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Education: An end to a body with two heads?

06 February 2015

Priscilla Chadwick explains changes at the top of church education

"WHY does the Church of England keep talking about a 'National Society'? What kind of building society is that? Do they have a current account I can use?"

Such misunderstandings are not surprising among a public that is still mercifully unfamiliar with General Synod jargon and Church House culture.

The cognoscenti in the Church of England can, of course, make reference to Joshua Watson's pioneering work in the early 19th century, establishing the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in England and Wales.

But the cognoscenti are few. Even churchgoers - and certainly general readers - in the 21st century lack the background or interest to investigate historic origins and nomenclature. They expect an organisation to say what it stands for on the tin. Guessing the purpose of organisations such as Corus (steel) or Us. (formerly USPG) has become a familiar topic for pub or parish quizzes.

During the consultations that led to the 2012 report The Church School of the Future, the question arose about the Church of England's identity in its educational work serving one in four of the nation's children through its schools. Why could we not have a "C of E Education Service", like the Roman Catholic Church in this country? At least it would be clear to everybody what it was doing. But, as so often, there were significant obstacles to negotiate.

HISTORICALLY, the Education Division at Church House has been accountable to two bodies: the National Society, and the Archbishops' Council Board of Education. The former met three times a year to discuss mainly school matters; but the latter board was convened only twice a year, and, with an immensely long agenda, was expected to cover higher and further education, schools, children, and youth work. And, to some extent, each body worked independently of the other.

The funding available to the Church of England from Watson's charity the National Society was significant, part-funding a number of key staff posts in the Education Division, alongside resources provided by the General Synod. The charity could not just be wound up, and the money be transferred into the general pot: the legal team advised that this would not be possible in terms of charity law.

Similarly, the National Society and the Archbishops' Council's Board of Education could not be amalgamated, since the former also had an additional commitment to education and schools in Wales. Creating a single body with oversight of the Church of England education service seemed to have reached an impasse.

The feedback from the original consultation pressing for change had been considerable, however; so The Church School of the Future's recommendation for new thinking was unequivocal. The experts were challenged to circumvent the obstacles, and, eventually, a proposal came forward: the charity would still need to be called the National Society, but the body that it part-funded would have a clearer structure.

If the Archbishops' Council and National Society agreed a framework setting out their governance responsibilities, the board could be wound up. The chair of the new body would sit on the Archbishop's Council to ensure clarification of educational issues arising for the mission of the Church of England. 

THE new streamlined education council for the Church of England in 2015 thus has the title "The National Society Council", but is now a more strategic council of 12 members, two of them elected by the General Synod. It meets three times a year. In addition to finance and nominations committees, it will oversee the work of three development groups, which will give more detailed focus to schools; further and higher education; and children and young people. This structure will allow more in-depth discussions and appropriate advice to guide the direction of the Church's education policy.

Its key priorities for the next three to five years include:

  • ensuring that the voice of the Church of England is heard in education;
  • the provision, maintenance, and extension of effective Church of England schools;
  • working with universities and FE and sixth-form colleges, including the support of chaplaincy services, to contribute to the faith development of staff and students;
  • resourcing the growth in faith and well-being of children and young people, especially through what is provided by parishes and dioceses.

In our fast-changing education landscape, this new structure should enable the Church of England more readily to develop and respond to new ideas and opportunities. As the General Secretary, the Revd Nigel Genders, has emphasised, it should build and establish a more dynamic partnership between the National Society and the dioceses, educational institutions, and the work of the parishes. So that the outside world can be reassured that the National Society does not offer a "current bank account", however, the team it oversees in Westminster will simply be known as the Church of England's Education Office.

Dr Priscilla Chadwick has been head of Bishop Ramsey C of E School, in Hillingdon, and Principal of Berkhamsted Collegiate School

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