Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Making sense of being


The ongoing controversy about collective worship is missing the point, says John Caperon. It's time for a wider debate on the place and purpose of spirituality in education.

The summer TV season wallowed around in what passes among TV executives for 'reality'. We had the now surely almost defunct Big Brother and the tawdry, exhibitionist eroticism of Love Island.

But the joker in the pack was The Convent, BBC 2's follow-up to last year's astonishingly successful series The Monastery. Here, we saw a group of four women - all facing different life issues - live for six weeks in a convent of the Poor Clares in West Sussex. Exposed to silence and to spirituality, each woman was profoundly affected, finding some new kind of clarity in her life.

Perhaps there's a lesson here for all of us in education. Forget the endless, sterile debates over whether assemblies and corporate worship have a place in schools. Forget the discussions about how harmful religion may be; how it is a force for hatred and destruction when its core values are abused or forgotten.

Let's think instead about the educational potential of spirituality in its broadest and most inclusively human sense: the time has perhaps come for a re-assertion of the spiritual.

Buried in our legislative definitions of what the school curriculum is actually for are some key statements which we should now re-assess.

In the beginning

The 1988 Education Act referred to the obligation of schools to promote through a broad and balanced curriculum "the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils".

Later, there emerged SMSC (spiritual, moral, social and cultural) development, subject to Ofsted inspection. In both definitions, the spiritual dimension got priority.

It's arguable, of course, that none of this grand language depended on clear educational thinking. It could be seen as mere rhetorical gesturing, and the cynic might point out that despite the notional priority given to the spiritual, there was never, anywhere in legislation, an attempt to define precisely what was 'spiritual development'.

But the priority of the spiritual remained clear in legislation, and by 2002, Ofsted had moved towards trying to define what it actually meant by spiritual development. Inspection Guidance Papers (2002) set out a series of characteristics "likely to be developed" by "pupils who are developing spiritually".

The cautious phrasing indicates some degree of hesitancy: after all, Ofsted was exploring uncharted territory.

Faced with the spiritual, in fact, Ofsted slipped into rhetorical overdrive. Its list of characteristics of those who are developing spiritually includes, for instance, "a readiness to challenge all that would constrain the human spirit".

This is wonderfully archaic phrasing; there is also a strongly dated air to "an appreciation of the intangible - for example, beauty, truth, love, goodness, order, as well as of mystery, paradox and ambiguity".

But while this lofty language appears at first glance simply to gesture towards the ineffable, it does at least give the impression of something serious - if hard to define.

And there will be very many school leaders who will sense, on reflection, that what Ofsted was feeling its way towards was actually something which lies at the very heart of their own motivation and moral purpose.

The old Platonic verities - beauty, truth, goodness - and the core value of Christianity - love - still resonate, even in the 21st century. These are things that still count for educators.

Ley lines and crystals?

But 'the spiritual' as a category may be suspect. Think of all those bookshop sections on -body, mind and spirit? (what until relatively recently we would have called 'religion and philosophy').

Glancing across the shelves you might conclude that the spiritual today is nothing more than ley lines, crystals and vegetarianism, with Celtic chant and aromatherapy thrown in for good measure.

In this context, 'spirituality' seems to have more to do with esoteric, inner experiences of psychic illumination than with what the population as a whole would recognise as the world of 'reality'.

So how can we more clearly and positively define the spiritual, and spirituality? The jury is still out on whether there is such a thing as a specific 'spiritual intelligence', or SQ, and I have my personal doubts about it.

It seems reasonable to go to an expert for help. In The Wound of Knowledge, his study of Christian spirituality, Archbishop Rowan Williams rejects notions of spirituality based on the private and inner world of individual consciousness.

Instead, he suggests, we should think of spirituality as that which encompasses the whole of our response to the world around us - and to God. The spiritual is not to do with part of the person, but a function of the whole person, in relationship. It is to do with reality as experienced by the whole person.

Taking this perspective, there is every good reason for the priority given to the spiritual in our educational legislation. Even Ofsted's somewhat grandiose language may not be so far out of place.

For if 'the spiritual' is about the whole person in relation to his or her world, to everything that is, then spiritual education has to be a priority. If we ignore the spiritual dimension - that is, the holistic, whole person and relational aspect - perhaps we can't really be said to be educating students in any meaningful way at all.

Spirituality in the curriculum

Our curricular subjects, of course, have a spiritual aspect. From history we may derive a sense of our temporary location among a specific people in time and place. From geography we may learn about the fragility of our world and its eco-system.

The sciences may contribute to our understanding of, and wonder at, the astonishing complexities of life in the world. Language will help us hear and understand others, and express ourselves; literature will take us into the inner world of others, and perhaps our own too.

But the subject-based pattern is at root inadequate. It needs coherence and a unifying principle if it is to provide for students anything more than bits and pieces of remembered (or forgotten) stuff.

The spiritual question, "How do I as a human person relate to all that is outside and beyond me?" can provide just that unifying coherence. This fundamental human question is what educators must help their students to ask, and to answer.

Every subject of the curriculum has its place in providing part-answers. But it is probably seldom that subject teachers currently point beyond their own subject towards the larger question.

It is all the more important, then, for school leaders to have a unifying and coherent philosophy of education which sees the interconnectedness of everything in the school curriculum, and the spiritual dimension of the educational enterprise.

The legislators got it right when they prioritised the spiritual. To be concerned with the spiritual is to place the foundation areas of human meaning, identity, value and personhood at the centre of education. And this, I believe, is where they belong.

It may be hard to measure personal maturity, responsiveness to others and to the world, integration and sensitivity, understanding. But who we are and how we relate to our world is more significant than our mental baggage - that is, the content of the formal curriculum.

Which is why, perhaps, the best 'reality' TV has dealt with the whole person reality of people confronting the meaning of their lives in a spiritual context.

John Caperon is a former headteacher, now Director of the Bloxham Project and an ASCL consultant.

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