Listening to the news is a hazardous business for the head teacher of a church school. There is often a headline about “faith schools” — and it is often critical. This did not seem to happen when we were “church schools”. And it is hard to answer criticism aimed at such a nebulous target.
The term “faith school” is problematic, confusing, and often emotive. When we talk about church schools, we know what we mean: independent and maintained schools with a Christian foundation and a history of public service. Not using the right name obscures that history.
A church school is not defined by the faith it holds, but by the community to which it belongs. The church is the community of faith, not the school. The link between faith and education is indirect: there is no hotline between God and the curriculum. The Christian message gives birth to the Church, which in turn seeks to offer a public education consistent with the values of its message. The concept “faith school” does not accurately reflect this dynamic.
Furthermore, as the educationist Trevor Cooling said a few years ago: “The academy is not neutral.” All knowledge and education start from a position of philosophical commitment. In this sense, all schools are faith schools. Using “faith” to refer only to schools of a religious character leaves out non-religious beliefs, implying that they do not count in the same way.
This may not answer the complaints about church schools, whether over admissions, potential social divisiveness, or philosophical misgivings about a religious dimension to education. But it does give us a better starting-point for asking whether church schools are a good thing per se.
The case we often make for our schools — based on their popularity with parents, their academic success, and their strong ethos — could be made for any school. It is good for them to be “distinctive” and “inclusive”, but we also have to know why they are there in the first place, and what their place is in education as a whole.
At the moment, all schools are much in the spotlight. This values what we do, but creates unrealistic — and often contradictory — expectations of what we are here for. The best schooling comes from seeing it in proper perspective.
St Paul was a highly educated man, and he saw schooling as something basic and compulsory, imposed on you as a minor, until you were able to grow up and leave it behind. In his case, the defining event of his life was something else — an encounter with the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
Without that something else, schooling acquires too much of a halo, and is not part of a bigger picture. This is where the term “faith school” misses the point. Every school has its own story to tell — about the curriculum it offers, the community it is, and the vision it follows.
The first part of that story is about what we teach and learn: how we interweave academic knowledge with practical skills and personal and social understanding. As the leader of a church school, I stumbled on Newman’s insights into the coherence of knowledge. I took an orange into assemblies to show how each segment mattered equally. In the Old Testament idea of Wisdom, I found a view of skills which involves discernment as well as competencies, discipline as well as talents, gratitude as well as gifts.
In the second part of this story, we speak of our school as a social unit, its context and purpose — and its unique set of values, which permeate everything. For church schools, with a founding community both local and spiritual, the founding values are the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love.
It takes faith and courage for students and staff alike to speak openly of the beliefs they hold — who can forget the sixth-form student leading an assembly from his experience on cerebral palsy? It takes hope and character to develop the nine-fold fruits of the Spirit: one pupil pulls a friend back from a fight, another provides the academic leadership in the classroom which changes the attitude of the group.
It takes love and prayer to bring together the two great commandments in one. Our Year 7 pupils brought their Christmas shoeboxes for children in Romania to the harvest eucharist.
The third part of our story is the school’s underlying beliefs — the marker we put down in a particular educational tradition of what is of significance to us, and of how that can be known. It is in the light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that a church school “sees light”.
Our 2000-year tradition of teaching and learning in this name is established and open, cherishing both truth and freedom. Each time I readmit an excluded pupil, the doctrine of forgiveness gets practical. As a year group makes its way through the school, I draw inspiration from Walter Brueggemann’s understanding of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation in the psalms — we meet Psalm 73 somewhere in Year 9.
Christianity offers a far richer vocabulary for talking about education than the latest legislation. Look for the biblical echo in one of my favourite phrases for new sixth-formers — “no longer pupils, but students” — and you will see what I mean.
There is one more thing: to be successful, a church school has to have humanity: a heart of flesh rather than a heart of stone. This is what the staff look for. This is what parents look for. And this is what impresses even inspectors. It is also what we want to see in our pupils’ lives, long after they have left. It starts with their getting some qualifications, but it does not end there.
No type of school has a monopoly on any of the above, but I cannot say it about a “faith school”, because I don’t know what that is. That is why I think a church school should be what it says on the tin.
Richard Parrish is the head teacher of Archbishop Tenison’s C of E High School in Croydon, a mixed comprehensive.