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Yearly Archives: 2012
Starting a debate (or not)
Very occasionally one comes across people who are so absorbed into their own worldview that they have long proven incapable of acknowledging much that would challenge it. They are usually found arguing that black is white, the better to uphold the truth not of reality but of their own worldview. Whenever a charge crops up that does not fit into this worldview, they can refute it by simply ignoring the context and substance of the original charge. Take the BBC, for example. People have long called it a lefty organisation. What they have nearly always meant by this, a la Andrew Marr, is that the BBC is an overwhelmingly liberal organisation, something which (much to the chagrin of some of us) has become synonymous with the term lefty. As such, when the BBC comes up with anything even mildly supportive of the government position on the budget deficit, for example, characters like James Macintyre will pop their heads up, roll their eyes and with raised eyebrows mutter knowingly (as if they have penetrated the heart of a mass fraud): ‘…and they say the BBC is left-wing, do they?’ Cue mass retweets and digital-rage as legions of Twitter fans queue up to completely miss the point. Which is that the BBC, quite simply, is drenched in a metropolitan liberalism that unthinkingly sneers at and censors mainstream small c conservative positions as if they are extreme. That is the substance of the charge; that is the thorn in the flesh of those who despair of BBC ‘bias’; that is where the debate must be held if we are to make anything like a useful contribution on the issue.
Why bring this up? Well, because I have been reading this new report by Demos on faith and citizenship and I think it is guilty of using much the same sleight of hand to sustain itself. In so doing it misses the central points it ought really to be addressing. Either blinded by the narrow culture of which it is part, or else lacking the courage to penetrate into the real heart of the matter, the report simply uses old tropes to move the debate on to a ground upon which would have undoubtedly suited the socio-political paradigms of the early noughties, but which seems amusingly dated now.
As such, it is no accident that the report is couched in some very tired language. Words like ‘progressive’ and ‘faith communities’ really are the shell-suits and brut aquatonic of modern political discourse. Indeed, the whole thing reads like a Citizenship teacher’s wet dream. This is not incidental – as we see from the foreword onward, the normative presumptions of early Blairite Britain ate the normative prusumptions and prejudices upon which the report builds.
The document starts off with a foreword by Stephen Timms, steeped in the ‘progressive’ mantras of the Blairite era from which he is a remnant, seeking to reconcile the progressive cause with religion on the basis that there is quite a lot within the worldview of the religious with which a ‘progressive’ might happily find common cause, such as ‘human rights’ and ‘equality’. So far, so bleedin’ obvious.
But there is a big huge elephant in the room here, which demonstrates a failure to visualise such key concepts from intellectual paradigms outwith the metropolitan, secularised bubble from which they emanate: whilst many Christians are strong supporters of human rights and equality, lots of what seriously antagonised religious folk under the Labour government was couched precisely in talk of ‘Human Rights’ and ‘Equality’.
I, for example, am a Roman Catholic and believe wholeheartedly in the centrality of both human rights and equality in building both a personal and social ethic – after all, we pionerred such ideas in the first place. But the ways those terms are configured to uphold the primacy of a rationalistic, immanentised ethic is something that I find deeply problematic, as do many people of faith (and many without, too). After all, it was this version of ‘Equality’ that guided Labour’s decision to ban Catholic adoption agencies from finding loving families for orphans, just as it is this version of ‘Human Rights’ that seeks to make an absurdly illiberal hash of the institution of marriage. Polling has demonstrated that David Cameron’s move to pursue ‘same-sex marriage’, for example, brings nothing but very bad news from religious voters – yet these are the same sorts of people that Demos can happily profess hold ‘progressive’ views on things like ‘equality’. Similar issues arise with ‘women’s rights’ and attitudes to abortion.
Clearly there is something going on here that merits exploration, though whilst Timms acknowledged this as an historic issue, one which the Tories ‘exploited’ for political purpose, he nonetheless completely fails to critique it, or ask serious, searching questions in light of it. This is perhaps no surprise: Christianity within New Labour was only really welcome if it was of the ‘social gospel’ variety, promoting a lovely, fluffy message on social justice whilst abandoning to ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘bigots’ all those aspects of mainstream orthodoxy distasteful to the instinctively secular metropolitan hegemony: what Archibishop Fulton Sheen called ‘Christ without the Cross’. But there is a disconnect here, a genuinely antagonistic rendering of terms so central to both sides of the debate, such that robust exploration of this critical distance is an absolute necessity if any meaningful analysis is to be offered. The last fifteen years did happen – they must be taken account of.
