Full of Character (Frances Ward, 2019) – A Review – Do the characters obstruct the education on offer?

Full of Character (2019) – A review

Although there may not be a rush to get book reviews out into the public space, this book is still only just released and is 2019, writing this review has felt as though it has been on my ‘to do’ list for over 4 months. I read it when i was relaxing and basking in the sun in Tunisia, in June, and so, was fairly chilled and relaxed in reading it, indeed, my copy now has a few suncream finger prints in it, and has been well travelled.  My other perspectives that i come to this book are as a parent of an 18 and 16 year old, who have experiences both Scottish and English Education systems, as a youth and community worker for 15 years and more recently as a worker for the Durham Diocese and involved in supporting a poverty proofing schools programme.

Opening the book itself, doing so, on day 2 of the holiday (it wasnt first book on the list), the contents page that includes sections on Thankfulness, Character education, Playfulness, Fruitfulness, and Hopefulness, I am immediately intrigued as to the angle that this book is about to take, given a wade into thinking about what seems Christian Virtues and how they might relate to Education, it brings to mind Danny Brierleys attempt to join up Youth and community work Values with Christian practices in 2003 (Joined up, Su Press, 2003)  So, given the breadth of the topics this book is about to cover, I am intrigued.

Following this. I would consider the strengths of this book to be, that it does make a useful, practical attempt at times to appeal that the christian values is extols are regarded higher in the process of education in the UK. My only misgiving with the list of 12 things that have been chosen in the 13 chapters (chapter 7 is a focus on the digital age, half way through) – there is an element that all of the 12 feel a little individualist, and about a persons individual process through life, so, whilst references like Community are featured within a few chapters, this seems lacking (especially as the whole platform of the discussion within is a community of people), as do aspects of the Christian story, including Justice, Peace, and Story itself.  This aside, and Ward does say that the book could be easily extended to include others.

What Ward does do successfully, is provide an accessible, easy to read (it is easy to read) text that gives insight into the 12 aspects that she has selected. Setting the context is done through a look as the cultural situation pretty much defined by the political news, so Trump and Brexit effectively, the digital revolution, and a number of films that the characters in the book have recently watched. Again, its all a matter of perspective, but there is a sense that the overarching media is the dominant lens of culture in this book. We hear little of local contexts of towns, cities, volunteering, the positive news that is easily not taken into consideration. This does mean that there is a sense that the book is rebalancing, or articulating an alternative to fear, a fear which has been said to dominate from the news, and the view of culture which is stated. It is the same in regard to the section on the digital age, it was as if only the negatives were realised. If only one of them had read Bex Lewis book Raising children in a digital age – instead of worrying about AI…the rest of the chapter may have been different…

Frances Ward then describes that Human Flourishing is at the core of the book. This is undoubtedly welcome, it has felt like Human Flourishing has been an ongoing topic to define, for well, the dawn of time.. but its is often proclaimed as a great unifier within youth and community work across the sacred/secular mythical divide (cf Smith, Stanton, Wylie et al, 2015), and theologically this is suggested by Vanhoozer as one key aspects of the entire Christian drama (Vanhoozer, 2005, p15) ‘Following the christian way promotes human flourishing (shalom) and leads to the summum bonum, life, eternal and abundant’ – The question I continue to have, and the book doesn’t address is how much of this is an individual venture or a community one. For, whilst Ward critiques Rousseau, proponents of critical and community education have been ignored within the development of these ideas. (Giroux, Freire to name two) and yet they also propose community and human flourishing through education.

It feels like I am already criticising, and these are the aspects of the book that I appreciated the most. There are other nuggets within this book that are useful. A chapter on self forgetfulness in an age of ego proclamation – is pertinent – and i wonder how this might lead to a broader self awareness of persons in education, the systems and structures – and how a school might self forget being competitive? not laying all the responsibility with the individual child. There are others.

However. Though it was an easy read, it is accessible. I struggled to like it. The problem for me is that, whilst it is easy to read, whilst it is accessible, and whilst a number of philosophies, theories, ideas and concepts are brought to the attention of the reader in a relatively simple way. The wider premise of the book was far too irritating. And i’m not sure why, overall it was needed.

The premise of Character Education is set at a New Years eve party, a party in which 6 ‘characters’ – apologies if they are real people – gather having had a year of watching movies, the news, and being super amazing people – though none with any children, except Maddy (who had just put Emily to bed). The premise for this book is their hopes and fears and the conversation that ensued (over ‘sweet potato and bean chilli and sticky toffee pears’, p12). Much of the book is framed as if its a conversation, activities and insight that each of these 6 people have brought to it. For me it irritated.

Craig and Maddy are very much in favour of free education and Maddy went to see the headteacher who ‘looked harassed’ (the thought that her conversation was about to be noted down and written about didn’t cross Maddys self awareness, and the headteacher was tired of avocado eating middle class parents helping her with educational discourse and having to regail the latest from the national headteachers conference and Ofsted- just so Maddy could add her post university insight on character education – page 80-81)

On other occasions, Craig would go to onto google and look up a theme, Maddy would research an idea, hear a lecture (p143), then they would get excited about what they found out, and be unable to have a lovely conversation about it, because the other ‘was engrossed with Emily, planting seedlings’ (p204) . Maybe its me, but this dinner party seemed to go on all year, and the book feels like an out-working of 6 peoples privileged to access meetings, research and have the time to do this. Call me an inverted snob, but poverty doesn’t seem to feature in their lives, they don’t have to go to the public library, and none of their friends loses their job, or needs a food bank handout. Whilst they have hopes and fears, they have considerable agency. And a privilege they seem blind to. I cant imagine a group of people in areas of the north east, south wales or (pick an appropriate town) acting in this kind of way. They don’t spend a lot of time in the queue at Asda or volunteering – other places to learn.

