Spiritual Human is proud to present a guest blog from educator Steve Merifield. Steve was born in Hartlepool in the North East of England. He graduated from Leeds Metropolitan University with an Honours Degree in Physiology/ Psychology and a PGCE; later he went on to complete a Masters Degree in Education at York University. Steve started his teaching career as a graduate of P.E. and spent some time playing professional sport. In the intervening years he has worked at a number of schools in Yorkshire and the North East. He has held a range of positions including Head of department, Head of Year, Vice Principal. He has been a Principal for over a decade in a number of schools, many in challenging circumstances.
Musa Askari invited Steve to write a personal piece about his life in education. The challenges faced and overcome. As you will discover Steve surpasses these expectations and brings us closer to the life of an educator. He has taken his reflections to insights often overlooked from which we could all benefit by valuing education in wider society as a public good. At times one is moved to tears by the beauty and pain of the Steve’s experiences and at others our eyes are opened to new understandings. Throughout it is the story of a person devoted to their sense of duty to countless students. Thank you Steve.
Special thanks to the legacy of the late Tony Hanson, MBE, for connecting Musa and Steve. A lamp that shines bright.
What Value Education
Having spent almost 30 years and, by far the vast majority of my working life as an educationalist, I feel reasonably well placed to make a comment on the value of education per se, and the value that our community places upon it. Views are my own! I shall address the following questions; Has formal education improved overtime? How valuable is a good formal education to our broader communities? Has the profession been undermined over time? Does education improve social mobility? Do we become more human if we are better educated? Are we hopeful for the future?
Prior to my working life, of course, I spent my formative years ‘being educated’ in the late seventies and early eighties. This was within an inconsistent and largely unregulated system that was effective for some but, contentiously, I argue, failed a great many others. My particular secondary school experience, in the North East, was in a comprehensive school that in today’s climate, would be in a category of ‘special measures’. With hindsight, and the standards to which I work today, the quality of teaching was often poor and professionals were not held as accountable as they should have been. The first Ofsted inspection was not carried out until 1993 and, despite a view that this system is overbearing, I argue that it has been a force for good.
I faired reasonably well at school and kept motivated and inspired largely through a love of sport and the introduction to Basketball by a committed PE teacher. In addition, I was blessed to have parents who valued education, had books in the house, encouraged ‘being interested’ and, with very little money, enriched my life as far as possible. They taught me that the saviour of any society is the intelligent working class wo(man) and living life as a ‘good person’.
I take an informed view as a former student, as we all once were, and as an experienced teacher and Headteacher. Most people are an expert in education of course, as most have been to school! It requires though, a highly skilled teaching and support staff to secure effective outcomes for young people, something that maybe not enough people acknowledge. The role of the school is increasingly held to account, through the trial of media, for a broad raft of societal issues; youth crime, mental health and well-being, obesity, teenage pregnancy, poor literacy and numeracy and lack of basic values to name a few. This is before any mention of an academic curriculum!
As long as educations remains a political football, and there is no long term cross party agreement, these are issues that school leaders will need to shoulder. Policies continue to be devised on the basis of ‘ I think that…’ rather than ‘we know that…’.
Fact is, on objective measures, young people have become more educated over time. The media loves a headline; ‘exams have got harder/ easier’, ‘young people are not as resilient as they used to be’, ‘basic skills are lacking’! Young people are working harder than they ever have and manage to navigate their way through a system victim of constant meddling by policy making adults. Less than 20% of people graduated with an honours degree (or equivalent) in the 1980s, today it is over 50%. Technological advancements are moving at an increasing rate and most innovation is driven by young people. I have always been a little confused with the term that was pushed by government through schools and linked to outcomes. When people are asked what they feel this means the answer is usually one of two possibilities. One is that young people can choose to move somewhere else, usually to find employment, and maybe somewhere better than where they started. Secondly, that people have the chance to be upwardly socially mobile and move from working class to middle
class and beyond. I have an issue with both views; how do we regenerate and invest in local communities if we encourage our good young people to move away from them and contribute as a citizen somewhere else? Secondly, what is wrong with being ‘working class’? Who makes a value judgement of one profession over another? Fact is that we do not have a total meritocracy and large parts of the population comprise of good, very hard working people in very honorable professions who only earn a modest living. This continues to be the backbone of our society.
With respect to social mobility it must be then that if we are becoming a more educated society then surely people have the choice to be more socially mobile?
Increased accountability and challenging targets does lead to progress, if implemented in a supportive and humane way. We all need targets and all benefit from competition. For example, reducing waiting times in A&E, on time trains, cleaner beaches, faster wifi and increasingly effective medicines, we can go on forever. We should continue to believe in the impossible as we have been proven right over generations. Physicians said it was impossible for a human to run a mile in under 4 minutes. With self-belief and enormous effort Roger Banister achieved the impossible on May 6 1954. A year later it was so commonplace that 3 people did it in the same race!
