Education: Vision for a million children

09 February 2011

Colin Hopkins recalls the beginnings of the church-school movement, and the new challenges it faces

WHEN Herbert Marsh, Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, gave a sermon entitled “The National Religion the Founda­tion of National Education” at St Paul’s Cathedral on 13 June 1811, he was issuing a challenge to the Estab­lished Church.

Exercised by the growing strength of the non-denominational Society for Promoting . . . the Education of the Poor (renamed the British and Foreign School Society in 1814), Marsh urged that the Church of England should establish its own schools. The non-sectarian approach to education, he believed, consti­tuted “the most powerful engine that ever was devised” against the Established Church, and was “now at work for its des­truction”.

Marsh exhorted the Church to extend the benefits of its charity schools, and so “embrace, within the pale of the Church, the in-digent children of the whole metropolis”.

Marsh’s rallying call bore fruit. Over the summer of 1811, the high-churchman Joshua Watson, a Lon­don wine merchant and phil­an­­thropist, formed a group known as the Hackney Phalanx.

The National Society was sub­sequently inaugur­ated on 16 October 1811, with the Arch­bishop of Canterbury in the chair, and Watson as its first treasurer.

The Society’s aims were clearly articulated: “That the National Reli­gion should be made the founda­­tion of National Education, and should be the first and chief thing taught to the Poor, according to the excellent Liturgy and Catechism provided by our Church.”

The objectives were explicitly to inculturate children in the prin­ciples of the Established Church, and also to impart sufficient know­ledge “to guide them through life in their proper station”. The Society set itself the task of founding a Church of England school in every parish in the kingdom; and by the time of the 1851 census, 17,000 schools had been established.

AS WE celebrate 200 years of the National Society’s work, it is worth reflecting on the principles that guided its founders’ vision of educa­tion. Whatever their motives in seek­ing to outnumber the schools set up by rivals, Watson and his friends aimed to establish a truly national system of education built on Chris­tian values, the chief bene­ficiaries of which would be the children of the poor. The Society’s aim was not purely partisan, but benevolent in seeking to impart some basic knowledge and skills within a clear moral framework, with a view to im­proving the quality of life and the happiness of chil­dren.


At the time of the Society’s inception, industrial centres were growing rapidly; England laboured under the yoke of the Napoleonic wars. Blake’s Milton, written and illustrated between 1804 and 1810, begins with great words as­piring to build Jerusalem in place of England’s “dark satanic mills”. The National Schools provided one means of helping to create a better society.

Today, we maintain this great inheritance through our 5000 church schools, which in aggregate bring us into contact with nearly a million children and young people. Watson’s principle of universality is reflected in our commitment to inclusivity. Church of England schools are to be found in every kind of socio-economic context — urban, suburban, and rural. Our schools welcome children from all back­grounds, and all faiths and none, while remaining true to their Chris­­tian, and specifically Anglican, foundation.

Our enduring commitment to those who have least in life is ar-ticulated through our presence in some of the most deprived areas in society. This commitment has been given significant new impetus through the Church’s engagement with the Academies programme, which (until recent governmental policy changes) has sought to ad­dress areas of edu­cational dis­ad­van­tage and under-achievement.

St Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” The Church remains — and retains — a prophetic voice in education, promoting the development of the whole child, and challenging the neo-liberal paradigm pursued by governments since the 1980s, which sees education pre-eminently as an agency of national economic strength. While national prosperity is important, govern­ments would do well to reflect on the Church’s historically held imperative that education should enable all people to become more fully human, made in the image of God.

The so-called “Dual System” of edu­cation, through which the Church and state were historic partners in the provision of educa­tion, is now diversifying as other faith groups, individuals, and organ­isations are being actively encouraged to run schools. In our educational task, the Church of England is at a crossroads.

We could either gain or lose (potentially massively) by the recent educational reforms, which are progressively driving the privatis­ation of education. We can no longer rely on our historic role and land-ownership to guarantee our place within the system, but are in­creasingly being held to account for standards in our schools, and being asked to show how church schools add value to children’s education.

Church of England schools are a fundamental part of the Church’s mission to society. Two hundred years on, we must remain true to Joshua Watson’s vision of the Church as a national presence in education.

We must renew our commitment to the poor, and speak up for the powerless and the vulnerable. We must challenge the utilitarian view of schooling. Then we will truly be serving our nation, and honouring Jesus Christ, the sure foundation on whom all our work, from Watson to the present day, depends.

Colin Hopkins is Director of Education for the diocese of Lichfield, and a member of the National Society Council.

Colin Hopkins is Director of Education for the diocese of Lichfield, and a member of the National Society Council.

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