which is often meant, ‘Jimmy will get his five good passes, which will do our league tables no harm at all, so he’ll be alright.’

But then one must ask: why should this be enough? Is it less worse for Jimmy to get his five good passes and end up working in an office in Slough when, with the kind of tailored support offered as a matter of course for the recalcitrant he could have ended up in Oxbridge from whence who knows what paths would have opened up to him?

Not that academic achievement is the sole criteria of success – but for some it is the most appropriate and should be their leading criteria of (academic) success. Which means they should receive all the support and ‘intervention’ necessary to achieve it. And in so doing there should not be any instinctive distaste of high-achievement, either because it smells of elitism (truly a swear word in the state school system), or makes other kids at school feel less able, or whatever. This is not to say there are not many teachers who buck this trend – it is to say that in so doing they swim against the institutional tide, and not with it.

One wonders if herein lies one thread of that declining social mobility we so often hear lamented, that being the way the needs of the highest achievers are not adequately catered for either culturally or institutionally within the comprehensive system.

Though I’m sure some never-taught-in-their-life educational ‘expert’ will look at their DATA and find figures to prove me wrong and the status-quo right.

There is little more crushing in teaching than watching kids who want to learn be constantly and consistently impeded by those who don’t. And it is a truth that the latter category of students take up the vast majority of a teacher’s time, both in and out of the classroom, such that those who remain under the radar receive far less attention than they might otherwise do. In this sense they are victims too, only nobody will put their case, save for the odd platitude rarely adhered to, because ‘they’ll be alright’.

Yet they deserve the helping hand too – and there needs to be less moral outrage when they are offered it.

Failing in teaching

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Samuel Beckett

Failing failing

If one takes responsibility for an outcome away from the individual involved in performing an action, what happens?

Or to frame this using an example, if one exhorts an individual to achieve a particular target, but places all responsibility and consequence for the failure to achieve that target on the shoulders of somebody else, is this more or less likely to mould an individual committed to achieving the set target? And, equally as importantly, what reaction is it likely to produce amongst those upon whom responsibility for failure shall ultimately be placed?

So the same with teaching. When primary responsibility for success or failure is taken away from the student and placed instead on the shoulders of teachers, what effect might this have on the education system? Is it beneficial for moulding well-educated and well-balanced young individuals, or not? Is it a recipe for high-standards and an academically rigorous system, or not? Is it a way to achieve confidence in the exams system as giving a true representation of capability, or not?

Failing students

This strikes me as an important question, particularly in light of recent drip drip revelations about the lengths which teachers and schools more generally are willing to go to achieve student success, even when it might stray into the realms of the ethically dubious. Or to phrase it in the slightly more hysterical (though possibly more accurate) words of some: with cases of teacher ‘cheating’ appearing on the radar more and more often, might it not be worthwhile questioning why this might be so? As a tentative first response, one might simply respond: when the stakes are highest for teachers, sometimes they crack.

Michael Gove, in this sense, is a fully signed up member of the ‘All Must Have Prizes’ club. This sounds curious, since he has recently gone on record acknowledging that re-instilling academic integrity to the exams system will come at the cost of more children failing to achieve the exam grades they might currently expect to receive. The important bit, however, is what comes next – that Headmasters and teachers will inevitably lose their jobs in light of this. Which is understandable when the issue is clear-cut enough as ‘your pedagogy is bonkers and this is leading to widespread failure,’ though not so much when it merely articulates the complete removal of responsibility from students themselves.

Cue gasps and shock from an astonished crowd, who expect (quite rightly) that teachers are there to educate and should be held to account where they fail to do so. On which I agree. But that need not come at the price of holding teachers solely responsible for failure (nor, indeed, for success). This is not an either/or settlement.

Which is where Gove gets it wrong, on both education and ethics. For him, all students must progress to achieve their potential (as determined by the DATA), and their failure to do so can only be the result of poor teaching and/or poor school management. Children, it would seem, are predictable agents for whom the consistent, high-quality application of x will always produce the predicted outcome of y. Should that outcome fail to materialise then the process must be the problem; or rather, those responsible for input must be at fault. As such, failure and failing has been banished from the classroom – it can only exist in the staffroom.

The wheels of this manifestly fictional ruse are greased with an emotive barrage of unanswerable rhetoric, typically summed up with questions like ‘would you accept this for your children?!’ as if the vast majority of teachers, who break their bodies and often their hearts trying to do all they can to help other peoples’ children succeed, want anything less than the very best for those under their tutelage.

