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The Ordinary Teacher

There is a paradox in contemporary education. It concerns teachers, who have been simultaneously raised to the status of luminary and relegated to position of functionary. There has arisen the fad of the celebrity teacher, and the odd belief that the future of children depends almost exclusively on the pedagogical decisions we make in the classroom – yet we stand meekly by whilst the technocratic and bureaucratic swamp through which we wade strips away our autonomy and authority.
It is incredibly easy to play the piety card in education: to be ‘passionate’ about school improvement, ‘committed’ to raising achievement, ‘making no apology’ for doing ‘whatever it takes’ to ensure that all teachers are ‘outstanding’. And it has become increasingly apparent that this managerial framework rubs along with a model of the teacher who is young, transient, professionalised, with slick suits and few commitments beyond the walls of the classroom, clutching research papers and quoting Edujargon.
And I am sure those who fit this profile make excellent teachers.
But here’s the thing: most teachers are not like that. And many that are can cease to be.
Perhaps, then, we need to talk a little more honestly about teachers, about who they are and how they manage to be. Indeed, whilst it might lack a certain political magnetism in saying so, perhaps what we need is to be grateful for the ordinary teacher – those who grind it out, who are sometimes outstanding, sometimes poor, but who the majority of the time somewhere in between, turning up day after day because they have an emotional commitment to the job and those who sit in front of them each day.
They might not always be brilliant – but they’re (nearly) always there. They might not always inspire – but they (nearly) always teach. They might not always succeed – but they (nearly) always try.
It might not make a wall display of inspirational quotes, but our kids depend on it nonetheless.
It has become de rigueur to think we improve teaching by focusing on getting the recalcitrant to read more journals and use more peer feedback. But it might be that what really makes that teacher tick is those family commitments your new marking policy has seriously impinged upon, or those inspirational educational visits your bureaucracy has stifled, or that freedom to explore that your new assessment plan has inhibited.
And in truth, it is just as much these kind of teachers the system depends upon. We might well swoon for the celebrity teacher with their educational equivalent of the Lamborghinis and yacht trips around the Aegean. But in the end, it is the humble teachers quietly tending to their own plots on the outer reaches of educational suburbia upon whom the system really depends. And to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude. In our finer moments, we might all see ourselves as Aragorn, fearlessly blazing a trail whilst EduOrcs fall at our feet – but in truth, most of the time, the majority of us are but humble Hobbits.
And that’s fine. We don’t all have to be trailblazers. In fact, it is a pretty good job the majority are not. Only chaos would result. Changing the world might well be a noble pursuit – but it might also be the mere indulgence of pride.
So before the new academic year starts in earnest, three cheers are due for the ordinary teacher, which most of us are, most of the time. And which is part of what makes us great. We should not be afraid to embrace that. After all, improving that system in which we wade might just depend on it. 

Teacher Workload: a Question of Meaning?

One thing the holidays brings to bear is the extent to which the intensity of our job can turn us into Jekyll and Hyde characters, with our term-time selves often a poor reflection of the person we are and aim to be during our holidays. Whilst we focus so intently on our intended goals during term-time, often to the exclusion of all else, the holidays bring with them the opportunity to do those really small things, but also really vital things, which are often sidelined during the sheer toil of term-time: reading a book; spending time in the garden; visiting an old church or castle; visiting the theatre; spending time playing games with the children; writing; exploring the places where we live.


In other words, the holidays offer a chance to reconnect. It only takes a couple of days, but after a while, you begin to feel human again.
Which brings into sharp relief the other side of that particular coin, that being how it can feel during term-time. Because oftentimes we are pale shadows of our true selves. We become, in many ways, zombies – fixated on the immediate and short-term demands of the job, we become numb to the outside world, and the meaning and value therein. Those things that define us, that add beauty and worth to our lives, that constitute our understanding of the Good Life, are effectively suspended, save for those snatched moments where we find a way to assert them, perhaps through a renegade ‘off-topic’ lesson or perhaps an after-school club.


But this is rarely the norm. Even where our ‘outside interests’ (an odd concept in education) lie squarely within the theoretical realms of the subjects we teach. And it leads to an obvious observation: is this really best for the education of our children?


