The Accord Coalition for inclusive education has expressed disappointment at what it sees as the failure of the Church of England’s ‘Church School of the Future’ report to set out a fresh and inclusive vision for its schools.
But it hopes that the debate around the new report can shift ground towards a positive, outward-looking approach, both within and beyond the C of E.
The new report, which is due to be published officially tomorrow (23 March 2012), is the Established English Church’s most prominent statement for many years about its participation in state schooling.
The chair of the Accord Coalition, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, commented that unfortunately "[t]he report appears to be a missed opportunity to set out an open and inclusive vision for its own schools, and also to give a lead to schools of other denominations and religions. State-funded faith schools should seek to serve the wider community, not just their own particular constituency."
He continued: "Instead the report is back to front. It focuses primarily on opportunities for the Church of England within the state education system, such as how the understanding of Christianity can be better promulgated, and how the Church can use recent developments in the state education landscape to expand upon its current involvement. The report should have focused on what Church Schools can do for whole of society, helping to provide education for its own sake."
"Unfortunately," Dr Romain added, "the report glosses over completely the need to make all state funded schools truly welcoming and suitable to all children of every background, no matter what their parents’ or their own beliefs. [It] also fails to address the issue of religious segregation in schools, and the very damaging effects of this upon wider society."
Accord welcomed moves last year, led to by the Bishop of Oxford, to take a wider view on church schools and the faith schools debate.
It hopes that this approach can be taken forward, and that faith school providers can be persuaded out of a defensive, sectional stance on concerns raised by parents, teachers and many others.
The Coalition held a meeting at the General Synod of the Church of England (its governing body) in February 2012, which sought to tackle some the knottiest issues - admissions, employment, inclusion, cohesion and Religious Education - in a forward-looking way.
Simon Barrow, co-director of Ekklesia, said: "All education providers, along with government, need to be putting the needs of our diverse and changing communities first, not prioritising their own institutional interests.
He added: "Many would argue that this ought particularly to be the case for Christian bodies, given the outward-looking nature of the core Gospel message and Jesus' challenge to the religious and political establishments of his day."
"The Church of England wishes its foundation schools, which are overwhelmingly funded by general taxpayers from a variety of belief backgrounds, to maintain a 'Christian ethos'. If this is to be workable in a diverse society as well as loyal to the message of Christianity, such an ethos needs to reject outright the favouring of one group, and to make service of neighbour - not least those who are poorest or pushed to the margins - the centre of its concerns.
"The proof of such a stance would surely be the rejection of discrimination on grounds of faith in any school, genuinely inclusive policies on disability and combatting homophobia, and the promotion of values such as conflict transformation, social justice, hospitality and peacebuilding. These are values which people from all backgrounds can be properly encouraged to affirm, as well as having many distinctive narratives attached to them, not least Christian ones.
"Seeking to maintain privilege and power for the church in public education is not, in fact, a Christian approach, but a denial of it. Greater clarity about this is a prerequisite for a better debate about taxpayer funded and supported schooling in a plural society," concluded Barrow.
Ekklesia adds that the 'Church School of the Future' report, which has been circulated for advance media comment, needs to be carefully evaluated in these terms following its formal publication tomorrow.
The Accord Coalition was launched in 2008 and brings together religious and non-religious organisations and individuals concerned about the limiting and sometimes negative effects of current faith schools public policy.
It campaigns to end religious discrimination in school staffing and admissions; for all state maintained schools to provide Personal, Social, Health and Economic education; and for assemblies and RE that teach about the range of religious and non-religious beliefs in society.
The Coalition's growing list of members and supporters includes the Christian think tank Ekklesia, the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, the British Humanist Association, the British Muslims for Secular Democracy, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and members from the four largest groupings in parliament.
* More information: http://accordcoalition.org.uk/