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A golden age for church schools?

by
14 February 2014

The C of E was once accused of being embarrassed about its schools. They are regarded highly now by parents and professionals, reports Dennis Richards

ST MARY MAGDALENE ACADEMY

Character-forming: a Chinese-calligraphy class at the St Mary Magdelene Academy, Islington

Character-forming: a Chinese-calligraphy class at the St Mary Magdelene Academy, Islington

IF ASKED which individuals have done most to "trigger" the transformation in the fortunes of Church of England schools in recent years, the names George Carey and David Blunkett might not easily spring to mind.

When Dr Carey, newly installed as Archbishop of Canterbury, asked a typically trenchant question of an audience of head teachers of Anglican schools, more than 20 years ago, he cannot have imagined where it would lead: "Why is the Church of England so embarrassed about its schools?"

The Archbishop was speaking against the backdrop of the opening stages of "the long goodbye". Local education authorities, the dominant force in English education for at least a century, were increasingly coming under sustained attack.

Successive governments, anxious to be in the vanguard of reforming what they considered to be a failed system, had begun to see the LEAs as dinosaurs of a bygone age, dedicated to preserving their fiefdoms and frustrating any move to change the status quo.

Ken Baker's city technology colleges, and John Major's grant-maintained schools cascaded into the torrent of Tony Blair's revolution. Specialist schools were followed by beacon schools. And there were indications that sponsored academies would become the mechanism of choice, to free schools of LEA control and lead us to the new Jerusalem. Michael Gove's free schools have surely completed the process.

David Blunkett, the long-time left-leaning leader of Sheffield City Council - at one time known as "the People's Republic of South Yorkshire" - stunned the Educational establishment, in 2000, with his extraordinary endorsement of church schools during his tenure as Education Secretary.

Famously stating that he would like to "bottle" the ethos of church schools and "spread it" round the system, he opened the door to a new era for church secondary schools.


THE Dearing report, driven by the leadership of Canon John Hall, the then general secretary of the National Society and now Dean of Westminster, set the agenda.

The Chadwick report, in 2012, gives a picture of the dramatic changes over little more than a decade. With 4800 schools in the "family", the Church of England is the largest single provider in England. One million children attend church schools.

Eighty sponsored academies, and 277 "converter academies" illustrate the extent to which the Church of England has embraced the new dynamic for educational change.

The Church of England can reflect, with some satisfaction, that the "new" academy provision is overwhelmingly in areas of high social disadvantage; that average free-school-meals eligibility is now 15 per cent (as it is in non-church schools); and that 25 per cent of the students are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds - almost identical to the proportion in other parts of the sector.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that all is changed. On the contrary, the primary sector remains much as it was. There are 4443 C of E primary schools, filling a position in the state sector established for them by R. A. Butler's great Education Act of 1944.

The so-called dual system is a model that has stood the test of time. Not only does the system involve Church and State on a national scale: it does so in microcosm in hundreds of small, often rural communities across the land, from Cornwall to Cumbria, where the village school has a Church of England foundation.

It is remarkable how successful the partnership has been. Such schools, for the most part, continue to function under LEA control and supervision. Considering themselves too small to choose stand-alone academy status, the multi-academy-trust model is in place to supervise schools that have "failed" an OFSTED inspection, and which the Government has compelled to leave LEA control.


ALL schools are now part ofa "diversity and choice" system; so there is no longer any need to be defensive about the distinctiveness and proven success of Church of England schools.

A church-school expert, Professor Jeff Astley, has suggested that there are three considerations: education into Christianity; education about Christianity; and education in a Christian manner.

All state schools can aspire to the third. There will be little that is distinctively Christian about them. Roman Catholic (and Muslim) schools will unequivocally subscribe to the first, subject as they are to direction from their supervising bodies.

Church of England schools can afford to be altogether subtler, more responsive to a variety of local circumstances, and distinctive in a way which responds to Lord Runcie's words: we are "to nourish those of the faith, encourage those of other faiths, and challenge those of no faith".

There will be "no apology for theology", because RE will be of both high quality and high status as we pass on to our students a distinctive view of the Christian heritage and its contemporary challenge. We may even gently try to educate our students into Christianity in collective worship, mind-ful also of Lady Runcie's famous words: "Too much religion makes me go off pop."

This may be something of a golden age for Church of England schools. Subjected to the state's rigorous inspection regime, we know that 76 per cent of Church of England secondary schools are currently rated "good" or "outstanding" - above the proportion in other parts of the sector.

Accusations that Church of England schools favour the middle classes are withering on the vine, as huge numbers of disadvantaged students increasingly come under the Church's umbrella. C of E academies that are fortunate enough to be in the leafy suburbs, with privileged intakes, must now face up to the new challenge of joining multi-academy trusts with other church schools in radically different circumstances.

The gospel demands no less. It is an inspiring agenda. "Why is the Church of England embarrassed about its schools?" You must be joking.

Dennis Richards was head teacher of St Aidan's C of E High School,in Harrogate, for 23 years. He isnow the chair of governors at St Oswald's C of E Primary Academy, in Brad-ford, and a governor of the David Young Community Academy in Leeds.

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