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Education: ‘I take my mitre off to teachers’ says Bishop of Durham

09 February 2024

Pat Ashworth asks Paul Butler what he has learned about the needs of children and young people, and the challenges that remain

Diocese of Durham 

Bishop Butler with children from Bede Burn Primary School, Jarrow, with the Vicar of St Paul’s Jarrow, the Revd Lesley Jones

Bishop Butler with children from Bede Burn Primary School, Jarrow, with the Vicar of St Paul’s Jarrow, the Revd Lesley Jones

THE Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, who is to retire this month (News, 21 July 2023), has held an extensive national brief in the ten years of his tenure. He has been lead bishop on children and families, welfare, education, and refugee matters: issues that are closely interwoven and remain high-profile.

A chance to reflect on how things have developed leads him to concur that, yes, it has been pretty full-on. But he has clearly relished the opportunities. The three issues that he declared to be priorities at his enthronement in 2014 were tackling poverty, engaging with children and young people, and church growth; and the House of Lords, in particular, has given him a platform from which to speak.

Child poverty is something that must be tackled by all sections of society, he insists: “This isn’t just a government issue. It’s also a local-government issue; it’s a business issue; it’s a charity-sector issue; it’s a civic issue.”

His position has enabled him to engage not only with government ministers and civil servants, but with charities that include the Child Poverty Action Group, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), the Children’s Society, and the Trussell Trust. “My experience has been an openness to talking and sharing things,” he says.

“We clearly haven’t always agreed, but there have been some very good open conversations. When ministers are answering questions, they always have to present the clear line. But, actually, you do have a lot of a lot more in-depth, nuanced engagement in meetings with officials.”

He has been particularly associated with strong opposition to the two-child cap on benefits. Reports such as the Children’s Society’s Good Childhood report (News, 22 September 2023) — which identified one million children as destitute in the UK — and the latest JRF report, Destitution in the UK 2023, continue to suggest that child poverty is increasing, and that its biggest driver is the cap. The Government has not yielded on this. “We have consistently sought to hold it to account for its impact,” the Bishop says.

He reveals that it has been the charity sector itself that has urged the Lords Spiritual to continue to take a non-party lead on child poverty. “It’s because it’s a moral issue, and we’ve always come at it from a moral question about how each child is valued. It is absolutely about how we treat children,” he says.

“I run a diocese with a very high level of child poverty and family poverty. So I’m presenting not just a national crisis, but talking about what is being seen by clergy and lay people who are working on the ground: running foodbanks and toddler groups, meeting families, talking to locals and heads of schools.

“This is the reality that we’re seeing; this is the reality we’re facing. So, yes, we’re looking at the figures and the stats, but also at the stories of how it actually plays out on the ground. That’s one of the glories of parish churches’ doing their work week in, week out.”

Education is inevitably a crossover point: 20 per cent of primary-school pupils attend Church of England schools, set up originally to serve the poorest children of the nation. That is still a priority for the vast bulk of them, he suggests. “People still clearly value what we offer. They value the fact that there is a Christian core to how the schools are run; that there is collective worship, high-quality RE, a moral framework to the life of the school; that it’s not just about the worship, but about the ethos.”

Dioceses are best placed to understand the local context, he says. “We’ve always had fewer secondary schools, and I wish we had more, but the interesting thing is that both the current Government and the Labour Party are very clear in conversations with us that they have no desire to see the number of C of E schools diminish. In fact, if anything, they would both like to see that number grow.”

It has been a decade of change in education. Twelve months’ debate on the Schools Bill, relating largely to multi-academy trusts, ended in its abandonment. But there is no going back from academisation, the Bishop acknowledges: “The reality is that the capacity of local authorities has diminished to deliver and to support local schools.

“They still do their absolute best, but I think that the Government were right to stop the push for full academisation by a specific date. It wasn’t considering what were the best needs for the schools and the children in a particular area.

“We are still clear that that kind of motivation is appropriate and proper for many of our schools, but it works for some schools to remain voluntary aided schools, and to have scope for other forms of collaboration, such as federations. It’s a more mixed economy, and we’re committed to working with all of them.”

For the past three years, he has chaired the National Society, which works with the diocesan boards of education. “We want the very best for children and young people. We want them to have life in all its fullness, because that’s what Jesus promised,” he says.

His time has embraced the pandemic years, with all their ramifications. Those cohorts doing A levels or GCSEs suffered immediate hardship, but the damage to those who had not even started school is proving a concern.

“These children didn’t get to mix with their peer group or socialise through toddler groups, play groups, nurseries, pre-school. . . ” he reflects. “It has a huge significance for the reception class, and Years 1 and 2. It will take a long time to see how much it takes for those children to recover what they lost.

“But children are remarkably resilient, and teachers are also amazingly resilient and creative. I take my hat off to them for how they responded in the pandemic. There were lots of professions that were heroic, but I don’t think teachers and teaching assistants have always been given the recognition.”

The future of RE in secondary schools remains an issue; an acute shortage of teachers means that about half the pupils are currently taught by non-specialists. “I think it’s a fair thing to say to the Church: Are we encouraging more people to go into teaching? Are we promoting it as a vocation?” the Bishop says. “We need to step up, ourselves, and say that, if we want good RE, we need to encourage people to go and do it.”

Reflecting on where things stand now, in terms of children, young people, and the Church, he suggests that “The biggest thing for me nationally is the core vision and strategy for a younger and more diverse Church: intentionally saying we want to see thousands more people working with children and young people in church-based contexts.

“In the 40 years since ordination, I’ve been arguing that children and young people need to be at the heart of how we function as churches, locally and nationally. It has gone against the grain to say we need to prioritise young people. In my early years, there was an assumption that everything would carry on and be all right, but already the stats were suggesting the numbers of children drifting away.

“It is a huge challenge. The number of churches that don’t have any children or young people in them is seriously worrying. But now, at the end of my time, for the Church to be saying [that] children and young people must be at the top of our priority and have the best life possible is the biggest breakthrough for me.

“I do believe that there is a commitment to children and young people which is very high across the leadership of the Church. I see hopeful signs where churches are bucking the trend: where Messy Church continues to flourish, and Forest Church, and all the spin-offs coming from the Growing Faith Foundation.

“There is a shift: with the way in which we are now able to deliver professional qualifications; through some of the work the National Society is doing; through responses to things such as the Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households, and the Love Matters report [News, 28 April 2023], I think there is a focus that wasn’t there when I started here in Durham, ten years ago.

“It is fresh and exciting. I think there are real signs of hope.”

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