I’m left with the thought that the characters in the book Character Education are the main parts of it that let it down. They just appear to be floating on air and have all the time in the world to share and talk about these ideas, whilst also having perfect lives with time to do so, probably between dissecting an avocado. They couldn’t be more millenial or middle class sounding if they tried.

The problem… is that all this feels completely unnecessary, and for me, what Ward proposes has some merit, in terms of values, fruitfulness and human flourishing. The characters get in the way… and this context leaves me thinking that the Character education proposed might be more middle class and academic than it need be – merely because it is framed by these 6 people who go on a self learning adventure to benefit us all. Its like Eat Pray Love – but on education at times.

There are, within some fascinating insights into aspects such as resourcefulness (not that different from agency)

It is an ongoing seeking after wisdom (p137)

Resourcefulness is stronger than resilience, in enabling more creative engagement with what challenges people of all ages (p137) – though Ward steps short of challenging a resilience narrative (something youthworkers are keen to do) – there is merit here in suggesting an alternative.  Other chapters on Truth, Fullness and flourishing combine the theological, with the sociological and psychological, and are, generally, accessible, useful, provoking and pertinent. Ward proposes thinkers from a wide range and not all academic. Its because of these good solid theoretical chapters where I wonder if the whole book could be written like this, and the platform of the 6 characters is an unnecessary distraction.

The most frustrating when we are indulged in hearing an entire lecture that Maddy once heard which forms the basis of the chapter on fullness and receive her insights of it.  I just found the tone set by the 6 people irritating throughout, and clouded my view of what were some valid accessible concepts, and some theological thinking that would be useful in creating an education system that had at its heart, not fear, numbers and outcomes, but the kind of character, values and kingdom aspiration that might be considered christian.

It was that i didn’t want to offend Craig, Maddy, Sam, Natalie, Benji and Dan, that i struggled to write this review. Its probably 18 month since their new years party, and so they can probably take the criticism now…

This book is written for parents, according to Ward. I think the problem with this, is that a countless number of parents do not have the capacity to read something like this, with 3 children, trying to work, getting dress up ready for world book day, exam stress and merely survival on the next food bank handout to consider a future of education shown to us through the lens of toffee apple eating Craig and Maddy. As a parent reading this, and having had two children now complete education (at least to 16) i would know than in my deepest desires i might have wanted an education that could look something like what is described. The reality is that academies, the extensive data collecting through multiple series of exams in 4 years, and limitations of choice, mean that reality is so far from this ideal. Yet, as i have reflected before, i might have thought that some of these ideals were possible in my own education 30 or more years ago, when at least an individual child was the focus, not school competition and organisational survival, schools run as businesses.

Back to the book, if you can cope with these 6 people, and want an accessible book that looks at aspects of a christian education that has values and principles at its heart, then this will be a good starting point for that conversation. There is enough in here for that to begin.

References,

Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005

Freire, P, Horton – We make the Road by walking, 1990

Giroux H – On critical Pedagogy, 2012

Smith, Stanton, Wylie, et al – Youthwork and faith Debates, delights & Dilemnas 2015

Brierely – Joined up, SU. 2003

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can buy a copy of Frances Ward’s ‘Full of Character here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Full-Character-Christian-Approach-Education/dp/1785923390/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=frances+ward&qid=1571393767&sr=8-1  (other book sellers are available)

 

‘In an ideal world you could just get funding for building relationships with young people’

How many times have you said that in the last 40 years? (As a youth/community worker)

Not a relationship that had to make something else happen to justify the relationship, not a relationship where the young person ‘changed’, not a relationship in which entire decades of social harm, psychological damage caused by other relationship was solved in 4 months -type of relationship. Not a relationship in which the young person achieved something, said something, evaluated something like the relationship offered to them was worthwhile. Not a relationship that was needed so that the new 3m youth building wasnt closed.

‘in an ideal world we would get funding for building trusted relationships with young people’

Just a relationship.

Just being with someone for the sake of it

Just having someone to talk to

Just . a . conversation.

Just a moment to be valued

Just a moment in which time stood still, and there was an interruption to the norm

A moment where someone stopped and took an interest and for the young persons sake.

A relationship that may lead to action, a relationship that may be supportive, a relationship that could change the world of the young person – and the adult – but not a relationship that expects and targets that before its already happened.

I am reading ‘Poverty Safari’ by Darren McGarvey; within it he notes the reflections of a youth worker, Joe – reflections that have been echoed by the youth worker fraternal for decades. Its Joes boss that bemoans the lack of funding for relationships. Joe, goes on to say:

‘good youthwork can have a profound and positive effect on young people and it is a challenging and rewarding job. But I think we are a long way from this being understood or accepted by a fairly large element of funding bodies and the public sector. There is funding out there for targets, outcomes and issues. However many are not relevant to the work we do’

(which is)

‘ we are working to combat the effects of inequality and poverty has on the lives of young people, the cycle of insecurity, mistrust, lack of resilience. low self esteem and confidence. It is holistic, long term and multi faceted work’

This may not be the space to critique all of the above. Certainly there is an element of youthworkers clinging to the darkness as their natural habitat, and not necessarily seeing all the opportunities and options for funding and developing their work, and working in a needs based, and meeting emotional needs might be already fitting of a funding or social policy agenda. However.

The point remains to be said.

None of any of these things, any of these approaches, will ever come to fruition without the basic need to develop relationships as a core focus, no not core focus, as a reason to exist. Anything else is a course, a program or a ministry.

