Monday, 29 October 2012

Schools' souls

The number of exclusions from local schools has risen sharply, and it was reported last week that the local authority is sufficiently concerned about this to form a working party to look into it.

Although the working party may uncover something more subtle, this does appear to be the entirely predictable consequence of the conversion of almost all the local Secondary Schools into independent Academies - which are designed to compete openly for business in a world in which the percentage of children reaching five GCSEs including English and Maths at at least Grade C (or, now, the package of GCSEs which form the English Bac) is the one public headline league-tabled piece of information which potential parents and immanent inspectors will see and judge. Where previously a school might have worked hard to meet the needs all but the most disruptive of its pupils it is now almost essential for its survival that it excludes the most challenging and failing.

Meanwhile, in the week I also heard how our local FE College finds that it often has to deliver ‘functional skills’ (numeracy and literacy training) not only to those who come to it without a GCSE at at least Grade C in Maths and English but also to many of those who come to it with these.

This appears to be a consequence of the way many schools put pupils in for their essential GCSEs early and, where a good enough GCSE in one subject is achieved, shift their studies to the other subjects they need to have in the bank. This means that some of those coming to FE Colleges with, say, a good enough Maths GCSE, have not done any Maths or actively deployed any significant numeracy skills for, in some cases, as much as eighteen months.

These sorts of things have all been mentioned here before (especially on 31st August 2009 and 24th March 2011, but also on 2nd July 2010 and 23rd June 2011). Such posts might appear to be socialist myopia were it not for the third encounter with these things last week which was an interview with in the Tablet with John McIntosh ‘a long-standing member of the right-leaning Centre for Policy Studies’ as well as the Blairs’ children’s Headteacher. He could not have expressed the damage being done by Gove compliance enforcement more clearly:

I think the league-table culture and the compliance culture which Ofsted has brought into the system has taken the soul out of schools… heads in particular have become very robotic. Ask most heads about the curriculum and their response will be in terms of five GCSEs, the EBac and league tables. Teachers have almost lost the vocabulary to discuss the curriculum and what it is about.

The Tablet summarises “a culture of targets and inspections caused a school to focus too heavily on ‘ticking boxes’ and climbing league tables, rather than on providing a balanced education for pupils.” One instinct might be to blame schools for capitulating to this cultural pressure were it not for the fact that the Headteacher’s job and the school’s recruitment (and thus finances) stand or fall on the boxes ticked.

The picture was taken near Europarc on the edge of the parish a few weeks ago.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Where we are

The church doesn’t really know how to operate in a post-Christian society. It isn’t our fault. It is simply that we have no experience of doing it on which to build. This isn’t an original thought, but it is brought back to mind by my recent post about our mission situation and by a recent shift in the Baptism policy of the Cleethorpes parishes.

The church knows how to operate in a pagan society. It has a lot of experience of this - this is where it begun and where it is in many parts of the world today. In these circumstances Baptism is a carefully guarded gateway (albeit most Biblical examples in fact evidence very little preparation).

It knows how to operate in a Christian society. It has a lot of experience about this - this is where we have been in our European culture for many centuries. In these circumstances Baptism is an open way (albeit followed up by sometimes quite substantial later formation).

Some of us persist in seeing a Christian society around us (with some justification when we are welcomed in schools, and when we are asked to pray by strangers) so we continue to use the open approach. Because there are substantial Christian elements in a post-Christian society, this sometimes works well. When it does, the process of human ‘confirmation bias’ means we take this to be strong evidence that we are doing the right thing (and ignore the way we can be seen to peddle ‘cheap grace’).

Some see a pagan society around us (with equal justification when large Baptism congregations are uninterested and unresponsive, and when secular values dominate) and so revert to a more fenced approach. Because there are substantial pagan elements in a post-Christian society, this also sometimes works well. When it does the same human tendency to self justification means we also take it to be strong evidence that we are doing the right thing (and ignore the way we can be seen to provoke long term hostility).