Failing teachers

But sometimes immediate success is not deliverable. It just isn’t. And this is not about a deficit of teacher motivation, or enthusiasm, or desire, or capability, but rather the reflection of the fact that children can be every bit as complex and confusing as the adult population they will one day become. As such, sometimes children simply do not want to learn. Or rather more accurately, they actively do not want to learn that which is on offer to them, and will remain obstinate in their refusal to do so. Being human, they do not conform to projected grades and precise statistical calculation, meekly passing through the education system fulfilling all progress indicators along the way – they are independent minds, as occasionally difficult and irrational as the best of us, willing to throw a belligerent spoke in the wheels of the bureaucrat with his clipboard and flipcharts of ‘progress.’

What can be done? Well, we shout, punish, cajole, encourage, inspire, even bribe. We deliver sermons from on high about how this should not be so. We endlessly reflect and reach out, trying everything in our power to bring back into the educational fold those who remain doggedly determined to resist our overtures.

But the reality is that the targets of our efforts do not always respond as we wish they would. They freely choose a path that everyone involved with them wishes they wouldn’t. And that path, oftentimes, leads to failure.

Which is something of a problem in an ‘All Must Have Prizes’ culture, where failure and failing is neither a part of the development process nor a fact to be mournfully expected as the inevitable outcome of bad choices, even if never passively accepted. Yet with the cultural and political failure to acknowledge this, teachers and school management are under constant pressure to show that they are not culpable in the failure of the student. And since any failure, by the terms of the game, is itself evidence of culpability, this means teachers are under constant pressure to avoid all failure whatever. At which point that murky landscape of educational ethics comes into view, with exhausted and anxious teachers straying over the once clear demarcation lines, in the process creating a culture that absolves students from real responsibility (and even, sometimes, effort) in their own learning and achievement.

In short, the game has shifted disastrously: if a student does not achieve their grades or predicted levels of progress, then primary responsibility for this lies not with student but with teacher. Michael Gove, for all his disdain of those Guardianistas who place the influence of external factors over the demand for personal responsibility, is nonetheless guilty of the very same.

Failing to succeed

Superficially, of course, this aversion to failure is clearly A Good Thing. But there is another side to the coin. If a student does not take responsibility for failures, then from where shall come motivation for improvement? Or to turn it on its head, if a student does not take deserved credit for success, then from where shall come the realisation that from hard work and commitment comes the thrill of achievement? And again, the question must be put – why would teachers risk their very careers and succumb to the temptation of ‘cheating’?

As unpopular as it is to say it, there is a meritocratic and even spiritual value to failure, even if we have abolished it from our classrooms. Not in the existential sense, of course, but certainly in the developmental sense – to cultivate in the individual the recognition that success comes with hard work not tantrums, that achievement is the end point of a gruelling process not the contractual outcome of mere attendance, that bad choices lead to bad outcomes and the art of living well is learning to discriminate between good and bad choices.

Who looks to whom for teaching talent?

Joining in the latest round of Blame the Teacher! (©Gove&Wilshaw) comes Martin Stephen, kindly providing us with a case study of how to extrapolate monumentally ignorant conclusions from the gleaming spectacle of a sound analysis.

His initial breakdown runs thus: bright children in state schools needs access to top quality learning; the Assisted Places scheme helped some of these children get into the best private schools; however the scheme diluted the mainstream of its top talent; this effectively relieved mainstream schools of the responsibility to cater for elite academic performance; thus, the Assisted Places is not something that should be resurrected.

Bravo, Mr Stephen, you’ve said what teachers have been saying for years. And years. And years. And what’s more, you’ve recognised that this is unsatisfactory, that we need to do something about it, that the state system ought to provide opportunities for the poorest (and anyone else) to soar.

How insightful! How benevolent! Huzzah, Mr Stephen!

Yet how do we solve this dilemma? Is there a way round this apparently intractable problem?

Fear not, for Mr Stephen has the answer:

Which brings me to teachers. What the state sector needs most is good teachers and that is where the independent sector can really help. It has a proven ability to attract top graduates to teach the difficult subjects such as maths, physics, chemistry, biology and modern languages.

Shock! Gasp! What the state sector needs most is *gulp* good teachers?