It may only be the voluntary or faith sector that has the capacity to do this, but the culture of outcomes and targets is fully pervasive, whether that’s in funding bids to charitable trusts, outcome promises to consortiums, or even, the final result of good youth ministry, have kids turn up on a Sunday. Its outcome orientated- no its outcome defined relationships. Its fully pervasive, because the systems are crumbling and in need to justify existence. Its fully pervasive because the value for money neo-liberalism default has made anything other seem radical, seem ‘non real world’, too idealistic. And Funding, and outcomes always generate a implicit direction of travel to the lowest hanging fruit, so that funding can be justified. The nearly christian who might go to church, the nearly got a job or capable to do a course- an easy quick win. But no one (as McGarvey writes) dare say this.

Yet, as McGarvey writes. Young people can smell outcome orientated rats a mile off. Young people in poverty can attune to being projected. Being rescued for a moment by the short term saviour (p83). The parachuted in for a funding season organisation that makes promises and delivers nothing, and has no actual involvement in the real needs, real situation of the community its is meant to be there for. And no one in the community has any involvement in any of it – except to turn up, and be a number.

Things young people want; (According to McGarvey)

Value ; The adult ‘ was passionate about the work they did and made me feel valued’ (p69)

Place and space: ‘working class folks receive strange looks when their groups lofty objectives are to want a place for the elderly and a space to drink coffee’ (p49) – or – ask a group of young people what they want to do – just want somewhere to go thats safe to talk.

Participation and Autonomy: ‘Joe and his team are one of many small (and chronically underfunded – my words) organisations that are dealing with the social and cultural legacy of decades of poor planning and tokenistic consultation with local people’ (p82)

Good youthwork is more than what Joe says it is, but then youthwork is an ongoing conversation that creates new definitions in each context, what is important is that relationships where young people are valued, where there is safety, space and place, and where there is a genuine desire for participation, and young persons autonomy to be at the forefront of it. Where honest means that its not a relationship for an outcome. A relationship that’s reduced to a trade.

So, yeah, in an ideal world,

‘we would get funding for building trusting relationships with young people’

And we will have realised the inherent good that there is in every single one of these. Whilst there are some ways of writing these down – the desire that relationships have outcomes at all virtually destroys their honesty, and their goodness. The ethics of the market reigns, and as Goffman says, the closer we are the trade, the less authentic the performance we play in our interactions. (Goffman, 1960)

But we must not give up. We will keep on going. There will be a way. It may be asset based community development, it may be in re framing and using different language to describe youthwork, it may be something else. Whatever we do, its relationships with young people that matter. after all…

Youthwork is a professional relationship in which the young person is engaged as the primary client in their social context (Sercombe, p27)

References

Goffman, Irving , 1960, The presentation of the self in everyday life

McGarvey Darren, 2017, Poverty Safari

Sercombe, Howard, 2012, Youth work Ethics

In church attendance statistics; should there be an ‘away goals count double rule? ‘

Not for the first time I find myself pondering a football and faith crossover piece. In the past I have written about a youth worker transfer deadline day, and also thinking about the theatre of football as a performance.

This time I’m heading to the slightly sensitive area of church attendance and growth statistics.

But first, a reminder, for those of you who aren’t sport inclined, what the ‘away goals count double rule’ actually is. It’s particularly relevant today on the day of the UEFA champions league quarter final draw.

The logic of the rule (And I’m not going to give you the official line) is that in some football competitions, mostly games where teams play other teams from a different country, there has always been and will be a home advantage. The home team don’t have to travel, they play in their own stadium on a pitch with dimensions they know, with all their home fans, their dressing room etc etc. It has long been recognised then that an away team (especially after long distance travel) is at a disadvantage.

Further details of this can be found here BBC article

For this reason, where a two game the is level on goals, any away goals scored by either team count as double. Their value is worth more. 1 goal counts as 2.

An additional meaning is attached to the number.

It crosses my mind that a similar weighting or value might be useful in thinking about church attendance, growth and mission statistics and success.

Put it this way,

The middle class already Christian family who move into the area and start going to the church might be recorded as ‘5’ on the figures.

And almost no effort might be made to find, work with or accommodate them, except being welcoming and hospitable. (Yet there are many churches/parishes where this is an unlikely reality)

The same 5 might be said for the family who start attending who have become known to the church via the foodbank. And whilst the same hospitality is recognised and evident, the effort and investment required might be more intensive.

If young people are really anti church and a youth worker has been employed- do the 5 young people who start attending chug h, also going as 5?

We may have real incentive as churches to do mission, youth work and community work in our churches, parishes and deaneries. But it might be as equally said that results by numbers might only implicitly cause churches to go for the ‘easier’ groups.

‘If we can get 1 of our friends to come along’

‘If we can attract a few Christians to come along by changing our service’

And that’s not to in any way suggest that this is easy. Not at all.

But if homeless people from hartlepool are made to feel welcome and attend because of years of effort changing a culture in a church to be more inclusive.. Then that ‘5’ of them has to represent and mean something more..

It might take 10 fold extra effort to encourage hard to reach groups (to be welcome in a church that often implicitly excluded) , and yet they’re counted as just 1.

It’s far easier if there’s a numbers game to go for the assessed easiest. It would almost be change in culture to intentionally advocate mission to and with the leastest in society.

So could ‘away goals count double?’ Or triple, or even ten fold?

I don’t mean to sound trite, or to try to dismiss the value of persons as numbers, the reality is that this already happens. I’m just highlighting the inadequacy of a numbers orientated system for measuring growth and attendance.

If there was church plant in Hendon, or Burbank, or moss side or fairfields, tulloch or the east end, shouldn’t a church plant of 10 people who became indigenous leaders have higher meaning and value than a church plant where 20 already Christians turned up because they liked the new worship style?

