Spiritual development in schools
“Spiritual” is a difficult word for non-religious people. When its main usage was clearly associated with religion, we could dismiss or ignore it, albeit at the cost of being labelled reductionist or materialist. It became established in the Education Reform Act 1988 as one of the essential components of the curriculum, and was further established in the Education Act of 1992, where it had become part of the list, “spiritual, moral, social and cultural development” (now often abbreviated to SMSCD). At this stage, it was probably intended to mean “vaguely religious”, but in 1994 the OFSTED Handbook (extract below) indicated that it was not synonymous with “religious”, and this was confirmed in OFSTED guidance in 2004 (extract below). Though encouraging for some humanists, all this is not exactly enlightening. If it isn’t mental, moral, cultural or social (and it can’t be if it figures in lists alongside these) and it isn’t religious, then what is it?
Perhaps some attempts at definition or clarification will help:
An inclusive working definition:
First, we identify three principal elements in a definition. They respect pupils’ different religious and other backgrounds.
Spiritual development involves:
- the development of insights, principles, beliefs, attitudes and values which guide and motivate us. For many pupils, these will have a significant religious basis
- a developing understanding of feelings and emotions which causes us to reflect and to learn
- for all pupils, a developing recognition that their insights, principles, beliefs, attitudes and values should influence, inspire or guide them in life.
Then, we put these three elements together and come to this definition:
Spiritual development is the development of the non-material element of a human being which animates and sustains us and, depending on our point of view, either ends or continues in some form when we die. It is about the development of a sense of identity, self-worth, personal insight, meaning and purpose. It is about the development of a pupil’s ‘spirit’. Some people may call it the development of a pupil’s ‘soul’; others as the development of ‘personality’ or ‘character’.
– Ofsted Promoting and evaluating pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, March 2004
I prefer to say that the spiritual elements which are usually styled divine are part and parcel of human nature.
– Sir Julian Huxley FRS
Is there not as much food for the spirit in poetry and music as in any Christian hymn?
– Sir Ludovic Kennedy
There is, in my view, a place for what might be called ‘the spiritual’ in education but it should be uncoupled from religion. It has to do with the cosmic shudder we all feel from time to time when contemplating the existence of life, especially our own self conscious life, and of the universe…If OFSTED wants evidential criteria to help its inspectors, it is what the arts and contemplation of nature can bring about rather than religious knowledge, which should be top of the list.
– Professor John White, Institute of Education, London.
Education in spiritual growth is that which promotes apprehension of ultimate reality through fostering higher forms of human consciousness.
– Working party of Christians and Humanists on Spiritual Growth in Young People, 1985
The term ‘spiritual’ applies to all pupils. The potential for spiritual development is open to everyone and is not confined to the development of religious beliefs or conversion to a faith. To limit spiritual development in this way would be to exclude from its scope the majority of pupils in our schools who do not come from overtly religious backgrounds. The term needs to be seen as applying to something fundamental in the human condition… it has to do with the unique search for human identity…with the search for meaning and purpose in life and for values by which to live.
– Spiritual and Moral Development, National Curriculum Council discussion document, 1993
…the spiritual dimension comes from our deepest humanity. It finds expression in aspirations, moral sensibility, creativity, love and friendship, response to natural and human beauty, scientific and artistic endeavour, appreciation and wonder at the natural world, intellectual achievement and physical activity, surmounting suffering and persecution, selfless love, the quest for meaning and purpose by which to live.
– The Human Spirit, BHA leaflet, 1993
Spiritual development relates to that aspect of inner life through which pupils acquire insights into their personal existence which are of enduring worth. It is characterised by reflection, the attribution of meaning to experience, valuing a non-material dimension to life and intimations of an enduring reality. ‘Spiritual’ is not synonymous with ‘religious’; all areas of the curriculum may contribute to pupils’ spiritual development.
– OFSTED Handbook for the Inspection of Schools, 1994
There are many aspects to spiritual development:
- Beliefs- The development of personal beliefs, including religious beliefs; an appreciation that people have individual and shared beliefs on which they base their lives; a developing sense of how personal beliefs contribute to personal identity.
- A sense of awe, wonder and mystery - Being inspired by the natural world, mystery, or human achievement.
- Experiencing feelings of transcendence - Feelings which might give rise to belief in the existence of a divine being, or the belief that one’s inner resources provide the ability to rise above everyday experience.
- Search for meaning and purpose - Asking “why me?” at times of hardship or suffering; reflecting on the origin and purpose of life; responding to challenging experiences of life such as beauty, suffering and death.
- Relationships - Recognising and valuing the worth of each individual; developing a sense of community, the ability to build up relationships with others.
- Creativity - Expressing innermost thoughts and feelings through, for example, art, music, literature and crafts; exercising the imagination, inspiration, intuition and insight.
- Feelings and emotions - The sense of being moved by beauty or kindness; hurt by injustice or aggression; a growing awareness of when it is important to control emotions and feeling, and how to use such feeling as a source of growth.”
– SCAA Discussion Paper on Spiritual and Moral Development, 1995
Perhaps it is such a fashionable word because it covers so much: it is a very large umbrella. For those who feel a bit squeamish about the word ‘religious’, perhaps because of its latter day association with fundamentalism and war, this is a good alternative. For those seeking acceptance for their allegiance to crystal healing, or other irrational props, it grants respectability while retaining an aura of mystery.
…What on earth, then, is spirituality? Moments of being composed of emotion, imagination and memory – which somehow link up to take us beyond everyday awareness to an enhanced sense of reality.
