The Bishop of Ely (Rt Revd Stephen Conway): At the turn of this century the General Synod affirmed a motion that Church of England schools ‑
our schools ‑ are at the heart of our mission to the nation. Our Church schools continue to play a vital role in providing a distinctively Christian education which has spiritual development at its very heart. We offer a character and ethos which is imbued with Christian worship so our young people can experience that life‑changing encounter with Jesus.
Today our educational context is changing fast. As the system has fragmented from a dual one to a very multiple‑provider system, with a diminishing role for Local Authorities, we find ourselves the largest provider of schools and academies across the country. A large academy chain is judged to have about 40 schools; across the country the Church of England has 750 academies among our 4,600 schools.
When we were seeking to develop a vision for education to underpin all of our endeavours, and our ambition and appetite to grow the number of Church schools and extend our influence across the country, to care for even more than the million children we care for already, we wrestled with the question of whether it was our purpose primarily to be protecting the distinctive nature of Church schools or to be seeking to engage fully and with great confidence in building on our distinctive ethos to seek to develop and influence, and indeed change, the vision for education of the whole nation.
Our conclusion has been that this is a moment to be both bold and ambitious and offer more than an apologetic for Church schools: we offer a Christian vision for education that can affect all of our children and the way that Government goes about its business. This will only have authenticity because it is rooted within the Christian character of our existing Church schools (a growing number) and by strengthening the inspection framework to ensure that Church schools continue to develop their distinctive Christian character.
Only this week I have been made more aware of the opportunity before us, hearing of community school heads telling one diocese that they wanted to become part of Church school-led mass because they recognised in this vision we are articulating something deeper and richer than the often functionalist or utilitarian view of education which has become the dominant narrative. Every time I read Archbishop Temple from 1944 reminding the National Society, as it then was, that “we educate persons” and “we teach persons, not facts”, I am reminded that it is a deeply Christian vision for education for the common good, worked out authentically and explicitly as the underpinning Christian vision for Church of England schools. We know this is more and more vital as we note research from this university this year which showed that England ranked 13th out of 16 when it came to life satisfaction among children across Europe.
As the major provider of schools we must lead the way with a clear and confident message of how education should promote human flourishing. We have been inspired by outstanding schools such as Twyford Church of England Academy and what it calls its 10:10 ethos. We look to John 10:10 as a key text for us, where Jesus says that he “has come that people may have life; and life in all its fullness”. We have sought to distil our vision of education for life in all its fullness into four basic elements.
First of all, educating for wisdom, knowledge and skills: Wisdom is not theological code for coasting. “Life in all its fullness” means being exacting, rigorous, ambitious, and having an appetite for all that excellence demands. We are absolutely clear that any school which accepts underperformance is failing those children.
However, knowledge is not enough. Our children need to grow in wisdom and understanding. If you think about Proverbs 3, we are led straight from the adoration of God to a fresh appreciation of justice and community. That is the kind of wisdom we want. We are educating for hope and aspiration. Good schools open up horizons of hope and aspiration and guide people into ways to fulfil them. They also cope wisely when things and people go wrong. Bad experiences and behaviour, wrong-doing and evil need not have the last word.
I was with some Year 4 children a while ago and I waved my pectoral cross and said, “Why do I wear this?” to which a year 4 girl said, “There wouldn’t be much point in you without that, would there”!
We have the resources for healing and hope much more fundamental than meaninglessness, suspicion, selfishness and despair. We are in the Year of Mercy. We want to be the people leading children through the door of hope and mercy: forgiven, with nobody left out.
Educating for community and living well together, education needs to have at its core a base in relationships and commitments, the qualities of character that enable people to flourish together. As Archbishop Justin said to us yesterday, that is particularly important at this very moment in our society as we work out how to live well together.
We are educating for dignity and respect. Human dignity is central to good education. Schools need to be places where children learn who they are and how much they are worth. This worth is given to them by the love of God, who confers on them in his love all the dignity and inalienable human rights they have.
As important in this is that we recognise reaching out to children with any kind of struggle or disability. I am reminded of Jean Vanier of L’Arche saying that Jesus creates the Church when he offers his mother and his best friend to each other when he is at his most humiliated and disfigured.
Wisdom, hope, community and dignity: In discussing this with school leaders, they have found this to be a compelling vision of life in all its fullness. This has been welcomed warmly by the House of Bishops and by diocesan education teams. I have been trailing this at head teachers’ and school leaders’ conferences around the country and have met with nothing but enthusiasm and excitement about it. Visions, as I have heard recently, must be lived, not laminated.
We have developed this vision for education at this time because this is a unique opportunity that will not come again. We are hearing from senior figures in the Department of Education, in Parliament and elsewhere that this is an opportunity for the Church to engage to be providing more of the aspirations set out in the Government’s recent White Paper on education. This is an opportunity that will not come again, for us to be ambitious for opening new free schools and for doing our part in meeting the new requirements for schools in a growing child population. We need to engage with this now. We are doing this partly by starting the new Foundation for Educational Leadership, which will be a cornerstone for transforming leadership across our sector and doing the research to undergird all that we seek to do in the future. The time is here. This is an opportunity to develop new schools as well as existing schools and to offer radical new approaches to how we function as a movement for education. Standing still is not an option. We must go forward in confidence and seize the opportunity right now. This is our mission to the nation: deeply Christian, serving the common good. I commend this vision for education to Synod.