Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Educating Yorkshire

This TV series has been an excellent insight into modern schooling, and a challenging insight into modern youth. There are a few points that I think are important to draw from it. What is more, I want to draw some parallels with the Christian community.

"If we cannot send them out as decent human beings, we have failed" This is part of the opening sequence, and is said by the headmaster. It is a vital insight into what the role of the school is - it is not to pass exams, achieve well on league tables, attract the brightest pupils. It is to EDUCATE our young people, and that means sending them out as decent human being into the world.

That doesn't mean that exams are unimportant. It doesn't mean that the learning that takes place is merely co-incidental - I think it is important for people to be educated to the highest level that they can be, because this helps them to be decent human beings. But the scoring system is not all there is.

For churches and other such communities of faith, I think this is also a good aim - that they should produce decent human beings. Not that they should grow, or produce lots of next generation ministers or missionaries or any of this stuff. It is that they should produce decent people. It is a sad reflection on many churches that, whatever else they might achieve, their members are not decent human beings.

The second thing I have noticed is the level of pastoral support that the pupils have within the school. I know some people think they are being mollycoddled by all of this, and that it is a waste of money and effort. If the purpose of the school is to educate, then leave the pastoral care to families and churches.

And yet, I know that if this level of support and help had been available to me, it would have made a big difference. I know that some of my issues with depression started while I was at school. I know that my behaviour at school was not particularly good, and I was most definitely showing signs that I would now recognise as mental illness. I know that if the level of pastoral support available in Thornhill Community Academy had been around for me, they would have identified an issue, and I might have been able to get some help. So no, the pastoral support they give is not meaningless, not a waste of money. In some cases, it is helping the pupils find their way in life, and so saving them from being a police problem down the line. In others, it is helping them get help for their issues, and so enabling them to be long-term, productive members of society.

Faith communities should be places that provide all sorts of pastoral care, and yet this report suggests that loneliness - a key pastoral issue - is higher in those within faith communities as those not. There may be all sorts of reasons for this, not least that the lonely may seek out faith communities, but this is one indication that so often, church groups do not provide help and support, especially not when members are having doubts and questions about their faith and belief.

The next thing that is significant in this series, and is unusual in Thornhill, is that the teachers and pastoral staff especially talk the language of the pupils. When one of the pupils is being asked if they called another pupil a "paki", the teachers investigating use these words, rather than avoiding them. It takes the threat out of them, and it makes it much easier to admit that they did. Or didn't, as would seem to have been the case here.

Against from the opening sequence, one of the staff tells a pupil "Stop crying you mardy bugger", which is good Yorkshire language. Being prepared to be accept the language they use makes for easier communication. You get the sense that none of the staff are going to be shocked or personally offended by anything that the pupils say. This means that when they are feeling passionate, intense, whatever, they can talk and express themselves.

Faith communities are so often speaking a language that outsiders do not use. It has all sorts of extra words in, that have no real meaning outside the community. And there are all sorts of words and expression that are not expected to be used, because they are "course" or "vulgar". It can so often get to the point where certain subjects are off limits - sex, drinking, swearing - giving an impression that certain areas of life are not part of the "spiritual" self. I mean, when was the last time you heard a sermon on Lev 15?

The truth is that God is present when you masturbate, God is present when you decide to have that one extra drink, God is present when you tell someone to "F*** off" - or they tell you to do the same. God is not "nice". He is not just with us when we are being "nice". Talking the same language as people outside the church might be a shock, but it enables communication far better.

The third aspect that I get from the series is that being a teacher in a school today is Extremely Hard Work. The government have been very quick to denigrate teachers, making implications that they need to work harder and do more. This program does show that at least some teachers are working unbelievably hard. Of course, there are some poor teachers. There are some poor MPs, some poor bankers, some poor software developers..... that in itself does not mean that the entire profession is poor or incapable. It means that there are some bad examples, as there are in all professions, all job types.