To this end, one wonders if there are insights here to help explain why workload is such an issue in teaching: could it actually be about the zombified life our job leads us toward? When so much of what we do is unrelated to where our skills or passions lie, being things in which we find little value, but the completion of which become the defining characteristic of our jobs, then could this sense of endless value-less tasks be the problem, especially when they are simultaneously obstacles to us using those same hours, and that same energy, doing those things which we really think are of value?

 In a recent book of essays entitled ‘Blue Labour’, Ruth Yeoman explores the concept of meaningfulness in work. The essay is rich and nuanced and I could not hope to do it justice here. Nonetheless, as part of setting out her argument for the importance of meaningful work, Yeoman puts her finger on something important:

‘the ideal of meaningful work, of activity which aims at worthwhile purposes, uses the full range of a person’s distinctive capabilities, and commands our emotional engagement retains a strong hold upon our imagination, motivating us to seek work which adds to the personal meaning of our lives – and even to aspire to a society transformed by each person being able to do work which he or she finds to be worth doing.’

This meaningfulness, or meaning-making, is vital for identity, but also our worth and even our health – indeed for Yeoman, this makes it a legitimate area for public, and thereby political, concern. To press home the point, Yeoman explores ways in which we react when meaningfulness is absent from our work:

‘When we work, we are not motivated purely by external goods, such as pay or profit – we act also out of a fundamental need for living a worthwhile life. In the absence of a politics of meaningfulness, people will seek some outlet for their frustrated will to meaning: for example, denied the experience of autonomy, workers will invent simulations of self-determination in the form of games, or even make deliberate mistakes.’

 Of course this links with the old adage that teaching is more of a vocation than a profession – something which recent reforms seem to have been designed to undermine – but the teaching equivalent of rebelling and attempting to re-insert meaning might lie in those occasional renegade lessons cited above, or perhaps in the subversive practices undertaken against SLT/OFSTED instruction in a bid to retain an element of identity and fidelity to our particular visions of what is meaningful in the classroom and our philosophies of how we go about pursuing it.

 To illustrate this point, Yeoman recounts the story of a factory line worker who, in an attempt to assert some sort of agency, some sort of value-making, into the monotony and low-control nature of their job, said the following : ‘Yes, I want my signature on ’em too. Sometimes, out of pure meanness, when I make something, I put a little dent in it. I like to do something to make it really unique. Hit it with a hammer. I deliberately [ . . . ] it up to see if it’ll get by, just so I can say I did it’. 

 Yeoman describes this as a need, that of ‘expressive self-determination’, though the term can happily be applied in education.

Or can it? To the outside world, it would surely seem odd to do so. Surely, education is a sea of precisely this meaning and value-making, this free agency? 

And yet, we know that very often it’s not. And we also know that it is a struggle to recruit enough teachers to keep up with the demand created by our poor retention rates. Workload is of course the most often cited reason for people leaving the profession, and so the crie de coeur has been getting teachers to do less, which is all very good and important. 


But I wonder if there is another aspect.
Perhaps this concept of meaningfulness, of value-making, offers another explanation, linking with the increased anxieties which have accompanied the bureaucratisation of teaching: the ways in which our potential contribution is squandered, our skills and knowledge under-used, as we slide toward zombie status, assiduously delivering processes – we deliver a curriculum and pore over the attendant data, with little time for deviation or dissent, and in so doing restrict both our students, but also ourselves, from the wider meaningfulness that generates value in our work and in our lives.

Instinctively, our job feels like it should consist of bringing the best of the outside world into the classroom, turning our students’ eyes and imagination toward (to employ the cliché) the ‘best of what has been thought and written.’ Yet if that is our goal, how many of us can truly say that that is what we do? And that that is what we feel we are given the opportunity to do? The vast majority of what I find to be important and valuable about the world struggles to find space in my classroom: I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Most of what teachers could offer students – those things that constitute our knowledge, our expertise, our interests and even our networks – are crowded out, so that the teaching moment is less one of flourishing or transferring wisdom and knowledge, and more one of delivering a process in which we are more distributor of product. And in places, the product is low value (I think here of widespread concerns amongst teachers as to the interest or rigour of their exam board qualifications), adding further to the meaning deficit.  

