QVinE Group

QVinE Conference 2019

Paul Parker – Quaker Values in Education Conference 28 September 2019

Hello Friends,        It’s really good to be with you,   I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person,  but thank you for inviting me to speak to you at this Quaker Values in Education Conference.

I’m Paul Parker, I’m the Recording Clerk of Britain yearly meeting,   and I suppose one of the reasons I’m speaking to you today is because of that role, that I have a bit of an overview of where Quakers are involved in education,  what’s going on in our society  and what sort of issues might come to the fore for us if we’re talking about Quakers and education.  But I think I’m also talking to you because until I became Recording Clerk of Britain yearly meeting, I was an educator, I spent sixteen years teaching in state secondary schools as a languages teacher and then as a head of department, and as assistant head with responsibility for the curriculum in the school I worked at, which was a large comprehensive school in Hertfordshire.  And prior to that as a consumer of education, as a pupil in a state primary school and in a state comprehensive school, in fact the same school I then taught in for most of my teaching career.  So I have a perspective from that point of view as well, as do we all really, as consumers of education over time and as participants in the education service, as I know lots of you are.  And it’s really great to be speaking to a group of friends who care about education and who care about the values that our education service in this country needs to espouse.  And I hope you have a great conference and that you get somewhere, it’s really easy I think for us to sit around lamenting the changes in the education service over the last few years, and what I want dearly for Quakers to do is to articulate our vision for what we think education should be like, so that we can then start to help tease out what forms, what kinds of schools, what kinds of structures and systems and policies actually lead to our values flourishing in the education service.


And certainly, from my experience in a state secondary school, I think both as a pupil and as a teacher, schools can be really challenging places for Quaker values.  There are so many things which feel like they’re flying in the face of the things we experience when we sit together as Friends in a Meeting for Worship; the things we talk about as Quaker testimony, you know, how do we make schools peaceful places, places where equality, simplicity and truth can flourish?  And at the same time from my experience in schools, both as a teacher and as a pupil, I’ve found times where those values absolutely aligned: both the schools I taught in as a teacher were places where I felt at home and safe, and that I could talk about the things I thought were important, and find people of like mind. 

And so, I think we have to try and strike the balance as we think about this, between the challenges that we find in a school setting or in the school system, and the places where actually a lot of what we care about is already the case, that schools can be places of great challenge to our values but also places of great fruitfulness and of great…what you might think of as fertile soil for what we’re trying to do.  And one of my worries always about us as Friends is that we lay claim to our values as if nobody else holds them, and my experience in education is that there are many, many people who care about the same things as we do.  And so we have to look, I think, at how we can make our presence in the education system as Friends as valuable and as constructive as it can be, rather than setting ourselves up as having something that others haven’t got or can’t see.

So where is that influence?  Where can we have some impact on what happens in the education service in this country?  And I can think of lots of different ways, and I’m sure you can think of more, but the ones that came to me really are…first of all there are schools we control as the Society of Friends, Quaker schools or other schools we’re involved with – so there are six independent boarding schools, there are three non-maintained special schools, two with a specialism in autism, one with a specialism in children with social and emotional difficulties, there is a state primary school in the voluntary controlled model, with some Quaker governors, but it’s a local authority school, and there’s a residential therapeutic community for boys with a history of harmful sexual behaviour, that’s also a registered school and provides education. 

So we already have influence through those institutions that are directly under Quaker governance, where some experiment with what Quaker values look like in an educational establishment can happen, and some experiment does happen.  Then there are all the schools that we’re governors in as individual Quakers, and I know that there are lots of Quakers involved in the governing bodies of schools, local authority schools, academies, free schools, studio schools, in their personal capacity, but bringing their Quaker insight, their values, their sense of what a school should be like, into those schools, and I think that’s probably a much larger number of schools than the ones we control directly as Friends.  But perhaps the control is less direct.

