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Interview: Bob Bowie, director of business and academic development, Canterbury Christ Church University

16 October 2015

‘We don’t know a great deal about radicalisation, but we’re rushing into action’

I’m a principal lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Canterbury Christ Church University. I lead a research group that looks into what we call “post-secular values” and the sacred in education. At the moment we have some funded research projects that are looking at British values in church schools and in Anglican universities, and how teachers make sense of faith in their professional lives.


Our Faculty of Education is one of the largest trainers of primary and secondary teachers in the country. It was the first university involved in Teach First, and currently we are part of the group working on Troops into Teaching.


The university is named after Canterbury Cathedral, Christ Church. It was an Anglican foundation — but that’s not just a historic dimension: we consider it part of our purpose to continue to be sensitive to, and interested in, the place of faith in life and society.


There is a lot of activity in schools to try to show British values, and a lot of inspectors going into schools try to spot them. Our research is relatively short-focus, so we’ll report on how they’re managing, and provide some guidance and advice locally and nationally.


There’ll probably be even more questions at the end of it, but if we can understand radicalisation processes better, we’ll understand better how to talk about them.


All organisations have values. They are shown in the way people talk to one another; the way important decisions are taken; what you say to people when someone dies, to the leavers, at moments of transition and rites of passage; and organisational change. I’m thinking about the language people use, and images in documents.


We’re rather fed up with spin after the past decade; so I’m talking metaphorically and literally about the idea of better conversations. I don’t think we can do anything sensible in values education if we don’t do that, because it will be either superficial or clumsy. I’m looking for thoughtful ways of communicating.


Our conversation around values quickly falls into a particular kind of argument at a particular moment. We’re worried about terrorism at the present; so that’s the background to any question we have. Some conversations are clinging, on the defensive, protective; others run away from values, seeing them as codifying, a heavy weight, excluding people. We could talk about them better if we were more thoughtful about our background.


We’re not very experienced about talking about our democracy, for example, or why we still have a Queen. You haven’t had to be an Anglican to be a British citizen for 200 years, which was a very liberating thing for many. We have great stories of the emancipation of slaves and the emancipation of women. In our legal system we have a defence and a prosecutor: there’s a contest — it’s not just up to an authority to decide. Perhaps we can make connections between those threads.


I’m suspicious that the word “values” can mean different sorts of thing: a hope, an aspiration, a virtue. Some talk about the Commandments; some people think it’s all about the Beatitudes. But loose talk isn’t very helpful. Sometimes Jesus broke rules and sometimes he didn’t, for very good reasons.


Anti-racism thinking, following laws changed in the ’60s and ’70s, is now embedded in school life. Teachers and schools might be reprimanded if they allowed certain sorts of behaviours. This approach has slipped into preventing extremism. The Government is going up-stream to stop problems happening at an earlier stage — that’s an aspiration.


But we don’t know a great deal about radicalisation, and why it happens. Why do certain people shift at a certain point? We haven’t got the strong evidence for this, but we’re rushing into action, though teachers are quite nervous about issues to do with religions, and racism, and balancing free speech and respect. We could make some bad mistakes if we get it wrong.


A criticism of multicultural policy now is that it didn’t stress things we share in common rather than diversity. Anglican congregations are very diverse, certainly in my village church. There are people from different denominational backgrounds, but they all feel comfortable. I’d be very worried if we presented one picture of ourselves in response to a particular worry, and started to push some people out.


Aspirations, hopes, aims, characteristics, attitudes, moral rules or principles, which are all things we loosely call values, come from encounters with each other; but we also experience them in the structures and systems we inhabit. I think that it can help for schools to think of themselves as stories. So, for example, I can think of some schools that really know how to recognise the achievement of their children, mark their departure when they finish primary school, thank and mark the dedication of staff when they leave to move on; and there are other schools that don’t know or understand the significance of these rituals, or make a hash of them, not realising that that they truly essential.


I know one school that has a prom, where the children wear hired suits and summer dresses, and some turn up in limousines. I know another school, a couple of miles from the first, that celebrates the same passage with a water fight on the field between staff and pupils, and a fair few parents. I feel that running around outside on the field and under the trees, where grown-ups step back into childhood to be close to them, is perhaps better than children stepping up into adult culture with expensive clothes and Americanesque celebrations.


Head teachers matter for all sorts of reasons. The good leadership thing permeates every aspect of school life, and every problem has to be addressed by good leadership.


I don’t know if church schools value British values more or less than others schools. I do think that schools are under incredible pressure to conform to a particularly utilitarian concept of education that wrongly reconstructs our 12 or so years of compulsory schooling into some sort of preparation for national productivity.


It’s a real battle for schools to resist this powerful economic philosophy.Church schools can, should, and must draw on their distinctive Christian dimension to present a more comprehensive educational vision, grounded in the Bible, which doesn’t avoid practicalities of life, but which also reaches into all the corners of the mystery of the human person, the mystery of the world around us, and the mystery of God.


I’m not sure I remember my very first experience of God. Like many people I had many religious experiences in my teens, and every time I went on retreat, spent time in silence, or experienced one of those imaginative methods of entering into Bible stories, I would hear a call, a voice.


My family education was focused on my immediate family, Mum and Dad, my older brother, and younger sister.


I had a rough-and-tumble experience of north-London schooling, in a diverse Roman Catholic school where children from all over the Catholic world gathered together. I had some wonderful teachers, human beings who opened my mind to possibilities; but it was hard at times. A tough boys’ school.


My mother taught me to make prayer a daily part of life, and she taught me to challenge authority when it was wrong — even if it wore a dog collar. My father taught me that there were some things you couldn’t change: knowing what they are and learning to work round them is a skill for life.


Then there was Fr Andrew Cameron Mowatt SJ, my English teacher and form tutor of old, who introduced me to Ignatian spirituality, and the power of God to work in the imagination; Frère Roger of Taizé, who opened up the spiritual possibilities of silence and the possibility of community life and simplicity; and Isaac Asimov, who set me off on a journey into a love of science fiction.


I’m happiest sitting round the table retelling old family stories, especially at Christmas.


It was probably the Government’s policy on education that last made me angry. Don’t get me started.


I tend not to pray for things. I pray to be close to God, to feel his presence, his will. I reach out when all hope is lost. I try to empty myself so as to sense his pulse in the uni- verse, and lose myself in his love. Mainly this is an adventure into silence.


If I was locked in a church for a few hours, I’d would choose to be with a good storyteller: Bernard Cornwell, John Grisham, or Terry Pratchett.


Dr Bowie was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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