Or as I have written in the past, when reflecting on workload and the fashion for breeding teachers with a single-minded commitment to teaching and nothing else:

To pull the lens out a bit, workload issues, and the current fashion for teachers with a single-minded dedication to teaching, has meant that having outside interests is increasingly a luxury many cannot afford. It has become the norm to allow teaching to trump all other commitments one might have or wish to have.  Whilst such frenzied dedication might seem, on the face of it, to be A Good Thing, something essential is nonetheless lost: the ability of the teacher to bring the outside world into the classroom; to sniff out external opportunities for students that they might never come across whilst cloistered away in the teaching community; to develop their own knowledge through the pursuit of private interests and in so doing, become better teachers. On a personal level, opportunities that I could (and did) provide when I first entered teaching have disappeared with those networks which fell by the wayside precisely because of the all-consuming nature of the job – is this better?

As a result, teachers are perhaps most at danger of becoming passive in the classroom, even whilst we are a non-stop blur of activity – our only space to be expansive lies in the endless and largely fringe debates on pedagogy, or occasional tweaks to schemes of work (though still directed to examination demands), or experimentation with the manner in which we deliver our fayre. Whilst this issue of meaningfulness might ultimately sound indulgent, it must be remembered that the issue is not solely about the well-being of the teacher, but the quality of the education that it invariably delivers – if teachers are persistently demoralised and demotivated, we can reasonably assume their performance will be less than effective.

I’m not saying this is entirely avoidable – uniform public examinations systems will always tend toward this, and I’m not sure there is an alternative to uniform public examinations – but it might help explain why we have become so bogged down by that phrase ‘workload’. After all, workload need not be a decisive, career/health defining issue, even if in teaching it seems to be. Lots of professions have serious workload commitments – few have the retention problems that teaching has. And whilst studies show that control and self-agency can be useful determiners in improving resilience in the face of workload problems, one wonders if this concept of meaningfulness is also a vital component. 

 So what is the answer? Well, in the first instance I think reminding ourselves of what we do and why we do it, regularly, is an essential first-step – the impact of having an inspirational leader or speaker who can remind you of these things cannot be understated. Secondly, reconnecting with meaningfulness in our own lives, and trying to smuggle as much of it as possible into the classroom, also seems an obvious step, which might mean putting the teaching books down for a bit and spreading our intellectual, social and cultural nets a bit wider. Lastly, Yeoman offers numerous suggestions, though the process of collective meaning-making appears to be vital, both allowing space for self-expression and an element of self-agency, which would seem to suggest that some element of collaborative decision-making is vital.

But, spreading things out more widely, the question becomes how we keep hold of that which can become drained from us the minute we walk back through the school doors? I would be interested to know how others manage, or what potential strategies might realistically be employed to preserve a sense of value and meaningfulness in the everyday grind of being a teacher.