– Robert Ashby, Executive Director, BHA, in a speech given to the Sea of Faith Conference, 1998
All human beings have a spiritual dimension in their lives. This is not the same thing as being ‘religious at heart’. It refers, more essentially, to that deeply personal outlook on life which the individual develops with experience.
– Dr Mike Newby, in Thinking about Actions, Attitudes and Values in the Classroom, BHA 1998
But even some religious people can find the word unhelpful:
Britons are losing touch with ‘the spirituality of creation’.
– Professor David Bellamy, urging Christians to embrace the green movement, November 1998.
There will be suspicion of the rhetoric, the talk about ‘soulship’ and ‘spirituality’ which is not very likely to clarify our relationships to non-human nature.
– The Rev Oliver O’Donovan, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, Oxford, in response.
Spiritual development in education – practicalities
Despite some differences of interpretation, there is considerable agreement on the inner and essentially private nature of spiritual experience, as well as on the positive nature of such experience and its contribution to psychological well-being. There is also some agreement that it may relate to individual responses to ultimate questions and be independent of religious belief. The difficulty of assessing inner development is clear – who can tell what is going on in someone’s mind when they are supposed to be reflecting deeply? And how would one test that spiritual development is being achieved? This has been acknowledged by the inspectorate in Wales:
Spiritual development is a difficult area to inspect. Effective provision for spiritual development depends on a curriculum and approaches to teaching which embody clear values and provide opportunities for pupils to gain understanding by developing a sense of curiosity through reflection on their own and other people’s lives and beliefs, their environment and the human condition. It relies on teachers receiving and valuing pupils’ ideas across the whole curriculum. Acts of worship play a particular part. To the extent that spiritual insights imply an awareness of how pupils relate to others, there is a strong link to both moral and social development.
– Handbook for the Inspection of Schools in Wales (OHMCI, Wales)
In guidance for inspectors the stress has been on judging the opportunities offered by schools for spiritual development, and responses:
Spiritual development is to be judged by how well the school promotes opportunities for pupils to reflect on aspects of their lives and the human condition through, for example, literature, music, art, science, religious education and collective worship, and how well the pupils respond.
– OFSTED Handbook, 1994
and in 2004:
Schools that are encouraging pupils’ spiritual development are, therefore, likely to be:
- giving pupils the opportunity to explore values and beliefs, including religious beliefs, and the way in which they affect peoples’ lives
- where pupils already have religious beliefs, supporting and developing these beliefs in ways which are personal and relevant to them
- encouraging pupils to explore and develop what animates themselves and others
- encouraging pupils to reflect and learn from reflection
- giving pupils the opportunity to understand human feelings and emotions, the way they affect people and how an understanding of them can be helpful
- developing a climate or ethos within which all pupils can grow and flourish, respect others and be respected
- accommodating difference and respecting the integrity of individuals
- promoting teaching styles which:
- value pupils’ questions and give them space for their own thoughts, ideas and concerns
- enable pupils to make connections between aspects of their learning
- encourage pupils to relate their learning to a wider frame of reference – for example, asking ‘why?’, ‘how?’ and ‘where?’ as well as ‘what?’”
– Promoting and evaluating pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development (Ofsted, March 2004)
From a humanist point of view, it would be a pity if most of this did in fact occur only in RE and collective worship. Cutbacks in arts education and the pressure on schools to cover the National Curriculum and produce ever improving test and examination results, would seem to discourage time for aesthetic and spiritual experience and reflection across the curriculum. Science education in particular has concentrated on content at the expense of reflection and awe, wonder and excitement. It is not surprising that over half the schools inspected in 1993-7 by OFSTED were judged poor at fostering spiritual development. Whilst the importance of collective worship has been highlighted, inspectors have been given guidance which indicates that even when collective worship is not fulfilling statutory requirements (i.e. it is not mainly or broadly Christian) it can “make a powerful contribution to spiritual, moral, social and cultural development” (Guidance for Registered Inspectors in Wales). The BHA knows of schools which received high praise from OFSTED for these aspects of school life, alongside criticism for lack of worship and prayer in assemblies.
The following suggestion, from an experienced teacher, is a helpful one, not too onerous or time-consuming or expensive, and has the potential for establishing good habits if practised consistently from the earliest years:
In thinking about how to provide opportunities for spiritual growth, is it too fanciful to suggest that a ‘quiet minute’ should happen as a structured component of many school activities and learning experiences? Many schools now have their own wildlife area: how about sitting down under a tree after a nature walk around it? Or trying to take in what a hundred million years means when looking at pre-Cambrian rocks on a Geography field trip? What about a quiet few minutes to wonder at the beauty and intricacy of crystal structures viewed through a microscope? And on a visit to an art gallery, might not the occasional quiet time to absorb the beauty of art… provide a time for reflection and refreshment of the spirit?”
– John White, BHA member, in Education, Spirituality and the Whole Child: a Humanist Perspective , 1996
Experienceseems to be one key to spiritual development: experience of creativity, of harmony with others, of a range of emotions. Across the curriculum, it is possible to offer experiences which promote reflection, self-awareness and personal development, feelings of awe and wonder, a sense of unity with other human beings. First-hand and direct experience is probably best, but video, for example, can bring other people’s experiences or the wonders of art and nature into the classroom powerfully and effectively. So can an enthusiastic teacher.
- Spirituality – what on earth is it? (PDF)
- Creativity and spirituality (PDF)
- Collective worship and school assemblies: your rights
- Inclusive school assemblies
- Education, Spirituality and the Whole Child, ed. Ron Best (Cassell, 1996)
- Spirituality in Focus, ed. W Owen Cole (Heinemann 1997)
- Ofsted guidance on pupil’s spiritual, moral, social and cultural development (March 2004)