Friday, 22 April 2011

Education; Bishop of Oxford's Advice on Church Schools

I very much agree with the Bishop of Oxford, the chair of the Church of England's Board of Education, who is reported, today, as having said that all church schools should be open to a wider cross section of society, perhaps retaining as little as 10% of their places for children of practising Anglicans, in some contexts. It has long troubled me that voluntary aided church schools, in particular, allow the church to focus educational and clerical resources on a relatively narrow section of the population in some places when I believe that we should be there for everyone.

I also favour parishes being involved, by the invitation of headteachers and governing bodies, in all the schools on their patch, going in to take assemblies or help with lessons in relevant areas of the curriculum by invitation, and being willing to provide governors and other expertise. This is particularly important in places where there is deprivation and a low level of educational opportunity and choice.

A change in admissions policies in voluntary aided church schools (perhaps not quite as drastic as the Bishop suggests) would make an enormous difference to the educational choices available to families in some of the of the most deprived areas of the country, where real child poverty (material and in terms of opportunities) exists in a way that is shocking in the UK of the 21st century. In effect, what we often do under the present system is 'cream off' valuable resources which are then focused on the few. In some areas, at secondary level, the creation of academies has helped to offer children better educational chances but even this has its problems; as more and more academies and free schools spring up, the resources available to other schools diminish and, inevitably, there are fewer academies in areas of low educational achievement while it reamians to be seen how free schools will be distributed. 

John Pritchard, the Bishop of Oxford is, I believe, urging us towards a change which will no doubt be resisted in many places, but his reasoning is based on gospel imperatives. The church, the body of Christ, does not exist to hug resources to itself. We are commanded by our Lord to share and to bring opportunity and hope to all. As William Temple, former Archbishop of Canterbury, famously said, 'The church is the only body that exists for the sake of those who are not members.' An authentic church education policy would seek a high standard of education with a Christian ethos for everyone who wishes to participate.

However, there are clearly difficulties in reducing the number of families who are practising Christians and are involved with the life of a school while maintaining a Christian ethos. John Prichard's statement is, in this sense, rather brave. I think he has probably set the percentage a little low. Church schools vary a great deal but I have, over my 22 years as a minister, detected difficulty in some schools in preserving more than simply an ethical approach which is based on what might pass for Christian values. It becomes very difficult to maintain a sense of lived faith with its heart in worship, prayer and a counter-cultural emphasis on self-forgetfulness and service, if most of the pupils and many of the staff are not believers. We need many more vocations among Christians to teach; we need a willingness among Christians (and not just those who are or have been parents) to serve as governors and volunteers in schools, with the encouragement and interest of their parishes (and maybe at the expense of PCC membership); we need to actively train clergy, readers and lay ministers for their role in ministry to schools. And, by this, I don't mean a few theoretical sessions during their initial training and a couple of IME (in-service curate's training) days. The skill required to communicate effectively with large groups of pupils and students of varying ages is considerable. The exploration of spiritual insight and theological concepts with children is something which has to be learned over time and requires proper supervision and feedback.  Experienced teachers would say that it is one of the most challenging things they do. Clergy and ministers need in-depth help to learn to do it well, with good quality feedback from experienced teachers (not just other clergy.) 

All sounds a bit too much of a challenge? It will certainly demand some different thinking on the churches' part. It is all bound up with our ability to be in real communication with younger people in our communities and, as followers of the blog will know, I believe that this is one of the most pressing areas for reform in the life of our churches today.  (BBC report and video.)

For further discussion of the issues at stake, see also

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