29 May 2018 • From the Clergy
As a curate, I was on the governing body of one of the local primary schools and chaired the teaching and learning committee. We were reviewing the Year 6 SATs papers, which newly included a test on Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar (SPAG). It was the only time the deputy head ever let me near that particular paper, following my detailed rant against it, but he failed to regain control of it before I came across a question on fronted adverbials. I realised that I had no idea what a fronted adverbial was. Surely, I reasoned, if I had worked through various degrees and learned (to some extent) several foreign languages, never needing to know about fronted adverbials, this fell into the category of advanced linguistics rather than essential grammar? If my life continued quite happily in ignorance of fronted adverbials, what possible reason could ten- and eleven-year olds have to know such things? All my despair at the modern education system was condensed into outrage at this unfortunate grammatical term.
The problem with education policy today is that it is profoundly utilitarian, geared towards passing such exams and turning people into agents who can be measured by their economic productivity. There is little sense of the wider value of education, of an education which cannot be measured in exam scores but which helps to shape someone as a human being and contributes to society in far more intangible ways. The elites in Whitehall shaping policy, so many still from privileged backgrounds where money is whatmatters, fail to understand what any of the hundreds of thousands of dedicated teachers in this country can tell you at once, which is that we are dealing with individual children and students. There is no hope for any education policy which tries to ignore the enormous variety of contexts and circumstances in which education takes place.
Yet as I despair of the ineptitude of politicians, I suddenly find myself reading the piece from Christopher Whitehead A’ level students later in this magazine, and find that there is hope after all. Too often today, there is a tendency to decry the youth of this country, but their words remind us that so many children and young people are hard-working and seeking to make the most of their opportunities. There is a recognition, in what these Year 12 pupils write, of the importance of hard work to pass exams, but equally of the fact that there are other things which are as important if not more so, which leads them to broaden their horizons within school, and to volunteer for charities and seek to develop themselves in the community. It cannot be easy for a Syrian pupil to adapt to the English education system, but the one who writes for us this month speaks with grace of opportunity. The hope that comes from all this is that whatever the latest government policy says, children and numerous committed teachers continue to find ways to make education holistic, something which seeks to encourage and value every pupil for who they are, helping them to realise their own potential rather than become a productivity statistic.
Education matters, and as Christians we should take it seriously. Historically, indeed, it is one of those areas at which the Church can look with pride, for Christianity and the Church had a major role in the development of education and schools in this country. Education is not about raising people to think like us so that they can perpetuate our systems, but rather about encouraging people to be themselves and develop into individuals within human society. That may not be easy, for the ways of future generations may cast aside things we cherish, but the future is God’s, not ours. For Christianity, which proclaims the importance of vocation and human flourishing, ensuring an education system which reflects these values is surely part of living out our faith. And education is never complete; there is no one who can ever stop learning. For to love one another, we must try to understand one another, and we cannot do that without learning about one another and engaging in dialogue with one another. No exam can help with that; it is the peace and grace of God on which we must rely there.