Opinion Former Article

BHA: Church looks to use its schools as tools for evangelisation

Yesterday saw the Church of England set out its recent Church School of the Future Review, also known as the Chadwick Report, at the General Synod. Introducing the report, John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford and chairman of the Church of England board of education, argued that Church schools are ‘absolutely and irrevocably at the heart of our mission’, and explained that they are working on a new curriculum that will mean that ‘the Christian faith right the way through its life, not just in RE and collective worship.’ The British Humanist Association (BHA) has questioned the legality of such a move.

In his comments, the Bishop talked about the importance of schools to the Church of England, commenting that ‘Nationally we have a million parishioners every day in our schools. And these schools have a whole hinterland of families, well disposed towards the Church of course, in most cases.’ Revd Pritchard explained that this could ‘be turned into a golden opportunity for the Church to extend its good influence throughout the reaches of our land… the Christian story is in danger of continuing to fall away, as it were: to slide out of our cultural memory. But if we seize the moment, we could be embedding that story back into the life of our nation in a way that we haven’t been able to do for some decades – I put it really quite as strongly as that.’

The Bishop talked of changes to the Church school curriculum, announcing that ‘we need to make sure that our schools are so rooted in the life, death and new life of Jesus Christ that people will be thrilled and challenged by what they see… We’re working on a new scheme for teaching Christianity in our schools because actually we’ve come under a lot of criticism for that. And on what a curriculum would look like that truly reflected the Christian faith right the way through its life, not just in RE and collective worship.’

BHA Faith Schools campaigner Richy Thompson commented, ‘It is gravely concerning that, having been freed from the National Curriculum, Church schools will now look to set their own curriculum where they expand the teaching of Christianity. We would question the legality of extending the faith of a school’s curriculum beyond RE and Collective Worship, as parents are often forced to send their children to a “faith” school and these parents and children will have their human rights broken if they are not able to escape from the religious ethos of the school.

‘The Church of England is unabashedly looking to use its schools not just to provide for the children of its parishioners (of which there are fewer than there are pupils in its schools), but to provide it with future growth. It is wrong that state funds are being used to prop up a religion in this manner.’

Church of England Chief Education Officer Jan Ainsworth also commented on the prospect of community schools being able to convert to Church Academies in one step, as opposed to the current two. In December, the Church announced they were working with the Department for Education to make it one step; however, following a large campaign by the BHA, in January the Government denied this change would take place. Yesterday, Revd Ainsworth said that ‘the Department isn't listening to us as, or, it isn't acting upon what we'd like in as fast as we would want them to, on how many consultations the school's got to go through if wants to convert from being a community to a Church of England Academy.’

Mr Thompson commented, ‘We must hope that Revd Ainsworth is wrong in assuming that it is merely a matter of time before she and the church get their way. Unfortunately, given the trajectory of government policy on "faith" schools, she may well be right. Most people in England and Wales do not want community schools to become schools with religious admissions, skewed curricula and an exclusive ethos and we will continue to make this case.'

The Bishop of Oxford’s remarks

I want to persuade you in the time we’ve got available that very little is of greater importance for the long-term good of the Church of England, and the Church in England actually, than the way we respond to the Chadwick Report – the Church School of the Future Report.

I want to convince you that if we miss the importance of this report, the Christian story is in danger of continuing to fall away, as it were: to slide out of our cultural memory. But if we seize the moment, we could be embedding that story back into the life of our nation in a way that we haven’t been able to do for some decades – I put it really quite as strongly as that.

We don’t have ‘faith’ schools. We have Church schools at the heart of the educational system. ‘Faith’ schools are something different and much later on the block.

[On the Academies programme] How could we help the many community schools that were being orphaned, and want somewhere to turn for wisdom and help? And how could this be turned into a golden opportunity for the Church to extend its good influence throughout the reaches of our land – and of course, for the sake of the Kingdom?