Keep in touch, yah?
One way of finding out whether or not someone really knows what they are talking about is by measuring their amount of surprise to aspects of reality that everyone else on the ground thought perfectly normal and obvious. If, for example, an individual walked round the saucier ends of Salford and found to his astonishment that there are many people there who can read and who actually work for a living, then you can reasonably guess that such a person does not go to the saucier ends of Salford all that very often. They exist within their own bubble, with its own presuppositions and prejudices, and in so doing report mundane instances of everyday life as great discoveries central to our understanding of mankind.
I mention this because it is an impulse that occurs time and again throughout this report. Indeed, the subject matter itself, being confined to explaining to Progressives how ‘progressive’ religious folk can be, smacks of the very same detachment. It reminds me of a time when I pointed out to someone that Pope Benedict was really quite far to the ‘left’ – on economics to ecology, capitalism to climate – as indeed is the Roman Catholic Church generally (if such paradigms are appropriate). To which the response was: ‘nah, he’s a massive right-wing bigot.’ And yet Pope Benedict is, by many of the terms identified, a ‘progressive’ (though we could just call him a Catholic) – any serious or sustained effort to engage with his message, and that of the Roman Catholic Church, reveals as such.
So when it is announced that religious folk are often politically and civically engaged, sharing certain outlooks with their ‘progressive’ counterparts, I fail to be all that awestruck. However, the very existence of surprise, the need to point this out and publicise it, merely suggests a religious illiteracy incapable of reconciling what it thought were two disparate threads, but which in reality always were mutualistic sides of the very same coin.
Take for example this passage:
Indeed, despite religion’s adherence to fundamental core values that tend to be considered conservative, religion has also been the impetus for revolutionary social change, including the abolition of slavery and civil rights movement
What does it say? Well, that despite the conservative core values, religious folk do some good stuff too. Which apart from being mind-blowingly arrogant, also sells down the intellectual river the very movement within which most ‘progressives’ feel themselves most at home. In short, these positive achievements can happily proceed from conservatism; there is no reason whatever to believe they happen accidentally in spite of it. Just as Labour attacks capitalism (or used to) from a conservative viewpoint, in defence of the individual and the family and the community, so do Pope Benedict XVI and other religious folk pursue ‘progressive’ policies as a consequence of their orthodox commitment to faith. Whilst this might not be the settled view of the esteemed voices within the culture industry, who merely articulate what everyone within that same culture already assumes to be true, it is nonetheless true in the real world of lived relationships. To fail to understand this is to retreat into a culture war narrative that fundamentally misunderstands religion, and indeed politics – the inability of the ‘progressives’ to comprehend David Cameron being both a Tory and One-Of-Them speaks of the same naivety. As such, any report that can say ‘However, perhaps surprisingly, religious exclusivists are also likely to hold progressive political views,’ reveals only its fundamental ignorance of that which it seeks to analyse.
‘Christians are Christian! Who knew?’
Examples of this apparent inability to get into the real flesh and guts of the religio-political debate abound, such that it often reads more like a British view of a caricatured American religio-political landscape imported back into a British context for the opportunity of writing a report on it. As such, more specific examples of religious illiteracy can be found, with comments connecting religious folk and opposition to ‘homosexuality’ for example (which, if that comment was supposed to include Catholicism, is ignorant of Catholic teaching.) The other end of this scale is the satisfaction on display when, like a small boy discovering a wonderful fossil inside what he thought was a plain old rock, it is pointed out that religious folk can hold some ‘progressive’ opinions, too.
We hear with apparent surprise, for example, that religious folk can be remarkably ‘progressive’ with regards immigration and immigrants, and we are (I think) to be impressed by that, as though this were some great paradox antithetical to being religious in the first place (though by framing that debate into a depersonalised issue about numbers rather than about the effects on community, solidary and reciprocity, the ideological narrowness of yesteryear that cost Labour so dear at previous elections is merely reconstituted).
