Mariama Ifode-Blease reflects on education and our relationship with it.
I have often wondered: if I could have any part of my life again, which time would it be? Would anyone I wonder choose to be a teenager again, or indeed a child at primary school? For those for us for whom those periods of our lives were happy, then yes, of course. Why not?! No taxes, no bills, and no cost of living crisis to deal with. If, on the other hand, our younger years were filled with adversity and, worse still, trauma, we can be thankful that we are now adults with some distance between that part of our life and now.
Whether our starts in life have been difficult or easy, what unites most of us is that we have experience of school, for at least some of our childhood and adolescence. We have had to go to school, if we lived in a country in which it was enshrined in law. If you we didn’t, then primary and secondary education was an option deeply considered and negotiated based on family circumstance.
Having taught in secondary education in both the state and private sectors, I have spent much of my adult life thinking about how it could be better. The fact that we have had five Secretaries of State for Education in a year has not helped matters. Indeed one wonders if there will ever be a time when politicians stop meddling in our education system. I cannot claim to have been a key worker at the coal face in the pandemic, or indeed a qualified teacher. I was and am not. But I do believe in children and young people and I am unwavering in my commitment to making the world a better place for them.
It is a strange thing, isn’t it, to see a problem and be able to have the kinds of conversations that walk towards possible solutions. If you had it in your power, how would you change the education system in this country? Where would you start? Who would you talk to about your ideas and reflections? Well, I’ve had a go at trying to put some of my ideas in writing, and someone has kindly decided to publish it. I want to contribute to the conversation about secondary education in this country and question who it really serves and whether children and young people are its heart. I must confess that I find it very difficult to understand the current system that tell students they are failures if they do not get the right SAT scores, GCSE or A level grades, and that they are either scientists or artists but not both. I have spoken to so many people over the years who still carry the scars of labelling they experienced at school, and of course when they did not get through the 11+. What is it all for? And how can we change the narrative and the system to actually affirm, celebrate and adequately support both teachers and learners?
I should say at this point, if you didn’t know already, that I was expelled from school at 16. So you may be thinking: what on earth does she know? Yet, if our faith teaches us anything, as students and followers of Christ, it is this: just when we feel that the story has come to an end, we realise that it is only just beginning. I didn’t know that at 16. I was distraught, but I was set on a different path. It is that path that led me to you and this community.
On Friday 30 September, St James’s is kindly hosting the book launch for my book on education. I’d love it if you could join me and take part in this conversation. It is important to remember that we are made whole, in the image of a divine God who is love. For many of us, somewhere during our time in the education system, this premise is challenged and we find that we are being told that we’re not quite right, don’t quite have what it takes, and that we will never get there, wherever there is. I think it is time to imagine a different story and reality for our children and young people. Because they are all we’ve got and it is to us they look for a brighter, better and more sustainable world.