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Finding similarities between schools and the baby in a manger

By OPINION - Stephen Munday

St Faiths Nativity
St Faiths Nativity

What do nativity plays and the education system have in common?

The lead up to Christmas is an interesting time in schools. It is always very busy. Pupils (and probably some staff) start feeling a certain excitement – and both staff and pupils tend to be tired at the end of term. It makes for an intriguing mix at times, perhaps not unlike the feeling in many households.

Schools have their Christmas events that contribute to the time of year: a mixture of celebration and good community occasions.

Of course, none of them contributes to any official measures of a school’s performance but all are, quite rightly, seen as an important part of school and community life. It is the time of year for music concerts, charitable events, Christmas lunches and much more.

And, of course, in primary schools it is the time of year for the nativity play (or an alternative Christmas-related play of some sort). It is probably this particular event that is most notable and is responsible for many enduring memories for a range of different reasons.

The diplomatic skills of teachers might be tested to the very limits when determining which child should have which part in the play. The potential for taking wrong steps here could have immeasurable consequences. Then there is the performance itself and the marvellous potential for unscheduled events precipitated by the inevitable ad libs and unlikely decisions of one or more of the child actors. We probably all have an anecdote related to that.

One that still sticks in my mind is when we went to see our son in his nativity performance (plenty of years ago). It was an early evening and my wife and I were there with our son’s two elder sisters, both of whom were highly excited at the prospect of their younger brother’s entry onto the stage.

The moment arrived. Both of them immediately burst into laughter with one shouting to the other (so that it could clearly be heard by many in the audience): ‘Why is he dressed as a rabbit?’ Of course, he was not. He was dressed as a sheep. It was just that the rather long and droopy ears of his costume coupled with the two large front teeth that he happened to possess at the time did mean that he bore an uncanny resemblance to an over-sized rabbit. Years later, the occasion has been known to be referred to around this time of year at family gatherings.

It is almost certainly pushing an analogy, but please forgive me given the time of year. It could, perhaps, be suggested that the nativity scene gives us a picture of schools.

We have, of course, the wise men, or the kings. Perhaps they are a picture of academic study. Perhaps they suggest those from a certain echelon of society who attend the school. Perhaps they might symbolise the wise teacher.

We then have the shepherds. Certainly, they are of a very different social background to wise men or kings. In comprehensive schools, there are pupils from all backgrounds. The shepherds might not be associated with academic study, but any decent school has a broad curriculum and applied learning and skills are highly valued.

Then there are the main figures. Again, the main figures are from a humble background. Schools value all equally and its stars can just as equally come from a humble as from a more privileged background. Mixed in with it is an unusual pregnancy with allegations that all was not properly as it should be.

Schools are always involved with personal, social and health education, including sex and relationships education. It is important and sometimes controversial territory.

And then there is the unlikely centrepiece: a newly-born baby in a manger in a stable. In many ways, as ordinary as anything could be. And yet, the suggestion of the nativity is that it was actually as extraordinary as anything could ever be.

Schools are often trying to do this: to make what seems ordinary be seen as and transformed into the extraordinary. Great education involves helping to open eyes to see the wonder of the world and life as it can be. It involves seeking to unlock the potential in every young person to become the extraordinary person that he or she can be.

As I said, I have almost certainly pushed an analogy. I am on safer ground simply saying a very sincere ‘Happy Christmas’ to everyone.


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