Education Today

(The following is an edited version of an address given at the Grindon Hall, Sunderland, Awards Ceremony in the Sage, Gateshead, on 26 June 2009)

Education poses challenges for parents, teachers and pupils alike. It did in the case of Winston Churchill. Here is one typical school report: he is...

“Constantly late for school, losing his books and papers and various other things into which I need not enter. He is so regular in his irregularity that I really don't know what to do. He had such good abilities but these would be ‘made useless by habitual negligence’.”

However, his mother decided to put some pressure on the young Winston; and it worked. His leaving report, aged 18 was as follows:

“His work this term has been excellent. he understands now the need of taking trouble … he has learned a lesson of life-long value.”

A bad report need not be the last report!

But many parents today are not worried just about how children receive what is on offer at their schools. Nor are they worried just about how children acquire the basic skills of the “3 Rs” – Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic). They are more worried about what pupils learn – or don’t learn – about right and wrong. For many children are learning that right and wrong are just matters of opinion.

Jesus Christ, the definer of what is right and good

A parent (a university teacher herself) was recently telling how she discussed this issue with her daughter. At one point the mother said this: “Martin Luther King said slavery was wrong. Suppose there is someone who says slavery is good and we should bring it back. Couldn’t we say he is wrong and Martin Luther King is right and that slavery is bad, full stop!” Her daughter was stumped for a moment and troubled, but at last said: “Well, I think slavery is wrong, too. But that is just my opinion.”

At a Christian school, like Grindon Hall, things are much clearer. Its definition of a Christian School says: “It … means we … aim to have Christ at the centre of all we do.” And when Christ is at the centre, you have a reference point for what is right and wrong. You also have a reference point for what it means to have a good character. As responsible parents, we should be concerned with good character as well as seeing that our children one day can independently earn a living.

But what is “good character” and how do you get it? For Christian schools good character is based on Jesus Christ who the Bible says is “the same yesterday, today, and forever”. Christians believe that Jesus Christ not only reveals God to us but also what is truly human. And why do they believe that? Because, as the Bible also says: “as to his human nature [Jesus] was a descendant of David” (Rom 1.3). But – and this is the big “but” (it continues in verse 4)…

“… through the Spirit of holiness [he] was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.”

So Christianity is not just wistful thinking. It is based on reasons and reality. Christ’s was a real Resurrection. And the fact that Jesus Christ was seen really alive persuaded the early disciples of his truth and that he is, indeed, Lord of all. The remains of other world leaders remain in, or on, this earth. In Jerusalem there is an empty tomb. But if Jesus is the ideal for education, how do people become more like him themselves and avoid what is wrong?

First, a Christian school sees human wrongdoing as not just due to our upbringing. Fundamentally it sees it due to ourselves and the fact that men and women and boys and girls go their own way and not God's. And when you lose the fatherhood of God, you soon lose the brotherhood of man and are in trouble.

As children we were not born perfect. It was not our environment that made us bad. The bible says – and it is true of each one of us: “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child” (Prov 22.15). There is a heart problem. Of course we must work and pray for a good environment and the good upbringing of children. But Jesus taught that out of the heart (the inner self) come many of the wrong things that disfigure our world and our schools (Mark 7.21). So we need forgiveness and new hearts. The Christian good news is that Christ offers both – totally free forgiveness through his death for us on the Cross; and a new heart as his Holy Spirit works in all who trust in Christ as Saviour and Lord.

The British educational tradition

Some of you may be thinking all this is strange and something quite new for schools to be teaching. But this is mainstream and part of our British historical educational tradition. And it is believed around the world. A new best seller, just out, is entitled God is Back and the subtitle is “how the global rise of faith is changing the world”. The authors are John Micklethwait the editor of the Economist and Adrian Wooldridge, its Washington bureau chief. The book shows that getting back to religion and the Christian faith is normal. The abnormal is secular Western Europe without its Christian faith. Certainly in education the normal has been the Christian tradition.

The only schools available to our Anglo-Saxon ancestors were those provided by Christians. Here in the North East in the 8th century was one of the greatest centres of learning in Europe - at the monastery nearby in Jarrow. Later in the 9th century Alfred brought education to Wessex. In the late 14th century William of Wykeham founded a school at Winchester and then New College, Oxford. His aim, I quote, was...

“...chiefly so that Christ may be more fervently and frequently preached, and faith and the worship of God's name increased and more firmly maintained.”

In the early 16th century John Colet, Dean of St Paul’s founded St Paul's school in London. Colet said:

“My intent is by this school specially to increase knowledge and worshipping of God and our Lord Jesus Christ and good Christian life and manners in the children.”

Then came the Reformation and all the Edward VI schools – Edward being a champion of Reformed beliefs. In the 18th century Robert Raikes and others began the first Sunday Schools for poorer children to learn to read (especially the Bible) and to write. In the 19th century there were more church schools. Then in 1870 the State joined in. And in the 20th century there was the famous 1944 Education Act. But still the values and assumptions were fully Christian. Lord Selbourne introduced the 1944 bill in the House of Lords as the Second World War was drawing to a close. Speaking for the vast majority, he said:

“The real enemy is naked materialistic paganism which has reared its head in Europe to a height unknown for a 1,000 years which threatens Christianity today and with it our civilization, our homes and our people ... Anglo-Saxon democracy would perish without the Christian ethic and unless we are brought up to be a God-fearing Christian nation, all our vaunted progress in other directions will crumble into dust.”

And that would have been the view until the late 1960s and early 1970s in this country. Indeed, in 1973 one of the aims of the Newcastle upon Tyne Education Committee was, I quote:

“To help the pupils towards an understanding of the Christian Faith in Jesus Christ as ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ (John 14.6) and to provide a basis from which they may move toward the belief that ‘Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing they may have life through his Name’” (John 20.31).

But we are light years away from that now in our state schools. An anti-Christian philosophy has been allowed to have house room. Like the elephant in the tent it has squeezed out essential beliefs that have given us the British educational tradition. Yet 70% of our population still claim to be Christian. But I thank God that more parents are wanting to get back to that authentic Christian tradition for their children.

The continuing challenge

In 1954 Roger Bannister was the first man to run a 4 minute mile. As an old boy of my school he came to speak at our annual prize giving after this great run. We were not a Christian school as such, but the headmaster, introduced him, with a quote from the Bible – from Ps 147 where it says:

“His [God’s] pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor his delight in the legs of a man; the Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love” (verse 10).

Yes, it is good to get awards for academic and other excellence. It is good to get world fame for being the first man to run the mile in under 4 minutes. But the most important thing in life is to have God’s approval as you honour him and trust him; and then to put your hope in his unfailing love which you see supremely in Jesus Christ. That is true for parents, teachers and pupils.

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