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Bishop casts a new vision for C of E's education work

15 July 2016

sam atkins

THE Education Division’s report A Church of England Vision for Education came before the Synod for a take-note debate on Saturday afternoon.

Introducing the debate, the Bishop of Ely, the Rt Revd Stephen Conway, sketched out the new vision for church schools. The educational context was changing fast, he said, but the Church of England was still the largest single provider of schools in the country, with 4600 schools, including 750 academies.

“This is a moment to be bold and ambitious and offer more than an apologetic for church schools, but a Christian vision for education,” he said. This was more than just ensuring that church schools were on track, but “shaping wider educational policy”.

Some head teachers of community schools actively wanted to become part of a diocesan multi-academy trust because they recognised in this Church of England vision something deeper than the “functionalist or utilitarian view of education that has become the dominant narrative”.

The vision was based on John 10.10 (life, and life in all its fullness). The four elements of the vision were: educating for wisdom, knowledge, and skills; educating for hope and aspiration; educating for community and living well together; and educating for dignity and respect.

School leaders had found this a compelling vision, the Bishop said, but it must be “lived, not laminated”. As the Department for Education planned a huge expansion of schools, with 500 free schools to be launched by 2020, the C of E had a unique opportunity now to shape the agenda for education.

This chance would not come again, Bishop Conway warned. “Standing still is not an option: we must go forward with confidence, and seize the opportunities.”

The Dean of St Edmundsbury, the Very Revd Dr Frances Ward, said that in these turbulent times for the nation, the best sign of hope the Church can offer is its continued faith in children. The best schools can transform a child’s prospects and abilities to face an uncertain future, overcoming poverty or poor attachment.

“This is how we make the best and greatest impact on our nation, through the excellence of our Church schools,” she said. Church schools must be “hubs of mission” and be given more resources in recognition of how they are now the best opportunities for drawing people to Christianity.

Dr Ward told the Synod to imagine a time in the future when people would be able to tell that someone had been educated at an Anglican school because of his or her wisdom, confidence, hope, and selflessness. “In a mission-shaped Church, our schools are our best asset.”

Emma Forward (Exeter) said that it might surprise the Synod to discover that she, as a Christian teacher, was going to vote against the motion. It was hard to disagree with any of the words or sentiment of the vision, but she was not sure exactly what it meant.

“The vision for education as we have it here still feels more like an apology for the Christian faith in our schools rather than an insistence on it as the absolute truth,” she said. She urged that the draft be made clearer and stronger.

Gill de Berry (Salisbury) said that, as a chair of governors, she applauded this report. At a time when churches were emptying, schools were how the Church of England could reach the next generation and “embed Christian values for the future”.

But how prepared was the Education Division for the coming academisation of schools, which, Mrs de Berry feared, might torpedo the happy state of affairs in church schools? Had every diocese set up its own multi-academy trust, and was it ensuring that all children at church primary schools could have a place at a church secondary school?

The Revd Peter Kay (St Albans) was in favour of the report, especially the way it sought to renew a vision for Christian education. He also welcomed Bishop Conway’s intent to go beyond the church-school/non-church-school divide. “I’m concerned we do maintain a distinctiveness in Christian education, not a lowest-common-denominator approach.”

Mark Russell (Sheffield) recalled how last week he had been emailed by a 26-year-old woman whose marriage had broken down, and who wanted someone to pray for her. She had chosen Mr Russell because he had been a youth worker at her school some 12 years earlier. “That’s the impact we can have with children.”

With one million children at their schools, the Church of England was a “big fish” in the education world. “When politicians tell us we have no business running schools, we remind them we were there for 134 years before they turned up. This is a time for boldness, for courage, to be strong.

“There is a clear open goal in front of the Church of England that the Government have set for us, and I urge our team captain, the nimble and able Bishop of Ely, to lead our team forward, score that goal, and the rest of us in this Synod will cheer him on.”

The Revd Alison Booker (Leicester) was grateful that the Church was open, clear, and intentional about its commitment to education. The five schools in her community worked in a collaborative partnership together, and there was a resistance to distinctive bodies that attempted to govern remotely.

She agreed with Ms Podd that these children were the Church of today. Three-quarters of her pupils had said that they had no faith contact outside of school, but chose to come to a prayer club and express what it meant to be in a church school. One pupil had said: “We learn to believe and we believe to achieve.”

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Julian Henderson, said that the report had been presented with enthusiasm to the House of Bishops in May. The urgent need for teachers was apparent, and the need for Christian teachers was undeniable. But the subtitle of the report revealed the loss of a significant word — “distinctive” — over and above the current reference to the deeply Christian ethos of schools.