Just a thought.. what would church planting amongst the least communities and areas shafted by successive governnents be measured and justified ? If at all? But maybe not on the same measures of middle class suburbia who shape policy and expectation..

What might a good church look like, rather than a successful one, of a faithfully loving one in such a community. Why would that one need to be measured by numbers at all? And if so, could they count double?

Every new persons or families attending churches takes effort, agreed, but shouldt the extra resources required for the least likely, unchurched, abandoned by churcv/society, but warranted extra value..?

Just a thought…

The Education system has depressed young people (and their learning)- why should they succeed to make it look good?

My school is run like a business, and it sucks

So said the young person as they were talking to me a few weeks ago. So said the same young person who said that they told this to a teacher in the proceeding few weeks.

This one sentence and phrase has brought to light a number of questions regarding the state of young people in the UK today. These questions being;

  • What might it mean for young people to know that they are being educated in a system which primary motivation that isn’t actually about them?
  • What might it mean about the politics of education and how competition has turned schools into business and therefore young peoples within education to be nothing more than a consumption/ consumer relationship?
  • Do young people have to be doubly determined to succeed knowing that it will also benefit a system that they have no empathy or respect for?
  • Could the 900 youth workers lost from communities have made any difference..?

 

But first, I want to look back a short while.

When thinking about education being a system, I don’t think that isn’t new. I look back on my own education (I started primary school in 1982, was the first year of age 14/year 9 SATS in 1991/2, and in 1994, was the 6th year of GCSES- I think, and I vaguely remember the first and only time that my school had an Ofsted inspection) . There was an education system at place in the schools I was in, an increase in alternatives for A levels were being introduced (NVQ’s, GNVQ’s) , and I can honestly say, and maybe naively, that as far as I remember, the main reason that my teachers were wanting me to do well. So that I would do well, achieve and succeed, and even if that mean that at some level this was a funnelling of skills and subjects towards vocations and employment, at least, even selfishly, this was about me, and my future.

If i did think of myself in part of a system when I was at school, the scales were, i feel weighted in my favour. My school wasn’t at risk of being shut down. My school didn’t seem to be a place where there was a great deal of fear. My education wasn’t tempered by any notion on my part that what I did in school had an impact on the success or closure of the schools, and because of this, to those teachers I wanted to, I could connect with, as they, themselves would not only teach, but coach, encourage, listen and to a point give opportunity for developing ideas and expression. To a point, because of course there were exams, curriculum and grades to be sought.

But even I, by the point of 18 had had enough of it, even then, When 80% of my friends went onto university from the age of 18, I didn’t. Even when a system was stacked in my favour and I could do well academically in the future, I didn’t want to carry on. (NB i have completed BA and MA as a mature student). It was probably only at that later point when future destinations post 18 that I felt there was a system directing me into a particular direction, and only at the ‘leavers/graduation service’ that having a destination was something that the school was being proud about.

As I said, this was only 25 or so years ago. It wasn’t the 1960’s, or 70’s. It was the early 1990’s.

Thinking even further back, many of you who read my pieces regularly will know that I am an avid reader of Freire and his inspirational educative practices that have shaped Informal education and community practices, as well as others like Myles Horton, and Henry Giroux. So, in reading We make the Road by Walking in the last week or so, I was intrigued to compare the accounts of education of my own, with those of Freire and Horton, admittedly in South America and in the 1950’s stating that ;

I can remember, when I was in High school, how sad I was that my classmates didn’t like to read poems, stories, literature. I enjoyed it so much and they hated it. I thought it was the teachers that did that to them and I resented that. I could see this system, where teachers were killing off any possibility of students ever enjoying literature. To them it was something that you had to learn, memorise and you hated it because you had to do it. And i can remember very clearly how I took my resentment out on the teachers. I didn’t at that stage speak out and challenge them or try to organise a campaign against them, but I would read (my own books) in their classes and ignore them. That was my way of protesting (Myles Horton, 1990)

Whilst there might be some revisionist thinking in Horton and Freire as they remember their school life of over 40 years previously. What the were rejecting and protesting against was the rigidity of an education system that didn’t allow for the beauty and critical thinking that education should be about, and instead for only learning for memorisings sake to be the key function of education. What Horton and Freire in their conversation then talk about is how they began to realise how to try and think, then act in accordance with a different system, other than what they conceived to be the capitalist one. When Freire himself graduated from formal teaching college and started in his first role in a secondary school, and was told he was a good teacher by his teaching inspector, he said of teaching:

Teaching secondary school was then an adventure. It was a beautiful thing for me. At some point, I began to discover that one of the main reasons why the students could learn with me and liked my class was that I respected them, no matter their age (very young). I respected them and I respected their mistakes, their errors and their knowledge. (Freire, 1990)

I include these accounts, because of how they seem to present a stark contrast to how a number of young people perceive the system of their education today.

Also, that whilst Freire and Horton have become pillars of thought in community education, their backgrounds were in the very formal education, and formal education in deprived areas that many schools in the UK find themselves today. So, when Freire says ; ‘first of all, I think its interesting for us as educators to think again and again about the political atmosphere, the social atmosphere, cultural atmosphere in which we work as educators’  he isnt just speaking to the youth and community work fraternal, but to everyone involved in education. There is a social, political and cultural context. So, enough of the pre-amble. If I’m honest, some of that was so that it would be read before thinking through some of the questions above.

The current school leavers next summer, post 18, will have been born in 2000-2001, only 6 years or so after I finished school myself. The question therefore is; Is this the first full generation of young people who have grown up and completed schooling in the UK (those who have completed it) to have experienced fully and felt the ideology of competition and the ethics of the market in their education? When i say ‘feel’- I mean, know that their education has been intrinsically linked to and within a system? 