The (we’re not in) London Effect

Not so very long ago the OFSTED hordes descended upon Cumbria, appearing shortly after Michael Gove had made a speech saying many of our schools were failing. Unsurprisingly, OFSTED duly came along and decided that many of our schools were failing. In something that felt more like the Visitations (with many schools being placed in academy status to boot), we were told that for all we were doing, we were not doing enough, or at the very least not doing it well enough.
Fair enough. I’m sure the same is true in every school. And you’ll not find too many teachers or leaders opposed to the idea that we could do better. And in the 18 months or so that have passed since, those schools that came through that wave of inspections have been working hard to do what OFSTED have deemed they should do in order to become more like the kind of schools OFSTED have deemed they should be.
But something grated. And it grates still. Perhaps it was the impression the whole event gave of being politically motivated, with judgments already decided upon before any inspector had so much as purchased their train ticket and made their way to the Glorious North. Perhaps it was the sense that our interrogators knew little of the battle which we fight, and cared less about it either. Or perhaps it was the high-handed hand-wringing, in politics in general, but with OFSTED in particular, heralded as we are with pious appeals to what children deserve, to what we owe to the kids in our schools, to what all parents have a right to demand – as if we rustics were ignorant of such moral imperatives and simply needed educating in the ways of the virtuous.
And of course all of this was, and still is, given the seal of authenticity by the achievements of a certain Mr Wilshaw, he who talked the talk and walked the walk, and other standout examples intended to demonstrate just how achievable transformation is if we could just get better at our jobs and stop failing children with our low expectations. After all, it worked at Mossbourne Community Academy, didn’t it? And Lord knows he’s dined out well on that one.
And yet one thought, time and again, presents itself: could he have done it in Millom? Or Clacton? Or Rhyl?
And do you know, I’m not so sure he could. Or at least, if he did, then he wouldn’t have done it in quite the same way. I’m not arguing that Wilshaw didn’t have a very difficult job in Hackney, or that he did not achieve astonishing success in turning things round – but he also enjoyed some crucial natural advantages, which other places do not have.
As such, packaging this success up as a morality tale simply to be exported to the regions smacks of an ignorance and imperialism which simply assumes that if the natives emulate their betters then we’ll soon be able to fit that square peg into its round hole. Yet the challenges faced are different; this means the solutions must be different too. To claim otherwise is the equivalent of telling Leicester City that all they need to do to win the Premier League next year is copy what Chelsea did, before deducting points from them when they fail to do so – resources, facilities, investment, infrastructure and personnel be damned.
What are these natural advantages? Well, they’re varied and variable. Some places will experience them more acutely than others. And one need hardly point out that of course there are certain advantages enjoyed which London schools do not have. Still, in general terms, there are five key advantages which, one can hope, might inform discussion about the success of London schools, and understanding of why we in the regions might have a different set of challenges to overcome.
Recruitment – apparently all you have to do to improve schools is employ better staff. Which is fine and dandy if you have a large pool to choose from, but more of a problem when recruiting any staff at all is a challenge. There are plenty of schools in many regions that simply do not have the kind of recruitment pools available in the bigger cities, and London in particular with its huge graduate population. Indeed, in many regions there is not much of a graduate population at all, and for a kid to even get a degree they may have to leave the area, meaning recruitment generally relies on inward migration. And since some places struggle a bit on the ‘pull factors’, merrily asserting that they should simply bring in a better calibre of people is less than helpful.
Demographics – We are regularly told that immigrant children tend to be good for school progress, largely because of the ‘higher pupil aspiration, ambition and engagement among migrants’ . We are also regularly told that the white working-class are the real underachievers in schools today, and boys in particular ‘are not making the same progress that pupils from most ethnic minority groups are making’. Well, if that’s the case, then it might be worth keeping in mind the added challenges faced by schools, especially in old industrial towns, in which the vast majority of the population is British White and/or working class. Such as Whitehaven (96.3%), or Easington (96.86%), Barnsley (95.1%) or Merthyr (95.33%).
Funding – Yes, I know, funding is calculated according to needs-based criteria to ensure they are robust and fair and yada yada. Well, it’s not working. And so, just as other seemingly fair distribution criteria have been looked at with newly critical eyes (for example in housing allocation) and been found wanting, we need the same for school funding. An example? Look at the map below*:

Now, bear in mind that in 2014/15, eight of the top ten highest funded (per head) authorities were in that Inner London region: Tower Hamlets (£7,014.38), Hackney (£6,680.05), Lambeth (£6,384.03), Hammersmith and Fulham (£6,248.47), Islington (£6,229.3), Camden (£6,205.29), Southwark (£6,123.79), and Greenwich (£6,005.70).

