“Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.” This is for me one of the most memorable quotations from Nelson Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, and is what I chose to read to a group I was working with on the day we heard about Mandela’s death. It highlights good education as a hallmark of a free and equal society – without good education for all, freedom cannot be exercised, and equality cannot be attained.
This last week Sir Michael Wilshaw published his annual report on the state of English education over the past year. As so often with education news, its reporting in the media was highly distorted and barely represented what the report actually says. In fact, the headlines are all positive: children and young people in England have the best chance ever of going to a good school; schools have improved significantly on last year, with 78% now good or better, compared with 70% last year; and of those where issues for improvement have been identified, 90% of them are tackling the issues as they should. To my mind, that is a good news story. The media, however, focussed entirely on the description Sir Michael gave of the (diminishing) number of schools which are not yet good, as if that applied to the majority. It does not.
Alongside the positive news, one important point from the Ofsted annual report was that white working class children are now, by some margin, the lowest performing group in the population of England, and schools which serve this group are the lowest performing schools on average, though there are of course many good exceptions. This is an extraordinary situation for us to be in, especially at a time when we are reflecting on the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, which Mandela symbolised. If we learn anything from that struggle, it should be that a country which does not address issues of equality, especially in education, is storing up trouble for itself in the future. Many children of families who are more recent arrivals in the UK seem to have a greater hunger for advancement, and for the education which can help secure that advancement, than some of the longer-standing population of the country. And in many towns up and down the country, there are marginalised communities who often are disproportionately disadvantaged, including in educational terms. We do not need to look far from home to see that reality, even here in Kent.
I am not a particular fan of Polly Toynbee, the Guardian columnist, but I remember some time ago reading her observation that we were in danger of breeding what she called an “en suite generation” of young people, who assume that physical comfort and convenience was their birthright, and have little reason to strive educationally to improve their lot. This is why I believe it is so important to push young people outside their ‘comfort zone’, getting them to meet challenges in all areas, academic, sporting, musical, which they find difficult and initially believe they cannot rise to. Doing so helps stimulate that appetite to achieve and move forward, which our cotton-wool world can so easily stifle.
There was, of course, no ‘en suite’ facility in the stable in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, which we commemorate each Christmas. I came across this wonderful short film on YouTube http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=VLR2dGkULlM&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DVLR2dGkULlM which light-heartedly summarises the Nativity story. At school last week we enjoyed two superb Christmas concerts featuring our year 7 choirs along with instrumental groups and our Chamber Choir singing a range of Christian and fun seasonal pieces. It was utterly uplifting to see those young people who have been Bennett students for only a few months performing with such confidence and maturity. This is what I mean by extending young people’s boundaries. Next week the annual Bennett Carol Service will be held at St John’s Church on Thursday, which we are looking forward to very much. A huge thank you to all participants, and especially to Mr Showell and his team, for their outstanding musical leadership and creativity.
One sad absence from the Carol Service this year will be our much-loved school chaplain, Revd Rachael Knapp, who has recently been seriously ill. Supported by much prayer, she is now making a very good recovery, but needs some weeks of rest to regain her full strength before she can be with us again. Thank you to all who have supported her in prayer, and please do continue to do so.
The autumn term is a long one – this year almost 16 school weeks have passed since the end of the summer holiday. The entire school year is only 38 weeks, so we have done not far off half of it. The two weeks of holiday ahead are well deserved by all, not least those year 7 students. Let me therefore take this opportunity to wish all members of the Bennett community a happy, peaceful, and blessed Christmas.