In case you missed BBC Question Time this week, here’s Labour MP Tristram Hunt sneering at journalist Cristina Odone after she said that her most inspiring teachers weren’t formally qualified:
“They were all nuns weren’t they? I know about your religious schooling”, was his snide retort.
Odone had been talking about how she’d been taught ‘real values’ by her teachers, presumably in contradistinction to ‘British values’ – that set of lefty liberal secular values insisted on by Ofsted and inculcated during that state-sponsored programme of re-education and mind control known as the PGCE (post-graduate certificate in education).
Hunt’s comments are deeply revealing, not only of a certain liberal intelligentsia mindset, but of the contempt he has, as a member of the liberal political elite, for religious education in general and for Catholics in particular. It’s the kind of attitude driving voters into the arms of Ukip, and particularly stupid given recent research that Catholics are more likely to vote Labour.
Like Odone, I was educated at Catholic schools – one a co-ed state primary, the other an all girls independent where I was on an assisted place. The nuns – far from being the superstitious, bigoted, Magdalen-laundry-type monsters of Tristram Hunt’s imagination – were extraordinarily kind, fair, smart, and fearless.
At primary school, Sister Veronica – a Dominican nun – taught us to read using the alphabetic method instead of the phonics trendy back then (it stuck in my memory because I remember my mum, a teacher herself, praising her for it). At secondary school, only Sister Ursula (IBVM) insisted on old-style English lessons where we had to approach the blackboard and identify nouns and verbs by circling them with chalk. Not for these sisters the trendy doctrine of child-centered learning prevalent at the time. As a result, the nuns were the only teachers we never messed with in class. They had our absolute respect.
Hunt’s Labour party, like the current government, is keen to promote the teaching of certain values in school. To this end, kids are drilled in equality and sex education (and now there are plans to make sex ed compulsory for five year olds). Presumably he thinks this should be in the hands of secularists rather than those with ‘a Christian agenda’, because like much of the political elite, he takes ‘secular’ to mean ‘unbiased and neutral’, being blind to the fact that secularism has its own agenda.
Yet it was through nuns – far more than through any compulsory state course – that I learnt what real gender equality means, and what really matters when it comes to sex. The nuns presented an alternative narrative of womanhood, different to that of wife or mother. Nuns taught us girls that we could be or do anything, and that chastity was power. We could be teachers, lecturers, doctors, aid workers. The point was that whatever vocation we chose, whether it was motherhood or full-time work, it was about living a life of service, and being freed up to dedicate more time to others.
This is the thing that the likes of Tristram Hunt will never understand. You can’t teach values through proscriptive training courses. Values have to be embodied and lived. Nuns live ‘sisterhood’ to its fullest extent. Those secular minded equality drones currently writing the education script would do well to take a few lessons from the nuns.