I must admit, I just did not see that one coming. Having been blamed for everything from the Broken Society, to stagnant social mobility, to Vince Cable, it just never occurred to me that the principal and primary reason for children in Bootle Community School not achieving the same as their colleagues in Eton was the standard of teachers that graced the vaulted classrooms and high halls of the state sector counterpart.

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa! May the darkness of ignorance be driven from mine eyes! May the Lords of Learning rescue me from an eternity of wailing and gnashing of teeth!

Now, far be it from me to seek to mitigate my evident obliviousness, but if you will yet hear me out then I will offer my defence. Unlikely as it may seem, I had reason not to recognise the Indisputable Truth toward which Mr Stephen most graciously points us.

For you see, in my (very small) school we have Oxbridge and Russell Group graduates, a former PPC with a PhD in History, another with a PhD in social sciences, a TeamGB Athletics coach, a former high ranking civil servant, a published novelist, a regularly published writer/author, and an ex Special Forces guy (for the ResPublicanites amongst you). In other words, some fantastically talented people. And if I had the time and inclination to inquire into the background of all those I work with, I’m sure that already impressive list of talent could be extended yet further.

Quite why I never made connection between our failure to emulate Westminster School with our alleged-but-not-apparent dearth of talent is beyond me.

Yet there is more. My own brief (MoD funded) stint at a private boarding school even lead me to question whether things like, oh I don’t know, much smaller class sizes and far superior facilities had a positive impact on educational success.

That I did not realise these things had tangential impact on why Coatbridge Comprehensive fails to keep pace with its comrades at Loretto can only be described as an embarrassing oversight on my part.

And lastly – I grieve at my witlessness as I mention it – the various reports on private school reliance on the state sector for recruitment, this despite their already extended freedom in attracting talent, never once lead me to the clearly logical conclusion that the private sector has the monopoly on teaching talent, to which the state sector ought to grasp desperately for crumbs from its overloaded talent table.

Now I see the light. Now I have been given the truth. Awkward questions need not be asked for we have all the answers we need. Blame the Teacher! Blame the Teacher! Blame the Teacher!…

Catholic schools and education – Redux

As I have blogged previously, the Bishop of Lancaster recently set feral cats amongst flailing pigeons by questioning the role and status of Catholic schools, nominally within the Diocese of Lancaster. The questions were bold and challenging – partly, one suspects, they were instigated by financial concern (the Diocese not being in the best of financial health), but significantly they were about questioning what role our institutions play and are playing in that which ought to be, according to the Bishop, foremost in the minds and hearts of the faithful – salvation.

It is not my intention here to explore the question of whether or not our Catholic schools are living up to that vision. That has been debated long and loud and the conclusions appear largely uncontested. Indeed, many defences against the CINO charge usually rely on the restructuring of the traditional view of what a Catholic education should be, often with appeals to changing social contexts, rather than outright rebuttal of the accusation. In its way this is an admission of failure according to the old terms of reference, a failure turned into success precisely by trying to recast anew those old frames of reference. In the contexts in which many schools find themselves, there is certainly legitimacy to this view. The question becomes, however, whether the faithful, nor indeed Bishops, ought to accept a position where such a vision of Catholic education can legitimately be presented as a success.

As such, I want here to widen things out a little and question the responsibilities (and potential failures) of those outwith the teaching establishments currently attracting the lion’s share of blame. After all, schools come under heavy fire from all quarters, sometimes deservedly so, but sometimes for being the victims of a process that they effectively had little control over. For this reason, it is worth asking what external pressures lead schools to this point, before focussing in on the internal dynamics that may (or may not) have capitulated to it.

The first important detail to note is that Catholic schools operate within a regulated national system, the natural consequence of which will be that their primary focus will generally be that which the system deems to be the primary focus. In this case, it is simply and solely exam results. Which is important, not least because there has always been the tacit (and sometimes explicit) acceptance that the holistic approach of Catholic education means that the pursuit of academic excellence is one criterion of success amongst others, and not the sole goal of any Catholic education. This is certainly not to downplay the academic aspect of a Catholic education, which could and should be highly rigorous – rather, it is a strand in a wider weave that intertwines matters of the soul alongside matters of the intellect.

Needless to say, in a system so heavily focussed on exam results, so intent on DATA and PROGRESS, so terrified of sliding in the league tables and thus jeopardising its very existence as a school (‘bums on seats’ being another crucial factor here), focus will tend to slip away from that hard-to-measure salvation thing and sit rather more squarely on the production of pleasing exam grades above all else. This is not to suggest any natural conflict between the two – but it is suggest that, should ever any conflict arise, then it will always be the pursuit of test results that gains the upper hand. In the Great Hierarchy of Things, Messrs Gove and Wilshaw will tend to sit in a more prominent spot than the local Bishop.