Compare that with, say, Bodmin (£4,396.58), Stockton-on-Tees (£4,486.55), Grimsby (£4,545.73), Barrow (£4,448.63), St Helens (£4,463.14), Rotherham (£4,844.16), and Blackpool (£4,458.91).
Yes, I know, expenses are higher, not least staff costs, though it should also be noted that pay scale differentiation for Inner London is lower in proportion than the extra per head funding London receives. Equally, I know there are explanations such as deprivation indicators, EAL and the like (as I said, I get the funding formulae have a rational methodology), but this does not cost in the boon from these communities either. The point is the current funding system has worked for London, and congratulations are rightly due – but it hasn’t worked for the rest of us.
Resources and facilities – in some places, taking students to the theatre or to a decent museum means time spent on coach or train, with resulting travel costs few departments can afford and many students are unwilling to pay. As such, when they do happen, they tend to be set-piece yearly events, open only to a relatively small number of students, trying to cram as much as possible into a one or two day slot. In other places, however, these kind of opportunities are on the doorstep. For free. Every, single, day. And as it goes with theatres and museums, then so also for galleries, opera and various important national and international cultural events. This is important, in the sense that the milieu in which children are educated is important – simply having the opportunity to sample the finest cultural experiences is a crucial benefit, yet something which many schools struggle to access. If social capital is as important as everybody has recognised it is, then there is a real inequality between the metropolitan hubs and the outlying regions regarding access to the accumulation of it – and this is not irrelevant.
Culture – Tough one to explain this. In the bigger cities, and in particular London, there is a vibrancy and a buzz which permeates the culture of the city. Wherever you are, you’re always just around the corner from the manifestation of a high-achieving, successful, dynamic culture. Seeing people in suits is not unusual; witnessing young people, of all backgrounds and cultures, being successful not at all uncommon. Now I’m not denying there is a cocoon effect into which kids in some areas can be drawn which isolates them from the positive impact of the wider London success story, any more than I am saying that beyond London there is nothing but the dreary and the drab (as a proud Northerner I would contest that vigorously) – but what I am saying that if we want to model success to our kids, to help make them realise what they can achieve, then the big cities, and London in particular, provide ample opportunity for that. There may well indeed be Two Nations in London, with economic inequality meaning that the lives of the successful can be seen as entirely alien to children in London’s toughest schools, but there is nonetheless also a cultural and social vibrancy, a dynamic locale, which is lost to many old industrial towns, still managing the effects of their decline. This impacts on children – their expectations, their normative frames of reference, even their basic access to social variety and difference. And this is the upside of prosperity and living in a city that is thriving.
I should add, as a final disclaimer, that none of this is intended to defend the status-quo, so if any are inclined to use this as an opportunity for a bit of public virtue-signalling then please do so in the knowledge that you are a bore. It is not excuse-making. It is pointing out lived realities in an effort to make people think about how we might address them, in a manner more effective than writing Terribly Earnest Blogposts implying that if only folk cared about kids a little bit more we’d make more progress. Because making progress is what we should all be about. And sometimes it might need something more nuanced, and more imaginative, than simply telling us we should be more like London.

The Pro-Life Life – and Carlisle Election Candidates

Last weekend and this weekend, every church in Carlisle (so far as I’m aware) had leaflets handed out detailing the responses of the Tory and Labour candidates on two questions regarding pro-life issues. The questions focused on two issues deemed to be particularly pressing with regards to legislation, or the likelihood thereof. The details of the responses by the five main candidates to these questions are below (I confess I do not know if the independent candidate, Alfred Okam, received the chance to respond to these questions – if you’re reading this Alfred, I’m happy to update the post to include your views).
Personally, I find these pre-election exercises important and frustrating in equal measure – important, because they usefully outline candidates’ views on what ought to be our ‘red lines’, though frustrating because they often display a narrow focus. On a local level, with an individual co-ordinating responses at their own expense and time, this is logistical reality, and a great many thanks are owed to those who perform this service for their fellow churchgoers in Carlisle or anywhere else. Yet, to make a broader point, we must also be wary of reducing the pro-life vision down to a clutch of ‘yes or no’ questions, in isolation from the broader coherence and beauty of the pro-life vision – see the SPUC voting guide here for an example. This frustrates because it sells short – like explaining the depths of love by putting on a Hollywood RomCom. 
This, of course, impacts on the questions asked, even the questions deemed legitimate, and one often finds a lack of recognition that the pro-life agenda encompasses the economic too, so that social justice is a legitimate item for discernment under the pro-life banner. Whereas it has become commonplace for people to question how orthodox Catholics can remain part of the Labour Party (an issue I addressed in the Catholic Herald here), nonetheless one might be inclined to suggest that those Catholics who dismiss issues relating to a pro-life economy and the welfare state are putting their politics before their faith every bit as much as those whom they accuse of doing the same. One can accept that there is an issue of degree here, and there is a hierarchy of importance – but we must at least allow the idea that some cast their nets wider and consider issues that exist further down that hierarchy. After all, our narrative is broad and wide – if responses to immigration encompasses watching poor immigrants drown in the Mediterranean, is that a pro-life issue? If responses to austerity involve limiting child welfare to two children (one can only wonder what that will do for the abortion rate), is that a pro-life issue?
Which brings us back to the specific. On the day these leaflets were given out, one young-ish Mass-goer explained to me that he was a Labour man, but that he could not vote for the current Labour candidate after reading her responses to the questions asked. I’m sure he won’t be alone in thinking that. And, as a Labour supporter myself, it does present a problem. We have a candidate that would not represent our views on these matters, standing against a Tory candidate who has (on these particular issues – though not on issues of, say, welfare, or immigration, or the economy). It is no secret that Labour’s hold over the ‘Catholic vote’ (loosely termed) is on the wane (see here) – the results of this brief survey point toward to just one of the wider reasons why that might be.
All of which means that, for some, the pen might linger longer over the ballot paper than it might otherwise have done. Whereas, from a party perspective, left-leaning Catholics might hope this does not translate to more Tory votes, nonetheless could we really blame those who find it difficult weighing their commitment to social justice, and the pro-life narrative it encompasses, against their pro-life commitment on the more explicit issues of euthanasia or abortion? Come voting day, Catholics must make their own decision according to their conscience – they, we, believe we answer to a higher power than just the temporal.
Catholics will not find a party that neatly encompasses and manifests our unique vision of the Good Life – there will always be a reason not to vote for someone.  Catholics, like everyone else, are seeking a ‘best-fit’ party. Whichever way the vote goes come May 7th, we should continue to work ceaselessly for a genuinely pro-life society, in all its richness and beauty, touching every aspect of life and the way we, as a society, choose to value it.
Anyway, the two questions asked, and the responses from each of the five main candidates, are below (note: I have edited out more generalised comments and included the specific responses to the questions asked) :
I would be most grateful if you could let me know your views on, and likely support for:
1) Any proposal to introduce “assisted dying”, (as recently promoted by Lord Falconer, for instance).

