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'School chaplains are as much for the staff as the pupils'

Reverend Garry Neave, the Church of England's lead on chaplaincy, writes:

A report released this month in the UK points out that chaplaincy has long been associated with Christianity, covering a small range of traditional sectors: education, health, the military and prisons. Nowadays that is no longer the case. Chaplains are everywhere, from all faiths and none, operating in every conceivable sector. So where does this leave school and college chaplaincy rooted in the Christian faith? Is it outdated in 21st-century multicultural Britain, or in demand – for staff and pupils alike? 

Our report last year on chaplaincy in schools was met with the expected criticism (from certain quarters) that this was simply the Church of England's latest plan to evangelise children and young people. Ask the staff and pupils who have benefited from chaplaincy in church schools and further education colleges and I think you would get a very different answer. In fact, it is worth considering that, in the past 10 years, we have gone from around 200 to more than 400 chaplains in schools alone, with the numbers still growing. Why is it that some of our new schools or academies often have a chaplain on their senior staff team and invest in chaplains as a full-time role? It is certainly as much for the staff as for the pupils.

Two chaplains I have recently been in contact with illustrate this: John, chaplain to a West London church school where there are no faith-based admissions and an ethos deeply rooted in the Christian tradition; and Neil, chaplain in a large East Midlands FE college, serving staff, students and the community alike. What these chaplains – and their many colleagues across the country – do each day varies hugely, from comforting students in the aftermath of a tragedy to helping to celebrate their successes to quietly listening to a tutor who is facing redundancy or exploring what it means to believe in God at all. 

Sometimes chaplains do the things you may expect of them: conduct services, pray with people, visit a college member in hospital, accompany a student to a benefit interview, lead inter-faith conferences.

They probably won't have a chapel in most colleges and the prayer or multi-faith room can be a converted cupboard or a cathedral-sized bare hall. At Shrewsbury Sixth Form College, students and staff have converted an old office into a quiet, calm space, and at North Nottinghamshire College, the Reverend Kate Bottley (yes, the one from Gogglebox) had the carpentry and joinery students build a bridge in the chaplaincy foyer, where people could meet and resolve their quarrels and arguments. Some chaplains teach – and not just RE either – and some also have senior leadership roles. 

Last year, in his maiden speech in the House of Lords, the Bishop of Chelmsford Stephen Cottrell spoke of the importance of chaplaincy and how the role in schools and colleges should be seen as essential, not as an irrelevant luxury. Bishop Stephen described how, as co-sponsors of a new technical college in East London, his diocese was not just committed to the best technical training but also to enabling pupils to understand the modern world. One of the first things the college did was recruit a chaplain, he said. 

Although each chaplaincy is very different, what they all have in common is a commitment to serving the needs of the whole school or college. Where their independence and integrity have earned it, a chaplain may be the one person a principal can unburden themselves to, or the one person who is able to say that a proposed course of action is not the right one in the light of the school or college’s values. 

Perhaps it's not surprising that chaplaincy is growing – although hard data is not easy to assemble, some 80 per cent of colleges have some level of chaplaincy provision. The number of volunteers in school chaplaincy is also growing, as our last report, The Public Face of God, illustrated.

Most chaplains at present come from a Christian background, however, college teams explicitly seek to work as multi-faith groups and often tie in closely with the college’s equalities and diversity strategy. A West Country college has a Sikh member of staff as its lead chaplain, with Muslim and Hindu team members playing key roles across the country. 

Our experience of chaplaincy suggests that no one leaves their values at the school gate or college entrance, that there is no such thing as value-free education or value-free societies, and that if people are to really thrive, they need the chance to explore far more deeply what it means to be truly human, to claim or reject faith or religion or belief and to face the fundamental questions of life, death and choice – and much more.

That's the world of chaplaincy, where those carrying out this role are fellow explorers and companions on the journey.

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