Then there are the schools we teach in, many Quaker teachers, many retired Quaker teachers as well, of course, in all kinds of schools, the whole spectrum of different kinds of establishments that we have.  And I think, you know, I was one of those; I was very clear that I was a Quaker teacher, whether I would go so far as to say that I saw teaching as my ministry as a Quaker, I’m not sure, I’m not sure I thought of it like that at that time.  But I know there are Quakers who see their work in schools as an expression of their faith, and some of whom find that easy to do and some of whom find that challenging because they come up against difficulties and clashes of values in the establishment they work in, or in the communities where those establishments are.  But I think there are Friends who see their work in schools as part of their Quaker ministry.  I also think we have to be respectful of Friends who see their Quakerism as their escape from the stress and the hurly burly of school life!  And I was one of those too I think.  That Quaker meeting was one of the places I went to refuel and rebuild myself and develop the resilience to be able to carry on as a teacher.  And so in some ways, thinking about education when I was in that Quaker space wasn’t what I wanted to do because I went to Quakers to get away from that.  And so there’s that tension as well for us I think, between those of us who see work in education as part of our Quakerism and those of us who see our Quakerism as part of how we cope with the work in schools, and some of those people are the same people.

And then there are other ways, there are people involved in teacher training, there are people involved in S.A.C.R.E.s, designing the RE curriculum at a local or regional level.  There are people involved in curriculum development in universities or in the peace education movement particularly, where Friends have had a disproportionate level of influence over how schools pick up on some of the themes in a peace curriculum.  There are Friends working in restorative practice, in mediation, who have made it their business to take that work into schools, there are Friends involved with philosophy for children, philosophy for communities, who see that as a way of taking Quaker values into education. 

So there’s a real diversity there, and that’s without even thinking about the schools where we might be parents, where our children or our grandchildren are pupils, and the schools that Quakers attend as pupils.  I think if you look at the number of young Quakers involved in school strikes for climate at the moment, for example, you can see a real influence there, people taking Quaker values around sustainability and environment into schools and having an influence as young people, and we shouldn’t discount the role of young people and their families in influencing schools.  We saw that as well around issues about militarisation of schools for example, that it was often parents who were most shocked to discover the high level of involvement that the Army has in some schools in this country, and who were then the most effective at challenging that and taking head teachers and governors to task.  And so we need to ask ourselves I think what is it we’re trying to achieve, and which of those different modes of influence are the best ways of taking these things forward?  It’s not just about campaigning or advocacy or writing letters to the Secretary of State, it’s actually about looking at this school by school, and saying how can we change things in the places where we have connections and the contacts and the relationships already.  I think a lot of what we know as Friends about Quaker work at its most effective is that it’s about human to human relationships and building those bridges and having these conversations with each other, so that we can be engaged in the dialogue and not necessarily turning up and saying, we’ve had this idea, we’re definitely right, we’re the only people who think like this, you need to do it our way, which isn’t generally the way you get changes to happen.

But there is that advocacy side, there are books like the book that QVinE has recently produced, there’s research, there is political campaigning, there’s the work that we can do to influence public opinion in our own communities or nationally, and I think we have to be aware as well that we come to this with quite a reputation as Friends.  We are good when we’ve done the work at articulating the faith basis of our concern and really rooting our concern in morality and the faith heritage of Quakerism, the Christian heritage of Quakerism.  We have a reputation for being thoughtful, for listening well, for engaging in respectful dialogue, and we need to make sure those things are part of how we influence what happens in education in this country.  In a way, how we go about influencing what happens in education may be as important as what then happens from our point of view; we should be making sure that we’re espousing the values that we talk about in the way we approach change, as well as in the way we approach education. 

So what might we want to say about Quaker values in education?  What can we say from the perspective of Quaker testimony about schools and what they should be like?  If you start with peace, you quickly I think, certainly in my experience in schools, end up talking about the importance of dealing well with conflict.  Some schools with a strong Quaker influence have rooted their whole curriculum in thinking about conflict and how we deal well with conflict.  One of the Quaker schools which specialises in autistic spectrum of students, conflict resolution is right at the heart of how they work, and I think that’s interesting.  The state primary school with Quaker governors has set out to become a restorative practice school and was supported by their local Meeting to train staff and pupil mediators to really embed restorative practice in this community of the school.  And I think that’s a really interesting and exciting thing that we can do.  We’re not unique in caring about that, but it is something where Quakers have long experience. 

Obviously, there’s the issue of military involvement that I’ve mentioned; there are issues I think around the curriculum, about looking at where do the skills needed for peace building, the skills needed for dialogue, for reconciliation, how are those taught in schools?  Where in the curriculum do those things come up?  How do we engage with parents in schools about those things?  Are there things we should be saying about the teaching of history, and the interpretation that the teaching of English history in particular, puts on some of the events that led to the British Empire, that led to slavery and its abolition, are there ways that we can put a different narrative from the prevailing story, or encourage students and pupils to explore some of these questions at a personal level?  And I think there are massive issues then about how you create a culture of peace in the community of a school, with its pupils, with its parents, with its teaching staff, with its governing body, with the community around it – how do you do that kind of cultural peace in a school community, in a way which means people walk in and feel at peace, to bring some of our understanding perhaps around shared security from the work that Quakers do in peace and reconciliation between countries or between factions, and apply that at a microscopic level in a school community. 

