A theological reflection on education with a Leeds city focus written collaboratively by Graham Brownlee, Shona Shaw and Tom Shaw.

The motto of the Queen Elizabeth High School, Hexham is “spes durat avorum” which translated means “let the hope of our ancestors endure”. This school was founded in 1599 at a time when many schools were established to provide grounding in “true religion, and instructed in learning and good manners” in the face of a dire lack of provision. Many individual Christians and churches made a crucial contribution to these schools as they sought to pass on the hope of their ancestors as a legacy for the next generation.

Around 200 years later and another initiative blossoms, with the beginnings of the Sunday School movement in the 1780s. As the Industrial revolution utilised child labour, urban poor children worked 6 days a week and faced a life of illiteracy and denuded prospects. Once again Christians were at the forefront of these endeavours for change, challenging the assumption that children were an expendable commodity.

Whilst both these movements saw the promotion of religion as key, more fundamentally they brought about transformation for society and opportunities for children. Both were an expression of the hope our ancestors had in the potency of Christian education to ensure common wellbeing, what we might term human flourishing today. Leeds benefited from both these educational initiatives.

Forward another 200 years and the 1988 Education Act stipulated that collective worship of a “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character” should be offered in all schools. This caused Christians in many cities to organise and connect their faith with schools in a new way, and here, Leeds Faith in Schools, was born.

All three reforms were born of a watershed moment in education and society. These enterprises had a broad vision – not just for one school or in one church, but to encompass all. Watershed moments are often born of crisis: an increasing pressure for change renders the status quo unsustainable. Today we venture to say that the time is ripe for Christians and the churches of Leeds to consider another watershed moment. Our children today are currently subject to three forces in their Education: competition, control and conformity. Each force can act to preserve and protect those with power, with the result that our education system distorts the truth, dismembers others and disowns responsibility. This is our crisis and one we must face today if we are to offer the hope of our ancestors to future generations.

The education narrative is dominated by talk of a knowledge economy, exam results and judging schools by league tables. These outcomes communicate only a partial truth and so distort the truth. Ofsted has left us with a legacy of school labels, ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’, being raised up on buildings and in the market place. These judgments are currently based on a narrow range of productivity outcomes. We tell our teachers and children: “the only way you can flourish is through loyalty and submission to systems that produce these outcomes,” and to our Schools “they must do what it takes to ensure an outstanding education for our children”.

In a culture that is dominated by the mantra ‘I want, I can, I will,’ the scene is set for abuses of power that separate and dismember society. Our current Education system is in danger of doing this in our schools. Only a minority can really succeed: the minority with good exam results then move onto further education, professional qualifications, and careers. They will then act to perpetuate a system that has worked for them. At the level of individual rationality, this makes sense ‘the system has served me well so if others experience the same they can have the same flourishing and fruitfulness’. Unfortunately, at the level of collective rationality, it does not. Everyone cannot succeed when the system is founded on competition. What happens to those who are left behind? A situation where the minority know flourishing and fruitfulness and the majority do not is not sustainable for a common society. Dismembering is justified by a system that perpetuates and protects the power of the privileged and also works to ensure conformity and compliance of the majority. A system that conditions people to settle for low pay, poor working conditions, and injustice.

One example of a catalyst for conformity and compliance is the policies used in many schools for ‘behaviour management’. They demand conformity through high control and extrinsic motivation. An education system should contribute to the socialisation of children, but it is harmful when a system utilises behavioural conditioning to produce a narrow range of outcomes that serve a distorted truth. The priority subtly shifts to emphasising control and conformity instead of cultivating curiosity and creativity. For example, the five year old who, after only 4 weeks in school, wants a certificate for being kind and says they don’t play with a child because he is always ‘on red’. The system starts to sort those who can confirm early and begins the process of dismembering the other. The extent of dismembering is seen clearly in a national rise of fixed-term and permanent exclusions, off-rolling, and other strategies schools use to protect and produce ‘outstanding’ outcomes.

