6 min read

Shouldn’t you be in school?

Henna Cundill is a researcher with the Centre for Autism and Theology at the University of Aberdeen, and editor of the But… Bible Study Series for Young People.

Beyond headlines about school refusers and ghost children, lies a challenge to adult notions of schooling. Henna Cundill unpacks the issue, inspired, in part, by fish.
A school of tropical fish swims to the right, while one swims to the left.
A school of tropical fish off the Maldives.

The squeaky black shoes are back in the hall, and by now all the white polo-shirts in the land (except aged 4-5, slim-fit) have been snaffled by harassed mums and dads. Yes, it is that time of year again – the time for newspaper editors to dredge up some statistics about the rising number of “school refusers” – anxious young people whose squeaky shoes and white polo shirts are looking set to never leave the house.  

The numbers are “spiralling” frets the Guardian, and the Daily Mail asks “Are you raising a ‘ghost child’?” Forth come the stock images of a sulky teenage girl pulling the duvet over her face, or a young boy with an oversized backpack and hands clamped firmly over his ears. A parent, frowning, is quoted as saying that the school isn’t doing enough. A headteacher, eyebrows knitted, says how difficult it is without the support and cooperation of the parents. Then everybody shakes their heads and blames the pandemic. 

In my time as a School Chaplain, before the pandemic, I saw how truly awful school refusal is – for everyone involved. Beneath the covers, underneath the backpack, there is actually no “refusal” of anything – in fact, there is a campaign to get rid of this term, which I heartily support. Refusal implies there is a choice, but when a young person feels so overwhelmingly anxious and afraid, there is no choice for them, other than fight, flight, or freeze. Parents and caregivers feel judged, teachers are largely helpless. Social workers, when they get involved, quickly feel like they are the enemy of absolutely everyone involved. Surrounding any long-term school refuser there is often a hot mess of frustrated adults, and underneath the frustration, sadness.  

No Scouts, no community choir, not even traipsing down to the park to hang out informally with their peers. Instead, anxiety traps them into the perceived safety of home. 

Why sadness? Because we know that, regardless of our views on the importance of cookie-cutter educational attainments, no young person should be isolated. Even families who are committed and evangelistic about home-schooling will also schedule social activities for their children, be it membership of various clubs and organisations or group sessions of learning with other home-schooled kids. But the school refusers I have known have typically also refused anything like that. No Scouts, no community choir, not even traipsing down to the park to hang out informally with their peers. Instead, anxiety traps them into the perceived safety of home, that one tiny corner of the world where they have a sure sense of belonging and some modicum of control.  

With the idea of “belonging” in mind, perhaps it is helpful to think about what a school actually is. The word school is multi-faceted in meaning. In nature, it denotes a group of fish, all swimming together. Such behaviour would seem counter-intuitive, since it means that all the fish are then competing for the same food or other resources. But ask any fish and it will tell you that being part of the group is itself a resource, enhancing their ability to find food and to protect themselves from predators. We could put this a more familiar way: a school is where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  

There’s also another meaning to the word school – groups of creatives or philosophical thinkers whose styles and methods influence and complement each other, e.g., “His paintings are those of the Impressionist school.” We can see how, in these schools, people spark off one another, constantly developing and refining their own work in response to the work of others. Those with greater skill and experience mentor those who are just beginning. In this respect, we could say that a school is where people can push the boundaries of human creativity and knowledge.   

Since the ancient days, when learners gathered around the Greek philosophers, first to listen, then to discuss, and then to refine ideas, we have gathered our young people into schools for the purpose of educating them. We have long acknowledged that the best learning is a group activity which takes place over time. This is why home schoolers also schedule the clubs and activities – not just because children need friends (although that is important) but because there is a particular “other” kind of human progress that happens when we have to rub along with other people. When learners are placed in groups, ideas can be tested, boundaries can be overcome, creativity meets with critique - the whole quickly becomes greater than the sum of its parts.  