Labour – Lee Sherriff (@MissLeeCarlisle)
[These answers were given via a meeting and the detail provided is from the questioner] Ms. Sherriff said that in principle she is not against allowing the medical profession to actively assist in the death of a patient, but that there should be safeguards. She is not fully acquainted with the details of Lord Falconer’s Bill, but would support it.

Conservative – John Stevenson (@John4Carlisle)
In response to your questions, if I am re-elected as MP for Carlisle I would vote against Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill. The question of assisted dying is an incredibly morally complex one, but I believe that such a change in legislation, even with safeguards, would be a dangerous step too far. I believe this particularly in respect to the elderly and vulnerable in our society.

Lib Dem – Loraine Birchall (@LoraineBirchall)
My belief about assisted dying is that it should be allowed, but only with extensive legal and medical safeguards to ensure that this is the genuine wish of the individual involved.    
Green – Helen Davison (@HelenDavison1)
With regard assisted dying, as I understand it from looking at Lord Falconer’s proposed bill it is talking about physicians being able to prescribe medication for an individual to self-administer and only to someone who has been assessed as being terminally ill and able to make a mentally competent decision (so not clouded by a treatable condition such as depression). I understand too that it is different from assisted suicide (for people who have chronic conditions or disabilities who are not dying) and voluntary euthanasia (where the doctor administers the medication to the individual). The draft bill sets out strict regulations under which it would occur and also ongoing monitoring of it by the Chief Medical Officer.  In theory I am not against this. If someone has reached that point towards the end of their life that they really cannot bear the suffering they are under and palliative care is not alleviating their symptoms I would like them to have the opportunity to make that choice. However, as I understand it the BMA remain against it and I would want to understand their reasons for that before saying yes to it. I would also want to be sure that it was not open to abuse and that, within our healthcare set up as it is that it would work. This again leads back to the need for a better funded adequately-staffed health service which the Green party is fighting for.
UKIP – Fiona Mills (@FionaMillsUKIP)
For ‘assisted dying,’ I would need to be convinced that there were robust safeguards in place so that there could be no instances of coercion or foul play. 
 2)    Any proposal to reduce the time limit for medical abortions below the current norm of 24 weeks

Labour – Lee Sherriff (@MissLeeCarlisle)
Ms Sherriff said that she had always been a strong supporter of Women’s Rights, and appreciated the difficulties women faced. She felt the critical issue was viability of a foetus outside the womb and would not support any reduction in the current time limit.

