Finding the words: spirituality and school life
These notes are based on a keynote address given by Bill Gent, Redbridge Advisory and Inspection Service, at an educational conference in Leicestershire in November 1999

Looking at the context
(Why the 'spiritual' in education is of concern to us)

Need to note the concern of British education to educate the 'whole child':

  • some trace this back to Thomas Arnold at Rugby in the mid-19th century; i

  • sometimes people have referred to the 'three Hs' (head, heart and hands) as well as the
    'three Rs' ;

  • but undoubtedly the idea that a school's business is more than imparting knowledge, understanding and skills is alive and well ii

Legislation has referred directly to the 'spiritual', though in subtly different forms:

  • note the preamble to the 1944 Act) iii

  • note the 1988 Education Reform Act + 1996 Act (a consolidating act) iv

Specific reference to the 'spiritual' in the HMI curriculum documents ('raspberry ripples') of the 1980s:

  • in The Curriculum from 5 to 16, the 'spiritual' was included in a list of nine 'Areas of learning and experience' v

The 'spiritual' in education was brought into high relief with the advent of OFSTED in the early 1990s:

  • statutory basis for OFSTED inspections (1992 Act) included reference to inspecting the spiritual, moral, social and cultural – SMSC - development of pupils;

  • how a school promotes SMSC development is part of the OFSTED framework (though, from January 2000, SMSC is no longer a separate heading but is included in the key question, 'How good are the curricular and other opportunities offered to pupils or students?', which is addressed in both short and long inspections);

  • has led to a series of publications eg SCAA/QCA discussion paper on Spiritual and Moral Developmentvi. NB the recently published and very helpful Kent document Shaping the Spirit: Promoting the spiritual development of young people in schoolsvii

Addressing the issue
(Why the spiritual in education should be of concern to us)

The term 'spirituality' is not easy – this is a major part of the difficulty:

  • it is culturally laden – ie people bring to it ideas and notions which they have imbibed through their culture (from some, it is difficult to disentangle from 'religion');

  • it is a multi-layered term which has no single or simple definition; viii

  • its colour is liable to change according to the speaker … or even the time of day!

  • it's what John Ruskin in the last century called a 'masked word' which wears a "chamζleon cloak"; ix

  • very usefully, the term 'spiritual' has been compared to the term 'language' ie a general concept but which can be expressed in different forms x

  • definitions abound, some simple, some very complex; xi

  • it's not surprising that some have grasped the term 'awe and wonder' as a way of understanding spirituality.

(NB Lord Mancroft was reported as saying in 1967; "Cricket is a game which the British, not being a spiritual people, had to invent in order to have some concept of eternity"!)

All this has had a profound consequence for schools undergoing OFSTED inspections:

  • because there is no common way of speaking about spirituality ( ie no common mode of public discourse), schools have often been diffident in speaking about how they promote pupils' spiritual development;

  • this diffidence – or silence, in some cases – is sometimes taken by OFSTED inspectors as an indication of deficiency ie because schools find it hard to articulate what they are doing, this indicates that they are not doing much! (thus the title of my talk);

  • this has been compounded, particularly in early days of OFSTED, by the uncertainly of inspectors themselves;

  • it can be compounded further still when responsibility for inspecting the SMSC area is given to a lay inspector who might lack confidence or educational imagination.

In view of all this, there are three things that schools should realise:

  • that in educational terms, 'spirituality' should not be understood as something mystical and virtually unattainable – about something which they have 'missed' or failed to achieve;

  • that, ultimately, spirituality language is about good teaching and learning; about good schools;

  • that what is needed is for them to articulate what promoting spiritual development means (and there is no single way of doing this) and to address to what extent they are already doing this.

The rest of the talk will tackle how this might be done.

Exploring the term 'spirituality'
(How we can make sense of it)

Helpful to realise that that the term 'spiritual' (and cognate words such as 'spirit', 'spirited' and 'spirituality') is used widely:

  • it is used to suggest that the significance of something is 'deep '; it's about what lies 'beneath the surface'; it's about 'underlying' meaning and purpose.