You may notice that many schools promote themselves as being a “learning community” or a “family.” It’s not just about being twee – research shows that promoting a sense of belonging reduces the amount of school refusal and non-attendance. We know that belonging matters, as Belle Tindall has recently discussed, and that a sense of belonging can impact our health and even our mortality. (“Well, I told you so!” says the fish.)  

This was something the early Christians knew too. In the first few decades after Jesus’s life and ministry they gathered in groups to pray and to discuss, just like those earlier followers of Plato and Aristotle had done. There was an eagerness to learn from those who had heard Jesus’ teaching first hand, and to develop and refine their understanding of what that teaching could mean in practice. It was a school, although they called it a church – or strictly speaking an ecclesia in the Greek, which just means a gathering of people.  

In the ecclesia there was good natured debate, but also some spicy disputes and arguments, along with a lot of discussion about who was “in” and who was “out” - something which is also a hot topic in the school playgrounds of today. Into that context, Paul (one of the first leaders of the ecclesia) wrote that the church was a bit like a human body, in which:  

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 

His point was that belonging is about knowing not just that you belong but that you are needed. In a human body, different parts have different roles, and Paul also asks his readers to consider this point:  

“If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?”  

I have seen that schools do often try very, very hard to communicate to young people that they belong. But, shackled to the syllabi and never more than a few short months away from the next round of exams or individualised assessments, it’s much harder for schools to show young people that they are needed. With our present system, how can we show young people that, even if they are not predicted to be the student in the class who gets straight A’s, their presence there in the group and their role in the learning process is vital, and contributes to the learning of others? 

When it comes to the presence of absence among our young people, schools have often gone as far as they can practicably go, as have parents, as have social workers. And the young people themselves? Well, they are stuck – biologically their only options are fight, flight, or freeze.  

So that leaves us, the society that over-emphasises individualised achievement, that glorifies celebrity and individual success. In adulthood we so quickly forget how to “do” school, how to model it to our young people, swimming all together in a way designed to promote human knowledge, protect each other from danger or even just to ensure that everyone gets fed. No wonder our young people absorb a sense that their presence isn’t needed, when in so many areas of life it’s every fish for themselves. 

As adults, perhaps we should be asking ourselves the question: why aren’t we in school?          

6 min read

For want of better words... the impact of the indescribable

Henna Cundill is a researcher with the Centre for Autism and Theology at the University of Aberdeen, and editor of the But… Bible Study Series for Young People.

Confronted with a question about belief, Henna Cundill found herself stumbling for words. She contemplates the link between our self-identity and what we can communicate.
A woman stops in her stride down a street and pensively runs her hand through her hair as she looks to the side.
Joseph Frank on Unsplash.

I recently got into conversation with a young man who asked me, “Do you believe in God?” When I replied, “Yes,” I almost regretted it, because his next move was to ask, “Why?” and I found this question troublingly difficult to answer.  

Of course, I could have dredged up the old philosophical arguments for the logical existence of God – but none of that would have really captured the thing I have no words for. Belief is like… Oh, what is it like? A glitch… no, a glimmer… no, like a glimpse of… No. Goodness. What is it? I’m lost for a word or even a metaphor that will somehow express what it feels to say “yes” and “I believe in God” and in that moment, even if only for a moment, to feel oneself transported or transposed out of this tiresome, human existence and into something that is... well, it’s something…  

I think it's fair to say that conversations about believing in God are unusual these days, especially when the circumstance is an 18-year-old lad talking with a woman in her late 30s – albeit the lad in question was a philosophy undergraduate and we were at Cumberland Lodge, where such conversations are welcomed amongst those of all faiths and none. Even so, it still felt rather unusual to be asked a question like that, not out of hostility but just casually over dinner, and to see him genuinely and respectfully interested to hear what I might have to say in response.  

