Regular readers of this blog will know that I work in an education establishment and over the last few years since qualifying as a teacher I’ve seen time for anything other than academic work squeezed out bit by bit. My colleagues who have been teaching for a lot longer than I have tell of the days when there was time to bond as a school community and students were able to try out a whole range of activities and better themselves in ways far beyond learning to jump through hoops in order to acquire a set of grades that will bump their school up the league tables. These days, certainly beyond primary level, schools are little more than exam factories where there is scant time to learn the soft skills such as communication, leadership and creative thinking that are so important in the real world of life. Spiritual and moral development have pretty much fallen by the wayside too despite Ofsted requirements:
“For far too long now, headteachers have been distracted from these aspects of their pupils’ education by constant considerations around results, inspections and protocols,” says Joe Hallgarten, one of the report’s authors and head of education at the Royal Society of Arts. “But SMSC (spiritual, moral, social and cultural) is the very lifeblood of schooling. It provides young people with a set of characteristics and capabilities that enable them to cope with life.
“The overriding finding of our investigation is that, at precisely the time when SMSC might have most to contribute, it is losing prominence and being given neither space nor high value.”
And of the four different aspects of SMSC, it’s the spiritual dimension that is most at risk of neglect.
“At a time when the number of adolescents in the UK diagnosed with depression has almost doubled in recent decades … there is a strong case for protecting spaces for spiritual development because many aspects of spirituality, particularly practices like meditation, but also and most simply a richer experience of life’s meaning, can serve to promote wellbeing.”
All of this leads on appropriately to the work of Prayer Spaces in Schools who are providing spiritual spaces for prayer and reflection in schools around the country. In the last year they’ve taken place in over 270 schools and in total an estimated 300,000 students have participated in them. A Prayer Spaces in Schools team visited my workplace recently and set up an installation for a week with a series of stations where students could come in their own time to pause and reflect on their lives, relationships, hopes and dreams. The organisation is openly Christian, but they take care to make their spaces relevant to children and young people of all faiths and none. The response from my fellow staff and students has been overwhelmingly positive and this is far from unusual.
On Sunday BBC Gloucester broadcast a feature on a prayer space at a local school. Presenter Richard Atkins having visited was full of praise: “It was an amazing morning. I have to say I’ve never seen anything like that. It absolutely blew me away – absolutely incredible.” The radio coverage includes the story of a student who used the prayer space as an opportunity to say sorry for fighting, and went on to take positive steps to change not only his behaviour but also to promote positive behaviour in the school.
Last November one of the teachers at a school in my town said this after their school had run a prayer space:
“One boy in year 7 who has not been engaged with RE (or many of his lessons) said that it was very useful to him because it gave him a chance to think about how his life was different to other people’s. He was reflecting on his own and other people’s lives in a way that classroom activities had not allowed him to do.
“In subsequent RE lessons there has been a marked improvement in his focus and attitude.”
The point of Prayer Spaces is not to improve behaviour, but the time spent in them can produce a whole variety of responses. This is a quote from a teaching assistant who is not a Christian working at another school in my area who spent time with children in the ‘Open Space’:
“Open Space was an experience well worthwhile. It was a great way of reflecting on ourselves, our thoughts, our emotions and everyone and everything in this world. It gave me a great feeling of connection with something that was beyond my own control, and a feeling that the children were also able to relate to through showing their emotions and expressing their thank you, sorry and forgiveness. It was a very good moment for them to see what they should be thankful for and that they should appreciate what they have got.
“Children these days don’t have many opportunities to reflect on everything going on in their life. They rarely have a chance to feel free from a busy school day and life, to relax and enjoy ‘prayer’ in a way that is stress free and comforting.
“Following the children’s visit to the Open Space, there were certain children that were surprised by the comments of their peers. Many of which found the experience a real eye opener in the way that they could see that they are not the only ones affected by death, cancer and other disappointments that occur on our journey throughout life.”
Learning to deal with everything that life throws at us is an important part of growing up and yet it is rarely addressed in most schools. Having even just a few minutes to stop and reflect is a luxury that so many children desperately could do with more often. Prayer spaces run by outside Christian organisations fulfil a valuable need in schools that teachers have little opportunity to provide themselves.
This is one of the real benefits of schools working with Christian groups and yet there are some bodies who would prefer not to see religious groups darken the doors of our ‘secular’ schools. The National Secular Society’s (NSS’s) report released last November entitled Evangelism in State Schools was a thinly veiled attack on Christian groups including Prayer Spaces who provide activities and teaching in schools. in the NSS’s eyes no religious organisation should be given the chance to take their message into secular state schools. Sadly this controlling and repressive attitude completely misunderstands the nature of what education should be. Children learn more by being exposed to different cultures and beliefs than by being ‘protected’ from them. If you ever have the chance to visit a prayer space you will see that proselytisation is not even close to being on the agenda, but allowing students to think about life beyond just the here-and-now most definitely is. We see in polls that younger people still have a strong appreciation of the spiritual nature of life even if this often does not involve organised religion. We do them a huge disservice if we deny them the opportunity to talk and think this through.
If Prayer Spaces were of minimal benefit to schools or if they were seen as being little more than a form of evangelism by the backdoor, then school heads would most definitely not be welcoming them in. In fact since 2008 when Prayer Spaces in Schools started the number of schools using these spaces has roughly doubled each year. Head teachers are praising them and asking them to return again because they are impressed by what they see and the positive effect the spaces have when used by their children. Take for example this extract from a letter of thanks from the Head of Ulverston Victoria High School:
“I attended a classroom reflection session for Year 7 in our Beliefs Philosophy and Ethics programme and I have to comment it was one of the most effective sessions I have seen during my career. The ethos in the lesson was superb and the gentle interaction between adults and children was heart-warming! We would welcome Prayer Space back next year as part of the Year 7 BPE programme. Too often schools give into Ofsted pressures and neglect the spiritual needs of their students. The Prayer Space is a unique way of redressing the balance.”
Surely this is a clear sign that children want and need to explore the meaning of life, to ask the difficult questions and to consider the sort of lives they want to live. Prayer Spaces are providing these opportunities and through them children are learning something many adults could do with realising too – prayer is good for you.
There are plenty more stories about the impact of prayer spaces at the Prayer Spaces in Schools website.