Let me illustrate this from a random variety of sources:

  • in his book Strange Places: Questionable People, the BBC correspondent John Simpson talks about visiting the South African township of Soweto in the late 1970s. "Soon I saw", he said, … victory for the human spirit" xii (ie about overcoming obstacles imposed by a repressive political regime; about maintaining hope in the face of adversity; about not giving up);

  • in an interview with the Australian writer Germaine Greer many years ago, I heard her say that, with the death of the second of her parents, her whole spiritual outlook changed (i.e. about her outlook changing: about the realization that life is ongoing, each generation bequeathing to the next – and feeling the enormous responsibility of this);

  • Ben Okri, the Booker prizewinner, recently said: "I needed to experience suffering if I was to write … truthfully …To me suffering is an aspect of the great Promethean will, the thing is us which most makes the spirit wake up" xiii(ie about suffering shattering the view that life is all about pleasure; about realising that there is more to being human than meets the eye xiv);

  • the Australian pianist David Helfgott, depicted in the film Shine, has attracted huge crowds to his piano recitals despite the view of critics that his technique is flawed (ie more that piano virtuosity, he represents the capacity to overcome obstacles - family background, mental illness etc);

  • in one of the early episodes of BBC series Porridge, Fletcher (Ronnie Barker) says to his cellmate Godber (Richard Beckinsale), "It's the human spirit; that's what the nerks grind down in here" (ie about what keeps you going, what keeps you hanging on, what gives life meaning and purpose);

  • in a Year 3 classroom, I heard a teacher say to a pupil who was helping another with some number work, "That's the spirit!" (ie about saying that what was happening was more than an exercise in numeracy – about sharing time and talents, the wish to see others succeed etc).

If this is so, the enemies of the spiritual might be - the shallow, the repressive, the restrictive, the limiting, the uniform, the one-dimensional, the hopeless, the materialistic, the superficial:

  • in educational terms, it is clear why Mr M'Choakuchild's classroom described at the beginning of Charles Dickens' Hard Times xv is so un-inspiring (NB this term);

  • this is the world of cold utilitarian knowledge where the exercise of imagination is seen as irrelevant ; xvi

  • the task of the pupil is to guess what is in the teacher's mind, correctly or incorrectly; no more, no less.

The implications for a school
(What this means for the quality and style of school life)

Based on the above, then, a shorthand definition might be attempted: the aim for promoting spiritual development in a school is –


  • I owe the use of the term 'flourishing' to Stuart Sutherland, first OFSTED chief inspector; xvii

  • linked to the idea that education is not only about what pupils know and can do, but is also about what people are, and what they might become;

  • pragmatically useful to have a term like 'flourish' to use as a point of reference;

  • note the attempt in the shorthand definition to balance both individual and the whole school community;

  • note how 'individuals' could cover all adults, not only community (Isn't it a truism that a school in which pupils are flourishing is one in which teachers and other adults are also able to flourish? ). xviii

This general aim could then be translated into two objectives

Objective 1: To promote those qualities and dispositions which affect how people engage with life: how they relate with themselves, others, the world and (for some) God/Ultimate Being:

NB 'promote' implies intentionality;

  • an exercise which illustrates this objective: think of as many examples as possible, both inside and outside the classroom, when a teacher or another adult might say "That's the spirit!" to either individual pupils or groups of pupils;

  • examples – tenacity … resiliance … co-operation … care of the environment … taking enjoyment in others' achievements;

  • NB the relationship of these to the values of the broader community;

Objective 2: To nourish the 'inner life' of individuals and the community of which they are part eg:

  • encouraging pupils to go 'beneath the surface' – meaning, purpose, links, connections etc;

  • giving pupils the opportunity to reflect and contemplate;

  • encouraging pupils to use their imagination;

  • allowing pupils to wonder (in both senses of the word);

  • giving pupils the opportunity to press against their own limits;

  • encouraging pupils to raise questions, even if they cannot be answered;

  • giving pupils the opportunity to experience – and 'name' - a range of feelings and emotions.

How in practical terms might a school seek to achieve these two objectives? eg

  • by providing a stimulating physical environment (NB the role of eg display, sayings, sculpture, quiet places, entrance hall);

  • ethos/atmosphere;

  • creating conditions in which pupils – and others? – are 'relaxed yet alert' (NB accelerated learning literature);

  • producing a suitable mission/vision statement (example shown);

  • noting achievement in the broadest sense (eg use of 'achievement trees');

  • adults as role models;

  • responding to special occasions (eg death of a child);

  • incorporating this into learning and teaching (illustrative examples given).

The role of RE and collective worship?