There was one teacher in particular who took my attention - Mr Steer. He was reduced to tears at one point, by the pressure of the work he had to do - managing the GSCE year who were exceptionally stroppy this year. He was also so dedicated to his pupils that he came in limping with a bad leg, brought on by stress, it would seem. He was in because his pupils had an exam, and he put their needs above his own - the head did, eventually, send him to get checked out. In truth, he looks like he is heading for a breakdown, not because he is weak, but because he is dedicated.

I don't see that level of dedication from the MPs who are so quick to criticise, so quick to add more to their workload.

Does this relate to the church? Well being a pastor is also a very tough job. This is especially true when pastors are trained theologically,  but the work is mostly administrative and functional - running the church organisation. In truth, some of the problems I have with churches and clergy is that they are so often in the wrong job. They are doing administration, not theology, and the administrative load is increasing. They may be pastoral, but be put into impossible pastoral positions. The role of "pastor" or "vicar" is a ridiculous one - at its core, that it why I believe we should get rid of our church structures and clergy, because that would free people to do what they should be doing, not managing a system.

Finally - being a teenager is a very tough place to be today. In some ways, this is one of the great insights the program shows, that our young people are often stroppy, miserable, disruptive, rude and unpleasant. That is the nature of young people under the sort of stresses that they are under today. When I was a teenager, there were many stresses and problems in life, most of which have got worse since that time.

I don't think the church today is particularly good at dealing with teenagers or young people as a whole. So often I hear either patronising comments or instructive comments - that is "do this and you will be OK". Neither of these is appropriate, in fact. The staff at Thornhill show that they look at each child and try to understand what their particular problems are, and how they can be assisted (not resolved - most of the time, they cannot be "sorted"). Often I hear a staff member asking a pupil "what can we do to help you?" which is a far better approach.

So Educating Yorkshire is also, it seems, about educating everyone. One more thing - there is also lighter moments, enough humour to make it seem possible and real. Like any job, there are good an bad times. But at the end of the day, their task is to produce decent human beings. Large portions of our education system is exceptionally good at doing just that.

Friday, 18 October 2013


I have been accused of not liking cyclists. This is odd, because a) I have been a cyclist and b) I know lots of cyclists, and they are all lovely people. And yet, what I have seen from them, from their experiences of cycling (especially in London), I think cyclists are very poorly treated overall.

I should point out, for the record, that I used to cycle to work each day, and I did that for a couple of years. In London, in the peak hours.

I should also point out that I do try to give cyclists room and consideration when I am driving. I try to give them space to pass and when I pass them.

Cycling in London is very difficult. There is a lot of traffic all busy, some of it fast, and it is traveling on roads that are not always wide enough for the load. It requires a lot of bravery (or something). There are cycle paths in some places, but the system is woefully inadequate, and, as the news reports have shown of late, they are not safe cycling routes. Sometimes they seem just to direct cyclists into busy junctions, and abandon them there - the Bow roundabout being one example.

When traffic systems are being looked at, development made, most of the time the cyclists are not given priority, and any provision is often a last-minute hack to stave off criticism. Even outside London, where some of the problems are eased, cycling provision on some of the major commuting routes is inadequate, making cycling along these (usually busy) roads dangerous.

Of course, the other side to this is that cyclists do not always do themselves any favours. I see cyclists running red lights, cycling across pavements, ignoring zebra crossings, using pedestrian lights while still on their bikes. These are all dangerous. Now people point out to me that cyclists jumping red lights is not as dangerous as a car jumping a red light - as if that made it acceptable. It is true, and it is also the case that cars jump red lights sometimes. However as a pedestrian, a bike jumping a red light is usually harder to see than a car doing the same. I can see a car from some distance away, but a bike may have just been weaving its way through the cars, and might charge into me suddenly. And usually with some disdain that I am getting in their way.

The injuries that a bike hitting a pedestrian can cause should not be underestimated. They can be serious and even fatal. I have been at the top of Greys Inn Road in London, as a busy crossroads, when the lights have gone red for traffic, and seen dozens of bikes zipping across the junction in all directions. We are not talking about a very few bad eggs, but a significant number of cyclists, especially in London, but not exclusively.

