Albion leaders walking a tightrope

Oct 26, 2017 by

By Andrew Symes, Church of England Newspaper.

The Principal and Governing Body of Albion Middle School were walking a tightrope. Seeing themselves as reconcilers and peacemakers, they found themselves in an impossible position, trying to find a via media between radically different views.

Albion was a large school franchise in England, but it also had major international interests, and still chaired the growing Albion Academy Federation, an international body of educational establishments who still looked to Albion as the ‘mother school’.

But there was now major conflict. Albion’s philosophy had always been: no conditions for entry to school (motto: ‘by grace alone’), but then education involves teaching children essential knowledge and skills. In recent years, however, some schools in the affluent north, influenced by new liberal philosophies, had changed to ‘self-actualization centres’, with the priority being on student ‘wellbeing’, based on facilitating young people to have good self-esteem.

At the 2016 meeting of global Academy Principals, it was agreed that the United States branch of Albion Academy should face ‘consequences’ for violating basic common understandings of education, and in particular for their decision to make academic work optional. Commentators had noted that these measures, intended to boost student numbers by making scholarship easier, was actually having the opposite effect. In fact a new body, the Albion Real Education Federation of North America, had formed in 2009 and was recognized by a number of schools in the global south as their preferred partner.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the argument, the English leadership of Albion was facing increasing pressure from Parliament, educationalists and even its own teachers. The new progressive philosophies of education were now fully accepted in England. What began with schools being allowed to ditch coursework and exams, replacing Maths with mindfulness and science with scented candles – became increasingly de rigeur. Schools were encouraged to embrace the liberal methods, and soon traditional education became a permitted minority position.

Senior establishment figures had begun to question whether knowledge based study of traditional subjects should be allowed as a valid educational option, as it can be oppressive, causing low self-esteem and mental health problems. The deputy head of Albion’s Oxfordshire Academy has been particularly outspoken, recently giving an interview in The Times in which he called for an end to the concessions which allow schools to opt out of the ‘safe space’ legislation.

So Albion’s leadership has been in a bind. If they clearly side with the ‘teach and learn’ traditionalists, the majority of Albionites across the world, they would find themselves in deep trouble at home; they may even have their license to run educational establishments taken away by the government. Some conservative teachers within the Albion group are advocating this anyway, and small numbers have left or are planning to leave, and set up their own independent after-hours schools.

But siding with the progressives would also cause problems. The English Albion Academy would find itself subject to the same ‘consequences’ in terms of the global movement, perhaps having to withdraw from participation in governance of its own organization. There would be a major strain in relationships between England and the rapidly growing school movements of the global south. In the short term, the English branch of Albion could only articulate a holding position. So in answer to questions such as “does an education where you don’t actually learn anything have any value?”, they had to equivocate, saying “I haven’t made up my mind”, or “we’re having a conversation on this”.

The 2017 global meeting required a masterful balancing act facilitated by skilful diplomacy as evidenced in the final communiqué. Behind closed doors the heads of the various Albion branches around the world discussed the ‘internal’ issue of Scotland’s decision to follow USA (and, some said, Canada) in embracing a fully progressive education policy. “There are deep disagreements on this issue”, said the Statement, “but we continue to walk together as an Albion family”. It was not explained how an educational organization can coherently hold together when some of its schools believe in teaching and learning, and others do not.

The Communique spoke of the “sadness” felt by those present at the consequences imposed on the Scottish branch having to withdraw from the ‘paperclips and coffee replenishment committee’ for the next three years. This was following a similar punishment faced by the progressive Americans who were initially told they could not be selected for some global decision making bodies, only to find that there was no real power to block them from the most important committees because they come under different governance.

The progressive-dominated organizers of the global meeting have made sure that the important issue of “what is education?” is not resolved. Can Albion really keep working together in their mission to help children, despite radically different views about what they most need?

Read in CEN here

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