Education: Running with eyes on the prize

20 September 2013

Chester University's support services are helping to widen access to higher education, says Margaret Holness

WHAT is more important: for a child to be happy at school, or to pass all his or her exams? Traditionally, church schools have succeeded at both - hence their long-standing popularity - but increasing demands on dioceses and governing bodies mean that the task is ever more challenging.

The priority for the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, however, is that children should reach the required standard in exams. Inevitably, this puts relentless pressure on schools: they can no longer be found "satisfactory" in their OFSTED inspection. That assessment now means that they "require improvement".

If they do not improve at the specified rate, the school will be forced to become an academy, and new governors held responsible for getting the school up to scratch.

Last July, 100 schools were stripped of their "outstanding" status because the teaching and learning in the school had been graded only "good".

The justification for such an unwavering concentration on standards, and pupil achievement, is that for each child there is only one chance, and all are entitled to the very best. There is also the larger justification: Britain must score highly in the world's SATs - a proxy for competing in the world marketplace.

 

WHAT does this mean for church schools? We have always prided ourselves on the church-school ethos as a priority, and as the distinguishing mark. Our schools talk about valuing every child as a child of God, and the relationships of trust and respect that lie at the heart of the school.

Ethos is a significant aspect of the Section 48 inspection - the church-school inspection - where inspectors are particularly keen to find examples of that "special something" that marks out a church school.

Until recently, we have been content to leave the inspection of standards across the curriculum, and pupil performance, to OFSTED, and also to leave to others the consequences of poor perform- ance. By and large, the recovery of failing schools has not been carried out by our own diocesan support services.

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But that has all changed: dioceses now have to take full responsibility for every aspect of their schools, and that means school improvement, and failing schools. The reason is partly to do with academies, and partly the drop in the funding of local authorities.

Academies sit outside LA structures, and receive their funds directly from central government. As long as they meet the standards required, they can get on with their task in their own way. Academy sponsors, however, are held to account for what they achieve; if they do not make the grade, then control will be taken from them and given to another academy provider. Dioceses are subject to the same challenge.

After much negotiation, the Department for Education agreed that for church schools forced to become academies the default sponsor would be the diocesan board of education. While the academy trust would be directly responsible for standards, the board, as sponsor, would be responsible for making sure that they cleared the bar.

This is a challenge that we must embrace. If the name "Church of England" is over the door, then we should be prepared to own the whole of the school's life and work. We should be held accountable for standards, and not only in religious education. How could we be complacent while there are church schools "requiring improvement"? Our aspiration surely must be "every church school an outstanding school".

This aim comes at a cost, both in terms of cash and expertise. Ironically, although not surprisingly in the Church of England, the first resource in achieving this lies with volunteers. The great army of foundation governors must gear itself up to demand only the best from the school. It will not be enough to leave performance to the head and staff.

Governors must know how to read the data in order to know what to expect of the school in its particular circumstances. They must be ready to ask the searching questions, and must be confident that the answers that they are given are adequate; and, then, to give total support to the head and staff in the quest for higher standards.

 

TWO national projects start this month that are designed to provide governors with the resources they need to fulfil this wider role. Training material will be available online, and dioceses will have the opportunity to bid for funding for local training-projects. If you are a foundation governor, look out for what is on offer in your diocese, and take it up.

The cost to diocesan boards will also be significant. They are already drawing on existing expertise in school improvement, most importantly from other church schools with a good track record. The latest report from the National Society, A DBE for the Future, looks at ways in which the service offered by the diocesan boards can and must change to meet the new situation.

Does this mean that we have lost sight of our original ethos? There is no excuse for letting high standards slip, or pretending our school has special circumstances that prevent children achieving. We can raise academic standards while still maintaining our commitment to Christian values and beliefs. Life in all its fullness is the promise of the Christian revelation, and surely that means being as committed to every child achieving as any community school.

But it also means being committed to seeing each child as a child of God, and not a unit in the league tables. It means being Christ to each child, especially the most vulnerable and needy, in love. It means helping them to love God and to love their neighbour. It means playing the game of SATs with a greater prize in mind.

 

The Revd Jan Ainsworth is the C of E's Chief Education Officer, and the General Secretary of the National Society for the Promotion of Religious Education.

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