But my instinct is that we have simply not yet found out how to operate in the complex and changing post-1960s society. An often liberal instinct towards inclusiveness and an often evangelical instinct towards rigourous commitment both arise from Gospel values and both feel consistent, justified and neat. But until we are better nuanced in our understanding of the complex situation in which the church now exists any subtlety about policies of engagement (let alone Baptism) doesn’t seem very likely.

The picture is another of Kirmington church, this time taken next to the lights ahead of the runway at Humberside Airport.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Human gnomon

Each visitor to this human size sundial is invited to form its gnomon him or herself. It is on the Cumbrian coast at Seascale and it is a memorial to those killed in the shootings there a couple of years ago. We were quite taken by it when we were there last week - albeit in the rain so we used it in reverse to identify the approximate direction of the sun.

My father was at school in the village in the 1930s, by coincidence my mother-in-law taught at a different school there in the 1950s, and by no coincidence at all we stayed there for family holidays in the 1970s, so it was good to call in again.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

West Cumbrian Viking Crosses





Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Monday, 8 October 2012

Not just an extra Archdeacon

Things are changing very rapidly in the diocese. There were a range of real and imagined worries when a new Bishop of Lincoln arrived a year ago, and he quickly commissioned an external group to do a review. The reviewers spoke to a large number of those on Bishop’s Staff, at the Cathedral and at the Diocesan Offices. They also spoke to eighteen other people across the diocese, of which I was one.

The Chief Executive resigned soon after the first draft was circulated internally and the Area Bishop of Grimsby announced his early retirement shortly before the contents of the final report were made public a couple of weeks ago, so the ground was beginning to move before we even saw it. Further changes in our strategies and our financial arrangements will follow.

Alongside the Bishop of Lincoln, we have been operating with an Area Bishop of Grantham and an Archdeacon together serving the southern half of the diocese (the Archdeaconry of Lincoln) and an Area Bishop of Grimsby and an Archdeacon together serving the northern half (the two separate Archdeaconries of Stow and of Lindsey - in reality a bit more than half the diocese).

The review recommends the Area Bishop system be discontinued partly in response to apparent fears that two quite different dioceses were developing, and the Bishop has simply got on and done that. It seems quite possible that consultation will result in the one remaining Area Bishop continuing as the only Suffragan Bishop in the diocese; a large amount of the ministry strategy work and the routine appointment process work will then need to be done elsewhere.

The review recommended a new senior-status Director of Ministry post to hold the whole recruitment, review and support of the clergy processes, which is where it envisaged the ministry strategy work being implemented. It also noted that the two Archdeacons were seriously over stretched.

What the Bishop and Diocesan Council have in fact recommended, and what the Diocesan Synod agreed last week, is the immediate recruitment of a third Archdeacon. The idea is that the sizes of the three Archdeaconries are adjusted so that each covers about a third of the diocese, and each Archdeacon gives perhaps a third of his or her time to strategic work across the whole diocese in the areas of use of buildings, nurturing of lay discipleship and deployment of ministry.

Contributions to the Synod meeting were limited to two minutes each. All l was able to do was ask for clarification about this. Two Archdeacons giving six days a week each to their Archdeaconries doesn’t appear to be any different to three Archdeacons giving four days each and so doesn’t appear to be a response to the review finding them over stretched. One Archdeacon giving two days a week to ministry issues is also much less than a full-time Director of Ministry appointment if that is what the report recommendation meant and the loss of Area Bishops requires.

The diocesan Press Release after the Synod persists in saying that the changes are in part ‘to reduce the significant administrative burden currently placed on the two Archdeacons’ - something which I understand may in fact be achieved in part through a different plan for a ‘triage’ system by which the overwhelming flow of requests for things like permission to undertake minor work on churches will go to the diocesan office and only those which would then benefit from Archidiaconal ‘treatment’ would reach them.

