LATER this year, every Church of England secondary school in England and Wales will receive a free book, Ten Leading Schools, that tells the stories of ten church secondary schools that lead the country in their approach to spirituality.
The book’s publication is the culmination of a two-year, £250,000 research project based at the National Institute for Christian Education Research, at Canterbury Christ Church University. The Professor of Christian Education at Canterbury Christ Church, Trevor Cooling, says that the programme began in conversations with fellow researchers at Warwick University. “We wanted to see how spirituality might become more overtly embedded in the life of church schools.”
Details of the planned research were sent to a range of secondary schools with a Christian ethos. Ten schools were chosen to take part in the project, out of the 20 that applied. Eight were C of E, one was an Anglican/RC school, and one was an OASIS academy. A dedicated research officer, Dr Ann Casson, was appointed. Her brief was to make week-long visits to each of the ten schools, three times over one year.
Her visits included talking to principals, teachers, students, and ancillary staff, and teasing out their attitude to spiritual development, and their response to the developing policies of their schools. With 30 years of experience as an RE teacher, she was able quickly to embed herself in the life of the schools that she visited.
Dr Casson says that she was surprised by the interest in the project among both teachers and students. “In all but a couple of interviews, teachers and students were keen to give me their views — young people would even stop me on the corridor to talk, well, about spirituality. In 30 years, I’d never had corridor conversations like that. The students were interested, and wanted to talk.”
Dr Casson says that these encounters underlined the way in which the children took spirituality for granted. The responses, however, varied in style significantly between schools. At some, students tended to be more reflective, while, at others, comments were more direct: some kinds of behaviour were approved of as “Christian”, and other behaviour was dismissed as “not Christian”.
PROFESSOR COOLING hopes that Ten Leading Schools will inspire other schools to reflect on their own spirituality, and try out the various approaches recounted in the book. Because the circumstances in which schools operate vary widely, so do those chosen for the project. Bishop Luffa Academy, Chichester, and John Wallis Academy, Ashford, for example, serve very different communities, but both had outstanding SIAMS reports.
Bishop Luffa Academy, Chichester, began life as a voluntary aided secondary modern school. Based on GCSE and A-level results, it is now one of the 60 top comprehensives in the country. More than half of its 1450 pupils stay on in the academic sixth form. Many leavers go to Oxbridge or Russell Group universities. It leads the Blue Flag Teaching Schools Alliance.
Most of its children come from church backgrounds, although 15 per cent have no church background. More mixed socially than stereotypes of academically successful schools might suggest, its pupils now include several from low-income families who have moved from London, or who are from Eastern European backgrounds The head, Nick Taunt, is a National Leader for Education.
IN CONTRAST, John Wallis Academy, Ashford, Kent, replaced a church school for 11-to-16-year-olds which had been judged “failing”. One of the last Labour sponsored academies, it opened with a new leadership team in 2010; the new principal, John McParland, was head-hunted from his position as head teacher of St Simon Stock Roman Catholic School, Maidstone. The following year, a sixth form was added, and in September 2012 it took in a former primary school that was in special measures, and it became an academy for those aged three to 19.
The academy serves a large 1960s “overspill” estate that was built to house families from London; its intake of children eligible for the pupil premium is much higher than average; so is the proportion of children with special needs. Nearly 80 per cent of pupils are of White British heritage, most from poor backgrounds.
In spite of its challenging circumstances, however, the academy has been judged outstanding by SIAMS inspectors since 2013, and, in 2014, OFSTED rated it as “Good” in terms of overall effectiveness. In the House of Lords last year, the Lead Bishop for Education, the Rt Revd Stephen Conway, described John Wallis Academy as “inspirational”. “It is having a really transformative impact on the whole of the community,” he said.
Margaret Holness is the Church Times Education Correspondent.