We owe our largely comfortable existence to educated and curious people. We live in an age where there are fewer conflicts, many major diseases have been eradicated, people earn more, have more leisure time and we care more and act upon global issues. Democracy is growing around the world and there are clear links to a democratic world and a more empathetic, caring and progressive one.
I have spent the majority of my career leading schools in disadvantaged areas in what are termed ‘challenging schools’. In those circumstances one often finds below average attainment of the students, poor behaviour and a despondent staff. It is always a tough environment but leading a school to arrive in a position where both students and staff have self-belief and become effective and productive, is immensely rewarding. Ongoing investment is needed as it is not a level playing field. We need the very best working in the most difficult schools as I would argue, though some will disagree, it is harder as a member of staff working in challenging schools, in areas of high deprivation, than places that serve more affluent areas.
I have found over time that a school is full of children who, in the main, wish to do well. They have abilities and aspirations that are the same as all other young people. The crucial difference is that a proportion have arrived at that point without having had the scaffolding throughout their short lives that has moulded them into confident, assured and resilient children. There are families, in the broadest sense that hold a bracketed morality that many people reading this would not recognise. There are more children than you would care to imagine who have experienced, and continue to do so, treatment that any ‘normal’ person would deem unacceptable. Schools are often a sanctuary for some young people who know that for that period each day they will be safe, cared for and be well fed. These children often arrive very early in the morning, poorly equipped, looking tired and with ill-fitting uniform. These are the basics we attend to each day. Imagine a household where conflict is commonplace, profanity is the language of choice, animal faeces on the floor, visitors arrive with drugs and there is no semblance of structure? I don’t have to! Many children arrive in secondary school with an enormous literacy deficit. Research has shown that there can be up to a 30 million word gap (words experienced by children from childhood to secondary) between affluent families and those below the poverty line. In addition that children who have had more of a challenging upbringing hear negative as opposed to positive words, in a proportion of 3:1. Some children are born holding a string of aces, others are gambling with a weak hand from the day that they are born.
Incidents of emotional, physical and sexual abuse are more common that most people would think, and higher in areas of deprivation. Thresholds for support are high and support services are overwhelmed. It leads to a blame culture of social services, police and schools. Unfair on any level as these are the people who care passionately and are on the front line every day. We all bear a level of responsibility in our personal and professional lives to effect change and support our most vulnerable. At the same time however we must not extend total excuse to adults who perpetrate such abuses and inflict great damage.
The causes are complex and as with life there is no panacea. The link with poverty is real there is no doubt but I know correlation doesn’t mean causation. The hope is this. There are a great many more children, who live with families on the poverty line, who arrive at school every day on time, fully equipped, looking as smart as they can. They smile and say good morning, they work tremendously hard each day, they respect others and contribute to a positive community. Their families love them like we love ours, they support the school and have a healthy regard towards education. A single interaction each day with one of these kids is enough to sustain me. We must address the serious issues presented by the minority but not let it cloud all the good work that is happening.
I frequently experience verbal abuse and physical threats from both pupils and parents/carers and, on a daily basis, deal with behaviours that are unacceptable and often irrational. Some parents/ carers can appear to be entirely ‘anti-education and disagree strongly with what is a very reasonable moral code. Pupils can display aggressive behaviour and can find it difficult to control their own emotions. Often this is learned behavior. There can also be a culture of individual rights above responsibilities, in a misguided way. Parents choosing to not send children to school because they disagree with the uniform policy or wish their children to wear false nails as ‘it doesn’t affect their learning’! A uniform doesn’t make someone a better nurse but represents a professional and cultural expectation that is positive and productive.
I suppose this could be a little disheartening, as the only aim is to provide a good education and keep children safe and secure. The reality is that these dealings absorb a large amount of time but do not represent the majority. Most young people wish to come to school, feel a sense of belonging, be cared for and to work hard. Most parents/ carers wish the best for their children but sometimes are unable to engage with the process. There is no doubt that this is a challenge. You can work harder and work more hours but, unlike an input, process, output model this doesn’t equate to better outcomes. We generate an interest in learning within our young people through relationships and a fundamental human connection. Children don’t work too well for people they don’t like! Teachers are simultaneously responsible for engaging 30+ young people, all with different personalities, abilities and needs. Some who want to be there and some who may not, it is a unique profession.
The drive then is to ensure that systems, policies, practices and an unwavering moral purpose develop a school environment in which all of this happens. A culture with which many children are not familiar with, but one that will insist on basic values, good manners and a positive work ethic. Education plants seeds of change that will flourish and grow at different rates. Some lying dormant for a long time, the fruits of which may not be seen by those that have sown them. I keep doing it as I know that people will receive ‘benefit in kind’ due to the work of good people in schools.