What i mean is, Are the current 18 year olds one of the first year groups to have experienced the following:

  1. Joy or despair at age 5 when the ‘right primary school’ was/wasnt granted
  2. Sats aged 7 and 11
  3. Primary schools that had at least 2-3 Ofsted inspections in the 6 years, and secondary schools the same
  4. Parents who poured over league tables to choose secondary schools or primary school league tables (published the same day as this post) 
  5. A school that proudly said that it was ‘Ofsted Outstanding’ in its documentation, assemblies or ‘banner’ outside the school gates. 
  6. A teacher in secondary school who said that the school was proud of the results of previous years and how this ‘made the school look good’
  7. A headteacher who was about trying to make his/her school the best in the area due to results
  8. A school in ‘special measures’ due to an inspection
  9. Predicted grades shown at every parents evening, because apparently this is what Parents want… as a consequence, testing and exams and assessments more than 2-3 times a year so ‘data’ can be distributed. 
  10. and the list goes on….

What is the impact on a young person of all of this?  do they feel pressure, responsibility, more motivated, or… when education doesnt seem to be about them, but the organisation, policies, data and outcomes, what might that do to how they feel within it..?

For any young person with half a brain, they must know that they are part of a larger system that isn’t about them at all.

It is a system that seems to be focused on the survival of the institution. A survival that is about outcomes, results and data. For young people this means that it is not about them at all. It is about the school, and the ideology of the system. Schooling has become a competition, and each school is fighting for survival and young people are pawns in the battle. As Giroux argues:

A euphemism for privatisation ‘choice’ relieves schools of the pretence of serving the public good. No longer institutions designed to benefit all the members of the community, they are refashioned in market terms designed to serve the narrow interests of individual consumers and national economic policies (2010)

 

And that is why its a business, a business that as a consequence is driven by the ethics of the market. Not neutral ethics, by the way, but ethics of the market, of competition, where its not the respect of young people, their education, choice, enjoyment or even capacity and opportunity to learn and flourish that drives, but grades, memorising and regurgitation. It has become a system that depresses young people into nothing more than an outcome, and reduces education to nothing more than a memory test and the pupils to the data they produce. What impact has this had on teaching and education itself… oh dear… Teachers fill in the blanks__________________________________________

What is the impact on young people who have now grown up knowing they are pawns in the system, not people who have been educated for their good? – well its not just because of debt that they might not go to uni, its that they fear the continuation of the same culture, and so it’ll take even more convincing of parents and others to encourage young people to go to a different institution for further education. They’ve become depressed by education, and for many they’ve given up and become fatalistic. This is what the culture of education has done. This is a tragedy, when so much of the world could be open to them in the future for learning. There may well be other impacts for young people that  knowing  that they are part of such a system will have.

Its is as no wonder that there’s queues for the Mental Health teams in many areas, could this be linked to how young people are educated in areas.. well it could be…

On a different note, when a culture of education has depressed young people – why should they reward the system by doing well within it? –

Might deliberately failing be an act of protest against it, and a way of hoping it might change for the next generation, failing deliberately becoming an altruistic/sacrificial act, to save others.

If the system has depressed education to its technicality, then it has no room for creativity, critical learning and space for enjoyment. Each young person is the equivalent of the parts of a macdonalds big mac and the final outcome brought about by a process of efficiency, cost effectiveness and replicability, with someone pouring over data sheets and numbers to create strategy from. One is economic, technical and managerial, teaching however, should be an art form. The link between the managerial and education is not lost on Henry Giroux who again writes:

The first is to establish the mission of the school system in terms that are assessable and replicable. The second is to efficiently configure the resources of the system to accomplish the mission. The third is to use feedback obtained to make adjustments in order to keep the mission within agreed upon costs…In perspectives such as this, unfortunately pervasive in the curriculum field, manipulation takes the place of learning, and any attempt at inter-subjective understanding is substituted for a science of educational technology in which ‘choices exist only when they make the systems more rational, efficient and controllable. In a critical sense the Achilles heel of the culture of positivitism in public school pedagogy is its refusal to acknowledge its own ideology as well as the relationship between knowledge and social control ( Giroux, Schooling and the culture of positivism, in On Critical Pedagogy, 2011)

I guess the ideology of the school is not so hidden when teachers freely admit it. And pupils can readily see it. But that doesn’t mean to say that its acknowledged. More that this ‘have to be this way’ and ‘this is default’. Anything contrary is frowned upon, everything within it is ‘awesome’.

For Social control, see the recent pieces on behaviour management in schools on the BBC, and a previous post here, where a teacher describes their reflection of the situation.

What kind of relationship does this kind of culture create for education?

Is the role of the pupil in the school nothing more than reduced to someone who churns out data that can be analysed? Can there be teaching and learning relationships between teacher and pupil when there is such a culture?

In ‘The presentation of the self in everyday life (1960)’  Irving Goffman suggests that the closer we are to the ‘place of trade or goods’ the harder it is to present ourselves with authenticity. Can teaching occur when there is no respect? or empathy? or desire instilled to learn for the joy of the process – id argue, along with Freire not. It takes a considerable more amount of effort for a pupil to feel committed and empathetic towards their teachers, and thus respect them, when they themselves only feel and know that they are only part of such a system. Its funny that as the system as devalued young people learning, schools have tried to find more and more ways in which pupils have to show how their pride of the school – proms, celebration nights, etc etc, masking and possibly causing a conflict in the young people themselves, its almost false.