It is over ten years since I last went to a Diocesan Synod. It seemed to me then that it had been so managed that it had no realistic chance of being a real player in policy development, so I stopped going. This time the Synod gave a fair wind to the rest of the report, noting it and authorising the setting up of nine panels which should indeed make a difference as they to work at the whole range of other recommendations within it.

What I have spent the last twelve years doing is serving as a Governor of a large College of Further and Higher Education where I’ve got very used to an extreme level of scrutiny of our standards and rigour of governance. With examining how we measure ourselves against the new Common Inspection Framework and with the on-going process of assessing whether a recommendation can be made to the Privy Council finding us worthy of having Foundation Degree Awarding Powers (FDAP), this process feels almost continual.

So it was slightly surreal being back at Diocesan Synod simply being informed of the Area Bishop changes and voting through the new Archdeacon arrangements. I realise that a large Synod cannot really operate as a tight governing body and has a different role, but I know what Ofsted and the FDAP assessors would say if the College Governors had agreed radical adjustments to the provision of Deputy and Assistant Principal posts on the basis of a couple of paragraph in an external review and a one paragraph proposal from the Principal which didn’t appear quite to match it, with a single two minute window to raise questions, and without things like detailed Job Descriptions, impact assessments and organisation charts. Which doesn’t, of course, mean that it isn’t an appropriate and potentially creative way forward. We shall see.

Meanwhile, I sometimes encourage people who come across local ironstone church walls to look for shell fossils, and found this example myself at the weekend on the tower wall of St Helen's, Kirmington.

Monday, 1 October 2012

The absence of elephants

The demography of our congregations is such that the presence of those who were formed as present and future members of the Church of England in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s has masked the startlingly smaller number so formed in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s, but as they begin to die the huge gap is exposed.

This is something I’ve posted twice before. I’ve now been trying to do some work to get my brain clear for the next meeting of the deanery Mission Area Planning Group, and what I’ve found myself typing is that, despite our doing what we thought were all the right things in the parish over twenty years, the elephants born in 1960s onwards are simply not in the room.

An article in the Church Times last week picked up the radically different level of charitable giving by those born during and between the two World Wars (exactly those who were teenagers in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s) compared especially with those born since 1966 (the oldest of whom became teenagers when the Thatcher Government began - exactly those we hardly ever recruit); it compared more than simply the social cohesion of the first with the individualism of the second.

Earlier in the month it had carried another article which described huge church growth in England in the last few years but admitted that areas with static or shrinking populations, little ethnic diversity, and low economic dynamism have tended to see less church growth... (which) suggests we need to be realistic about those contexts which are toughest; it is harder to grow a church in Middlesborough than Middlesex.

Meanwhile, also this month, the Grimsby Telegraph reports a local rural church facing £200 000 of repairs with fifteen regular attenders who are no longer able to furnish things from Chuchwardens and PCC to engagement with the local school and so it may shut. If it does so it will not be the first, nor (given the number of churches where literally the youngest regular attender is well above retirement age) will it be the last.

These three articles caught my attention and flavour my awareness at the moment, but they don’t say anything we did not really already know: we are trying to attract later generations into a pattern of church commitment and life of an earlier generation; we are trying to do so in one of the least promising social setting in the country; and these truths are so unpalatable that we do not pay any real attention to them in our discussion or planning.

Of course there are exceptions, and a number of individuals brought into our present pattern of discipleship and organisation each year, but, nevertheless, the general points remain stubbornly true.  So I wonder whether deanery planning ought now to seek someone who will specialise in helping key churches in the deanery provide something new which addresses those aged 25-55 in our community.

And whether parish planning should carve out significant time to follow up the way a previous Curate talked briefly before she left with some of those in this age group who attend our regular worship or alternative provision and with a handful of those who come to us to request Baptism and Marriage to pay much more attention to their habits and thinking before we plan anything else which is new. 

Meanwhile, we enjoyed lots of the details in this Last Supper scene, which comes again from the Burrell Collection.