  • the OFSTED view that, though all aspects of school life, and all subjects of the curriculum, have a role in promoting pupils' spiritual development, RE and collective worship have a particularly important role;

  • the role of RE ('learning about' and 'learning from' religion etc);

  • the role of collective worship (reflecting on beliefs and values, silence and time for reflection etc).

Concluding remarks
(What feelings and commitments we should be left with)

An irony: at a time which great pressures on schools to achieve (in measurable terms), stress on promoting spiritual development too.

Promoting pupils' spiritual development not the only requirement on schools. Inevitably, tensions and conflicts of interest and time

End by reading the letter written by a US high school principal to her staff every year (ie wants her staff to make children "more human" – not educated Eichmanns, psychopathic university graduates etc).

i See 'Spiritual Development: the Impetus from Arnold of Rugby (1795-1842), Terence Copley, British Journal of Religious Education, Vol 22:1, Autumn 1999, pp5-14
ii NB When, in 1999, Colchester Royal Grammar School emerged as probably the highest-performing selective state school, the headteacher commented that, "… we have tried to deliver academic success within an atmosphere that emphasized an all-round education for all-round personalities. Extra-curricular activity is very important too". (The Guardian 20.8.99)
iii "The statutory system of public education shall be organised in three progressive stages to be known as primary education, secondary education, and further education; and it shall be the duty of the local education authority of every area … to contribute towards the spiritual, moral, mental and physical development of the community by securing that efficient education throughout those stages shall be available to meet the needs of the population of their area."
See 'Spiritual education and public policy, 1944–1994', Peter Gilliat, in Education, Spirituality and the Whole Child, Ron Best (ed), London, Cassell, 1996
iv Central aim for the school curriculum (1988/1996 Acts): It should (i) promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils and of society; (ii) prepare pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life.
v The Curriculum from 5 to 16 (Curriculum Matters 2), DES/HMSO 1985. The other eight areas were: aesthetic and creative; human and social; linguistic and literary; mathematical; moral; physical; scientific; technological
vi Spiritual and Moral Development, SCAA Discussion Papers No 3, September 1995: later republished by QCA
vii Shaping the Spirit: Promoting the spiritual development of young people in schools, Guidance on Spiritual Education by Kent SACRE, Kent County Council and Libraries, 1999
viii "'Spirituality' is a weasel word: it is a convenient catch-all, suitably vague and elusive of definition", A Brown and J Furlong in Spiritual Development in Schools: Invisible to the Eye, The National Society 1996, p4
ix See John Ruskin, 'Of kings' treasures' in Sesame and Lilies, 1882 edition, pp28-29
x See David Smith, Making Sense of Spiritual Development, Stapleford Centre, 1999, pp6-7
xi One of the most complex definitions that I have come across is that given by Robin Richardson in his Fortunes and Fables: education for hope in troubled times, Trentham Books, 1996, p122: "Spirituality is to do with the inner world of feeling, orientation and imagining. In particular it refers to feelings, orientations and imaginings to do with trust and anxiety, humility and self-importance, determination and self-pity, self-esteem and self-rejection, relatedness and isolation, purpose and nihilism, acceptance or denial of boundaries and finitude, meaning and fragmentation, courage and despair".
xii John Simpson, Strange Places, Questionable People, London, Macmillan 1998, p166
xiii Quoted in 'A man in two minds' by Roy Hattersley, Guardian Saturday Review, 21.8.99
xiv NB Terence Copley defines spiritual development as "The development of the awareness that there is something more to life than meets the eye, something more than the material, something more than the obvious, something to wonder at, something to respond to" (Handbook to video programme on Education and Spiritual Development produced by Marjons)
xv Charles Dickens, Hard Times, 1854
xvi NB, in Strange Places, Questionable People, John Simpson talks about his outrage when his child, in a Belgian school, is given 0/10 by the teacher for painting a yellow snowman
xvii See Report of proceedings of Consultation: Inspecting Pupils' Spiritual and Moral Development at Westhill College 29th January 1993, Westhill College, Birmingham
xviii NB "If you are travelling with small children on an aeroplane, the flight attendant tells you in the case of emergency to put the oxygen mask on yourself first in order that you are in a position to help your child", Roland Barth, Improving Schools from Within, (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1990), p46; quoted in MacGilchrist, Myers and Reed, The Intelligent School (London, Paul Chapman), p53
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