These are the questions behind the latest report for the Church of England Board of Education published earlier this year. The review group was chaired by Dr Priscilla Chadwick, a distinguished educationalist, the author of many books including a study of ecumenical schools which draws on her experience working at St Bede’s, Redhill, the first joint Roman Catholic / Church of England school in the country.
A survey of 4,800+ Church of England schools plus 42 diocesan education teams and their Board members asked for views about the changes taking place in education, especially those around academies and school improvement. Hearing Days were held allowing the Review group to probe more deeply into specific topics. Dr Chadwick also had searching discussions with influential politicians to get some idea of future intentions in the education field.
The Report is upfront about the challenges the current changes in education pose for Church schools. Academies were not invented by the Coalition Government. The Labour Government under Tony Blair first came up with the idea as a way of bringing radical change to areas where secondary schools had been failing local children and their families for years.
The Church of England embraced these academies with enthusiasm because it took us right back to our roots, providing education for the poor and marginalised. 2011 was a year of celebration for the Church marking the Bicentenary of the founding of the National Society. That was the organisation that set out to raise money to build ‘a church school in every parish’ fully 60 years before the state got involved in providing education. Those first schools were offering an education based on Church of England teaching, for everyone, the model for our provision today.
200 years on the Blair academies offered a new opportunity to do the same for deprived communities across England, and 45 Church of England academies were set up, including a joint C of E / RC academy, St Francis of Assisi, in Liverpool.
The Coalition’s academies however are not so much about investing in deprived communities as enabling any school to walk away from the local authority and manage itself, directly funded from central government.
The Church School of the Future report looks at the risks for Church schools as that programme grows and what needs to be done to secure the place of Church schools in the new climate.
There are 26 recommendations all directed towards reshaping the church school system to meet the new challenges.
In the new environment local authorities will have a diminishing role and the Report makes a number of recommendations about a new role for dioceses. Increasing the range of services they offer to schools will be one way of securing the continued place of Church schools. The most important new responsibility they will have to take on is for school performance. In the new world dioceses will be held accountable for the quality of education in their schools, especially for under performing schools.
One solution is a commitment to partnership working: schools working together and schools working with other providers, including commercial school improvement organisations. The Report restates the Church of England’s commitment to working with ecumenical partners. St Bede’s was the first joint school but it certainly wasn’t the last. There is a small but thriving group of joint Anglican – Roman Catholic schools, primary and secondary, and the encouragement to look for opportunities to develop more.
Our two Churches share a deep commitment to education rooted and grounded in the Christian faith and we already work together to make sure that is understood and respected in government departments and by politicians. The Church school of the Future offers us the opportunity to build even stronger partnerships, looking for opportunities to establish new schools together. And our diocesan teams could also be looking to work together for the benefit of all our schools.
There are many threats to church schools in the new situation but can we also see the opportunities, for our schools and for the Church?
Reverend Janina Ainsworth, Chief Education Officer for the Church of England