Church of England affirms importance of school engagement

Published 20 November 2013  |  
Anglican Diocese of Oxford/Frank Blackwell
A service in celebration of church schools at Christ the Cornerstone, Milton Keynes

Church of England schools should be should be effective, distinctive, and inclusive. That was the view expressed by the Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, as he brought forward a motion to "[affirm] the crucial importance of the Church of England's engagement with schools for its contribution to the common good and to its spiritual and numerical growth".

At the centre of the debate was the means by which the Church of England would operate both within its own schools as well as relations with what were referred to throughout the discussion as "community schools" (non-church, state and private schools).

In his opening speech, Bishop Pritchard highlighted spiritual and pragmatic reasons for the C of E's continued support for effective Religious Education classes.

"Faith is vitally significant for at least five billion people across the world," he explained. "If our children are to be truly global citizens they need to have the right tools to enable them to understand and respond to questions of faith. You can't understand the modern world without understanding what motivates 75% of the world's population."

He noted that church schools had a responsibility to raise students not just practically but emotionally and spiritually.

"The responsibility for school effectiveness is shifting to those who provide schools – that's us," he said.

The central proposals in the motion include a plan to introduce a new self-assessment scheme for all Church dioceses on matters of their relationship with schools - a move widely supported by representatives from Lincoln.

Crucially there was a focus drawn on the level of training given to members of the laity and clergy receive on the subject of engaging with schools, something that the debate seemed to conclude as having been dwindling in the face of the desire for increased participation in schools, particularly in the light of the motion passed yesterday to make evangelism a bigger part of the Church's focus.

The debate was relatively light, with most of the Synod agreeing that more had to be done to improve the quality of RE education across the country. There was a reference to the fact that Ofsted has confirmed that the quality of RE teaching has dropped considerably in recent years and too often not taught by experts.

The Synod's concern was with the specific failings in teaching Christianity - something Ofsted also highlighted - as well as the fact that more and more often, religion was taught by people who were themselves not of any faith, thus giving an education from an outside perspective rather than a clearer view from what a religious person themselves actually thinks.

Two amendments to the motion were discussed, the first one being a request to respond to work performed by the Council on Religious Education. There was concerns in some quarters that unless the Church took some action, Christianity had the potential to be taught alongside secular humanism and Marxism. Some in support of the amendment said that it was important for the C of E to be more aware of what was happening in the state school sector, but Bishop Pritchard in response said that much of what the amendment contained was already happening by other means. When it came down to vote, the decision required the invocation of the electronic voting, and it was defeated 119 to 190 votes.

The second amendment was much more conciliatory, and was received far more warmly by the Synod as a whole. It came from the Right Reverend Alan Smith, the Bishop of St Albans, who wanted to amend the motion to focus on more ways of using Church-school relations to focus on grass roots evangelism, such as supporting voluntary confirmation classes in schools during lunch break, and more meetings between the local clergy and headteachers to see if there are more ways of better fostering each other's goals. This was so overwhelmingly passed, with no opposing debate at all, a simple hand viewing was all that was required.

The majority of the Synod ultimately came out in support of the notion, which means that further progress will be reported on again in 2014.

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