In this respect, then, the schools are in thrall to the system in which they necessarily operate. It is worth casting the net wider still, however, and pointing out that there exists the lack of a coherent vision regarding the characteristics of a specifically Catholic education even within the highest levels of the Church hierarchy, and that this hinders those seeking to deliver the formation expected in Catholic schooling. Whilst Bishops’ Conferences might quietly append signatures to quietly ignored Vatican documents, there yet exists a noticeable lack of confidence in defending the uniqueness of Catholic education, in both vision and mission, in the public forum. When, occasionally, an individual does step forth to elucidate, as did Bishop Emeritus Patrick O’Donoghue, the silence from those who ought to loudly support is instructive. To pursue this further, the controversies that recently engulfed Catholic schools such as Cardinal Vaughan School and the Coloma Convent Girls’ School, whilst ultimately turning on technical detail, demonstrate that the question of how a Catholic school should offer itself to the community remains unresolved at even the highest levels, with each of these schools facing opposition from their own Archdiocese for pursuing entrance requirements they believe to be consistent with upholding and propagating the Catholic life and ethos of the school.

As such, if schools are failing in their mission of formation and evangelisation, then schools have also been failed by those who ought to most forcefully and most clearly be outlining what that mission looks like, how it can be cultivated, what is pernicious to it, and what freedom schools have to act in adherence to it. Indeed, honest questions also need to be asked about how political changes, and especially how co-operation with such changes over an extended period of time by those agencies and individuals specifically tasked with defending the integrity and authenticity of Catholic education, have made the development of such an atmosphere increasingly difficult.

This fundamental lack of confidence necessarily trickles down and shapes the way in which Catholic schools organise and constitute themselves. With regards the development of future Catholic teachers for Catholic schools, for example, it would be the exception rather than the norm for those coming through teacher training to be given any sort of depth discussion on what a Catholic education entails, or what extra commitments, or expectations, or demands come with teaching in a Catholic school. The process is, after all, delivered solely through the state, which has no concern in training teachers for Catholic schools, only in training teachers – the Catholicism bit is functionally irrelevant, perhaps something addressed in a one-hour presentation during induction should one evr get a job in a Catholic school, but in reality no more than a distraction to a process that always was solely about creating a teacher for the system, an individual who could work in any school, whether it be Catholic or community.

Even for those who develop a personal interest in answering the questions outlined above, and who seek to incorporate this into their role within the Catholic school system, it soon becomes obvious there is a dispiriting lack of sustained and coherent articulation regarding the nature of a Catholic education, save, perhaps, for certain impressive voices all too often hidden away within the halls of academia or at the bottom of little circulated publications.This relative lack of a public and rigorous debate on what a Catholic education entails, and the formation of staff in light of the conclusions such determinations bring, hinders those who instinctively feel the call to deliver an authentic Catholic education.

And there are many other questions to be asked, too: on the role of school chaplains, for example, or the (virtual) diocesan monopoly on Catholic schools, on the role of governors and trustees, and on the capacity of Catholic schools to fulfill its vision in light of legislative demand. Most importantly, however, the principal questions needing resolved are these: can the kind of Catholic school that Bishop Michael seems to be pointing toward really be (re-)conceived and delivered through present structures? Can it exist comfortably within the current system? And if not (and I suspect not) how else might it come to be?

For all that, it would be a shame if, as some suggest, any future response includes the retreat from school provision and contentment with the delivery of catechetical instruction at a parish level as an alternative. In a time when we are increasingly forced to segregate the public and the private with regards our faith, it would seem something of a collaboratorial surrender to meekly segregate formation from education in such a way. We are called to live, learn and love as children of Christ – the three belong together, and this should be articulated unashamedly. Indeed, to maintain otherwise is concede the point to those who argue that there is nothing particularly distinctive about a Catholic education, it being essentially a ‘normal’ education with a few rituals thrown in on special occasions, things that could be harmlessly jettisoned or perhaps delivered privately for those who so wish.

One would like to think that there yet exists the intellectual, spiritual and evidential resources to counter this junk narrative, if only there existed the appetite to do so. If some would lead, I suspect yet more would follow.