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02 September 2016

Back to school

Back to school

Matt Wilson helps to lead Alliance member TLG which works with churches to bring support to children who are struggling at school.  

During August there will always be at least two education-related stories in the news. The first will be the release of A-level results, followed shortly after by the release of the GCSE results. But this summer the Great Grammar School debate is hotting up again, following the revelation that our new prime minister, Theresa May, is in favour of opening new grammar schools around the nation.  

The debate divides opinion around the issue of which is the best way to educate our nation’s children. Is it best for schools to operate an admissions policy that is open to all? Or should some schools be able to select their pupils according to their ability to meet a certain academic standard at age 11? The issue often becomes emotive because of a concern about the impact of such a system upon children from poorer families, who often face significant struggles on their educational journey. This justice dimension is what makes education such a political hot potato. Whether it’s raising standards through the selective approach, or it’s the whole system ‘education, education, education’ approach of the Blair years, the debate inevitably raises questions about fairness and equality of opportunity.     

I hope that as Christians we’ll be part of the debate because we have a rich tradition and ethos of educating children, which goes right back to biblical times.  

The Shema Y’Israel prayer in the Old Testament says: 

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children” Deuteronomy 6:4-7.  

Learning to read and to write by studying the Torah was part of the early life of every Jewish child. We know that Jesus excelled in his early schooling: the Bible tells us in Luke 2 that by the age of 12 he was astounding the nation’s foremost teachers at Jerusalem University, aka the Temple Courts!  

However, we also know that Nazareth was a needy village, in the rural hills country of Galilee. Its reputation is clear from the comment made by Nathanael in John 1:46: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” 

I think we can safely conclude that Nazareth High was unlikely to be topping the regional league tables, the in-demand local grammar school! Most of the local families were just scraping by, living off the land as tenant farmers, growing crops and herding sheep and goats.  

And so we come to the parallel between first century Nazareth and 21st century Britain. School would have been a struggle for lots of kids then, just as it is today. Back then the pressure of poverty put a squeeze on family life as it still does. Some kids would fall behind in their studies due to illness – it still happens. Others would arrive unprepared on their first day and blunder on week by week never really grasping the basics. Ditto.   

Earlier this year Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, made a speech in which he said: “Educational underperformance leads directly to social alienation."  

It’s a stark warning isn’t it? I believe his words are a challenge to all of us who believe that our Christian faith places an imperative upon us to engage with the wider world and its problems. Educational failure ought to be right at the top of our social action agenda.  

This Monday will be back-to-school day for many pupils, and the first day at school for many more, so this weekend it’s understandable that our thoughts are on the children in our lives. But what about those children who don’t have anyone encouraging them in their schooling? Will we be praying for them too? Will our churches be gearing up to offer help to them and their families? I really hope we will.