The psychologists Deci and Ryan suggest that there are three factors that are needed for humans to continue for motivation, these are; Autonomy, Connectivity and Competence . (Taken from Bryan, 2016, p117-120) Suggesting that we are motivated when we believe we have choice within decision making and agency in our self determination, and these relate to our basic human needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness.  One problem is see is that if ethics of the market is driving schools and the relationships therein, then what might be left of those three is merely competence. For young people do not feel in control or have decision making (often options are already chosen as these ‘might produce better results, because of the ‘data’) , neither do they feel any connection with a teacher who is possibly a puppet in the system ( though sympathy maybe),  and yet if all three are required, or the first two in order that the third can happen, then there’s something fundamentally lacking in the culture and young people naturally will reject it – for its not doing them any good, and possibly why teachers are also leaving in their droves.

But overall, it is the politics and the ethics of the market that is driving education, and that seems to be at odds with the process of teaching and education itself. It is the ethics of the market that are shaping the learning relationship between teacher and pupil, and for the first time, this current generation know it and can spot it a mile off? . Why would they invest back? well only for their own selfish ambition. Because if they are able to they have to try and achieve from within a system that has depressed them and treats them as humans with limited respect, agency or dignity. That takes real guts, but may also accompany a feeling amongst the generously minded that their success might only lead to the same system being replicated for others in the future, and the pain of others. It might be a doubly selfish act to do well for themselves and know that it inflicts the same pain on others. Though fail and the system might only try and get more rigid.

Young people aren’t stupid and I am sure this dilemma is played out across the UK. For the future; ask young people currently who would go into teaching – then its probably considerably less than the number 25 years ago. They have seen the pain and fear in the eyes of teachers. Its ironic, I might have gone into teaching, many of my contemporaries did, school was ok for the most part for many so why not keep within it. I’m not sure how many would say the same today.

You’ve got to laugh when schools inject resilience and character improving classes for some, when not thinking that its the system and ideology that is at fault, and whilst this isn’t challenged, then nothing will change. Its a culture of fear, a culture of closure, a culture of competition and all of this reduces the potential for what should be the beauty and creativity of education to occur.

The converse of the system awareness is also true. For not only now do young people who might be doing well have the pressure put on them by themselves and probably also their parents, they subconsciously (if they hadnt picked up by now) realise that they are also under pressure because the school relies on them to do well. This is an extra pressure, that again, I think I wasn’t exposed to 25 years ago, others might have been.

In a culture of such competition, and school outcomes is the possibility that schools will do everything to try and cause young people to make the grades, and focus all the attention on the final outcome. Pupils are traded with £100’s of pounds of free revision books, guides, paper, cards, pens and such like, the investment in the final outcome to overcome the deficiencies of the process..? But what if this spoon feeding isn’t helping in the long term – its barely preparing young people for taking responsibility, of discovering subjects themselves and problem solving. but it helps the system and the school in their drive for competitiveness.

This is in no way a dig at teachers, who will no doubt receive thanks from many pupils at the end of term. Teachers in a difficult position who many have known teaching in a more pure era, or dreamed of it – yet are now highly constricted and in constant fear. I’m with you honestly I am. This is about the system and the effect this has on young people who know that they are part of it.

As a final twist. The logistics of the market, and the policies and funding from the Coalition government (2010) on-wards, have reduced local funding budget allocations to the point where, as a recent report suggested, 900 Full time youthworkers have been reduced from communities in the UK since 2016 alone. Now, I’m not going to big up the role of the youth services too much, as often some of the relationships between youth workers and schools was tenuous at best, but what i will say is that isnt just 900 opportunities and more to help ‘support young people’ (as this is what youth workers will have been allowed to do in the school system) – but potentially also 900 voices in different schools who might have spoken up about a ‘better way’ of educating young people, challenged the system a little with teaching staff, even got alongside the teachers who were struggling to educate within it – possibly been a prophetic voice when their own salary wasn’t as dependant on it. As i said, I’m not going to big up the role of those potential 900 youth workers, and schools with such a tight regime may not even have allowed them on the premises. But 900 people on site who might place young people as the core of what they do and who they are might be a challenge to those for whom its the outcomes and data that young people produce that is. The fact that a philosophy of education that many youth workers believe in has a high regard for common good, participation, equality and relationship may have been something to challenge the ethics of the market. But its also why 900 youth workers are dispensable, they critique the neo-liberal ideology too much. They demand that something better be done for the sake of young people, and demand that this is accompanied through respecting, listening and human dignity.

Let me finish with something idealistic and dreamlike especially in the current climate, something that Freire describes;

It is not difficult to see ho one of my principle tasks as a teacher who is open minded (progressive) is to motivate student the student to over come his or her difficulties in comprehending the subject under scrutiny. Essential to this tasks is the teachers affirmation of the students curiosity, which in turn will generate a sense of satisfaction and reward in the student on achieving his or her goal. All this will ensure that the continuity of the process of discovery, which is integral to the act of knowing.  To teach is not to transfer the comprehension of the object to a student but to instigate the student, who is a knowing subject, to become capable of comprehending and communicating what has been comprehended (Freire, ‘Teaching is a human act’, p105 in Ethics, Democracy and civic courage, 2001)

Progressive teaching requires for it to be a human act. It seems a far cry from the competitive teaching and the ethics of the market. Young people know that they are part of this system, in many situations they have been blatantly told that they are. I do believe that there can be another change, there has to be, for the current one is putting both the successful, middle and lower achieving young people to breaking point. Teaching is a human act, what it has become is a trade. Young people are intelligent, they spot a phoney a mile off. And business bullshit rubs off pretty quick, they know when they’re not centre of attention, or being asked to have sympathy with a system that doesn’t return it implicitly. And this is all before they also know that the ideology of austerity has also ruined parts of their personal life . So its worth thinking twice about the ‘Ofsted blooming marvellous’ banners or what is being asked to ‘make a school proud’ – and the effect of this on young people. Oh and in regard to school funding – how much is spent on schools to keep up with the system, with data managers, publicity managers and competition/school improvements? – could that be spent on challenging the system or educating struggling young people?

