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Inequality and Flourishing: A theology of education by Mariama Ifode-Blease

23 December 2022

Education has moved on, suggests Richard Peers

THE school day is a cultural icon. We all know it. Bells, assembly, lessons, break, lessons, lunch, lessons, break, lessons. It is not surprising that Mariama Ifode-Blease uses this structure to give shape to her book on education. Unfortunately, this shape obscures any coherent development in her argument for change in our schools. Interspersed with transcribed conversations, the book is further disrupted.

Each section is introduced by a passage of scripture and a sermon-like reflection on that passage in an educational setting. These, for me, are the best bits of the book. I haven’t heard Ifode-Blease preach, but I imagine she is good. Scripture is surprisingly rarely used in books about church schools and education, and it is good to see that done here.

Apart from these passages, there is not much in this book that I find helpful or informative. It is a book based on romantic notions of childhood, young people, and education. It presents no real arguments and does not engage with alternative points of view. I began training as a teacher in 1984 and remember schools before the National Curriculum, regular testing, and Ofsted inspections. Huge improvements have been made in schools since then, not least in London, the schools I worked in for longest. This is not acknowledged in any way.

I am disturbed that the book is subtitled A theology of education, which I simply cannot find. The author uses the phrase “child-centred” on occasions. I have often said that this is one of the most dangerous phrases used in education in the 20th century. It was, I believe, first used in the 1967 Plowden report, which was the herald of so much progressive education in the 1970s. I suspect that it has its origin in the person-centred counselling of Carl Rogers, who abandoned his Christian faith. It is not a theological phrase: a proper Christian anthropology underlying our education would make it God-centred. Around God, human beings make sense. When we put human beings at the centre, we end up with mayhem.

Ifode-Blease frequently talks about flourishing, potential, and creativity. Like apple pie, these are hard to be against, but mean very little. Of course, in the pendulum swing away from the progressive methods of the 1970s, there needs to be some re-balancing. There is too much high-stakes testing in schools, but probably not enough low-stakes quizzing. It would be good to see more of the arts and music in the curriculum, but well-taught, knowledge-based teaching, not an abstract creativity.

Ifode-Blease spent part of her childhood in north-west London. She would do well to visit a school in Brent that is taking the improvements in schooling of the past two decades deeper and stronger: Michaela Community School. The head teacher of this non-selective school, Katharine Birbalsingh, is showing the whole country, and much of the world, how high standards of behaviour and learning are the things that challenge social inequality.

Reading Inequality and Flourishing was a little like re-living a car crash: I’ve been there. Children deserve better, and there are better ways for our schools.

The Very Richard Peers is the Dean of Llandaff.

Inequality and Flourishing: A theology of education
Mariama Ifode-Blease
SCM £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £18.40

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