Conservative – John Stevenson (@John4Carlisle)
In regards to the issue of time limits for abortion, I do support a reduction in the current limit. It is my view that we should be in line with other European countries who have shorter time limits. I would vote accordingly in Parliament.
Lib Dem – Loraine Birchall (@LoraineBirchall)
As for your second question, there have been a variety of debates since the law was changed to reduce the time limit from 28 to 24 weeks and discussions are still ongoing regarding dropping the time limit to 22 weeks.     I do believe women should have the choice but I’d like to know more about the impact of reducing the time limit before making my decision and have asked for more information on this subject.

Green – Helen Davison (@HelenDavison1)
With regard to reducing the age limit for abortions from 24 weeks. Firstly I think it is important to recognise that abortion is not something that women undertake lightly. It is a huge decision to make. Much as I personally feel uncomfortable that foetuses are aborted, I would not want us to go back to a situation where people feel compelled to use back-street abortions, with the inherent health risks to the mothers. And so it remains important that it is available to women in a safe environment. I assume there were good reasons as to why the limit was set at 24 weeks originally and would want to see good evidence as to why it should now be reduced before doing so. I am aware that some women do not discover until the 20 week scan that there are abnormalities with their baby and they need the time to make the right decision for themselves. 
I think in the wider societal context we should be doing more to reduce the need for abortions in the first place and Green Party policy would support this happening. Counselling should be offered to every woman considering an abortion. We would seek to significantly improve sex and relationship education at schools with appropriate education about the consequences of sexual activities at an age before they are likely to become sexually active, alongside providing young people with parenting skills, so they may feel more able to deal with pregnancy should it happen. We would want to ensure adequate provision of free family planning advice by properly trained health workers and counsellors. Our policy is also to ensure adequate financial and social support for parents, particularly lone parents and those with disabled children, so that women do not feel pressure to terminate a pregnancy purely because they would be unable to make financial ends meet.
UKIP – Fiona Mills (@FionaMillsUKIP)

Regarding the 24 week time limit for abortions, I would be supportive of reducing that limit.

Porta Fidei – or, What the Cool Kids Are Doing on June 27th

Michaelmas term, dark night, deluge outside, beer in hand, sparsely lit back room of a quiet provincial pub – a school chaplain and an RE teacher plot.

Or at least, that’s how I’d write it if this were a (clearly scintillating) Hollywood plot line. Alas, it’s not, and so I suppose I ought to lay out the banal reality – we (Fr Millar, our school chaplain, and I) decided one night in the Autumn term that it would be great to organise a conference in Carlisle, roughly equidistant between so many important centres of Catholic thought and practice, to facilitate a discussion about the Catholic education sector and, to pilfer a book title from the venerable Will Hutton, The State We’re In.

Well, I’m delighted that, thanks to the personal kindness and commitment of so many who were willing to support the event, even at personal cost, that original idea has now borne fruit.

As such, we hope to bring together a range of voices for an honest discussion of what life is like in our schools, to identify our successes, to assess the obstacles before us, to explore what we can realistically do to confront the challenges we face, and to sketch out what the future might hold for us. This means academics, but also school leaders, diocesan education officers, governors, parents, those involved in politics and policy, and, of course, teachers – the thinking goes that these groups too infrequently get chance to come together to thrash out ideas and discuss solutions, and none of us benefit from this.

It should be said that there is no editorial line and the day is an honest attempt to facilitate discussion in an atmosphere of collegiality and friendship – under the recognition that we are all seeking to walk the same path and deliver for our students the best education we can provide. If you have a view at all then you already meet the qualification criteria – come along!

As such, the intended audience is… well anyone with an interest of faith schooling, really.  Whilst the conference will hopefully prove to be of interest to leaders and aspiring leaders in the Catholic education sector, we hope there will also be enough to entice anybody interested in the broader principles at stake as the faith school sector seeks to faithfully live out its mission in rapidly changing socio-political contexts.