And while were at it the same could be said for nursing and social work. The needs have increased at the same time as cultures of fear and a shift to market values driving practices.

References

Bryan, Jocelyn, Human Being, 2016

Freire, P,  Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970

Freire, P,  Pedagogy of Freedom, Ethics, Democracy and Civic Courage, 1998

Friere, Horton, We make the Road by walking, 1990

Giroux, Henry A,  On Critical Pedagogy, 2011

Goffman, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday life, 1960

Youth workers take heart – you’re trying to do the (almost) impossible!

Over the last few weeks my Son and I, have been playing a game – I have also used in leadership sessions on strategy that I have facilitated as part of my role for Frontier Youth Trust. The game is called ‘Forbidden Island’  and it involves setting up the pieces iin a formation, to form an island, and then using each others abilities, and the game play to collect treasure and escape from the island before it becomes flooded. We have had the game a while, and when we got it aside from a few scrapes we managed to do it fairly easily. However, last week I played it in a group of 4 at the leadership training, and according the way the island formed – and doing the game with ‘new’ people we lost. Last night my Son and I played, and though we changed the settings from ‘novice’ to ‘expert’ we still lost – twice.

Whilst the game relies on a number of factors, each very changeable, and then some strategic thinking – how it is set up also contributes to how difficult it is. Making it virtually impossible for a group of newbies, or even more experienced players.

On a slightly different note, I once went for a job doing door to door sales for Gas and Electricity company, in the interview i was asked if i had done anything similar before. My response was that i had done door to door evangelism (dont judge me) as part of working for a church a few years before. It was, i think, the only part of the interview 20 years ago that i got full marks, for the interviewee said; ‘well if you can sell people religion at the door, you can sell them gas’

The point being – some times we dont realise quite how difficult – almost impossible the work we do actually is. And if we stopped to think about it – many of the conditions around make being a youthworker considerably difficult – and almost impossible at times to think that we might have ‘succeeded’ or ‘reached an outcome’, yet that doesnt stop us believing, trying, and being determined that something could be different for a young person, their family or the community around them. 

Now of course, there are other ‘impossible’ jobs around. Many in social work, the NHS and education might feel the same. Undervalued and Overworked, and under resourced. But some of those roles carry with them a large weight of political or organised will to make things different, unions, or the general public favour (especially for the NHS). And for many even in these professions they are under resourced and busy because of lack of nurses, for the youthworker under resourcing looks very different, it is no money. There is no shortage of work or even vacancies for employment in some of these sectors, and they are in the current climate still very much impossible jobs.

In regard to clergy, there is a fair amount of challenge, following vicars on twitter, and acknowledging the high issues of stress and mental health problems in the role is a sign of it becoming significantly more difficult, demanding and discouraging a role that it might used to have been. But again, there are vacancies for clergy, and long term contracts for clergy- its not the only thing – but security in a role can go a long way.

In another example, within Youthwork practice, whether we like it or not, theres a big push to help young people with ‘developing resilience’ that youthworkers are involved in through clubs, groups and activities. Yet at the same time theres not really the same push in society to create a better environment for young people to grow up in, especially the stressed out schools, the target driven teachers, or ofsted orientated outcomes. So, the youthworker ‘trying to build resilience’ is in a way trying to push against a heavy weight that is playing the game against the individual or group of young people. None of which is in its favour – just neo-liberalisms way of trying to get value out of education. So, the youthworker is almost trying to do, or measure, or actualise the impossible. But in a small way, its better to keep trying at the impossible, to keep believing that a young person might still flourish within or outside the ‘system’ and create those opportunities. And there are many other barriers, including poverty.

For the youthworkers in a faith context, or dare i say it in a faith-evangelism context- your task is as impossible. It is difficult to get anyone interested in the church, in the christian faith at the moment – let alone young people. You might only have a year contract to do the miracle, or be employed by the church without actually any other human resources or volunteers to ‘do the miracle’ – and theres no wonder its proving difficult and challenging. Because its virtually impossible (even with faith as an inspiration or motivation). But again, thats not to stop, its to realise that what you’re doing is not the game on an ‘easy’ level. What you’re trying to do isnt solved in a quick win, a short game – its long term. Nothing in faith based youthwork is about making something sustainable happen in the short term. Getting the church to ‘change’ though they pay you to get young people into the church (without saying as much) – impossible- almost… 

The youthwork manager – often forgotten in ‘youthwork blog posts’ – you know your job is impossible. Theres 28 plates spinning, from fundraising, to a child protection issue, to planning an away day, to writing a strategy, to recruit and train volunteers and everything else besides, you dont need me to say how impossible it can all feel. And everyone wants to tell you how they prioritised and organised, sometimes one dropped plate makes a heap of mess. And at the same time theres a longing for just ‘easy’ face to face action with young people – which isnt easy at all. Its not a completely impossible job – but it can feel like it, especially when funding gets tight and decisions about employment, contracts, activities and resources need to be made (including your own). But as a manager, you try and create an environment where others have the backing to do some of the difficult face to face stuff, create space to talk, training and supervision, try and eek out some funding for a trip, or a resource, or create an atmosphere of reflection, of determination and also support for the staff, the young person and the volunteer, and you fight, fight to keep the noise about young people to be more positive, to try and change the narrative about them. You galvanise and work in partnership, you gather and organise, you campaign and push for justice. All against the tide. The media tide, or local community opinion about young peoples place in society. It is an almost impossible task – but keeping on keeping on is what you and we all need to do. Image result for youthwork

For many reasons then, youthwork in its variety of forms, practice and approaches is an almost impossible job. It tried to act for justice and equality, tries to hear and respond to the voice of young people and give them trust and dignity, it flies in the face of those who write off young people in education or health systems. But think for a moment how much more impossible life might be or feel for that one young person you meet today without the conversation, question, activity or support that you are able to give them. Be encouraged, you’re doing an impossible job, yet for many young people you are making something positive more possible, and thats a beautiful thing and an impossible thing all at once.

