I was very fortunate to attend the annual CISC (Catholic Independent Schools Conference) gathering last week, in Liverpool’s Hilton Hotel. It really helped me focus on my New Year’s Resolution – to be unstintingly positive about everything in the world of education, even when things get tough.
A key theme of the conference was ‘hope’, and, more particularly, our understanding of it as Christians. Rather than seeing hope as a wish or a desire, or something that meets our expectations, we must instead see it as a long-term quest for wisdom and fulfilment, journeying to God’s grace and revelation.
This was the core of Professor Pillay’s keynote speech on the first day of the conference. Professor Pillay is the Vice-Chancellor of Liverpool Hope University, so perfectly placed to deliver this message of hope; indeed he spoke eloquently of the history of Hope Street which unites the Catholic and Church of England cathedrals. His carefully chosen words, referencing John Henry Newman and Thomas Aquinas amongst others, resonated powerfully for me and, I think, my colleagues.
For keeping ‘hope in our hearts’, as Liverpool fans sing so movingly at each match, is not easy at all. Because it is a long-term quest, it is easy to lose momentum and stray into fields of cynicism and despair. St Peter’s words were quoted to acknowledge this; ‘If you have to suffer for being good, you will count it as a blessing.’
The other two keynote speakers were Dr John Patterson, my friend and colleague (and the reason for my being there) and Sir Ken Robinson, who delivered his address from Los Angeles. All were inspirational in their different ways, and were united in their positive, upbeat message that things can be better and can bring about genuine hope for our society.
Professor Pillay spoke of university education in the tradition of Newman, ‘not a treadmill, not a mint, not a foundry.’ For him, education is beauty and goodness, reflected by the grounds of Hope University, which are deliberately sensual and attractive.
For John Patterson, hope lay in the very real possibility that his network of partners and collaborators would affect the life chances of blind children, not just in Liverpool but worldwide through his ‘Sight Box’ initiative.
And in Ken Robinson’s words lay an impeccably argued belief that like-minded school leaders and teachers could present a meaningful alternative to the global reform movements that have dominated government thinking for forty years. He argued that conformity, compliance and competition are leading to perverse incentives and adverse consequences for our young people. Instead, school leaders could offer a message of diversity, creativity and compassion – a more hopeful prescription than many on offer across the world.
There was then a presentation to the Lord Mayor of a stunning ceramic mural depicting images from WW1, partly constructed by the pupils at St Vincent’s and our pupils at All Saints.
And this links to my last reflection on the power of hope.
The conference was a real Liverpool ‘love-in’, so who better to remind us of hope’s strength than arguably the city’s most heroic son, Noel Chevasse. However our struggles in 2018 may seem interminable or impossible to overcome, none can match those that Captain Chevasse, VC and Bar, faced on the night of his death in June 1917.
That he never lost hope, even in the face of unimaginable horror, gives us the greatest reason to be truly optimistic and positive.