Address by Mrs Alison Rafferty, Headteacher of St Michael’s Primary School, about the Church of England’s approach to schooling and the ethos of her school; St Michael’s church 9th February 2020
I wonder what your primary school days were like. For some of you that may not be long ago at all, for others it may be many years ago.
My recollection is that it was all reading, writing and maths with a little bit of art thrown in occasionally – and as far as behaviour was concerned – were there school rules? I don’t recall a list. But I suppose you just did what the adults said or suffered the consequences!
So did my primary school education really prepare me for life beyond school? I had a good academic education but I certainly don’t recall any guidance about how to have a fulfilled and purposeful life? I don’t recall anything that prepared me for those challenging times when things go wrong.
Fortunately, I had parents and also teachers in Sunday School who gave me guidance on the things that really matter. But what happens to those children who don’t have such guidance? In what do they put their faith? How are they expected to cope with the demands of adulthood?
Over my teaching career I have given a lot of thought to how we can teach our children more of those ‘life skills’ in primary school and not just hope that they will pick them up along the way somehow.
Over the last couple of years, with the expansion of St Michael’s School, we have had the opportunity to think carefully about our curriculum, to consider everything we do in school and crucially why we do it. Of course we have a duty to teach the government’s National Curriculum, but we also want to make sure our curriculum is not narrowed to merely the teaching of reading, writing and maths or to pass tests.
It is my view that children need to feel safe and cared for if they are to learn and that teaching children ways to have a fulfilling, enriched life is vital in primary education. That’s my vision/view, but what about the governors, the staff, the parents, indeed what about the pupils? So we held a series of workshops to find out the views of the community. What did the adults want for the children of St Michael’s Primary School? And what did the children themselves want from their primary school experience?
The results were fascinating – in that there was a clear message from all the different groups – despite the fact that the workshops were delivered separately. And when we collated the answers the vision became apparent.
Everyone said that they didn’t want school to just be about passing exams. They wanted the children to have a wide range of positive experiences – music, sport, art, culture. They wanted the children to be ready for the next stage in their educational journey and indeed their life beyond school. In particular, they wanted the children to have the personal skills and wisdom to be able to face whatever life throws at them in the future. This was hard to put into words – until one of the teachers said – We just want them to have a full life. And the St Michael’s Primary School vision was born:
In John 10:10 we read the words of Jesus ‘I came to give life – life in all its fullness.’ This biblical text totally encapsulates all that was being expressed.
So far so good but how can this vision be achieved? What is the secret to a full and happy life? We all firmly believe that children need to feel loved and safe if they are to be happy. Everyone talked about getting the foundations right, getting the roots right. And then we all agreed that children need to be nurtured every step of the way. So we decided to represent our vision in the form of a tree.
You will see that the roots represent the important people in the children’s lives – their family, school, the church and the wider community. And you will see that the word ‘Nurture’ goes all the way up the trunk of the tree.
But what about the curriculum? What do we actually need to teach the children to prepare them for the world beyond St Michael’s? What informs our decisions as what to put into the curriculum? Or put another way, what is driving our curriculum? We came up with 4 curriculum drivers. Each of these drivers is rooted in theology.
Our first curriculum driver is ‘People Skills’. To explore this we took as our starting point the message from Hebrews 10:22, which says ‘Let us be concerned for one another, to help one another to show love and to do good.’ At St Michael’s we actively teach the children how to get on with each other, to communicate with each other, to be able to share their own feelings and empathise with others. And crucially we help them to reflect and repair when things go wrong. We teach them to forgive and to accept forgiveness.
For our second curriculum driver we took the story of ‘The Wise and Foolish Builders’ as well as the text from Luke 2:40 that tells us ‘Jesus grew and became strong; he was full of wisdom and God’s blessings were upon him.’ The children know this 2nd curriculum driver as ‘Learning Skills’. We teach children how to learn – how to ask questions and problem solve, to be independent in their learning, to learn from their mistakes and to keep going in the face of challenge or difficulty. We teach the children that there is always a choice in how to behave and we support them to learn how to make wise choices.
Our 3rd curriculum driver is ‘Creativity’ – if children are to be happy and fulfilled in life they need to have a wide range of experiences to enhance their lives. They need the opportunity to develop their spirituality. They need to have lives enriched through art and sport and have an understanding and appreciation of their heritage and culture. We believe it is vital for children to find out what they enjoy in life so that their lives can be physically and mentally healthy and enriched. The biblical references for this curriculum driver are the psalms and creation stories. We also consider the words in Philippians 4:8 ‘Fill your minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely and honourable.’
And finally our curriculum driver 4 is ‘Exploration’. We help the children to gain an understanding of the world beyond St Albans and the things that are familiar to them, to have respect for difference and indeed to celebrate diversity. We consider ways we can have a positive impact both on our own communities but also the wider world. We talk about the ways our behaviour can impact on the physical environment, and also how our behaviour can impact on other people’s wellbeing. This fits in very well with the story of the Good Samaritan where we remember that we should show kindness and respect to all people, not just those who we consider our neighbour.
To develop this driver further we are about to embark on the Church of England Young Leaders award. Children in Years 2 and 5 will be looking at the phrase ‘Be the change you want to see’ and will be planning their own projects to give something positive back to the community. Children will learn about volunteering and how giving back can really help one’s own mental health and wellbeing. We use the text from Philippians 2:15 which tells us to ‘Shine among them like stars lighting up the sky.’
So how does all this relate to us as adults here in St Michael’s congregation this morning? If you were asked about the important things in life, the keys to happiness, the ways to have ‘Life in all its fullness’ what would you say? It doesn’t hurt us to stop occasionally to consider what drives our lives. What does God say to us about how to have a happy and fulfilled life – how to have ‘Life in all its fullness’?
In the bible readings we heard this morning, there is a common theme. We are told that just following a set of rules is not what God asks of us. It is not obeying laws and rules that gives us ‘Life in all its fullness’. In the reading from Isaiah we heard that it is positive action that God asks of us. We are told that the result of our kindness to others is ‘Then you will call to the Lord and the Lord will answer you. You will cry out to the Lord and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
Again, in the psalm this morning we heard: ‘It is good to be kind and generous.’ …such a person ‘won’t be afraid of bad news. He is safe because he trusts the Lord. That person is confident. He will not be afraid.’
As adults we all know that there are times in life when troubles do come. But if we trust in the Lord then there is nothing that we won’t be able to face. We know that our life is in God’s hands and that he will never leave us. We don’t have to be ‘afraid of bad news’. To go through life unafraid, facing the future with confidence, secure in the knowledge that God loves us and is with us, is surely the key to a fulfilling life. Indeed, in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we are told: ‘No one has ever imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.’
To conclude: God has given us all a world of infinite possibilities for a fulfilling life. The children of St Michael’s School are only just beginning to find out who they are and what potential they have. As adults we can share the aims of the St Michael’s School Curriculum Tree – We can have our roots firmly in God’s love. We can show kindness to others in what we do and in what we say – not because it’s the law – but because it is the right thing to do. We can forgive others and we can try to learn from our own mistakes so that we continue to develop in wisdom. We can make sure our lives are spiritually enriched by ‘filling our minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely and honourable.’ Then we can shine out like stars in the sky, sharing the message of God’s love, being lights in our communities and truly experiencing ‘Life in all its fullness.’