Spiritual development in schools needs to be remodelled and reclaimed from ‘policy creep’

Image credit: Klimkin via Pixabay

Image credit: Klimkin via Pixabay

A new analysis of pupil wellbeing has called for a re-evaluation of how schools support ‘spiritual development’, arguing that the present legal requirement is vague, confused, and has been appropriated for political ends.

The assessment appears in one contribution to a new international academic review examining the role of education in supporting students’ sense of ‘wholeness and purpose’. The philosophical and historical study, by the University of Cambridge academic, Dr Daniel Moulin-Stozek, traces the origins and history of what British schools today call ‘Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural development’ (SMSC).

Promoting spiritual development has been a statutory duty of schools in England and Wales since 1944. Rather than referring to a single subject, it is an umbrella term for a general requirement that activities across the curriculum should stimulate – among other things – reflection, creativity, imagination, wonder, and an appreciation of different values and faiths.

While the analysis argues that this rather open-ended concept is potentially a powerful educational tool, it also suggests that, because it has deliberately been kept vague: ‘little work has been undertaken to embed it in all curriculum areas’.

That same ambiguity, it argues, has also enabled the Government to use the Ofsted requirement to deliver SMSC to teach ‘Fundamental British Values’. This guidance, published in 2014 as part of the anti-radicalisation Prevent strategy, has been criticised for marginalising and stigmatising minorities. It also appears to contradict the recognition of shared values that ‘spiritual development’ was meant to achieve.

At the moment schools don’t really know what spiritual development means, while the original idea has been inverted to serve a particular agenda
Daniel Moulin-Stozek, Faculty of Education

Moulin-Stozek is a specialist in moral and faith-based education at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, where he also teaches the Religious Studies PGCE. His paper suggests that the time is right to develop a new model for spiritual development that schools can deliver worldwide.

“At the moment schools don’t really know what spiritual development means, while the original idea has been inverted to serve a particular agenda,” Moulin-Stozek said. “It is actually meant to be a flexible goal ensuring that education connects young people with different cultures and traditions and helps them to find purpose and meaning. That is a difficult thing to get right, but it seems a challenge we ought to be looking at afresh.”

The analysis appears in a special new edition of ECNU Review of Education, which critically assesses a revived interest across international education in well-being, ‘after decades of focusing narrowly on measuring students’ academic attainment’. The editors observe that: ‘The current coronavirus epidemic is in many ways accelerating policymakers’ and educators’ focus on student well-being.’

A better question is how education can support a wider sense of meaning and purpose... It implies that spiritual exploration is part of the architecture of education alongside the acquisition of knowledge and experience
Dennis Shirley, Lynch School of Education and Human Development

But they also suggest that this is too narrow a goal for educators and schools. “Perhaps a better question is how education can support and develop a wider sense of meaning and purpose,” co-editor Professor Dennis Shirley, from the Lynch School of Education and Human Development, Boston College, USA, said. “That assumes that it gives young people a spirit of inquiry about themselves and others, the ability to reflect, and to make decisions about how to act. It implies that spiritual exploration, although not necessarily in a religious sense, is part of the architecture of education alongside the acquisition of knowledge and experience.”

In England and Wales, such ambitions are currently addressed through SMSC. Moulin-Stozek suggests that some of the early ideas behind this, though almost 100 years old, are still highly relevant. His paper charts their history, starting with the vision of early 20th century theorists like Basil Yeaxlee, who wanted education to allow “each individual to stand back from the universe and reflect and establish his or her own relationship to the world and others.”

This idea, although developed by liberal Christian thinkers, was never about a specific religion or culture and since the 1988 Education Act has explicitly included all cultures and religions. But the analysis also finds that its inherent open-endedness has led to inconsistent delivery. Since the 1990s, when spiritual development became a criterion for Ofsted inspections, schools have generally sought to identify specific subjects – typically Art, English, and Religious Studies – where activities can be developed to satisfy inspectors. No clear guidance on how spiritual development should be introduced across the curriculum has ever emerged.

It seems pretty crass to suggest that 'British values' are anything other than human values, seen through a British lens
Daniel Moulin-Stozek, Faculty of Education

Moulin-Stozek argues that this vacuum eventually enabled SMSC to be taken over by ‘policy creep’ in the Government’s ‘Fundamental British Values’ guidance. Developed after the infamous (and likely faked) ‘Trojan horse’ allegations in Birmingham schools, this demands that schools promote ‘British’ values such as democracy, the rule of law, and tolerance of other faiths.

The approach has been heavily criticised. One academic study in 2017 argued that it promotes a ‘white supremacist’ vision of Britishness; other research has found that many schools simply pay it lip-service by creating “Union Jack-themed displays, featuring the Queen and fish and chips”.

“The whole thing also glosses over the long influence of global cultures and cosmopolitanism that has enabled Britain to thrive at the centre of world trade,” Moulin-Stozek added. “It seems pretty crass to suggest that ‘British’ values are anything other than human values seen through a British lens.”

The paper argues that spiritual development needs to be remodelled so that it recovers, and delivers on, some of its original goals. Specifically, it points to the need for an international framework that balances the inherent flexibility envisaged by early theorists with enough specific guidance to prevent any further misappropriation.

Moulin-Stozek suggests that this framework might involve enabling stronger partnerships between schools and civil society, perhaps expanding the engagement with local communities that has long been used to support the writing of school syllabuses in religious education.

But any model will also need to allow young people to ‘switch off and reconnect with nature, and themselves’, he suggests. “The need for this is why I think we have seen the partial introduction of well-being and mindfulness training into some schools,” he added. “That draws on just one aspect of a palette of international cultural traditions that could inform a reimagining of spiritual development for schools worldwide.”