Education is at the heart of the work that the Church of England does for the common good. Through its 4,500 primary and 200 secondary schools, it educates around 1 million children a day. It is estimated that around 15 million people alive today attended a Church of England school.
The fundamental purpose of Church of England education is to nurture people to live life in all its fullness, inspired by Jesus’ message in the Gospel of John: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it abundantly.” Non-church schools also have inspiring visions – albeit articulated in different language – to inspire and educate the whole person, enabling them to flourish in the world.
As teachers across the country well know, the education of children, in church and non-church schools, is taking place against a backdrop of deep uncertainty and rapid change. This is a time for hope in the midst of uncertainty, of an expectation that education in a Church of England setting will contribute to a society founded in hope. The challenges are severe, but they can be overcome.
The country faces a period of profound challenge following the decision to leave the EU. It is too early to say what its implications are for education policy, but it is clear that the referendum exposed deep divisions in society. Early analysis – for example, by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – suggests that a significant number of people who voted leave felt that they had not benefited from the political and economic system they were told to place their trust in; many felt like losers in an unfettered market economy.
The wider global economic picture, particularly in the West, is equally uncertain. Some economists predict that economies may grow very slowly indeed over the next 25 to 40 years, and that inequality could widen considerably, both as a result of demographics and technology. In the UK, meanwhile, significant demographic shifts are forecast, having a huge impact on how the state supports the elderly population and what responsibility the next generation needs to take on.
The mental health of children and young people is also a cause for deep concern, as teachers and parents know only too well. The most recent statistics suggest that one in 10 five- to 16-year-olds suffers from a diagnosable mental health disorder (around three children in every class), and 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression. Schools have a crucial role in providing support.
Religiously motivated violence and extremism are also presenting a challenge to society in a way not seen for a couple of hundred years. In such difficult circumstances, religious literacy is key: understanding the motivations and ideas of those who commit violence is essential, even if we, rightly, condemn it. This need to understand religion is a new experience for many, not least for politicians and educators.
In the midst of these challenges, Church of England schools aim to provide an education that is deeply and authentically Christian, but also inclusive and embracing of diversity.
This approach is articulated forcefully in a new document published by our education office, Church of England Vision for Education: deeply Christian, serving the common good. It is one of the things I will be speaking about when I address the Anglican Academy and Secondary School Heads Conference in Coventry this week.
There are four basic elements that run through the Church’s approach to education, at the heart of which is enabling pupils to live life in all its fullness. These core principles also address some of the challenges outlined above.
First, church schools aim to provide pupils with the wisdom, knowledge and skills they need to navigate a complex, often daunting, world. This includes equipping them with academic capabilities, creativity and emotional intelligence – all never more important than in a time of economic uncertainty.
Second, our schools educate for hope and aspiration – paramount in working with young people with mental health issues. This involves teaching in a way that assures “bad experiences and behaviour, wrongdoing and evil need not have the last word” and offering “resources for healing, repair and renewal”.
Third, Church of England schools each intend to provide “a hospitable community that seeks to embody an ethos of living well together”. Church schools must be places of welcome for all, not cosy clubs for Anglicans. They must challenge all forms of sectarianism, faithfully and confidently.
The fourth and final element is educating in a way that cherishes the dignity and respect of each person. This is rooted in the Christian theological insight that every one of us is made in the image of God, but it also “encourages others to contribute from the depths of their own traditions and understandings”, as the vision states. It was this commitment that led the Church to publish guidance on tackling homophobic bullying in schools.
Confident in our vision, the Church has ambitious plans to expand its provision of schools, particularly at secondary level.
The prime minister spoke this month in support of more free schools opening, particularly in areas of social and economic deprivation. It is an opportunity the Church plans to seize, and we are drawing up ambitious plans to open many more free schools.
We are also more committed than ever to training creative and innovative school leaders. The Church of England Foundation for Educational Leadership was set up recently to provide networks, programmes and research for leaders in education. I’m delighted that its work will be accessible to all leaders in education, whether they are working in church or community schools or at a system level.
Church schools may be viewed with suspicion in some quarters. It is my passionate belief that they are a gift to society – serving the common good and equipping every person to flourish in a challenging, uncertain world.
Justin Welby is the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury. He tweets @JustinWelby