Thursday, 14 July 2011

All Change to Secure your Seat of Learning!

Changes are coming thick and fast due to new government policies and legislation. Reading the reports coming out of the General Synod of the Church of England (meeting in York, last weekend) you realise how difficult it's becoming to keep up. I guess we all tend to keep moderately abreast of the things that most interest us (health care in my case). But while we are watching out for changes in our own particular areas of interest and expertise, changes in other areas others creep up and take us unawares.

The changes in how education will be provided are difficult to assimilate. More free schools and academies, less control by Local Authorities, a great deal more responsibility for governors (who will need to manage pensions and employment conditions as well as standards and resources), new processes for admitting pupils to church and faith schools (called for by some of our leading bishops and I agree with them!) - all this means that it is very difficult to predict where the churches should be putting their efforts and their money. Diocesan Boards of Education and their systems for finding and training governors are going to need to be more robust than they are. That is no criticism of current Boards and governors, but they will, quite simply, need to be able to do a lot more than they have done under the present system. They are therefore going to need increased levels of expertise and personnel and they will have to offer more training and support. This is where the Big Society really begins to bite; being a governor is going to demand amounts of time, knowledge and commitment that exceed what is presently required. 

Opening church schools up to a wider section of the community and basing admissions criteria less on evidence of church attendance is double edged. I believe that church schools should be available to the widest possible cross section of children and I would welcome a new openness; this ties in with my thinking about the ways in which Christians need to be far more ready to welcome all who want to work in partnership with them. However, it does raise big questions about how the Christian ethos of schools can be maintained. Christian faith communities, ie. the local churches, will have to put more resources into working more intensively with schools (and that means finding people with skills in communicating with young people) to present lived examples of what having a faith means. It is questionable whether it is possible to inspire genuine curiosity about faith, never mind faith itself, by teaching it in an abstract way or third hand. (Teaching about faith while not particiapting in a faith from the inside is rather like teaching the theory and histry of music without every playing or listening to music! It often does quite a lot to put people right off faith!)  Already many schools present 'faith' as 'ethics' and 'grace' as 'obligation' and this will only increase where fewer people of faith are involved. So we are going to need readers, clergy and ordinary members of congregations who will dedicate time and effort to working with staff and young people through the schools in quite new ways.

Higher education is also changing so fast it's hard to keep up! A very able young member of my family has recently decided not to go to university because she doesn't want to take on the amount of debt it would involve. I admire her sense of responsibilty. The church is talking about offering its own (presumbly cheaper to deliver) degrees, therefore ceasing to support clergy-in-training in accessing the theology and ministry degrees awarded by university faculties. This seems like a very significant withdrawal from the univeristy forum. If this happens, Christian ministry will no longer be in the mainstream of education and academic life and my guess is it will become less fully a part of public life in general. 

I am not an expert in systems for delivering education or the changes that such systems have recently undergone but I can see that Christians, and perhaps especially Anglicans,
are going to have to do some very quick, sure footed and careful re-acting to stay abreast of the game, at all levels of education. Urgent cross-diocese and cross-denominational thinking are needed to ensure that the insights of the Christian tradition (on which much of Western education has been based) remain an integral part of our places of learning. This calls for joined up thinking at national and regional level. Such thinking is beginning to happen but there is a sense that we are somewhat on the back foot. The Big Society, while throwing up new opportunities, is not going to be an easy ride. It is not simply about doing a few more community focused projects. We are in for the long haul and people of faith are going to have to be sacrificially committed and work harder than ever to ensure that we resource and fund the things we are committed to because of our Christian faith .          

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