RESEARCH in schools is a luxury. Budgets are squeezed, and costly research is too often the first casualty of belt-tightening. And yet few aspects of schools are more enriching than a clear, committed exploration of what we do, and why and how we do it. So, the offer of this research project into Christian ethos was too good to miss.
In the “Outstanding” SIAMS (Statutory Inspection of Anglican and Methodist Schools) report, the inspector has highlighted the way in which the school “clearly articulates an explicit Christian character”, from which stems “a confidence in giving pupils the time and space to think, question, and challenge that allows them to make up their own minds about faith”; its lively Christian ethos pervades the school, and collective worship is “of central importance to the life of the school community”.
But over the past five years, our school has experienced considerable change: new staff (including almost an entirely new English faculty) have replaced many experienced and longstanding teachers; an 18-month building project has meant the erection of a temporary mini-village of demountable classrooms; and financial constraints have forced us to review our priorities. Against this unsettling background, we wanted to know just how robust the spiritual life of the school was.
OUR researcher had barely set foot in the school for her first week-long visit when the SIAMS inspector called. An unhelpful clash? Actually, no. The researcher’s own interviews with pupils supported the inspector’s observations, and we enjoyed their joint involvement in deep and wide-ranging discussions.
The inspector recommended that we articulate our shared understanding of “spirituality”. While our mission statement clearly outlines the school’s Christian vision, we had nothing that could be called a spirituality policy.
We started with a simple definition. Spirituality, we felt, was about relationships. As a pupil grows up through secondary school, from child to young adult, the relationship with their own identity — past, present, and future — grows increasingly complex. Our “Quiet Place” (a garden designed by students under the guidance of the sculptor Jean Parker, and built by parents and the local community) gives students space and an environment conducive for quiet reflection. It is well used.
Just as emotionally charged are students’ relationships with others — peers, teachers, family, and those whom they meet online. Staff and students value and use a process, "Restorative Approaches”, which is a simple way of facing up to conflicts. Where pupils have “fallen out”, or one has been upset by another’s thoughtless words or actions, a range of questions tease out the emotions that have been stirred up, from the simple “What’s happened?” or “What were you feeling at the time?” to the more focused “Who do you think has been affected?” and “What needs to happen to put things right?”
This is a process well known in community as well as in church schools, but we find that the Christian culture gives pupils the courage to face up to what has gone wrong, and the reassurance of a way forward. It helps children to accept, understand, and forgive each other in their daily relationships.
And how do they relate to neighbourhood, nation, and the wider world, with their stresses of globalisation and the environment? Overarching all of these is the relationship with God — Maker, Sustainer, and Redeemer — and how this relationship overlaps with, informs, and influences the others.
AS STUDENTS, staff, parents, directors, and clergy worked on the policy, we realised how much of our practice in school was relational. Effective learning depends on the relationship between teacher and student, but the teacher also guides the student to work and think independently about his or her own progress.
We wanted to show how distinguishing the person (who they are, loved and accepted by God) from the ability (what they can or cannot do), frees the student from the stress of potential failure. Although only about a third of the 95 staff are practising Christians, they all could recognise that it is the belief that we are made in God’s image which gives rise to our motto: “Always our best because everyone matters.”
The Ten Leading Schools project helped us to articulate the powerful spirituality of relationships which underlies the culture of a school infused with a Christian ethos. Its research has shown us, with new eyes, what we have, and helped us to think how we can promote further a culture that gives confidence to pupils, whatever their background and abilities, so that they are, in the words of the poet David Gascoigne, “unafraid to be”.