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Spiritual development in children higher when schools and churches keep close, research says

03 May 2024

Diocese of Guildford

Pupils from St Peter’s C of E Aided Junior School, Farnborough, in Surrey

Pupils from St Peter’s C of E Aided Junior School, Farnborough, in Surrey

A CLOSER relationship between churches and primary schools results in greater spiritual development in children, research commissioned by the Growing Faith Foundation and carried out in Guildford diocese last year suggests.

Two surveys were conducted for the research: the first of “school leadership” — i.e. head teachers, senior leaders — in 28 church primary schools in the diocese (34 per cent of all church primary schools in the diocese); and the second of groups of children from 25 schools (30 per cent of the diocesan total).

The research sought to gather parish experiences with the aim of identifying examples of good practice and successful models of relationship between churches and schools where this had led to an increase in church attendance on Sundays. The survey identified 11 parishes in which the relationship was working particularly well. Representatives from these schools and associated churches formed focus groups to further the research.

The positive effect on children of spending time in church buildings was one finding: “Providing children with time, space and encouragement to be quiet, to reflect and to pray, helps them to feel close to God.” Children were also found to appreciate quiet spaces in school.

The focus groups found that children placed a high value on prayers that they had written themselves. “Finding ways to bring their words into the church and to God is very powerful,” the report says

It assigns value, for example, to moving school prayer-trees to a church service once a term, and for framing joint initiatives, such as raising money for a charity or caring for the environment, as spiritual acts.

Top of the list of the report’s recommendations for churches is to “Give time to cultivating a good relationship with the local school leader or leaders, and be as involved as possible in the life of the local school. Talk with the school, ask where the church can help, and think creatively around what can be offered.”

On the schools’ part, the report says: “Governors should value the good relationship between the church and the school leader and encourage and release the head teacher to invest time in this.”

Collective worship that is welcoming and inclusive, and that gives children a safe space to think deeply and “to grow and challenge themselves in new ways”, is the most effective way of deepening the relationship, the research suggests.

“It also helps spiritual development because it encourages the children to think differently and do something new rather than change the way they behave or act.”

In almost all (92 per cent) of the schools surveyed, all or most of the children reported that they were made to feel welcome and included in collective worship. One respondent said: “Because then, if someone doesn’t be kind to you [sic], you might not feel close to God any more but when they are respecting you, you feel you are closer to God.”

The Bible Society’s storytelling initiative Open the Book elicited praise from both churches and schools. When asked how people from the local church helped them to feel closer to God, most children talked about hearing Bible stories. One child said: “They [visiting church people] tell stories from their own life which helps you make connections.”

Top of the activities rated by schools as contributing most to the spiritual development of children are school services held at the church (96 per cent of all the schools surveyed rated this highly). Open the Book follows at 91 per cent; assemblies and collective worship, 85 per cent; lunch or after-school clubs, 80 per cent; prayer or reflection spaces, 67 per cent; school visits to the church to fulfil the curriculum, 65 per cent; pause days, 60 per cent; and mentoring programmes, 50 per cent — the same proportion as churchpeople supporting children to lead collective worship.

The report also encourages schools to be generous in enabling and inviting other churches, denominations, and Christian organisations to be involved in worship. It recommends engaging with staff as well as with children, and looking for ways in which relationships with the school community can be extended to include parents or carers and households.

The research was conducted by Emma Coy, a mission enabler for children and families, and Jane Whittington, a schools officer, of Guildford diocese. The surveys also raised questions for consideration at diocesan and national level, including the levels of support and training for ordinands and clergy who were seeking to engage with schools in the recommended ways.

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