The cost is too great. Economically the dismembered others increasingly require additional resource with pupil referral units and youth offender residential estates at capacity. Politically, people are no longer prepared to accept the distorted truth as they see the impact of a dismembered society in their own families and communities. This, however, is not the greatest challenge.

The greatest challenge is what we seem to be communicating to people who do not flourish in the system: if you do not experience flourishing the problem is you. Two examples will suffice. First, you will find it difficult to find an adult or child in the education system who has not been told that they need ‘a growth mindset’, ‘to think positively’, and that ‘anything is possible you just need to work really hard’. They are told that your academic qualifications are a passport to the next stage and that this is where success lies.  In some settings, this is called ‘character development’. All these things are, of course, true. No one in education believes that people should not develop good character. However, this is a partial truth.  When we have a system set up such that it is not possible for everyone to succeed but, at the same time, tell people that it is their responsibility to succeed, we are disowning responsibility. Secondly, people in education will repeatedly hear in school that they must be ‘responsible for their choices’. Again, a partial truth. The reality is that some people, some of the time, are not wholly responsible for their choices. The situation is far more complex and yet we continue to accept a system that encourages simplistic linear behaviour management, rather than asking what kind of system produces such behaviours. The casualties are numerous: children with unprecedented levels of anxiety and adults leaving the teaching profession in rising numbers.

The current crisis in our education system can leave us in a state of anxiety and helplessness. But how might we see this more positively, as a watershed moment that invites us to act?

Nationally, Ofsted are consulting on a revised framework to focus inspection on what children learn through the curriculum, rather than over-reliance on performance data.[1]_ The Department of Education is reporting on Exclusions and looking at systemic challenges facing Children in Need.[2] People working across the Education system are asking about how we can re-frame the relationships between children, teachers, parents and the wider community in ways that cultivate behaviour for living rather than just behaviour for learning.[3]

Our watershed moment is to find common cause with those in education to foster communities and build structures that break down isolation. St. Paul writes to the Colossians that there is hope: “the gospel, which has come to you, indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing.” Colossians 1.5-6.

For the Church exists in the complexity of peoples’ lives, the gospel is birthed in this complexity, and therefore there is an invitation to engage with hope. Each of us is invited, for we cannot exit the system, neither can we assume power over it. As we take responsibility for where we have been complicit in perpetuating the status quo we can encourage partnership rather than competition; we can be with those asking systemic questions: Who wins? Who loses? Who decides? Not as gatekeeper or judge, but as accompanier and advocate. Therefore, as we practice reconciliation over dismemberment we can be with parents and children that experience exclusion and challenge school practices that disown responsibility for repairing relationships. As we affirm the complexity of truth rather than distortion of it we can be with Headteachers who want to put relationships first and focus on equity and not equality. We can be with teachers who pursue ‘I-thou’ relationships recognising that behaviour is communication of need. We can be with adults and children as they discover their own sense of agency and create space for them to be heard.

And so, we have opportunities to develop new initiatives that work with others as an expression of our hope in current and future generations.

Graham Brownlee is Co-Minister of Moortown Baptist Church and a School Governor in Leeds.

Shona Shaw is Co-Minister of Moortown Baptist Church and the parent of two children: one in secondary school and one in primary school.

Tom Shaw teaches in a Leeds secondary school and is a member of Moortown Baptist Church

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/ofsted-launches-a-consultation-on-proposals-for-changes-to-the-education-inspection-framework


[3] For examples see 1. Cremin, H. and Bevington, T. Positive peace in schools. (London: Routledge, 2017), 2. Developing an Attachment Aware Behaviour Regulation Policy: Guidance for Brighton & Hove Schools https://www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/sites/brighton-hove.gov.uk/files/Behaviour%20Regulation%20Policy%20Guidance%20-%20Sep%2018_1.pdf

  1. Mental Health and Wellbeing: Towards a Whole School Approach https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2018-04/Mental%20Health%20and%20Wellbeing%20Guidance.pdf