THE times they are a-changing, both in the world at large and in our schools. After two decades of unmitigated success, both in popularity and exam entries, RE is again slipping down the pecking order. Church schools, however, continue to flourish. The new Prime Minister has followed in the footsteps of her predecessors and not only endorsed the part played by church schools in the state education system, but made it clear that she wants to see more of them.
But, as the churches empty year on year, there is a clear dissonance between the declining popularity of churches across the spectrum, and the ever-increasing popularity of church schools. What type of Christian input is appropriate in such a context? Christian Faith in English Church Schools, by Trevor Cooling with Beth Green, Andrew Morris, and Lyn Revell (Peter Lang Publishing, £52 (CT Bookshop £44.80)), is a particularly timely contribution to a debate that will run and run.
Trevor Cooling will be well-known to many working in the field. He has been a prolific contributor in the broad field of Christian education for many years. There is, however, a refreshing new “feel” to the team as a whole: Cooling himself is of the Anglican tradition, and the book is co-written with Roman Catholics and an atheist.
Indeed, the “cross-party” nature of this volume is in itself a recognition that the old-style top-down way of church authorities’ stipulating how they wish their schools to function is a thing of the past — or soon will be. Today’s students will no longer accept that kind of approach. They are unlikely to protest: it is not important enough for that in their thinking. They will just ignore it.
The central approach of this thought-provoking volume is described as “What If Learning”, and is tested by 14 teachers in three different church schools. Again, readers who are familiar with Cooling’s work in the past will recognise the thesis on which this is based. Fundamentally, teachers in overtly Christian schools can adopt an approach of “seeing anew”, where the distinctively Christian purpose of “a teaching moment” can be discerned.
The lazy assumption, for example, that we learn a foreign language simply to further our own self-interest can be transposed into a Christian vocation: to show hospitality towards strangers. The prohibitive price of this book will probably restrict it to academic establishments, but it is a readable and important contribution to the discussion about how we preserve a Christian ethos in an increasingly secular environment.
IT IS not just authors who make a prolific contribution to the field: some publishers do the same. None of them, however, can match Grove Books. No fewer than four pamphlets were published in autumn 2016.
British Values in Church Schools (ED29) by Pamela Draycott could hardly be more topical. The Department for Education has placed on schools a legal responsibility to promote fundamental British values actively. Added to the responsibility was the ultimate “You’d better do this” phrase: “monitored by OFSTED”.
The early resistance to this initiative, largely on the grounds that some of the proposed values are not specifically British — and some not values either — is summarily dealt with by the author in Chapter 2. Take democracy, for example: it is not unique to Britain, and, while it may be underpinned by values, it is not a value in itself.
Having said that, she quickly underlines how much of this debate should be far more straightforward for church schools. Equality and justice are top of her list. They are Christian to the core — and why shouldn’t they be a sine qua non of Britishness as well? There are also case studies in this useful pamphlet. When OFSTED comes calling, make sure you have it to hand.
There is useful advice about assemblies in How to Craft Collective Worship (ED28) by Tim Elbourne. There is no assembly material; it advises how to do it rather than what to do. Church schools, of course, are also subject to an inspection system, in addition to OFSTED, known as SIAMS (Statutory Inspection of Anglican and Methodist Schools). This pamphlet will help you to get the theory bit right.
There is no discussion, however, of the appropriateness of collective worship in schools. On that subject, I expect A New Settlement: Religion and belief in schools, by a former Education Secretary and Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, and Linda Woodhead, a professor of the Sociology of Education, published in 2015, will continue to set the pace in this area in the coming years. Indeed, a Grove Books interpretation of it would be most welcome.
The other two pamphlets have more to say to church groups than to schools, but, within that context, youth leaders will find fresh and innovative ideas.
Growing Upwards: The faith journey of Christian young people (Y44) by Colin Bennett and Interpreting Bible Stories with Children and Young Teens (B81) by Melody R. Briggs, who draws on research about the way children engage with stories, offer practical advice, and could give a new impetus to your efforts in Sunday school. Each of the pamphlets from Grove Books costs just £3.95 (CT Bookshop £3.55). Now that is worthy of both celebration and congratulation.