And I think that cultural bit then leads on to thinking, well what can we say from the perspective of equality?  So much about the way schools work and the way schools function is about the quality of relationships, relationships between pupils and pupils, relationships between pupils and teachers, relationships between teachers and teachers, parents, the rest of the community.  Can we encourage schools to look at the contract between teachers and pupils, the kind of covenant, if you like.  Schools thrive because there’s a kind of deal between the teaching staff, who are massively outnumbered, let’s remember, and the pupils, about how it’s going to work.  And the parents are involved with that peripherally as well, I think.  But there’s a real power relationship there and an imbalance, and how do we address that and make sure that those relationships are respectful and safe?

I think this was the area when I was teaching that I found the most problematic: I taught in two schools where children were expected to address me as Sir. I think my preference would have been that they called me Paul, but my colleagues didn’t do that, and to be the one teacher who allowed the children to address me by my first name would have been to undermine my colleagues and perhaps to de-stabilise that contract between pupils and teachers that exists in any school.  So there are issues about titles and about respect, and about how that’s earned, and about how that’s bestowed, that I think we have to look at and see, you know, what can we say as Friends that helps schools move away from a kind of ‘because I say so’ mentality to something which is more about mutual engagement, and recognising that teachers and pupils have different roles, but are equal members of a school community.  And there are all sorts of issues about control and about uniforms and about, you know, expectations of how people behave to one another, which make that a really fruitful but challenging area of debate.

I think at the moment, in the context of the climate emergency, there is work we can do around sustainability and simplicity too.  Things we can say as Quakers that perhaps challenge the narrative, the prevailing narrative, in our society about lifestyle and how people liv and we have seen, I think, in the last few months with the emergence of the school strikes, and people like Greta Thunberg who came and spoke here at Friends House a few months ago, a real space where the youth can show leadership and can be the people who generate the excitement and the urgency around the climate emergency campaign.  How can we work in the education service to foster that?  I think things like the climate strikes have been really challenging for schools: on the one hand they need pupils to be there and safe, and schools are in loco parentis, and so kids going out on the street striking is problematic.  And on the other hand, what a wonderful way for young people to develop the skills of leadership and organisation and passionate advocacy and challenge that we need.  And so, you know, perhaps there is a way of building into that some of our Quaker understanding about what it means to live truthfully and with integrity; how can we build into what schools do the chance for children to learn how to scrutinise, how to question what they’re being told, how to draw out scientific evidence and use it in ways which challenge people in positions of power.  How can we teach them to assess evidence for its reliability, to spot fake news, to use all the tools that are around now to bring about the sort of social change that we might want to see?  So I think there’s a really exciting opportunity, but I also think it’s a really difficult landscape in schools at the moment.

All of that really is about what happens in a school, and I haven’t talked very much about this education system and about structures.  And I think we have to be careful here to separate kind of values from forms.  It would be very easy I think, as somebody who taught in a comprehensive school and was absolutely passionate about comprehensive education, for us to go into a kind of moaning space where we lament the change that’s happened in the last few years.  And I’m acutely aware, having been out of education for a little bit over eight years, that I’m totally out of date already about what schools are like now, what the education service is like now; I’ve seen it change but from the outside.  And so those of you who are teaching in schools today or working in schools today, are in a much better place to inform this debate, I think, than I am.  But I think you know that golden age of comprehensivisation and that sort of great principled vision that there was going to be an education service that was capable of being…offering absolute equal opportunity for everybody, that immediate time has gone for now, and we’re now in a fragmented system, with many different types of establishments, academies, free schools, studio schools, different kinds of places with, you know, an in-built assumption of competition and league tables and schools being pitted against one another. That is the landscape and we can lament it if we like, but actually I think we have to look at the opportunities for moving on from where we are now, much as there’s that story about the man who asks directions and gets the answer, well if you want to go over there I wouldn’t start from here.  Here is where we are, and there are opportunities in this system to influence, to shape, to engage with some of the organisational structures that exist, whether it’s academy chains, or what’s left of local authorities, or some of the opportunities around free schools and different shapes of school that are there, and perhaps there are opportunities for experiment that we need to be trying to embrace.  And I do think you can have good schools of all these kinds, and I think you can have good teachers and committed teachers and committed governors and well educated students in schools of all these kinds, and so we may have to stand back from talking about the forms in order to make space for talking about the values.  I think we have to be able to say what values we want the education system to espouse, and then question the structures where we can see that they’re not doing that.

