Church Schools – the way backward

A critique of the Church of England’s “Dearing” report The Way ahead: Church of England schools in the new millennium (2001), first published in New Humanist, Autumn 2001

Marilyn Mason, Education Officer of the British Humanist Association, had to change her mind about Church schools on reading the recent Archbishops’ Council report. Church of England schools are generally seen as a “good thing”: academically successful, inoffensive on religious matters, and popular with parents. The arguments against Church and other religious schools have been well rehearsed elsewhere; here I will examine the vision for Church schools set out in the recent Archbishops’ Council’s report The Way ahead: Church of England schools in the new millennium, the report that proposed a hundred new Church schools and was so warmly welcomed by the Government. The report is not quite as forward-looking as it imagines, nor as innocuous as some of us might have assumed. Reading it changed my hitherto tolerant attitude to Church schools.

The aspect of Church schools that made them, in recent years at least, tolerable to non-believers and non-Christians like me was that in religious terms they were often barely distinguishable from other schools. Many Anglican schools did serve the whole community: their ethos and admissions policies were inclusive; Christianity was low-key and not always a requirement for teachers or pupils; they frequently taught the same multi-faith Religious Education as other local schools. I sent my children to one such school, I confess. I did not have to attend church, produce a clergyman’s reference or even pretend to be religious – the sensible and liberal-minded head teacher required only mutual tolerance. I had no problem with that: it was an easy regime to tolerate and an excellent school. But this “service” function, with its inclusive ethos, is threatened by the report’s demands that Church schools should concentrate more on their “nurture” function and “re-Christianise”. Church schools like the one that my children attended are criticised for being insufficiently distinctive. They must change, becoming places that “offer Christ” and “demonstrate that educational ‘effectiveness’ is concerned with the development of the whole person as a child of God.”

The first lines of the report reveal the true aims of the Church’s involvement in education: “Our work over the last eighteen months has confirmed the crucial importance of the Church schools to the whole mission of the Church to children and young people, and indeed to the long-term well-being of the Church of England”. This sounds remarkably like a last-ditch attempt to ensure the survival of the Church by persuading hoards of ambitious parents to take up church-going, if only for the few years preceding school selection, followed by hoards of young people who have absorbed “the truths of Christian faith” from Church schools. The evidence is that they may be realistic in their expectations of parents (there is very little to which the devoted parent will not stoop), but hopelessly optimistic about the effectiveness of promoting Christianity to unchurched and unreceptive children.

There are many other unexamined assumptions. “…If the children are not coming to us we must go to them. Church schools are the Church’s major opportunity to serve young people. It is an opportunity more and more parents are asking the Church to take.” Really? The Archbishops have listened to the voices they wish to hear: “The advice to us was that parents welcome the opportunity to send their children to a faith school where there is belief in God.” And, we are told: “In a world of shifting values, many parents have welcomed the stability offered by schools that offer an enduring alternative to the secular values of society.” Of course they praise the ethos of the Church school which parents “know has a well-grounded basis for its values and moral standards recognised even by those who are not practising Christians.” They also admit, rather patronisingly, “that there are many Community schools that have clear moral purposes and in which parents rightly have every confidence.” But they add, “We simply comment that the distinctive character of Church schools is attractive to many because it is inherent in their claim and practice to serve Christ.” Whenever the need for supporting evidence arises (often, though rarely satisfied) the writers tend to turn to Jesus – understandable, but hardly convincing.

Parts of the report would make one laugh out loud if the situation were not so serious and it had not been received with such respect elsewhere. For example, although it acknowledges the opposition of the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society to the very concept of religious schools, it attempts to overwhelm our reasonable concerns about their divisiveness and exclusivity with theo-babble, concluding with the stirring statement: “Our own vision of inclusiveness is based on Christ’s commandment to love all people, and his own sharing fully in the life of humanity: in his birth, in his own ministry, and in his suffering, death and resurrection. Church schools are part of the body of Christ, and a visible recognition of the divine within human experience.” Well, that’s all right then.

The Church’s educational strategy is incoherent. It cannot claim to serve the whole community and not to proselytise, as it does, while at the same time endorsing a mission in schools to “Nourish those of the faith; Encourage those of other faiths; Challenge those who have no faith”. It cannot claim to serve the whole community and, at the same time, recommend reserving places for Christians. Even where admissions policies are open and inclusive (and this is certainly not universal at present), Church schools may, increasingly, offer the community a service it does not want. The Jehovah’s Witnesses who come knocking on our doors offering salvation doubtless think they are serving the community, but it’s a service many of us would happily do without.

Non-religious families may not particularly want their beliefs challenged in school or the “meaningful worship” that is “a fundamental characteristic of a Church school”. Non-Christians may not welcome opportunities for their children to “explore the truths of Christian faith”. Nor may parents particularly wish the Church “to reach out to them” through their children, as the Archbishops naively suggest it should. Parents may well want something better – more objective, fair and balanced – than the Religious Education recommended by the Archbishops: “religious education and collective worship should be seen as an integrated experience, with collective worship acting as an expression of what is taught in many RE lessons.” Alarmingly, not content with influencing Church schools, the Archbishops also suggest that “dioceses should seek to offer help to Community schools, on a cost recovery basis, in providing good Religious Education”. Will children be safe from Anglicanism nowhere? The Archbishops’ longing to go back to the days of packed churches has clouded their judgement about what is possible or desirable in a multi-cultural and largely secular society.

The Lord Dearing who chaired the Church Schools Review Group and, presumably, had considerable influence over this report, is the same Dearing who instigated the changes to the sixth form curriculum which, all too predictably, led to overload and chaos in Year 12 timetables and examinations this year. Critics at the time were fobbed off with delayed implementation and minor adjustments. One hopes that history will not repeat itself.

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