Presbyterians in Education

In view of the widespread debates and changes in education, one of my goals for my moderatorial year has been to bring some encouragement to Presbyterians who are involved in that important area of our common life. I have not been able to do that as fully as I originally intended, but with the help of the clerks of presbyteries, we managed to arrange three evenings for educators in Banbridge, Orangefield, and Ballyclare. I believe that these evenings were helpful and encouraging for teachers, governors and support staff, and I want to thank everyone who made them possible, especially those who provided the tasty suppers!

I am grateful to the choirs of Banbridge Academy, Grosvenor High School, and Ballyclare Secondary School for their inspiring contributions to those evenings. The quality of the performances was simply excellent. As well as the choirs, I was supported in these events by two other speakers who are well-qualified in the area of education.

Uel McCrea is the principal of Ballyclare Secondary School, and his outstanding service to education in Northern Ireland was recognised in the New Year’s Honours list this year when he was awarded the OBE. Uel brought a word of encouragement to teachers, reminding them of their worth, their work and their witness.

Trevor Gribben is Secretary to our denomination’s Board of Education and is energetically involved in representing our church’s interests to the Department of Education through the Transferor’s Representative Council. In a very helpful way, Trevor explained how our church has an important and continuing role with the government in the delivery of education for our children and young people. Many who attended the evenings spoke appreciatively of the perspectives which both Uel and Trevor gave to their work.

I have been involved in education for much of my adult life. I trained as a teacher, taught in further education for five years, completed a master’s degree in curriculum development and assessment, and have served on Boards of Governors for 25 years. I have also had experience of planning and managing educational policies for a theological seminary in the US that awards graduate level degrees. In different ways, I have had opportunity to reflect on education, learning and teaching, and especially what it means to be a Christian who is involved in education.

Clearly we are facing a number of important issues right now in education, and, I believe that more than ever we need to ensure that the Christian ethos which has underpinned so much of what we have done in our schools will be maintained.

A few months ago, I attended a meeting at the Equality Commission, along with representatives of the other main denominations. We talked about equality issues as they applied to education, and the evidence is that things are far from equal in education. In terms of performance and attainment, boys from working class Protestant areas are significantly under-achieving. They are at the bottom of the pile.

The point which our Catholic colleagues were making is that when schools have a clear faith-based ethos, performance, attainment and standards begin to rise. That has been the proven claim of CCMS. I believe that part of our problem in the controlled sector is that we have allowed that ethos to be diluted. It is also the case that the communities from which Protestant working class boys come are lacking in other significant ways, because of unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse, and poverty. We do our children who come from such backgrounds a disservice if we fail to maintain a clear Christian ethos in our schools.

During this year, I have had opportunity to visit a number of primary schools, secondary schools, and special schools. It has been inspiring to see how so many Christian people live out their faith in very significant ways in the schools which they serve as teachers, administrators, governors and support staff.  But we need to keep going, and we should not allow our Christian values to be undermined, sidelined or ignored.

What is happening currently is that, in terms of the curriculum, the emphasis is moving from knowledge to skills. The focus is on what children can do, not just on what they know and understand. We are all about learning for life and work. Some of that is commendable. But those who have been involved in education for many years know that schools have always been concerned about more than the knowledge content of the curriculum. Focusing on skills and learning for life is not totally new. We have been aware that we are in the business of shaping and forming young lives, and enabling them to develop the skills and attitudes which will help them contribute to our society and which will give them direction and purpose in their lives. We have been concerned about values and character.

The question for us, whatever our involvement in education, is how can we best shape and form the lives of our children and young people? The question is not whether we will have an influence or not. Undoubtedly, the lives of our pupils and students will be shaped by their experience of education. Rather, how will we have a positive and Christian influence on their lives? This issue has been discussed very helpfully by John Heenan in his book Building Character through Cornerstone Values.

Traditionally, educators have understood that to create and maintain a civil society, there has to be education for character as well as for intellect, for decency as well as for literacy and numeracy, and for virtue as well as for skills and knowledge.

It was only in the last decades of the twentieth century that educators moved away from character education. In the 1960s and 1970s it was argued that schools should not teach values. Instead, schools were told that they should encourage young people to “clarify” their own values. The idea that teachers, parents or other adults should directly instruct children in right and wrong or even to try to influence their values was explicitly rejected.

It became the overriding concern of values education that programmes should not favour any particular religious or philosophical viewpoint. It was seen as important that any moral values teaching be non-sectarian and non-doctrinaire. So educators developed approaches that were presented as being “neutral”.

What has been the outcome? Regardless of their social, racial or economic background, students have absorbed the clear message that right and wrong are relative, that they must not be judgmental, and that what is right for one person may be wrong for another. Right and wrong are merely personal values, always dependent on time, place and circumstance.

This is not a neutral position. As they have tried to eliminate a doctrinal basis from the curricula, educators have simple traded the traditional understanding (that there is a core of universal moral principles) for an alternative belief system, one of situational ethics and moral relativism.