Eventually I did come up with some kind of an answer; I can’t remember what. And naturally, I turned the question back on him. Turns out he did believe in God, in fact he was Jewish, so he stumbled out some kind of answer too, but I think it's fair to say that he was hardly more erudite than I was. Eventually, we both agreed that it was rather difficult to describe the indescribable, and our conversation turned to rather easier topics - the food, the weather, geopolitics... 


There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed. 

The question of believing in God was done with. Yet here I am weeks later, still pondering why it was so hard for me to articulate what it means to live with that belief, and why that part of the conversation ended, but still felt so unfinished.  

Has faith always been so indescribable? I suspect it rather has not. These dark evenings always tend to lure me to my bookshelves, seeking out my “comfort books” that I read and reread year after year. Mostly cosy fiction of course, but alongside those, a non-fiction favourite is Sheila Fletcher's, Victorian Girls: Lord Lyttleton’s Daughters. The book is a fascinating study of a family of young women in the Victorian era, faithfully compiled from their own real letters and diaries, so that the voices of Meriel, Lucy, Lavinia and May Lyttleton themselves can all be heard clearly on every page. I just love to read this book over and over again, entering into the hopes, sorrows, loves and ambitions of these young women – so similar and yet so different to my own.  

One thing that stands out particularly is how clearly and easily they each articulate their sense of faith. They were, of course, heavily schooled in Victorian public piety, but there is most certainly a real faith there too. A favourite passage of mine is an excerpt from the teenage diary of Lucy Lyttleton, recounting the day of her Confirmation. She speaks of a ‘nice and stilling’ drive to church, with her parents either side in the carriage, and then:  

I seem to remember nothing very distinctly till I went up and knelt on that altar step, feeling the strangest thrill as I did so… and I know how I waited breathlessly for my turn, with the longing for it to be safe done, half feeling that something might yet prevent it. 

Oh, to be so thrilled by a religious ritual, and to have both the words and the courage to write about it. After all Lucy, what if someone might be reading your diary 150 years later?  

In mainstream society nowadays, most of us simply don't talk about faith, religion, and what it all means to us personally in that way. It’s not the done thing in a (presumed) secular society. Consequently, it is now very hard to write about it too. Yet, many philosophers in the past century have observed a link between our self-identity and what we can communicate. For example, philosopher Charles Taylor describes how our sense of ‘self’ is formed in “webs of interlocution” wherein what we take to be “good” relies on what we can effectively talk about, and thus have affirmed by those we talk to. If we turn Taylor’s idea around, might we say that when there are parts of ourselves that we cannot talk about, parts for which we cannot find social recognition and affirmation, then we cease to value those parts of ourselves as good, or may cease to recognise them at all? 

 With that comes a sense of isolation. There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed.   

To me it feels that, as we talk about faith less and less, and as the language of faith becomes ever more confined, not even just to private conversations but to our own inner worlds, our “webs of interlocution” are beginning to shrink and disintegrate – until believing in God can feel more like dangling on a loose and solitary strand than being part of any kind of web. It’s a lonely place to be – there is a part of me that feels important, but no one can affirm it.  

And yet, by simply asking the question of each other, and being ready to listen respectfully to whatever answer was forthcoming, it seems that me and a teenage lad managed to connect two lonely strands together. It was of no consequence that we worship in different faith traditions, or that neither of us really found the words to say what we wanted to say – a conversation took place, and a certain web of interlocution started to form. For some, reading this, there may be a feeling of resonance, or a moment of understanding, and perhaps that too adds a little to the web, as different people’s words and thoughts and experiences begin to connect across different times and places.   

Webs do more than just create connection; webs capture things too. Perhaps, as this web spreads between different readers and thinkers and speakers, that’s what will happen to this question of believing in God. After a certain point, such a web may even become large enough and robust enough to finally start to capture some useful words, or an apt metaphor, that will really help me to say something about what it means to have faith. To be able to say it is to be able to share it, and in these lonely times, being able to say something is really not nothing.  

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