The format will consist of two keynote papers and four seminar sessions (and food, obviously. Mustn’t forget the food). The keynote papers will be broad-based reflections focusing on, firstly, the challenge contemporary liberalism presents to the Catholic vision of education and, secondly, what Catholicity means in the context of Catholic institutions and how we might look to both preserve (and expound?) that identity and ethos. The four seminar sessions – two in the morning and two in the afternoon – will comprise of two papers presented for informal discussion and are entitled: What makes a Catholic school Catholic?; Faith and Leadership; Challenges at the Chalkface; If not this, then what? [Alternative models of Catholic education]

We have a variety of speakers – from academia and school leaders, to teachers and public policy experts – presenting papers on themes as diverse as the formation of Catholic teachers, the unique vision of Catholic education, and the challenge of teaching RE in a post-Christian, pluralist society. 

The event is organised in association with the Diocese of Lancaster Education Service and the current speaker list is below.

Bishop Michael Campbell (Diocese of Lancaster)
Professor Robert Davis (University of Glasgow)
Professor James Arthur (University of Birmingham)
Dr. Ros Stuart-Buttle (Liverpool Hope University)
Dr. Adrian Pabst (University of Kent)
Dr. Phillip Blond (ResPublica)
Dom Antony Sutch (Downside)
Charlotte Vardy (Candle Conferences)
Mary Clarkson (Labour councillor, Catholic voices, Chair of Governors)
Andy Lewis (RE teacher, Head of Year, Brentwood Diocese)
Mr Stephen Tierney (Executive Director of MAT – Christ the King, St. Cuthbert’s and St. Mary’s Catholic academies) 

The event will commence at 10:00am, with lunch and refreshments provided throughout the day. Tickets are priced at £25 and all leftover funds will be donated to Mary’s Meals

And why Porta Fidei? Well, for the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI issued an Apostolic Letter entitled ‘Porta Fidei’, meaning ‘door of faith.’ It was a reflection on Acts 14:27, and at the start of his letter Pope Benedict reflects: ‘It is possible to cross that threshold when the word of God is proclaimed and the heart allows itself to be shaped by transforming grace. To enter through that door is to set out on a journey that lasts a lifetime.’ Perhaps in those words, in that imagery, we see already a model of what a Catholic school is called to be, and indeed to do.

If you would like to attend then you can book your tickets here: Porta Fidei

If there are any questions or inquiries regarding the event, please do contact me using the contact link within the Porta Fidei ticket page above. 

Blue Labour

I wrote a while back that Labour really needed Blue Labour in order to ‘get back in the game’. The phrase came from an interview with a Labour MP who, talking on Labour’s prospects in the North, had said that when he goes into pubs and clubs of his constituency all talk is about UKIP and Labour are not even in the game.
Which one might find odd, considering clichés about Labour’s strongholds. But then we had confirmation of much the same yesterday, with an ostensibly working-class (and certainly Northern) male, talking with Ed Miliband and recounting a conversation he recently had in his local, noting that talk was of turning away from Labour and backing UKIP.
One thing we must get straight: UKIP is not the problem for Labour. No, as things stand, Labour is the problem for Labour. Which, on the plus side, means that the answer to the problem is Labour too. Not as the assertion that we’re right and everyone else is wrong, but in the recognition that our tradition is right and that to exclude huge swathes of those who authentically articulate it has been terribly wrong.
Nonetheless, the (selection) arteries are clogged up, and seeking to move toward diversity – the genuine sort – will need concerted action from the centre. But to do so, to take such drastic action, requires first the articulation of this long excluded voice, to provide an infrastructure of thought and expression that can proclaim the Labour vision in a concrete and compelling way. Without that, there is only nostalgic sighs and apathetic shrugs.
Which is perhaps what the Blue Labour collection of essays, due out next Friday, could be – the flesh on the bones of a movement that currently exists as the echo of a nearly-forgotten tradition, that yet contains within it a rich seam of thought, with the potential to address in new ways those anxieties that are the mark of contemporary times.
To declare an interest, I have a chapter in the book, but don’t let that put you off – there are plenty of impressive voices in there too, from a range of backgrounds (Rowan Williams, Ruth Davis, Maurice Glasman, Arnie Graf, Rowenna Davis, Frank Field and Tom Watson to name but a few)
Labour really needs to get back in the game – particularly in those places it has long thought impregnable. Even if Blue Labour is not the entire solution, it can certainly help us better understand the problem. And that is in all our best interests.