And so I really want to finish by kind of emboldening you and encouraging you to keep this conversation going.  I think we’ve got an opportunity to build on our role, and the level of influence and engagement we already have in education, and the respect we carry for that work, the ways in which we go about influencing change and our experience – particularly I think at facilitating processes for people to talk about values. You know, if our Yearly Meetings or our Area Meetings or our Local Meetings for Business aren’t a model in a way for how to bring people together and have an opportunity to explore and try and discern something collectively that everyone can then embrace, you know, can we use some of our methodology as Quakers to help some of those move forward.  And that means towards an end might be as important as the end itself.

But I think we absolutely have to be able to articulate what we want to see.  In an age when we’re being offered things that we want to vote against, can we provide a persuasive vision of what we think education should be like, what the hallmarks of true education should look like?  Can we work with other people to spread that?  Who are our natural allies in this?  Whether it’s other churches, whether it’s other organisations seeking to influence education, whether it’s charities working with children – who are our partners in this, who are our allies in this?  How do we make sure we listen to the experience of pupils, of parents, of teachers, of governors – and make sure that we come to an informed sense of what are the changes that we can usefully press for, that mean some of the values that we hold dear about education can flourish?


Transcriber:    Jo Porter (joporter@west-kirby.co.uk)

Length of interview:  23 minutes

What can Quakers contribute to a vision of education?

After a very thought provoking day, Anne Watson, Oxford and Swindon Area Meeting gave these closing thoughts…

Since the formation of the Quaker Values in Education Group (QVinE) we have grappled with the question of whether there is anything the group feels about educational values that is specifically Quaker. During the 20th century Quaker thinking about education in this country was mainly in line with other so-called ‘progressive’ ideals and, while there were Quakers among the leading thinkers, only the use of silent worship in schools could be labelled as specifically Quaker-inspired. More recently several movements and campaigns have grown that focus on values, restorative justice, peer mentoring, use of silence, and other aspects with which Quakers might agree. These are of broad foundation, appeal and effect and many Quaker teachers have been involved in the growth of these movements. They are not specifically Quaker, largely sharing a humanist perspective, and Quakers can attach themselves to these developments with integrity. In this personal contribution to the debates about Quakers and education, I try to identify some themes that are specifically Quaker and that live first in the hearts and actions of individual teachers.


Firstly, our testimonies come as an indivisible package. They are not separate values from which schools and teachers might pick and choose, either institutionally or individually. Each aspect depends on all the others. There cannot be peace without justice, nor justice without equality, nor equality without love, nor love without integrity, nor integrity without truth, nor truth without sustainability, nor sustainability without simplicity. For example, being values-led in a Quaker way would not be achieved by having ‘honesty’ as a theme for a week while not acting with love towards ‘deviant’ behaviour. Nor, more obviously, could a Quaker-values based school promote peacefulness for moving around the school while taking army recruitment initiatives for granted.

Next, we have a special way of thinking about truth. Truth is not only honesty, it is a search for coherent, experiential meaning. In our seeking we reflect on experience, and more than that we join with others in order to contact truth. We can live with uncertainty. In the current educational climate of a ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum, knowledge refers largely to western/white/male sanctioned knowledge that is testable and tested and provides a national cultural norm. A Quaker view of knowledge would focus on methods of inquiry, which might be subject-specific. The shared culture becomes one of questioning, seeking and being prepared to change our minds and actions.

Finally, we have a special view of childhood. Children are not born in original sin as unshaped beings into whom knowledge, culture and morals have to be inserted, but are born in grace as people of equal value, deserving equal respect. This has educational implications. It means that equality goes hand in hand with active inclusion, listening with integrity, and genuine respect. Childhood is not an opportunity to push children into conforming to some norms of behaviour and received mindsets, but times for adults to learn to listen, to interact, to explore, and to offer those skills, along with their own wisdom, to young people. We hold these views not as educational fads but as the sacred duties of older people who themselves have to be flexible, recognise when they need to change, and provide the means for change.

Could these principles provide a foundation for a legitimate and unique vision of education that could be called ‘Quaker’?



Leave a Reply