I had just started a new contract with Bury Council. The news was still full of Brexit, Harry and Meghan, oh and there was some mention of a new virus in China that was spreading. Before anyone had used the phrases ‘lockdown’ or ‘lateral flow test’, we were all advised to wash our hands regularly whilst singing ‘Happy Birthday’ a couple of times.
My line manager asked me to check that all my team had access to remote working; I thought she was being a bit over cautious to be honest. This was the UK in the 21st Century, we had the NHS and we were an Island that had not been conquered despite the best efforts of the Nazi regime. But this was no ordinary threat and, as we were all soon to discover, these were not ordinary times.
As I write this article, it is now almost one year since the first national lockdown. What once seemed inconceivable has become normal life; facemasks, virtual meetings, shops and churches closed, empty offices and sports stadia….and home education for most of our children and young people. So now we have a roadmap, a route out of this strange world of restrictions and anxiety, what lessons can be learnt; and what will be the new normal?
No doubt there will be a feeling of national euphoria once we can all meet together again, send our kids back to school, get a haircut and go on holiday! But the world has changed, these have been times of great challenge, anxiety and those most vulnerable in our nation have paid the ultimate price. One thing has become very evident; we are all connected across one global community. This national crisis has brought out the best and worst of humanity; our health and care workers and teachers have been magnificent. Captain Tom inspired a nation, people across the world clapped and sang with their neighbours, others broke rules to have illegal raves or pretended to be elderly to get an earlier vaccination.
People are questioning where God is, and the place of the Church in the midst of all this. When we do come out the other side we will be much more aware of our fragility as human beings. Many will be asking big questions about life, faith and what kind of society we should be in the future. Before I share some general reflections let me say a little about my own work sphere of education inclusion.
I have spent much of my career working with vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils. For as long as I remember there have been efforts to close the ‘attainment gap’ between this group and their peers. As a nation we have struggled with the concept of social mobility. Even in 2021 our top university places and professional jobs are taken by those from more privileged backgrounds, many of whom have had the benefit of a private education. The Pandemic has highlighted these gaps even more. Less able and disadvantaged pupils have fallen further behind their peers, anxiety and poor mental health have been an increasing concern amongst our children and young people. More worryingly, some vulnerable children have become less visible to care services and teachers throughout lockdown.
As a virtual school headteacher, I work to champion the education of children in the care system; these are the most vulnerable children and young people in our nation. Whilst I absolutely believe we should support these young people through the education system, as their ‘corporate parents’, I do not necessarily believe this is just about academic outcomes. I recently heard a young woman talk about how she had left school with good GCSE grades, but got involved in an abusive relationship which almost destroyed her life. Academic qualifications should not be the end game in our education system and it is my firm belief that the system will continue to fail many of our young people until we realise its true purpose, that is to help all of our young people to understand their giftings and callings. What is the point of coaching our children to pass exams yet leaving them without the lifeskills to make good choices, or an understanding of where their specific gifting lies? We all have to have a basic grounding in numeracy and literacy but unless you work with mathematics every day, when was the last time you applied Pythagoras theorem in you work?
I love the story about the animals that decided to open a school and adopted an activity curriculum of running, climbing, swimming and flying. The duck was excellent at swimming, ok at flying but poor at running. He had to drop his swimming class and do extra running. This caused his webbed feet to become badly worn, meaning that he dropped to an average mark in swimming.
The squirrel was excellent in climbing, but he encountered constant frustration in flying class because his teacher insisted that he start from the ground up instead of from the treetop down. The eagle was a real problem student and was severely disciplined for being a non-conformist. In climbing class, he beat all of the others to the top, but insisted on using his own way of getting there! We each have our own strengths and need to be working hard to maximise them, not trying to succeed at something that isn’t natural for us. This is both true of the education system and life in general.
After the euphoria comes the ‘counting the cost’, the Budget for example. Children have got left behind in schooling, mental health and anxiety are huge challenges, teachers are stressed and exhausted. So is it now time to grit our teeth and work even harder? I don’t believe so. In fact for myself I feel that God is speaking the opposite. Slow down, be still for a while, listen to the rhythm of life, breathe in….breathe out. Perhaps our problem is not that we haven’t tried hard enough, rather that we have tried to do too much, crowded out our lives, forced the pace. In a choir, it’s important to listen for the beat and follow the direction of the choirmaster or we just end up with a lot of effort and a cacophony. I, for one, will be listening closely for the beat of the Heavenly Choirmaster in the weeks and months ahead.