HOW can we ensure that church schools are distinctive? Answering this question was one of the tasks I was given when I became the diocesan director of education for Sheffield. Over the past two years, distinctiveness has been a priority for the schools in our diocese. Our research found a wide variety of practice in our schools: in some, the Christian identity thrived; in others, it was moribund.
The schools in the latter camp tended to be stuck in a rut. The same prayers, the same activities, and a diet of scripture, starring Noah and the Good Samaritan, had been served up year after year. By the end of Year 6, some of our children could be so sick of the latter that they identified with the muggers.
There was also an over-reliance on values. For several years, we have promoted Christian values; but, if we are not careful, we risk emphasising the values without the Christ, like a loveless hug. Moreover, we are now meant to present these as British values. But, in fact, they codify universal goodness, becoming British only when promoted in this country. Likewise, so-called Christian values deserve that designation only when they spring from Christ’s inspiration.
MAKING our schools distinctive, we decided, meant turning to the heart of Christianity. Representatives from our 40 schools met over two years, looked at a range of prayers, explored the fullness of the Bible, and engaged with the way that the Church expresses faith. They came up with five key expectations: enquire into belief, encounter Christianity, engage with scripture, experience prayer, and explore Church.
Those verbs are carefully chosen. As a former junior atheist, I am well aware that you cannot require children to pray. They can, however, experience prayer. We provide experiences that encourage children to engage in reflection. So our schools are committed to a weekly encounter with the Lord’s Prayer. We want them to hear scripture; so we promote the reading of the Bible in our schools.
The diocese has helped by providing every school with a set of 44 stories that are read and discussed during curriculum time. These are drawn from across the Gospels, and include story, parable, and teaching. They avoid Christmas and Easter, but still allow the Good Samaritan his place on the road.
Each reading comes with a discussion point, and the emphasis is on engagement. Faced with the wedding at Cana, the children are asked to reflect on a time when something went horribly wrong at a party. The parable of the sower is used to consider what happens when we learn.
We also give our children experiences of liturgy, and ensure that, at least once during their school career, they visit their cathedral.
Through such experiences, children are shown some of the pathways of belief. But the journey will be their own.