So not I don't hate cyclists. I have a lot of sympathy for them, and do not envy anyone who cycles in London. But they must accept that they are part of the road traffic, and should follow the accepted rules of the road (not precisely the same as the written rules). I don't mind when they pass me to move to the front of a queue at the lights - it is the safest place for them, and they are narrow enough to pass other vehicles. I do object when they them cycle straight through the lights when they are on red. And yes, cars should abide by the accepted rules of the road too. But just because some members of one group break the rules is no excuse for members of another group to also break the rules. That is madness.

Can I find some spiritual or Christian message in this? Not a great one, just that rules are there for a purpose. The purpose is not that we should not break them under any circumstances - that is the pharasitical approach. They are there to guide us, to point out the way, to indicate the direction.

If we break the rules there are consequences. That does not mean we should not break the rules, just that we should accept the consequences.

And mostly, the message I get is that when I was cycling, it was then that I most contemplated my eternal future, because, many times, I felt that it was due to begin shortly. Cycling does wonders for your prayer life. But rather less for your nerves.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

How do we think?

Some time ago, there was a report about the way we think. I have searched for it, but could not find anything for a link, so I will have to explain what it said.

Traditional thinking says that there are two types of thinking: intuitive and rational.

Rational thinking involves putting a logical set of ideas and reasons for the actions we take, the decisions we make. If someone asks rational people why they have made a certain decisions, they will give you the logical set of steps they have taken to reach their decision. Therefore they can justify it.

Intuitive thinking involves just finding a decision, without a process as to how you got there. If you ask an intuitive person why they made a certain decision, they will not be able to tell you - it just makes sense.

Given that me and my wife have very opposite approaches to this, I know from personal experience that it can be very difficult to mix these two - at the extremes, both sides seem unreasonable to the other. In particular, because of the dominance in western thought of the rational and logical, it can be very hard to explain rationally when an intuitive has made a decision.

The report I referred to challenged this approach. What it argued was that everyone thinks in the same way - intuitively. When you make a decision, you simply reach out and find the answer within you mind.

Then most people put a post-hoc rationalisation on this decision. That is, logical thinkers put the logic and rationalisation onto the decision after they have made it. Intuitive thinkers don't bother. But they both reach their decisions by the same approach - a pseudo-random leap of imagination.

What is significant about this is that the Western dominance of logical, rational thinking processes is suddenly turned upside down. It doesn't mean that logic is irrelevant. It doesn't mean that the logical method or the scientific method is wrong. This post-hoc rationalisation is the important thing for scientific research.

What it does mean is that those who jump to their conclusions, those who cannot provide the logical reason, those who "feel" what the right way is, rather than arguing it logically, are merely reflecting the way that everyone actually makes their decisions.

By rejecting the precedence of rationalism, I think this makes for a stronger role for the paradoxical, for the irrational, for the odd. Because faith is not logical or rational. There are logical and rational reasons for believing, for faith, but somewhere there is also something beyond the rational.

Maybe it is that part that is reflecting the true human nature, the real way we are. I like that idea.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

This government.

I don't often do explicitly political posts, but I have been driven to post something about the current government, their actions, and the effects on people.

There are a number of statements that David Cameron - and other members of his cabinet - have made that are typical of a manipulative leader - of which I have met a few, usually in churches. He makes statements that everyone can agree with, and then interprets them is ways that most people would disagree with. Then, if you disagree, the response is "so you don't really think that xxx" where xxx is the broad statement that everyone would agree with.

Let me take an example. One of the recent ones is "nobody should get something for nothing". Now in truth, I would totally agree with this, as it stands. People should not get something for nothing - some of us work to earn a living, to have to pay for all the stuff I want. So yes, it does seem unfair if some people get stuff they want without having to work for it.

Then he does something ridiculous by applying this to those on welfare payments. The vast majority of whom have made their national insurance contributions, which are the payments that they have made for the benefits they should be receiving. While it is true that they may receive more than they have paid in, that is the nature of insurance. The idea is to give people a safety net when things are difficult - and at the moment, the economic situation means that jobs are hard to find and easy to lose. This is the time when we should be increasing the welfare bill, because there are more and more people in need of this.