Let me just pull out then three major themes that underline all those 26 recommendations [of the Chadwick report]. First, we have to grasp that our Church schools are absolutely and irrevocably at the heart of our mission. We’ve said that from the Dearing report onwards, but I’m not sure we’ve really owned it. In Oxford, we have 55,000 people on our electoral rolls and we have got over 52,000 children every day in our Church schools. Children with all their life before them, with or without faith. Nationally we have a million parishioners every day in our schools. And these schools have a whole hinterland of families, well disposed towards the Church of course, in most cases.

What an opportunity – but are we up to it? Do we train our clergy for that opportunity or do we see engagement with schools as optional? We clergy ought to have a camp bed in these schools I think. I say sometimes to our clergy that ‘You can’t say that doing funerals is an optional extra, and we can’t say that doing schools is an optional extra.’ It’s absolutely at the heart of our mission. We don’t have to bemoan the fact that our Sunday school is struggling if there are 300 children at the local Church school. So the first big theme is truly owning the centrality of our Church schools in our mission. And if we really did that, that’s a real culture change: it’s not just playing with words and ticking boxes, because that’s the Church in our schools, not just in our sacred buildings.

[Talking of the expanded role for Diocesan Board of Education, in the absence of the local authority] If we can get this joined up and based on gospel values, we have something truly inspiring to offer, and we begin, as I say, to really embed this Christian story right at the heart of our society, of our communities all over the land. But if we don’t pick this up, and school performance struggles, then our schools will be under serious threat.

The third big theme is developing the distinctiveness of our Church schools – developing the distinctiveness of our offer. The bottom line is what is it that makes us different? Why should be parents be clamouring to get their children into our schools? Make no mistake: the days of equivocation are over. Church schools are under suspicion or attack in many corners of our society. From the House of Lords to the Accord Coalition. I’ve been involved in debates on the Today Programme, the Times Educational Supplement, the Times Education Festival, academic seminars, newspaper articles. And in all these places, these questions are being asked. The pressure is on us – we have to deliver. And our response mustn’t be defensive: if we get into that mode, we’ll always be retreating. We have something very special and wanted to offer.

So in an age of creeping scepticism about religion, we need this confidence that we have the greatest story ever lived, one with never ending relevance to human life. So we need to make sure that our schools are so rooted in that story – in the life, death and new life of Jesus Christ – that people will be thrilled and challenged by what they see. And it will affect beliefs, behaviour and values – the whole deal. We’re working on a new scheme for teaching Christianity in our schools because actually we’ve come under a lot of criticism for that. And on what a curriculum would look like that truly reflected the Christian faith right the way through its life, not just in RE and collective worship.

So this third big theme is seriously developing the distinctiveness of our schools, and there’s lots on that throughout the report, so that the spiritual core is evidenced in what our Church schools do and are. And that’s how the Christian story will be embedded in our culture and how we can grow our influence through our schools.

We need a new concordat with the Department for Education.

We need to grow our support for and engagement with all schools, not just Church schools.

Jan Ainsworth responding to a question on community schools becoming faith Academies

Many look to Church schools and see them still having a support mechanism and, if you like, an institution they can call on. Dioceses have affiliation schemes. There is a steady stream in Dioceses – not huge, but a steady stream - of schools that go from being connected with the Board of Education to seeking Church school status. And that's not something we could have ever predicted. So a number of schools converting – appropriate word – from community to VC and, in some cases, VA status. And the Academies debate has raised that again. There are complex arrangements, and the Department isn't listening to us as, or, it isn't acting upon what we'd like in as fast as we would want them to, on how many consultations the school's got to go through if wants to convert from being a community to a Church of England Academy.

Notes

For further comment or information, please contact Richy Thompson on 020 7462 4993.

Listen to the discussion of the Church School of the Future Review at the General Synod: http://www.churchofengland.org/media/1498208/jul1214.mp3

Read The Church Schools of the Future Review: http://www.churchofengland.org/media/1418393/the%20church%20school%20of%20the%20future%20review%20-%20march%202012[1].pdf

Read more about the BHA’s campaigns work on ‘faith’ schools: http://www.humanism.org.uk/campaigns/religion-and-schools/faith-schools

View the BHA’s table of types of school with a religious character: http://www.humanism.org.uk/_uploads/documents/schools-with-a-religious-character.pdf

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

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