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The television version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall is the latest account to challenge St Thomas More’s reputation as a courageous defender of the rights of conscience. Was he, in truth, a liberal icon, a religious fanatic or something in between?
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Education, Education, Education was the mantra of New Labour - but beyond the din of sound bites and slick spin there was a fundamental truth that even the most obstinate of opponents recognised: education transforms and enhances life. The real issue and contention among politicians, academics and professionals was how to provide this life-changing service. One of the fundamental errors – in my view – was the definition of education.
This is still the issue today with the suggested reforms of Education Secretary, Michael Gove. In the narrowest sense, education can be seen as merely passing examinations and acquiring useful facts. In its true sense it is about “drawing out” from pupils their God-given potential and talents, leading them toward a life of fulfilment and dignity. Such an enterprise requires those responsible to be free of all political allegiances and agendas.
For example, great literature transcends cultural and national limitations because it feeds and nourishes the soul. It connects with the deepest emotions, desires, hopes and longings of every human being regardless of creed or colour. It cannot be compartmentalised. The drive to focus solely on one particular nation’s literature is ill-conceived, somewhat sectarian and, in essence, a betrayal of education. So too is the trite and tick-box mentality that the success of a school is determined by a league table, bureaucratic clap-trap or the flourishing of a pupil by a set of examination grades. Such Gradgrindian and narrow Utilitarian ideologies diminish life, dull expectation and thwart personal achievement and self-fulfilment.
We need our schools to turn out well-adjusted, balanced, personally fulfilled and confident young adults who will make a significant and meaningful contribution to their society, community and workplace. An A* in English Language or mathematics does not, necessarily, achieve such. As a former headmaster and teacher with over 20 years experience in the classroom I am not convinced that teachers have all the answers but I do believe that politicians should trust their instinct and judgements on such matters and work with them for the benefit of our pupils. Whatever I have achieved in my life – both personal and professional – has been a direct result of education. Teachers have played a significant and determinative role. Their unstinting commitment and determination to see beyond my own domestic and idiosyncratic limitations and personal expectations has transformed and redeemed my life. And that, surely, is the raison de etre of all education. It sees a world above the ordinary, beyond the quotidian and mundane. It opens us up to endless and exciting possibilities and experiences all of which contribute and help to build our sense and shape of who we are as individuals.
The teaching profession, like all professions, should never become towered in ivory or smugly complacent – it is always in need of reform. But – I would argue – it is a matter of intelligent and reflective evolution rather than the textbook-burning revolution proposed by some politicians. All too often in such instances the baby is thrown out with the bath water and good practice – with ineptitude – is drained away.
For any educational endeavour to succeed there has to be a bigger picture; an overall aim whether that is religious or secular. Fundamental questions about the nature and value of human beings have to be addressed before embarking on how education supports and promotes this goal. If not, education is rootless and in such an arid landscape nothing flourishes. As the Book of Proverbs reminds us “Where there is no vision, the people perish” Or, in this instance, we might say, “the pupils perish”.
Daniel Kearney is a former headmaster