This actually leads to another of the mis-information that this government constantly gives out, which is that the welfare budget is a major part of the government expenditure. The truth is, it isn't. Yes, it sounds a lot when you see the total figures, but it is not that much in real terms. There are other ways in which the government could find this money, that would impact far fewer people in far less severe ways. In fact, if everyone were to claim all the benefits that they were entitled to, and all those who fiddle the system were stopped, the welfare bill would go up. Benefits are actually underclaimed, not overclaimed.

Of course the other side of this is that this statement came from a cabinet populated by millionaires who have inherited their wealth, who have received expensive education from this money, and have therefore received something for nothing. This is the most astounding hypocrisy. For then to say this and not realise why this is so hypocritical indicates to me some serious lack of appreciation of most peoples situation.

"We are all in this together" - that was one of Camerons first great statements. What we understood was that everyone would be contributing to the recovery, which is perfectly right. Of course what meant was that he was going to implement the most aggressive, right-wing, anti-poor policies ever, while pandering to the rich. In fact, everyone has paid and contributed, however the poor have been squeezed significantly more than the rich. That is completely upside down - the people who should be contributing most are the richest, and in particular those who got us into the mess in the first place. that is not the welfare claimants.

"The taxpayer should not fund people living beyond their means" - once again, this is a statement that it seems everyone can agree with. Of course our taxes should not be funding people to live lavish and expensive lifestyles. Cameron meant that taxpayers should not be finding expensive benefits claimants lifestyles. Once again, of course, the truth is not as it is presented to us. One or two people scam the benefits system to live an extravagant lifestyle. It is perfectly right that they should be caught and stopped. The vast majority of claimants are not living extravagant lives, and should not be unnecessarily punished.

Any yet there are some 600 people in Westminster who are living beyond their incomes, on very high levels of expenses (the sorts of levels that many people even in business would be appalled by), who are clearly living "beyond their means", and getting money from the taxpayers to fund it. It is also the case that tax system tends to favour the wealthy and rich businesses, enabling them to profit from not paying as much tax as they should. So many of the richest people are having their lifestyles supported by the taxpayer. If you have not seen JK Rowlings excellent comments on paying tax, she is awesome, and the only one of the top 10 richest people in the UK to take this attitude to tax. So yes, the taxpayer should not fund people living beyond their means. Especially those whose means are significant.

A more recent policy statement continues this direction. The idea that young people under 25 should not receive benefits is preposterous. It may be perfectly OK in nice safe middle-class families, where young people can stay at home without problems, because there are plenty of rooms in the house, and plenty of money to look after them, whether they have a job or not. However this is a strange and privileged view of society, and one that very few people see around them. What about the family who have no spare room, because the bedroom tax has taken it from them, and who have no jobs in the household, because they have all vanished.

Once again, the idea that people on benefits should do work "like picking up litter" is another example of a lack of appreciation of the reality of the situation. Who do they think picks up litter at the moment? In fact, any of this work will take jobs and money from people who may be doing these jobs because it is all they are able to get these days. When the job market is so squeezed, the answer is not to demean those on the more menial jobs, and try to take them away by giving them as unpaid forced labour to those who are unable to obtain a job.

It struck me that the capitalist approach is, on the whole, that if you want things, you should pay for them. And yet, it seems that the policies of this Tory government is precisely the opposite, whereby those in privileged positions seem to expect those who are unemployed to do work on their behalf for free. The workfare schemes were similarly un-capitalist in principle.

The policies of this government have been very damaging to the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. That is a abdication of the purpose of government, which is to look after everyone in society, from the rich to the poor, irrespective of whether they like or agree with them.

As I alluded to earlier, I have seen some of these tactics in the church, where manipulative leaders abuse those they are supposed to lead, and fail to support those they disagree with. They also fail to support those who are most vulnerable, those most in need of help and support, those most in need of the church. This is a disgrace, a failure of leadership, a failure of responsibility. Whether in church or nation, all good people should stand against this.