C of E vows to be the biggest and the best

The archbishop wants the church to dominate secondary provision

The Archbishop of Canterbury has form for entering the political fray. He has already accused the Coalition of pushing through policies "for which no one voted", including in education. But Dr Rowan Williams's comments at a conference of heads last week mark his most significant remarks on schools since the Conservative-led Government took power.

The rapid pace of change is "chaotic", according to Dr Williams. But it also provides an opportunity for the Church of England to become the largest provider of secondary education in the country - a prospect that Dr Williams described as "breathtaking".

"We are in the middle, at the moment, of the most significant reshaping of statutory education in this country for over half a century, one of the most significant reshapings ever, and it feels at times pretty chaotic," Dr Williams told the Anglican Academy and Secondary School Heads group at Lambeth Palace in London.

The CofE was previously opposed to the expansion of the academies programme to outstanding schools, but has since softened its stance and is now seeking ways for the policy to work in its favour. Dr Williams said things that schools had taken for granted, especially their relationship with local authorities, were now "disappearing". As more schools gained independence, there was an opportunity for the CofE to play an increasingly important role, he added.

"We are looking at the middle-term future, where the Church of England will be quite conceivably the largest sponsor and provider of secondary education in this country, which is a rather startling and breathtaking proposal," he said in a speech to mark the 200th anniversary of the CofE's national society of schools. "We are not equipped to rise to that straight away, we cannot fantasise about that, but if we are looking to a future in which a lot of provision is atomised and split up, we are quite likely to be the largest consortium or family at work."

Dr Williams described current shifts in educational philosophy as "very challenging", but said that as academies became the norm the church would offer something "crucial for educational practice over the next 200 years".

Under the Government's reforms, academies and free schools will be expected to assume responsibilities formerly undertaken by local councils, but Dr Williams said that it would be a "pity" if schools had to do everything on their own. "They need a sense that they have people to turn to in (moments of) crisis or pressure, a sense that they don't carry the entire burden of an educational philosophy or vision, that they can rely on others singing from the same hymn sheet," he said. There has already been interest from "many, many" non-religious community schools that want to affiliate with the CofE, Dr Williams added.

His comments build on remarks that the Bishop of Oxford, chairman of the church's board of education, made to TES earlier this year, in which he said that up to 70 per cent of the CofE's 4,800 schools would convert to academy status in the next five years.

The Government has regularly praised academy chains, but has so far focused its attention on sponsors such as Ark Schools and the Harris Federation, rather than on a potentially controversial increased role for the church.

Keith Porteous Wood, director of the National Secular Society, said it was wrong to give the CofE a greater role in running schools at the same time as church attendances were plummeting. "The CofE will expand its influence in our education system as much as the Government will allow, and they will allow a great deal," Mr Porteous Wood said. "But with church attendances in freefall, parents are being forced into enduring unwelcome religiosity in schools. The Government must address its failure to address the growing proportion of non-religious parents."

Dr Williams criticised the "rhetoric" on competition in education when schools in deprived areas needed "support and companionship". He also vowed to continue to fight for the inclusion of RE in the EBac, the most high-profile battle that education secretary Michael Gove has so-far picked with faith organisations.

The Government has repeatedly refused to include RE among the humanities options that contribute to the EBac, despite lobbying by the CofE and the Catholic church. No other subject better taught pupils about the "past we inherit and the world we inhabit" than RE, Dr Williams said.

His outspoken comments on education are not without precedent. In 2009 Dr Williams launched an attack on the testing culture in schools, a theme which he returned to last week by criticising the "dehumanising focus on ticking boxes and results".

But the archbishop was also keen to stress a more positive message. "Without us - without any arrogance - it would be a lot duller and a lot smaller in the education world and the human world itself," he said. If the church's role in education is to grow as the archbishop predicts, heads and schools will have to agree.

Collective worship

Dr Williams defended the value of collective worship, arguing that it encourages schools to be "intelligent" communities with time to reflect and consider priorities.

His comments come after a poll conducted for the BBC earlier this month suggested that the majority of schools are flouting legislation that requires a daily act of collective worship of a broadly Christian character.

Almost two-thirds of parents questioned said their child's school did not hold a daily act of worship and six out of 10 respondents said the rule should not be enforced.

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