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Education: Take the pledge

07 February 2014

Do church schools need to take a leaf out of John Prescott's book, asks Tim Elbourne


Stating the facts: the former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott holds aloft the Labour pledge card at the 2000 Labour conference in Brighton

Stating the facts: the former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott holds aloft the Labour pledge card at the 2000 Labour conference in Brighton

DURING challenging TV interviews, John Prescott used to reach into his pocket for his battered 1997 Labour pledge card, to remind his audience of the basics of what his party had promised rather than what its opponents alleged that it had.

There is a message here for the Church of England. While reducing political debate to bullet points carries obvious dangers, "short and catchy" phrases can be vital for any organisation that wants to convey its core aims.

Over the past 15 years, the Church has rediscovered its schools. First, there was the 1999 resolution by the General Synod that they "stand at the centre of the Church's mission to the nation". Then, in 2001, came Lord Dearing's report, The Way Ahead, and a renewal of the distinctiveness of church schools, along with the creation of many new Anglican secondary schools.

In 2012, Priscilla Chadwick's report, A Church School of the Future, was published, and, as a follow-up last year, The Diocesan Board of Education of the Future, to which dioceses are currently responding.

One recommendation from the most recent report is that each diocese should develop "a clear and compelling statement of why the diocese is involved in education that any person in the structure can understand and recite".

Why should it be necessary to defend our schools now? Why are dioceses not similarly invited by national reports to develop similar statements about the rationale of the parish system, or investing resources in the deployment of ordained people?

I propose two main reasons: one is domestic, and the other is concerned with public life.

ALTHOUGH church schools account for about 20 per cent of maintained schools in England, and educate about one million children (about the national total of our Sunday congregations), not all parishes have a school, and not all members of a congregation have direct experience of one.

Even though our schools represent the Church's single largest engagement with the state, and provide its largest sustained contact with our population, there has been too little reflection across the whole Church about their role and purpose.

Books about mission and ministry continue to appear which hardly mention church schools. Although they have been part of the Church for more than 200 years, there remains, in the minds of many, a sense that church schools are a "project" that the Church does, not a fundamental part of what the Church of England actually is.

This is partly a challenge to theological formation and mission-planning, but it is also a communication issue. Could clear statements, printed on credit-card-sized dockets, help?

The second reason is that since church schools live in, and breathe the air of, the public square, they do not occupy an unchallenged space. As Bishop John Pritchard has suggested, faith schools are "acting as a battleground on which to fight larger battles about the role of religion in an increasingly plural society". We need to be clear why we believe they continue to enrich our nation.

I have addressed these questions in my book Why Church Schools?, to be published later this year. I propose five educational reasons, five missiological reasons, and also five refutations of popular secularist challenges. The kernel of my argument is not novel. It is that church schools enrich our culture through their offer, to as many as wish for it, of sound education that has clear vision and purpose.

We seek to offer pupils an "invitational narrative", rooted in the story and teaching of Jesus Christ, including the experience of inclusive worship as a normal part of community life. This has implications across the curriculum.

We aim to develop the full potential of each child, because God wishes nothing less. Pupils are not clients of the Church, nor are they admitted as potential "customers": they fully belong, in ways that respect their integrity, background, and individuality.

BEFORE Christmas, campaigners of the Accord coalition, an education pressure-group, unveiled an interactive map of English secondary schools by religious and socio-economic selection. Website visitors can click a marker for any school, and up pops an indicator of how socio-economically "inclusive" the school is, on the basis of eligibility for free school meals, and ethnic diversity.

Accord claims that socio-economic "segregation" is most pronounced at Church of England schools that permit all their places to be allotted on faith grounds. But such schools represent a minuscule number of church schools: very few award all their places on such grounds; more than 50 per cent admit solely on the grounds of proximity or siblings.

Moreover, according to the map, many more schools with no religious character are among Accord's "worst 20/30/40" per cent for inclusion, even though they may be the only local school, especially in rural areas. This is because Accord's methodology has been to compare the profile of a school's immediate location to that of its intake. So, if a school building is situated in a "poorer" neighbourhood, but the school serves a wider, more affluent, or less mixed area, it will appear as "less inclusive", or more "segregated".

Accord's website reported the Education Division's statement that church secondary schools mirror the national averages for all schools, under the headline "Church of England education division lacking in compassion towards the poor". The Church had pointed out that at its schools, one quarter of all children were of black or ethnic-minority heritage, and 15 per cent received free school meals.

However accurate the statistics - and it is important to have them available - they are unlikely to convince critics who remain ideologically opposed to the Church's continuing stake in the national system. It is a no-win game.

Rather than be defensive and simply trade statistics with critics who are unpersuadable, we need to get on to the front foot by stating the case for our schools plainly, and in ways that are readily understood within the Church and in the wider community. Time for a church- school pledge card?

The Revd Tim Elbourne is Director of Education in the diocese of Chelmsford, and author of Church Schools: A mission-shaped vision (Grove, 2009) and Understanding Church Schools (Grove, 2012). Why Church Schools? will be published in the Grove Education Series in the autumn.

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