I have experienced the depths of sadness and the heights of great joy throughout my career. From having a student die in my arms to celebrating the start of an ex student’s married life as his best man. There are thousands of anecdotes and each one serves as a lesson for me to become a better person and a better teacher. This is the tapestry from which I gain my strength. ‘Teaching is the profession that creates all others’; I believe that, education transforms lives and communities.
There is enormous hope and our future is in the hands of young people. I work in multi-cultural schools were race, creed, colour, sexuality and religion blends into a melting pot of acceptance. Children are much better at this! They are more creative and capable of people of my age and generation. Greta Thunberg a 16 year old child has managed to mobilise millions of people in addressing climate change, meeting with Barack Obama and becoming a Nobel Peace prize nominee. Joshua Wong is a 22 year old poster child for democratic dissent, going head to head with Beijing, already with an impressive record of effecting positive change.
Each year, in every school, there are students who leave with a solid educational and personal foundation. Many will go on to making the world a better place, it is an ongoing privilege to be a small part of this.
Can I distil it down to one thing? I still have possession of a card, of some 20 years, from a Mum of two young people, who had to battle with many issues. It simply says ‘Thank you for being kind to my children’.
Clare Short formerly MP UK Parliament 1983 until 2010 and Secretary of State for International Development 1997 until 2003 when she resigned from the Gov’t over the Iraq war. Clare Short’s areas work include “slum upgrading in the developing world, transparency in oil, gas and mining, African-led humanitarian action, destitute asylum-seekers in Birmingham, Trade Justice for the developing world and for a just settlement of the Palestinian/ Israeli conflict.”
Sincere thanks to Clare Short for agreeing to this interview.
Musa Askari: ROLE OF WOMEN. The following quote is by my late father Prof Syed Hasan Askari about the Indian Sufi mystic Nizamuddin Auliya, “I used to hear, amidst all that poverty when we had nothing in our house, not even a loaf of bread, my mother saying to me: “Baba Nizamuddin! Wake up! We are guests on this day in the House of God!”. And she used to glow with joy, and her hands were warm while she lifted me and held me in her arms. It was my mother who initiated me upon the path of trust and joy, who liberated me once for all from the slavery to the seasons and the conditions of this world”
The example of Nizamuddin speaks of a beautiful bond with his mother. We hear too little about such bonds situated in conditions of poverty. Their stories at risk of being lost behind a statistical narrative which can dwarf issues of the heart. I would be grateful if you could share your thoughts on what more needs to be done to support women in the poorest parts of the world and why this is so important in helping people out of poverty?
Clare Short: Kofi Annan said some years ago poverty has the face of a woman and her children. The evidence on how best to generate development in society is very clear, educating girls is the most powerful force for development. No one is of course advocating excluding boys from school but in poor countries girls tend to be kept at home to help with household tasks. Girls who have been to school marry later, have fewer children who are more likely to survive and are better at accessing healthcare and increasing the family income. So a commitment to universal primary education, including girls as a first step to full educational opportunities for all is the most important force for beneficial change. This is why it was one of the leading Millennium Development Goals. Of course we should never just do one thing to promote development but the key role that girls and women play is exemplified by this reality.
Musa Askari: GLOBAL NEIGHBOURHOOD. Through various forms of international aid it is possible for people of moral conscience to help improve the welfare of one’s “neighbour”, local to international. As humanity we are each other’s neighbour and this category of “neighbourhood” for me is one of the common grounds where secular and sacred traditions of the world can meet working together for the common good. To what extent in your view have the Millennium Development Goals helped to raise the level of awareness about a “global neighbourhood”? What further needs to be done to foster this sense of universality?
Clare Short: In the years of hope at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s when the Berlin Wall came down and Nelson Mandela was released from prison, there was a real growth in support for a more just and evenly developed world where all people could live with hope and dignity. And when, at the UN, they started to look for an appropriate way of marking the new millennium, all the countries of the world came together to agree that the systematic reduction of poverty across the world should be the cause that united humanity. In these years spending on defence and security declined considerably. Then, after September 11, 2001, the obsession with security and military spending overtook the idea of a better safer world of equal development. There is no doubt that the attack on the Twin Towers was very serious crime they killed 3000 people. But the response was irrational. It does not make sense to spend as much on the military as at the height of the Cold War to try to capture a man in a cave in Afghanistan and to persuade people that his ideas are ugly and wrong. President Eisenhower, who was a Second World War general and a Republican President warned that the American people in his retiring presidential address to beware the military industrial complex. My view is that the military industrial complex faced a set back at the end of the Cold War and used the attack on the Twin Towers to take over again and is reducing the world to a dangerous state and marginalising the commitment to a world that is safe because all have the chance of a decent and dignified life. This major shift to a massive emphasis on military solutions and the generation of hate and fear has not wiped out the work to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and there has been significant progress across the world. Currently negotiations are being finalised to replace the MDGs, which expire this year, with new Sustainable Development Goals. So the battle is not lost and the effort must continue but the stress on military solutions has been a major setback.
