Bishop's Letter; Turning the Battleground back to a Playground

First published 7th February 2014

This month Bishop Lee focuses on education and Church of England schools: the opposition, the aspiration and the facts.

Distinctive, Inclusive, Effective across the Diocese of Bristol and nationally, these are three qualities which we want people to increasingly associate with Church of England schools.

The scale of our commitment to education is itself distinctive and not widely appreciated. We currently have 68 primary and secondary Church of England schools (including academies) affiliated to the Diocese with some 4400 primary and 220 secondary schools serving 1 million children nationally. Including after-school and holiday activities, clergy give 1 million hours each year to working with children and young people in schools while 22 500 Foundation Governors are recruited, trained and supported by Dioceses across the country.

These figures may be impressive but there are constant attacks from largely secularist groupings who claim that church schools indoctrinate, cherry pick their pupils, and foster segregation and division in society. As Bishop John Pritchard has observed, it seems that such groups have effectively made schools a kind of ideological battleground for the role of religion in society.

In an article published two years ago, the New Internationalist magazine featured a debate between the Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association and a Catholic feminist theologian at the University of Roehampton. The theologian, Tina Beattie, pointed out that in their hostility to faith schools secularists seemed to be using education to make everyone conform to their own ideals with an imperialising zeal reminiscent of Christian missionaries in past eras! Moreover, secular liberals main concern seemed to be about safeguarding freedom of choice by protecting children from religious faith the implicit assumption being that this is inherently bad for society.

If the arguments around indoctrination can be placed on the other foot, Church schools have had to work on admissions policies which demonstrate they are inclusive and do not get better results from choosing pupils from more advantaged backgrounds. Most Church of England affiliated schools now admit children solely on grounds of having brothers or sisters at the school or living a certain distance. One quarter of secondary school pupils come from British Minority Ethnic backgrounds equivalent to the number in non-church schools and the number of pupils eligible for Free School Meals is the same in both at 15%.

Segregation and division can be a problem in any secondary school as pupils choose with whom they want to associate. However, the values and understanding of human nature underpinning Christian faith are inclusive as well as distinctive and provide Church of England schools with a strong foundation for tackling such issues. In Bristol Diocese, our purpose of Creating Communities of Wholeness with Christ at the Centre articulates this well and is expressed day to day in the work our Board of Education and Department for Children and Young People do with schools.

Distinctive and Inclusive what about Effective? My guess is that the chief reason parents want their children to attend a Church of England affiliated school is simply because it does a good job. The most recent figures confirm this with 81% of primaries and 76% of secondaries rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted.

But as Tina Beattie observes, education is not simply about the consumption of ideas but guiding children and young people to find and explore the paths of wisdom. I would want to add to this with a reminder that for Christians wisdom is not so much a what as a who. The apostle Paul expressed it to the Corinthians this way: Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1: 24b). It is in living this out that our Church Schools will be truly effective, transforming individuals and local communities for the better.


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