The times we think it might be ‘easy’ in youthwork – hmm i think they are long gone…. ‘novice’ setting doesnt really exist. Take heart over Easter, have a break if you can, and deep down reflect on how you’re trying to create the beautiful in the places that can feel like the impossible.

Why outcomes in youth ministry exclude the poor

Yesterday i wrote a lengthy piece on why it isnt new that the church has abandoned the poor, because youth ministry has struggled with working with young people deemed ‘underclass’ , ‘poor’ or disruptive/challenging, ever since the dawn of Sunday schools. Youth Ministry’s struggle to work with the poor Since writing it i wondered if there was a simpler way of describing the issue. And there is. It is as simple as looking at the outcomes that have deem youth ministry to be successful.

Have a think about all the measurable outcomes that are part and parcel for youth ministry over the last few years and months….

so on..

you have a go….

 

heres some of them…

  • Keeping the group going?
  • Growing the church?
  • Telling young people about Jesus?
  • Giving them opportunities to share faith?
  • Helping young people mature in the faith?
  • Helping young people participate in the life of the church?
  • enabling young people to be ‘university ready’?
  • Discipling young people?
  • Helping young people be good citizens?
  • Shape young people into good christian leaders
  • Teaching them and helping them be aware of issues in ‘the world’ – sex, porn, racism, ‘the media’ etc etc
  • Safety (ive done this before its here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-Vm)

I bet you can think of several more.

Can anyone see the problem? 

We could make the argument that all young people are oppressed in Society, even the young people given the opportunity of private school are victims of oppression due to their age and also being part of the same targetted demographic that sees young people as a problem. But i think this is a weak argument to make in regard to young people and poverty. Thats not to say none of the young people who have the benefits of private education are not in need of faith. Again, its not the point. The point is that when it comes to taking seriously the oppression and poverty of young people in society, outcomes orientated youth ministry cause only the cream to rise to the top, and be focussed on.

For any outcome to be seen to be successful it needs to be measurable. And this involves numbers and indicators. What this means is that as a result the success of doing youth ministry is based on young people, groups and activities that enable the above to occur. And what becomes outcome orientated becomes focussed on.

As result, even in something as unpredictable as youth ministry, having outcomes, targets and strategies for these, causes a inevitable to turn to enabling these things to happen, in a way that might be efficient, controlling and predicatable. Its a turn to aspects of what Macdonalds has made famous in its managerial and working processes.

Turning to efficiency – will inevitably mean that working with challenging young people might be seen as a ‘waste of time’

Turning to predictability – might cause a shift to manage audiences that are less disruptive ( see previous post)

Turning to control – well if we can get away with the using similar materials year on year itll mean we know what we’re doing.

It mean that something like detached youthwork, an open youth club, chaplaincy, schools work, community work all face the axe, as they arent able to fit within such a neat organised ordered outcome system, at least not very easily. They need to be viewed as counter this culture and good for what they are, especially if they are moments of genuine interaction with young people who actually are poor. It is almost not enough to invest financially in something because it might be ‘good’ anymore.

Thats a complicated way of saying that having outcomes favours working with compliant young people.

Outcomes for youth ministry show that its a numbers game

The bums on seats argument is one that is not going to be repeated here. But Measuring church by numbers is the pastime of the church. Its new appointments within youth ministry are evangelists, and thus concerned with growing a dying church, and looking for models of growth ( again efficiency/outcomes) – not goodness.  Meeting the needs of an institution mean that a numbers game is played, and that reduces completely the value of the human existence. Empty churches and ‘praying for those not here’ dominate. Having a ‘church growth’ midset ( all business speak) , developing ‘leadership’ are all monuments from an outcome orientated agenda, one fixed more on institution that intuition and improvisation, strategy not community salvation.

But if we’re serious about church growth – we dont care who attends – just cause them to come, create an audience, put it on social media!

If we’re serious about youth ministry continuing – keep the numbers up and entertain the young people – its those who fit in..

if we’re serious about young people participating in the life of the church – then we’ll give the opportunities to those who can thrive in that setting.

If we’re serious about teaching young people – then we’ll shape the audience accordingly.

But whilst all of these outcomes are common. None reflect an awareness or desire to genuinely work in areas that might be deemed ‘hard to reach’ , ‘ working class’. Its an outcomes and numbers game that causes those to be left behind. Any numbers game causes a shift in working practices. the evidence of this is in schools who shift around at huge cost the young people who struggle. Because no one wants to invest in young people from the bottom to get to the first rung of an academic ladder, its about a-c. Its also the problem in youth ministry that has a bent towards enabling leaders – leadership looks like what the church regards as leadership, and character, wealth and influence seem to make a greater case for what this should look like. Leadership is not only mostly male, it is also mostly middle class, or post oxbridge.

None of the traditional outcomes for youth ministry have any serious attempt to recognise that the dynamics of mission within abandoned estates, with families facing food bank or debt relief looks substantially different. Outcomes focus on maintaining an institution. Being present and loving a local community, family and struggling young person is what Jesus might have us do i know what youll say, But that doesnt yield results?  **** the results.

We do what we do ‘for the least of these’. So let have youth ministry that has a heart for ‘for the least of these’ and practices that are shaped around this.