Why innovative teaching is unlikely to come from the UK

The World Innovation Summit for Education awards $500,000 to the most innovative teacher - but British attitudes toward education mean that it's unlikely to ever be awarded to a teacher from the UK.

Here's a sentiment that you hear rather a lot in education futurology circles (yes, such circles exist). If you took a doctor from a hundred years ago and dumped him in a modern hospital, he'd be utterly lost: medical science has simply changed too much. Do the same with a Victorian teacher, though, and they'd probably get along fine. It’d take them a while to get used to the fact blackboards were now white and electronic, and lessons about Nazis might present a few challenges – but the basic model, of one teacher talking at a couple of dozen kids, is pretty much unchanged from the 19th century.

This is odd, because it's not as if it works particularly well: just think of all the amazing stuff from science or history that school managed to make about as exciting as Tipp-ex.

So, there are those who think it’s time to shake things up a bit. In between launching global media brands and hosting inappropriate sporting tournaments, the tiny Gulf state of Qatar likes to play host to the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), where teachers, NGOs and former leaders of the Labour party can debate new approaches to schooling. Since 2011 each conference has also honoured one particularly innovative educator by awarding them the WISE Prize, which is worth $500,000 and a big gold medal, and which PR people tend to refer to in suspiciously close proximity to the word “Nobel”.

This year's prize went to sociologist Vicky Colbert, for the Escuela Nueva (New School) model. Invented in 1975 to improve rural schools in Colbert’s native Colombia, Escuele Nueva sees children, effectively, teaching each other. Working together in small groups, the kids work through a series of pre-designed modules at their own pace; their teachers, WISE says, "modify their role from transmitters of facts to facilitators and advisors”. The goal is to teach kids stuff like critical thinking, teamwork and entrepreneurialism. All this is the sort of thing that would bring Michael Gove out in hives, but it’s now been adopted in 16 countries.

There’s another idea that gets a lot of play at events like WISE: the flipped classroom. In a traditional school, a teacher tells kids stuff, then they regurgitate it in homework. The flipped classroom turns this on its head, setting reading or watching a video as homework, then using class time for discussion and practical work. This, its fans say, allows a class to cover more ground. The fact the kids are active in class should mean they learn more, too.

This is all very exciting, and the sort of thing technologists give impassioned speeches about at conferences. (Although there is a limit. This year's WISE included a debate titled 'Can we have education without teachers?'; the panel's swift and unanimous verdict was 'no'.) But I don't think we'll be seeing it on any scale back in Blighty any time soon – and not just because of Michael Gove.

It's possible to shake things up in developing countries because things are not working particularly well at the moment. A lot of kids aren't in school (an estimated 57 million globally), and a lot more than that are in schools that aren't very good. There's no Ofsted looking over their shoulders, scaring them off of taking risks, either: educators have both the motive and the opportunity to try something radical. If it works, it can spread (Escuala Nueva is now Colombian government policy). If it doesn't, hey, it was worth a shot.

Our schools system will be a lot harder to change, paradoxically because it’s actually reasonably good. Enough people got a decent education for the debate to be beset by an epidemic of 'well it worked for me'-ism, a psychological condition in which people assume that any move schools make away from their own experience of education can only be dumbing down. Gove is the most visible proponent of this, but he's far from the only one. Can you imagine how the Daily Mail would feel about a school that described its teachers as ‘facilitators’? Or one who set homework via YouTube? Imagine the reaction if that school failed.

Schools have moved on since Mr Chips hung up his mortar board, of course, not least because of those whiteboards and all the other whizzy technology on offer; there are patches of more radical experimentation out there, too. But I don't think a nationwide rethink of how the classroom works will be on the cards any time soon. Teachers will stay teachers, the classroom will remain un-flipped, and that time travelling will feel right at home. Maybe this is educational 'rigour'. But, just maybe, we're missing out.

Could a Victorian teacher teach in a modern day classroom? Image: Getty

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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