Church schools offered a distinctly Christian perspective, and this must not be lost, he said. The replacement of the word was not justified, and with it the report lost something of what the schools brought to the table. It was also a step back for Christian teachers, who needed all the encouragement the Church could give them, he said. “’Deeply’ does not convey sufficiently the worth of our Christian values in our schools. Do not weaken significantly the distinctive saltiness that the Church brings to our schools.”

The Archdeacon of Hampstead, the Ven. Luke Miller (London), said that he could see how the report might work in practice, but not in theory. The Christian ethos of the curriculum was true and faithful, but could also engage with others who differed. He called for a change in language by articulating evidence clearly rather than disengaging and refusing to communicate with other schools. “There is no such thing as neutral education,” he said.

He welcomed the report, but suggested that the committee said more clearly what the Church was doing in its schools.

The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, said that she enjoyed engaging with schools and had always had the opportunity to talk about “the hope I have within me, and that I am no more valuable” than those she met. “I want that for everyone,” she said.

This included prisons, where education towards wisdom, skills, and working in community with dignity and respect was equally vital in enabling people to “experience life in all its fullness”. “At no point did we water down the Christian faith,” she said.

“This is not about creating faith schools, but schools that are open to all; the Church is not shying away from our identity, and we need to go on doing more — to dare to fully grasp this immense opportunity to speak to the country.”

Pamela Bishop (Southwell & Nottingham) said that she, too, fully supported youngsters’ living life to full, but warned that the national curriculum was narrowing and causing an imbalance of further planning for wider subjects such as the creative and performing arts.

“Shaping our young people to be expressive and creative with confidence to contribute to public good should be encouraged,” she said. But she questioned how much involvement the Church had in securing the curriculum and ensuring that those wider values were not lost.

Church secondary schools — although there were fewer — should be of greater concern, as they often presented their own challenges: many were academies, and had fewer head teachers, and teenagers could be tough to deal with regarding faith work. So how involved could the Church be in supporting faith development and mission in secondary schools?

Canon Gary Jenkins (Southwark) welcomed the report, which gave pupils an opportunity to encounter Christ. But he was also aware of the danger of moralism in schools, whereby children were exhorted to work hard and be good. “Children must, rather, be encouraged to see Jesus not as a role model, but as a living friend and Saviour who loves them.” Could they make sure that the gospel was at the heart of the offer of church education, he asked.

The Archbishop of Canterbury said that he was “very excited” by the vision of education presented. It gave a sophisticated picture of Christian schools in a society where there was “a growing lobby not to have a link to the Christian faith and Christ”.

The interaction of Christian values — working towards the common good and recognising the indispensable value of the human being — in an increasingly secular society was held in the context of worship. This was, in turn, embedded in scripture, as was clear in the report, he said. The vision was both of an outward-looking ethos and opening the door to Christ for children.

Rosemary Walters (Canterbury), who trains primary-school teachers in religious education, said that combining education and religion required an open-ended approach. Only if you respected this connection would you achieve human flourishing, and get children to see what it was to be of faith, she said.

But it was wrong to say that non-faith schools, where love was a common theme, did not do this. She concluded that she respected the report for its credibility — and would give it to her students — and for being “shot through with grace” as a true reflection of Christianity.

Sam Margrave (Coventry) focused on the provision to pupils with special educational needs. In some cases, he feared that church schools were failing some of them. “We need to ensure that, when there is no place in other schools, we offer a welcome. Church schools are not just about providing education, but showing Christ’s love for all.”

He spoke as a former premature baby, who was deaf, had many years of operations, and, aged 11, nearly died of meningitis. He had special educational needs, and was now on his way to getting a Ph.D., thanks to the efforts of his single mother, and doctors, but also the school, helped by the diocese. “I see the need for us to step in and change the lives of disabled children and parents.”

The Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth, said that, as schools became academies, “we need to ensure that this vision of a deep Christian education is embedded just as deeply.” He described changing demographics and the development of housing as a “tantalising opportunity to extend the vision of education to new schools and communities and to grasp that expansion in school places.”

The vision for schools needed to be part of the missional strategy of every parish priest. There was a need to recruit Christian teachers and invest in their formation as “strategic leaders in the Church”.

Elizabeth Paver (Sheffield) wanted to emphasise the importance of the word “vocation”. Often teachers got a negative response to their profession. There was a need to link this vision with that for lay leadership. She noted that it was currently “very hard” to recruit head teachers, particularly to church schools.

The Synod took note of the report.

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