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Schools with Soul

Schools with Soul

posted Friday 21st February 2014 by Gill Robins

The Royal Society of Arts published the first of its RSA Investigate-Ed reports this week – a series of planned investigations into key issues which aim to offer ‘new ideas for policy and practice in response to emerging evidence and changing concepts’ to ‘give policy makers, practitioners and other stakeholders structured spaces to diagnose problems and generate solutions.’ The first report, Schools with Soul is an in-depth consideration of the role of spiritual, moral, social and cultural education (SMSC) in our schools – ideals enshrined in the 1944 Education Act.

The report is well worth taking the time to read, with an outline of the history of SMSC education, the details of the investigation and its key findings and, crucially, some design principles and recommendations for a way ahead.

The central premise of the study is that the prevailing culture of measurement and attainment-driven accountability has taken the soul out of schools - an argument which has been well rehearsed in many arenas and which is now fairly widely accepted as being an accurate analysis of current education practice. This relentless drive to raise academic standards has left SMSC in a parlous state, with the sidelining of so-called ‘soft’ skills of possessing a moral compass, being able to empathise with values different from one’s own, and developing resilience and cultural capital. But in the words of American educator Stephen R. Covey, ‘We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey’, and we ignore that reality at our peril.

But while the analysis of current practice and the resulting impact is incisive, and while the nine suggested steps informing future developments are cogently presented, the thinking behind this report did present me with some interesting questions on which Christian teachers might usefully ponder. There are two key research foci:

  • ‘How can we be sure that schools across the UK prioritise the SMSC development of their students alongside their academic development?’
  • ‘How can schools and other partners be supported to influence and impact on pupils’ SMSC development?’

As a Christian, I find puzzling the idea that SMSC education can flow alongside academic education as some sort of significant tributary, rather than forming the current which directs the river itself. Surely it should be embedded in the very DNA of my teaching? Being a Christian teacher isn’t about teaching RE well, taking assembly more often or smiling a lot because I have to be nice. It’s about how I teach, rather than what I teach. It’s about embedding Christian values within whatever subject I am teaching. It’s about how I work with colleagues and the model for human flourishing which I offer to my pupils. Of course explicit teaching of SMSC has its place, but in advising teachers ‘to reflect on their pedagogical repertoire to exploit SMSC-related “teachable moments”’ is to suggest that this is just another bolt-on, rather than the foundation on which we build all that we do.

Another of the findings of the SRA suggests that ‘fear of controversy is leading to an unhelpful ‘sanitisation’ of schools’ SMSC provision’ – again, I find this puzzling. Galatians 5:22-23 tells us that the fruit of the Holy Spirit (ie the attributes of a Christian) are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self control. These values can’t cause controversy, and what’s more, as the apostle Paul points out in verse 23 ‘Against such things there is no law’ (NIV 1984).  I think this is why faith schools are so successful in creating cohesive communities – they begin with core values and allow them to oxygenate all that they teach.

If, in fear that losing teaching time will impact on standards, you have any doubt about embedding SMSC in the very DNA of what you teach, read the story of Gary Lewis, Head of Kings Langley School. He understands the need to grow pupils holistically and in doing so, the academic standards in the school have risen commensurately.

 The message, I think, is that if pupils are told about values, they might listen. If values are aspirationally modelled, pupils may conform within the school community. But when they see values being lived out daily, making a difference to the lives of real people, then there is a possibility of inner growth. There is no greater challenge to Christian teachers today than that. Do you see your pupils as ‘spiritual beings on a human journey’? If so, how can you support and encourage them as you accompany them on their journey?


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