Musa Askari: RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY. On affirming religious diversity Muslim inter-faith dialogue pioneer Prof Syed Hasan Askari writes, “I have always looked at religious diversity with a sense of wonder..I was mystified by the fact of diversity itself..I clearly realised that transcendental reality could not be equated with any one religious form..The prospect of a religion reflecting the Absolute absolutely would turn that religion into the most dogmatic and oppressive belief system imaginable..To enter into dialogue is to celebrate the splendour of the infinitely Supremely Good, in the unity and diversity of our faiths. By the theological affirmation of religious diversity, our coming together in dialogue becomes akin to an act of worship; our exclusive witness is transformed into co-witness; our one-way mission is replaced by mutual mission.”
How is the affirmation of global religious diversity reflected in the Millennium and Sustainable development goals please? Should there be a specific goal attributed to affirming religious diversity not only as a sociological fact but also to help foster inter-faith spirituality and dialogue?
Clare Short: There is no commitment to religious diversity in either the MDGs or the proposed SDGs but respect for the human rights of each person obviously means respect for their religious sensibilities. And the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, which is supported, at least in theory, by almost all countries in the world declares that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” There were a big group of British theologians who declared back in the 1980s that all the world’s major religions are equally valuable routes to God. Unfortunately in these times religious labels are getting mixed up with the sense of identity and reflect little of the goodness of the best of religious teaching in all the main religions. Terrible things are being done in the name of religion. There are ugly currents of fanaticism in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam. We need to reflect on why this is happening.
Musa Askari: JUSTICE & FAIRNESS. In your recent lecture “Does international Aid work?” you talk about,
“How to make the world safe & sustainable for everybody? A more just & fair world where everyone has a fair chance is also a safer world for everybody.” What do you see as the major obstacles to justice and fairness and what kind of change in thinking needs to take place in your view to begin to overcome the challenges?
Clare Short: I think that international leadership is in a terrible state and is making the world more dangerous and unhappy. There is of course need sometimes to use military force to contain and reverse the misuse of violence, in fact I think it is necessary to enlarged the authority of UN peacekeeping missions in for example eastern Congo so that everyone knows that the writ of the UN will be enforced and justice will prevail. But if peace is to come to the Middle East then the international Community must uphold International law in relation to all the countries of the region. Israel is in grave breach of international law according to the judgement of the International Court of Justice and yet nothing is done. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and Egypt are in gross breach of the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights and yet they are treated as great friends of the west. I am afraid that the days have a long gone when are just settlements for Israel/Palestine would transform the atmosphere in the Middle East but it would start to make a significant difference. In relation to Russia, I believe that expanding NATO up to Russia’s borders and suggesting that Ukraine should join NATO and the EU was provocative and would have enraged any Russian leader. This does not mean that Russian aggression should be ignored but it just compromise should be sought rather than a continuing drive to invent a new cold war.
Musa Askari: VISION. In 1995, on a visit to India, Prof Askari delivered a speech on Spiritual Humanism “Democracy has become a political convenience. The great socialist dream has been eroded by the rise of multi-national empires. The uncertainty of world economic markets has made the working classes across the world almost brought to the brink of misery in the third world countries where millions of people do not know what awaits them within ten, twenty years. There is a slow but firm rise of religious, ethno-centric racist ideologies. In Eastern Europe, in the collapsing Soviet Union, in Asia, in Africa and in India as well. In other words the vast human system, its centre is empty. When the centre becomes empty then all sorts of emotive fascist ideologies rush in to fill; to occupy that centre. The hour is crucial. Humanity has to make a serious decision.”
Would you agree we need a new visionary approach, a revival of hope that takes into account the concerns raised above by Prof Askari? Do you see any opportunities please for an alternative narrative to positively address such concerns from either the left or right of the current political landscape?
Clare Short: Yes see my arguments above. The only way to make the world safe is to give up the idea that one country should dominate – what the neoconservatives in the US see as America’s unipolar moment. This is dangerous with a rising China. We need to learn the lessons of the First World War (which was really the cause of the Second World War) where a rising Germany and a declining Ottoman empire was so badly managed that the world ended up in a dreadful conflagration. We need to reinforce the UN by updating the membership of the Security Council and streamlining and making more efficient the UN development agencies. All must agree to abide by international law with no double standards and we must renew our commitment to International Development and make sure that we meet the objective outlined in the draft Sustainable Development Goals that extreme poverty is eliminated from the world by 2030.