So we have arrived at a situation today where there is widespread rejection of core moral precepts. Values have become whatever any individual, group or society chooses for any reason. Universal and enduring virtues have been reduced to values that are varied, transitory and private. This paradigm shift has all happened quite quickly and has had a profound impact on our society.

The rejection of core moral values has led to moral relativism, on the one hand, and radical individualism on the other. What Christians believe is that there are rational and objectively valid moral requirements to which all people are accountable. The belief that nothing is ultimately right and that nothing is ultimately wrong makes it hard for a school to maintain standards of order and discipline. If the relativist philosophy is right, then all behaviour is acceptable. Relativism is at the heart of many of the problems that challenge the management and effectiveness of teaching and learning in schools. It erodes confidence and undermines legitimate authority.

Ironically, even if teachers and educators talk like relativists in the abstract, they often take a non-relativistic approach when confronted with immediate and concrete situations. When someone’s lunch money has been stolen, when a child has been bullied or a staff member has been abused, the teacher or the principal doesn’t say, “I don’t agree with your behaviour, but since there is no right or wrong, you should make your own decision”. Rather, we insist that the pupil makes a morally right decision: return or replace the money, stop the bullying, and apologise and speak respectfully to the member of staff.

A second outcome of this approach is radical individualism, the belief that the individual is supreme and autonomous; and that one’s over-riding goal in life ought to be the gratification of self and personal success. What happens is that when self is divorced from any responsibility for others, the development of such traits as kindness, compassion, consideration for others, and responsibility to society is stunted.

Radical individualism destroys self-restraint, weakens character, and is a barrier to responsible citizenship. When deprived of any moral standard above themselves, individuals will inevitably base their moral choices on self-interest alone. Also, if what is good and right is only what an individual chooses to invent, then parents, the community and the school have no moral heritage to pass on to the next generation.

Social change starts with belief and ends with behaviour. We need to remember that all social change reflects basic changes in the value system of a community or nation, but these changes are themselves preceded by changes in beliefs. So beliefs- namely, what we hold to be true or real- produce values, and these values in turn determine the norms that govern behaviour.

Behaviour is always the final stage in social change. To change behaviour, which is governed by norms, the regard or disregard for belief must first be changed. So the starting point for a change in social behaviour, whether corporate or personal, is always with beliefs. If schools are to manage and change student behaviour, then they must understand this inter-locking and sequential process. I believe that it is necessary to understand this simple but profound model if we are to build a positive school ethos.

This connection between belief and performance is something that sports teams and coaches and motivators understand and apply with great success. The same principles are true in families and in successful schools.

What are the cornerstone values which should direct and inform our actions and activities? John Heenan quotes C.S. Lewis who identified eight such values:

Honesty and truthfulness


Consideration and concern for others






Lewis had studied a number of civilisations including ancient Egyptian, old Norse, ancient Jewish, Babylonian, Hindu, Christian, Greek, Anglo-Saxon and ancient Indian.

Cornerstone values build character, and this in turn produces behaviour that benefits the individual, benefits others, and the entire community. These values prevent harm to both individuals and society. They are the essence of healthy relationships, and they build a sense of community. They enhance the well-being of everyone.

They are not something to have, like a CD player or an iPhone. They are something to be, like honest and trustworthy. It is this idea of “being” rather than “having’ that distinguishes cornerstone values from subjective preference values. Like primary colours, each value is distinct and recognisable. But they work in unity by mixing, blending, overlapping and fusing.

To sum up, these values affirm our human dignity, promote the good of the individual and society, and are the foundation of good character and of responsible citizenship. We cannot prepare children and young people for life and work unless we have an ethos in our schools that reflects and teaches these values. As Christians, we believe that these values are promoted in the context of the life-changing gospel of grace which is centred on Jesus Christ. As hearts and minds are changed by Christ, so lives and behaviour change.

I believe that teachers and governors should not back off in this key area. Many of those who came to our evenings have been teaching and modelling these values for years, with great effect, and they are to be affirmed and congratulated. They have made a difference in so many lives. As Christians and Presbyterians, we ought to continue to promote a Christian ethos in our schools that will benefit our children and will bring about the changes we need to see in our society.

One Reply to “Presbyterians in Education”

  1. “In terms of performance and attainment, boys from working class Protestant areas are significantly under-achieving. They are at the bottom of the pile.” What a sad reflection on our society and our Church.
    As part of our Social Witness programmes our Churches could be and should be reaching out into the community and “picking up the pieces”, offering for example, help with adult literacy that will ultimately bring improved self-esteem and help to develop those important cornerstone values. Yes, I said “self” esteem. For people who have no self-esteem generally have no esteem for anybody else or anything else. For too long we in the Presby. Church have been just that: – “in” the Church and have not even ventured out, like the Samaritan, on to the dangerous road where others have fallen by the wayside and need our help.

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