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Education books: From first to last

24 September 2021

Dennis Richards reviews the latest education books

More covers in the gallery

More covers in the gallery

HATS off to our old friends at Grove Books, indefatigable publishers of affordable, up-to-date research material, and now in these pandemic times, clearly indomitable as well. Their familiar strapline has never seemed so appropriate: “Not the last word . . . but often the first.”

On this occasion, they deserve both. Two features of the booklet Engaging the Student Voice: Creative liturgical design in schools, by Edward Thornley, will recommend themselves to teachers who are facing yet another uncertain year ahead — especially teachers in church schools, whose responsibility it is to attempt “to make worship meaningful to increasingly diverse congregations”.

From the outset, the author sets an encouragingly humorous and self-deprecatory tone. He has no illusions as to the magnitude of the challenge; so much so that he gives us a quote which we can all treasure in these strange times: “You’ll never know what a difference you made just by showing up.” I guess head teachers are feeling much like that if they have a full complement of staff this month.

It is easy for the system to lose sight of the fact that new teachers have entered the profession during the pandemic, and more will continue to do so against a backdrop of the most disrupted period in education since the Second World War. These new trainees will need to be inducted into the profession with different texts to hand. Educating Tomorrow: Learning for the post-pandemic world fits the bill perfectly.

The significant value of the authors’ approach is that the past is not ignored. There is a brilliant summary of educational advances in general, from Ancient Greece through to our own age of accountability — all in less than three pages. Another chapter summarises the position in Britain; then comes the “tomorrow” part of the authors’ thinking. In short, they are asking the reader to explore what a post-Covid “blank-slate” education could look like.

It will not be the last such volume, but it constitutes an excellent starting-point. Although not written from a faith standpoint, there is much here in their concluding manifesto to excite Christian educators. What seems certain is that personal well-being, understanding a responsibility for the environment, and an emphasis on creativity will come into ever greater focus. Notwithstanding the excitement of a blank slate, however, truth must still be our focus. The anti-vaxxers, the conspiracy theorists have had their Covid field day. So, back to school it is. For all our sakes.

According to the foreword of Jesus Christ, Learning Teacher: Where theology and pedagogy meet, the author is asking questions which are live ones, “for those hanging on to Christianity by their eyelids, those who have left it, and those who have never belonged”. It is, essentially, a re-examination of Jesus the teacher.

The heart of the problem, Chater says, is the familiar one of blending Christ’s divinity and his humanity. His thesis is essentially that it is not faithful to the human side of the equation to see Jesus simply as a divine teacher who comes to earth, knows everything, and needs to learn nothing. Hence the title Learning Teacher. It is certainly challenging, and readers of a more conservative frame of mind may find that Chater tilts the divine/human equation too far in the latter direction. What is certain is that the author blends the personal, professional, and academic sides of theological exploration.

It is immensely readable, and has some splendid phraseology. He describes the hymns he loved as a child as “my juvenile ecclesiastical hit parade”. In the past, he has twice embraced theologies of absolute certainty, “intense conversion experiences”, the familiar late teens embrace of Evangelicalism, and a late-twenties switch to Roman Catholicism. Chater is proving to be an innovative and creative thinker. His Reforming RE, previously reviewed in this column (Books, 20 September 2020), has set the schools’ RS agenda. This latest volume can do the same for church study groups.

In My Diary, Emily Owen is one of those engaging individuals who leave us awestruck by their positivity and faith in the face of fearsome obstacles. Her teenage years were defined by a rare neurological condition, which has required regular surgery, and left her deaf and with damaged nerves on one side of her face. She has also had loss of mobility.

The surprising part of her diary is that it is aimed at KS2 readers. And it works. With careful targeting, small church primary schools, where the pandemic has had a particularly damaging impact on children’s mental health, may well find Owen’s diary an inspiration.

As agreed above, the last word goes to Grove Books. A chance to “reflect, rethink, regroup, refocus, and re-energise”. How about that for a manifesto for a post-Covid project? Day retreats for Year-6 church primary schools have been organised at the Peak Centre in Edale, Derbyshire, since 2016. Everything about the gentle booklet My Place and God’s World points to the current need for activities such as this. Meditation is in the mix. “Children find the experience enjoyable because it is non-competitive, not measured and not tested.” Perhaps the new Secretary of State for Education might take note.


Engaging the Student Voice. Creative Liturgical Design in Schools
Edward Thornley
Grove Books £3.95


Educating Tomorrow: Learning for the post-pandemic world
C. Brown, R. Luzmore
Emerald Publishing £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29


Jesus Christ, Learning Teacher: Where theology and pedagogy meet
Mark Chater
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.99


My Diary
Emily Owen
Authentic Media £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.19


My Place and God’s World: Retreat days for older primary pupils
S. Cocksedge, M. Jones
Grove Books £3.95

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