We also hear that ‘some faith groups are still very much involved in areas of countering extremism and fostering cohesion’, as if community cohesion doesn’t flow like water from a spring directly from the Gospel and that anybody taking the message of Jesus seriously could really do much else. Indeed, recent studies have suggested that the challenge of today is countering intolerance from those without a faith upbringing, or in the words of Professor Leslie Francis: ‘the challenge facing schools today is to enable those young people who do not come from a religious background themselves to gain insight into how their peers from religious homes feel about things’ – tired old caricatures about religion and social divisiveness withered long ago.
No, if any of these things are news at all, then it is only news to a small and highly ignorant clique, probably hanging around LiberalConspiracy or CiF – the bigger issue, and the one pretty much ignored, is instead the views that the ‘progressives’ don’t gyrate about but pursue and seek to destroy.
Faith is a foreign country; they do things differently there
In sum, this report offers little to suggest that those on the centre-left have progressed in understanding the newly energised religio-political dynamic weaving its way through the British political scene. Whilst political engagement by those of an orthodox Christian bent (be they religious or not) is becoming an ever more significant feature in British politics, and ‘values voters’ are an increasingly important constituency on the Excel spreadsheets of hotshot psephologists, it seems that some are determined to (mis-)understand this in a manner that disregards the ways in which society and attitudes have changed since the downfall of New Labour: the report seems to say, in effect, ‘hey look, these religious types are more like us than we thought, maybe we should talk to them too.’ As far as reflective thought goes, that doesn’t rate highly; if, as the Goodharts and Glasmans of this world contend, we have reached the post-liberal moment, then the left’s views on the interplay between religion and politics need updating too – and it goes much further than some ‘progressives’ condescending to work with those they might have once chosen to ignore. The game has changed; increasingly, so have the rules. This means looking at the relationship from within the new context, and not through the very lens that has already been so resoundingly rejected.
As the report itself acknowledged, ‘we analysed responses to a range of value-based questions that tap into the heart of the left–right political divide. The results were mixed.’ One would have hoped that this might have set off a great big warning siren as to the appropriateness of using the old dichotomy to analyse the new settlement. Or in other words, the left-right divide is obsolete in this field: orthodox Catholics can be (and historically have often been) lefties; just as social liberals can (and increasingly are) Tories. More, for some it is their Catholicism that leads them to the left, just as for some it is their social liberalism (a staple of ‘progressive’ thinking) that leads them to the Tories. The old dichotomy is dead – real life has destroyed it.
Or to end with a quote from the report:
Clearly, the more you get to know people who may be different from you, the more you begin to see them as fellow human beings, and less as stereotypes or misconceptions perpetuated by media and popular culture
This was being aimed at Christians and their irrational fears over folk who are different, in itself an offensive reductionism. Alas, perhaps such a comment might better sum up the key weakness of this report – as well offer a waymarker on how to improve it.
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.
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.Samuel Beckett
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?
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.
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.
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!…
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.
‘I would say that normally it is the creative minorities that determine the future, and in this sense the Catholic Church must understand itself as a creative minority that has a heritage of values that are not things of the past, but a very living and relevant reality.’ Pope Benedict XVI
The question of what Catholicism should look like has for decades been the fundamental question underpinning the most heated debates within the Catholic community in England and Wales. On the one hand there are those who maintain the faith has to be in and of the culture in which it resides, to be at ease with the socio-cultural establishment of which it should seek to be part, to talk the language and live the life of those to whom it seeks to offer the Good News. On the other hand, there are those who maintain that the community is strongest when it remains faithful to the Magisterium, that its renewal comes most authentically through ressourcement, that the recusancy streak running through its very DNA continues to be its greatest and most enduring strength, not its fatal weakness.
It is into this melting pot that the Bishops continually seek to tread, endlessly courting adverse reaction from one side or the other. And into the ring has been thrown the Mitre of the Bishop of Lancaster Michael Campbell, who has issued a pastoral letter reflecting on the theme of the New Evangelisation, itself very much of the Holy Father’s oeuvre, whilst asking how the Church of today can best meet the challenge of this much needed renewal.
