Positive church schools debate comes to C of E Synod

By staff writers
February 9, 2012

"A historic event" was how Church of England General Synod member the Rev Hugh Lee described the first 'Religion and Education' Accord Coalition fringe meeting at Synod on 8 February 2012.

Mr Lee, from Oxford diocese, sponsored the event. He hoped that the conversation about faith schools, their strengths and their weaknesses, encompassing a variety of views, would deepen and extend itself within the Church.

"You can only love your neighbour if you know your neighbour in person", said Accord chair Rabbi Dr Romain, opening up the debate with a challenge over the dangers of religiously separated education.

"Don't divide the children" should be the watchword for good schools, he said, commending the Anglican Bishop of Oxford for raising the question of limiting selection by faith in church schools precisely in order to encourage differences which are "enriching, rather than threatening".

Rabbi Romain also said that it was an anomaly that Religious Education, learning about the range of beliefs and convictions in a plural society, was not part of the National Curriculum, monitored and developed across all schools.

At present faith schools and academies are not required to follow national guidelines, and as a consequence there is both good and bad practice and much unevenness, he said.

Dr Romain described choosing to send his own children to a community school, rather than a selective Jewish one. This enhanced rather than diminished identity and the capacity for social mixing, he explained.

Religion in education can both inspire and divide, but understanding religion and belief remains enormously important for comprehending and engaging with the modern world, declared the Rev Ruth Scott, broadcaster, mediator and chaplain of Christ's School in Richmond, London.

She shared openly and engagingly the mixed feelings she experienced about this subject, concluding with some stories of positive practice, including church schools taking themes central to Christian experience and reflecting on their wider human significance for those of other faiths and none.

Dogmatic belief that is consciously excluding, leads to division and feeds ignorance and prejudice, she noted. By contrast, ethical values can be sourced and shared from a range of places.

Church schools, said Ms Scott, would benefit from recovering their historic mission of providing education for all children.

Jonathan Bartley, co-director of the thinktank Ekklesia, said that the 'Christian ethos' to which church schools aspired, should be about making learning available to all and giving priority to vulnerable children and those most excluded in society, not about discriminating in admissions.

He issued challenges over responding positively to children with special needs (SEN), to the deprived, and on tackling prejudice and homophobia.

He spoke of the huge barriers experienced by his own wheelchair using son, and by other people with disabilities.

Faith schools were often not doing as well as community schools in these areas of inclusion, he said, while noting local differences and examples of good practice.

Restricting head teacher and other posts to Christians was limiting the pool of available talent and not putting children first, said Bartley, referring to his own experiences as a governor.

Regional and local variations was one theme coming out of audience contributions, as was the question of how the church stayed true to its gospel values about breaking down rather than erecting barriers.

The need for children to meet and mix with those from different belief and cultural backgrounds was strongly emphasised, along with the Accord Coalition's positive, reforming agenda.

The meeting was chaired by Andrew Brown, the Guardian newspaper's online religion editor, who announced that statistics would be going up on 9 February about voluntary-controlled and voluntary-aided church schools and SEN.

The Church of England nationally has tended to be dismissive of probing questions about inclusion, admissions and employment discrimination, lack of balance in teaching on religion and belief, and performance on indicators about SEN and free school meals, the Coalition has pointed out.

No representatives of the Church of England Board of Education attended the meeting, but Jonathan Bartley urged them to join the debate and work with those concerned about current policies and practices to make all schools, including faith foundation ones, better in serving the whole community and not just a sectional interest.

Accord brings people of different religious and non-religious backgrounds together to work to reform and improve faith schools.

The coalition backs inclusive, community education. It campaigns to end discrimination on grounds of belief and non-belief in admissions and employment, wants a balanced RE agenda as part of the National Curriculum, supports inspiring assemblies for all rather than compulsory worship, and wants all schools to teach Personal, Social and Health Education well and thoroughly.

* Accord Coalition: www.accordcoalition.org.uk/

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