THE Accord Coalition invited me to be a member of a panel for a discussion in the House of Commons about the country’s education system. The other members of the panel were Professor A. C. Grayling, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, and Professor Ted Cantle, who wrote a report on community cohesion in 2001 after inter-communal riots in Oldham, Bradford, and Burnley.
The Accord Coalition was founded a little over ten years ago, at the instigation, I believe, of Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, now its president, with the purpose of campaigning for equality in education.
Accord describes itself as “a wide coalition of organisations, including religious groups, humanists, trade unions, and human-rights campaigners”. Its particular focus is faith schools, which it describes as “counter-productive”. Its ambition is to see the education system free from direct religious involvement in schools. This is, however, both undesirable and unlikely to be achieved in the near future.
Happily, it supports the proposals of the Commission on Religious Education, which I chaired, and which was set up by the RE Council for England and Wales. After two years’ study and research, the commission concluded that radical change was necessary for the subject to flourish in schools of all kinds (News, 9 September 2018).
We noted, for example, that, in large numbers of secondary academies, there was no study of religious education (RE), and that the number of pupils taking GCSE in RE had been falling, admittedly from a high level. We identified a number of aspects of a national entitlement to the subject, which we proposed should be renamed Religion and World-views, and should include teaching about non-religious world-views.
We also proposed a significant reorganisation of support for the subject, abolishing the cumbersome local-education-authority standing advisory councils for RE (SACREs), and agreed-syllabus conferences, and replacing them with advisory networks within each area, and a single national authority for the syllabus. Schools of a religious character would be required to teach the subject in accordance with the national entitlement and their own trust deed; diocesan authorities would be in a position to support implementation.
To my regret, the initial response to the report by the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, was largely dismissive, on the grounds that he was determined not to upset the teaching profession by altering legislation. In our view, the implementation of the report could be managed over a period, in a progressive fashion, without immediate legislative change.
The most effective legislative change requires careful preparation: over the past 20 or so years, the educational world has suffered from far too much change that has been ill thought through. I hope soon to discuss our proposals with the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb.
BEFORE training for ordination, I was a teacher in a comprehensive high school, now a community school. My 17 years as a priest in three different parishes in the diocese of Southwark meant that I was involved with Church of England schools. Later, I worked in church education for 14 years, first as Blackburn diocesan director of education, and then as the Church of England’s chief education officer.
I have always taken for granted the involvement of the Church in education, and seen it as foundationally important. In 1811, the Church established the ambition to build and support schools for the education of the poor, to sit alongside the schools that already existed for the education of the privileged. These new schools were founded on the gospel, and would welcome everyone from their own community. A daily act of worship and doctrinal teaching would form the basis of what was offered, with reading, writing, and arithmetic.
The overwhelming majority of Church of England schools still see themselves as serving everyone in their community — whatever beliefs they might hold — with an education grounded in the Christian faith. I saw clearly, in Lancashire, that Muslim parents were far happier sending their children to a church school than a non-faith school.
It is also clear that non-religious parents send their children to a church school for its clear ethical values and academic standards. Parents can know that their children will not be proselytised, but will learn about faith, Christianity, and other subjects, with a depth of appreciation and understanding which allows a real and active study. Children then have the understanding and the freedom to make up their own minds about faith.
I was happy to take part in the Accord event; but I have a different view from that Coalition: I have seen how church schools encourage the sort of flourishing that we all seek for all children.
The Very Revd John Hall is the Dean of Westminster.