The letter is bold, and asks some genuinely courageous questions that will no doubt horrify some whilst delighting others. It has chosen to address, in a very direct way, that very kulturkampf outlined above, before asking what the response of the Diocese of Lancaster will be, both spiritually and constitutionally, to the goal of evangelisation.
On this note, one section in particular provoked special interest. After reflection on the nature of the faithful community in contemporary society, and what the response of the institutional Church should be to the changing social circumstances with which it is confronted, Bishop Campbell asks;
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?
It is worth saying that, until relatively recently, this question would simply not have been asked, or at any rate not framed in such terms. Indeed, the very use of the words ‘Catholic in name only’ (or CINO in shorthand) is itself provocative for those who have not and do not necessarily see the role of Catholic schools as being ‘Catholic’ at all, at least not with a capital ‘C’. That the Church should compromise its generous access and influence within mainstream schools sector, and the (imagined?) political leverage that comes with it, was simply off the radar – better by far to bury the question with platitudes about Gospel values and the vital role Catholic schools play in some of the toughest communities (as they absolutely do, by the way). Questions of authenticity and mission, indeed of practice, were irrelevant; presence was the key.
This narrative has been challenged in the past, again most notably in the Diocese of Lancaster. Whilst still Bishop of Lancaster, Patrick O’Donoghue wrote an impressive piece on education entitled Fit For Mission? Schools (I’ve blogged on this before – see here) in which evangelisation was thrust into the debate as one of the central considerations when assessing the role of Catholic education in the formation of the young. The document, unfortunately, was better received in Rome than Eccleston Square, but for Bishop Michael the insight has clearly proven crucial, so much so that he has grabbed it and started asking searching questions in light of it: in short, what is a Catholic education all about?
For his part, he leaves us in little doubt;
The Church only exists to evangelise – that means buildings, churches, parishes, schools and colleges are only valuable insofar as they help the Church in that mission of salvation! How can we as parishes, schools and colleges – as the Diocese – support this sorely needed New Evangelisation?
Salvation! For many Catholic schools, caught in the vice-like grip of external secular pressures placed on the schools system as a whole, as well as the identity-amnesia that has gripped the Church more widely, evangelisation as warranting even a footnote on the mission statement is essentially alien. Understandably, schools have instead concentrated on the meat and drink of the education system – bums on seats and exam results. Holistic visions of a Catholic education, encompassing both organisational structure and pedagogy, are simply trumped by the reality and demands of the schools sector: the dilution of any distinctive ethos thereby brought about through a mixture of cultural change within and without the Church and simple, cold reaction to legislative demand. After all, with many schools no longer guaranteed the supply of Catholic children for which they were designed following the baby boom of the early sixties, so ‘the brand’ has had to adapt to new realities, which has included a new clientele for whom Catholicism is neither central nor necessarily relevant.
Now there are some important questions here requiring careful consideration – implicit in Bishop Campbell’s words is the suggestion that Catholic education should only be for active, worshipping Catholics. Clearly there are some in the Diocese of Westminster, for example, who might well take issue with that view, but politics aside the question is crucial: should Catholic education really be just for Catholics? Should it not welcome all and invite all to share in the community of faith? Or does open access make it more difficult for schools to cultivate a community of faith that people might be able to share in?
There are also technical questions – what should this new education look like (cue people dusting off their old copies of Newman from the bookshelf)? Inevitably it will be smaller, but in what manner? Will it exist within the mainstream, or the (charitable) private? Are there the legal and legislative options available for this to happen? Could the diocese fund such a re-ordering? How shall they be run? What happens to those schools likely to feel the sharp edge of such decisions? What happens to land/buildings held in trust?
Now there are those who characterise the debate over Catholic schools as being the battle between the CESEW who wish to abolish the ‘Catholic’ and certain Bishops who wish to abolish the ‘schools’. It seems clear to me that this is absolutely not what Bishop Michael is driving toward. Quite the opposite, in fact. He is asking, with rather more focus than which we have become accustomed: ‘just what is a Catholic school?’
For those who would embrace these words as evidence of a coming Revolution, one would advise caution. These remain questions put to the laity, and we should trust that the issue remains one for discussion and not the outline of a pre-determined plan whose features and priorities are already set out. For those who would dismiss this as next week’s fish-wrap, the remarkable boldness must surely make one think again.
In short, we don’t yet know.