Bishop of Coventry speaks in debate on lifelong learning

Coventry171122 bOn 16th April Baroness Garden of Frognal held a debate ‘To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress is being made in developing a sustainable lifelong learning culture in England’. The Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth, spoke in the debate:

The Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, I join in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, for securing this debate and for her very comprehensive introduction.

I wonder whether I might tell your Lordships a bit about the wanderings of a bishop on a Sunday. Yesterday, I began the day with the Greek Orthodox community in Coventry to mark the 30th anniversary of His Eminence Archbishop Gregorios’s ministry in leading that community in Great Britain. He is a 90 year-old man full of wisdom, hope and dignity who is teaching his community to live well. After the service there was a wonderful lunch in the church hall, which on a Saturday, I was told, becomes a school where the community’s children learn not only the Greek language but that community’s culture and tradition. They are having their eyes opened to a whole new set of possibilities that formal education will not train them for.

I left there to head down into south Warwickshire for a confirmation service, the culmination of a course for a group of young people of a range of ages. I asked them, “What happens now with what you’ve been learning?”. “This is only the foundation”, they said. “It sets us out on a journey that will take us through life”. They were talking not just about lifelong learning—learning throughout life, as it were—but about learning for life, learning how to live life fully.

Those two Sunday experiences gave me a lot to reflect on as I thought about this debate. It is not only the Christian tradition that is committed to inculcating habits of learning in people at an early stage and expecting them to go on learning through life, for life. It is a shared value and common practice among the traditions. What can be learned from those traditions about what lifelong learning really is and to how to encourage it and shape a culture of lifelong learning? The most fundamental insight is that learning is fundamental to human identity. It belongs to what it means to be a human being. Rabbis, Jesus among them, have disciples. “Mathetai”, a Greek word I learned in my Greek classes, means “learners”. It is interesting that, like other rabbis, Jesus’s level 1 teaching for his disciples, his learners, was the shaping of their characters, their attitudes to others and the way they treated them. Everything followed from that.

We also learn from the religious traditions that learning is not just for economic benefit: man does not live by bread alone. Of course, it is partly about learning for work, which is vital, but it is really about something much deeper. We learn that learning is not just about what happens at school. It is about a life of learning, because life is endlessly interesting and tantalisingly mysterious, always inviting us to learn more. Learning does not happen just through formal methods. It is not only taught and measured but is caught through a network of relationships and lived out in communities where people learn from others in myriad ways. So I am glad to note that Office for Science’s foresight report Future of Skills and Lifelong Learning recognises that character skills are vital for readiness to work and that these skills are often attained through informal learning in a range of voluntary associations.

The Church of England Vision for Education, published in 2016, defines education as learning to live fully, and it proposes four spheres of education relevant to our debate today. The first is learning for wisdom, knowledge and skills. Other noble Lords will be able to speak better than I can about how people can be better educated in the learning of skills. I want to say something about learning for wisdom, not just because the readiness to learn new skills relies on a prior formation in wisdom but because skills are, according to the Jewish tradition, a form of practical wisdom. Wisdom requires knowledge and experience and is built up over time and in relationships. It is lifelong. It requires active searching and reasoning and demands breadth and depth. It requires discipline and resilience and inspires inquisitiveness, passion, confidence and delight in learning. It prepares us for life in an unknown future.

Secondly, education is for hope and aspiration. When I was at school—it was not an academic school—I told one of my teachers that a teacher I had met in another school had said I should think about applying to Oxbridge. My teacher replied, “That’s the problem with schools like that; they put ideas into people’s heads. Boys like you don’t go to Oxford or Cambridge”. So I never applied, but years later I found myself an associate lecturer at Cambridge University. It was a religious community that made up the deficit in my education. It educated me for hope: hope to imagine a different future and hope for myself and the world. That drove a lifetime pursuit of learning.

The third sphere of the Church of England’s vision for education is learning for community and in the community. Education socialises the individual. Learning lifts our eyes out of ourselves to appreciate the other and enables us to belong to the past and the present, and to affect the future—learning to see that I am because we are. The drive to understand history, art, music and culture comes from a desire to be part of a community. The fourth sphere follows on from that. It is education for dignity and respect. Learning enables us to embrace the uniqueness of each individual. Raising the dignity of each person, it celebrates difference, drives a desire to investigate difference and enables us to appreciate different perspectives.

That sort of learning—wisdom, hope, community and dignity—is good not only for the person learning, although of course it helps them to live fully, but for the country and the economy. It grows human capital— the sort of people with the aptitude for learning and the attitudes towards others that the country and the economy need to grow more fully: more richly, in the deepest sense.


%d bloggers like this: