I distinctly remember my very first school Nativity play. Being a rather quiet and unassuming child, I was bypassed as the major roles were cast and left with the other also-rans. I ended up being given the ‘filler’ role of third shepherd. As this was in the days before you could get nativity costumes off-the-peg from Amazon for £10.99, we had to make our own, and mine consisted of one of my father’s old shirts, a tea towel and a borrowed sheep.
When it came to the actual performance it was pretty simple: just sit around the side of the stage trying not to look too bored. All I remember, though, was sitting down cross-legged, realising that my shirt was not quite long enough. I spent the entire time trying to keep my highly unfashionable baby-blue Y-fronts covered up and out of the audience’s view. I still haven’t completely gotten over it.
School Nativity plays are part and parcel of this country’s cultural history. We all have our stories to tell, either of painful rejection or, for a select few, memories of glee having been handed the role of Mary or Joseph. Then there’s the amusing story of the angel who wet herself – such yarns keep the memories alive.
Those of us who are parents have the joys and heartache of living through this all over again through our children. As we sit watching them go through one of their key rites of passage, we know Christmas is almost upon us and that we will hold these precious moments in our mind’s eye and treasure them forever.
Times have moved on and, according to Netmums, only a third of primary schools do ‘proper’ nativities now, but given our emotional attachment to this traditional part of school life, it’s not surprising that 65 per cent of parents say they wished their children’s school staged one. Now, instead, nearly half of schools are giving us Christmas with the Aliens or various other adaptations featuring apparently random and bizarre characters making their way into the plot in the hope of meeting baby Jesus.
Is this the level our education system has sunk to, where the beginning of the greatest story ever told has been deemed too dull for modern audiences and in need of a serious makeover?
Well, having been to several of my own children’s Nativity performances, I can report that things aren’t as bad as they might seem – at least for some schools.
I’ve sat through the above mentioned Christmas with the Aliens, and it’s actually quite good. At our local school the youngest children have a traditional Nativity, but after that, to avoid repetition, embarrassment and boredom, they get a whole lot more interesting and complex. Christmas with the Aliens is a full-blown musical with extensive dialogue and, in our case, some really impressive props. We’ve also had other versions entitled Prickly Hay and A Midwife Crisis.
All of these have been written by a Christian company called Out of the Ark. Rather than watering down the Christmas story they actually do the opposite, explaining it all in quite a missional way as the characters seek to learn about the meaning behind the events they are witnessing. Sadly, these days a significant proportion of children have little understanding of any religion, including Christianity, and these plays do a great job of helping those with minimal knowledge both to understand the significance of the birth of Jesus and to grasp its relevance to us all right now. This sort of production is going to be infinitely more engaging for an eight- year-old Year 4 boy or girl than a stodgy and limp version of the ‘actual’ Nativity.
So, if the Netmums data is accurate, it looks as though most of our schools are still doing quite well. What is more concerning is the growing number of schools who are producing a multicultural mash-up, chucking in bits of different religions to appease everyone, but by doing so please nobody. Even worse are the secularist versions entitled ‘Winter Celebrations’ and so on, which suck out all references to Jesus leaving an empty, vacuous shell.
In my experience, the variation in quality and substance is mostly down to the beliefs of teachers. In those primary schools that I know and have visited, there are surprisingly high numbers of Christian teachers whose faith and understanding of religion are the forces that keeps Nativity plays going. Where you don’t see that commitment, or even hostility, there’s a good chance you’ll be getting a less than satisfactory outcome.
There’s something slightly ironic about Ofsted’s recent push to tackle faith schools, making sure they promote ‘British values’ and picking them up on all sorts of indiscretions (some quite minor) and hammering their ratings accordingly. It’s ironic because it’s well known that in the past many schools have flouted the requirements relating to spiritual aspects of education, which they obliged by statute to provide. Schools are now being criticised not because they don’t have religious ministers coming in, but because those ministers don’t come from a wide enough range of religions. When, in the past, schools failed to invite such representatives to speak to students, Ofsted didn’t appear to be overly bothered, most likely giving a mild ticking off and demanding that they try harder, which would doubtless be reiterated when they paid their next visit, four or five years later.
If British values are supposed include an appreciation of our heritage, then school Nativities should surely be right at the top of the list. Schools that take the Christian element out of these – to the point where they are no longer recognisably Christian – aren’t demonstrating any respect toward Christianity, or to any other faith for that matter. It’s like saying that we’ll teach you the history of the British Isles but we won’t mention any kings, queens, prime ministers or national heroes. What is the point of that exactly? Secularism, which drives religion out of schools, not only deprives students of the full panorama of human experience; it is also fundamentally deceptive, if not dishonest.
In an interview yesterday at ConservativeHome, the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, was very happy to talk openly about her Christian faith. When asked whether Ofsted’s attempts to root out extremism in our schools might lead to the imposition of secular, politically-correct dogma, she replied: “Well there is always a danger, but as a Christian Secretary of State for Education, that is not what I want to see.”
Perhaps Nicky Morgan and Ofsted need to treat school Nativities as a sort of litmus test. They are still hugely popular with parents of all beliefs and none. They have a distinct role to play in teaching young children about the Christmas event and informing them about the origins (both pagan and Christian) of a cultural festival that is as popular now as ever it was.
If the school Nativity play is killed off, censored or suppressed over the coming years, it will not only represent the gross failure of our education system to promote the moral, social, cultural and spiritual development