An answer from above?

23rd December 2011 at 00:00
How the Church of England could become the driving force in state education

With local authorities' power over schools dwindling in the wake of the academies programme, the Church of England is poised to step into the breach. But is this community spirit in action or a religious land-grab? David Marley reports

Walking into the foyer of Chelsea Academy, a secondary in south-west London, visitors are greeted by the kind of bright colour scheme and open- plan interior that would not be out of place at a branch of Ikea. What is striking, however, aside from the lime-green sofas, is the arresting school motto: "Anchored in Christ".

The academy, which is co-sponsored by the London diocese of the Church of England and the local authority, has high numbers of pupils from different faiths and none. Only a quarter of students are from committed Christian families, but the school is openly dedicated - in a way that would horrify secularists - to spreading gospel teaching and encouraging pupils to continue worshipping long after they have finished their studies.

The head, Andy Yarrow, is well aware that he needs to tread carefully. On the one hand, the local authority has "bought half the places" for local residents, whatever their beliefs. On the other, the school has a religious mission and it would be "tragic" if pupils left having been turned off from Christianity.

"Forced religion is counterproductive," says Mr Yarrow, himself a practising Christian. "But when children leave Chelsea Academy, I want them to have had an entirely positive and attractive experience of Christianity, so they say, `I like that. I want more of that.'

"The great commission that has been given to the Church is to spread the good news of Christ. Church of England schools are about sharing what Christianity means, communicating the gospel message, but they are also about unconditionally loving and serving the world."

The honest way in which Mr Yarrow describes the dual role of the academy as both community school and unashamed promoter of the faith is the kind of thing that has some critics spitting about state-sponsored proselytism. But the school is a fine example of how the Church has grasped the opportunity to extend its reach by opening dozens of academies.

Now, as the educational landscape undergoes a seismic shift designed to sideline local authorities for good, the CofE is again poised to take advantage. And if its plans play out, it will gain vast new influence over not only its own schools, but also over a host of non-faith community schools. In many areas, it looks increasingly likely to fill the vacuum left as the formerly powerful local authorities wither away, and it is even paving the way for more schools to convert to full CofE status.

In the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury this autumn, the Church is faced with the "breathtaking" prospect of becoming the dominant force in state education.

This possibility will prove highly contentious, not only with established secular campaign groups but also with those parents who want an education for their children free of religious influence. Fears will be raised that the Church is attempting to colonise state education to evangelise and create new followers.

It is not as if the Church is without form in wanting to extend its reach in education. According to the Bishop of Oxford, the Right Reverend John Pritchard, who chairs the CofE national board of education, the past decade has already seen "the most significant expansion of places" in the past 200 years, with the creation of more than 100 new schools.

It is fitting that the Church's plans for its next big step in education should begin to emerge as it celebrates the 200th anniversary of its National Society - the country's first national network of schools. Within 40 years of it being established, and still long before the state took any responsibility for education, the Church had opened 12,000 schools.

The overall number it runs today is smaller, but its stake in primary education is still highly significant: with around 4,600 schools, one in four of all primaries is CofE. Its role in 11-18 education is less substantial, with its 240-odd schools accounting for only 6 per cent of secondaries.

Considering the enduring popularity of Church schools with a large number of parents - which often has little to do with religious conviction - there is room for the CofE to do more, especially with older pupils. It is suffering from falling attendance in church on Sundays, but it has a brand recognition in education that all levels of the clergy know is ripe for the picking.

Bishop Pritchard has already spoken of the chance for non-church schools to affiliate with their local diocese as academy status becomes the norm and local authorities are left to "wither on the vine". A major review of how the CofE should capitalise on this is now under way.

The Church School of the Future, due to report next March, is examining the whole territory of school reform. It will look at what dioceses should do to cope with their schools becoming academies and with the school improvement issues that have been the traditional preserve of local authorities.

But it will also examine how dioceses can affiliate with non-CofE schools, filling the void when schools are looking for support. This is likely to take a number of forms, including community schools converting to full CofE status, increased academy sponsorship and looser partnerships that will allow the Church to work with unprecedented numbers of schools not currently linked to the religion.

In a speech in September, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, said there was interest from "many, many" community schools in working more closely with the Church.

Discussions are also in progress with the Department for Education about how the process for community schools wishing to become CofE faith academies can be made quicker and easier. At present, there have to be separate consultations dealing with academy and faith proposals, but plans are being devised that would allow them to be combined.

Part of the family

According to Rob Gwynne, the CofE's head of school strategy, this is to make the process easier for parents to understand. But the suggestion that the faith status of a school should be wrapped up in academy conversion - which already has clear political backing from Whitehall - and need not be separately debated will raise obvious concerns with those opposed to the Church expanding its influence.

"The steps we are taking (with the review) will ensure that the family of church schools will continue to exist and retain their distinctiveness," says Dr Gwynne. "The other part of it is that there is an evident interest from non-church schools in becoming part of the church school family.

"What we do see year on year is a number of community schools that want to take on Church designation. It's of their own volition, not because of marketing or pushing on our part. In the new equation, a lot of schools are looking for a safe haven and the diocese is often seen as that."

It is expected that the new extended family of schools linked to their dioceses will include significant numbers of primary schools, which may struggle to generate the economies of scale to operate on their own.

"The authority has been the umbilical cord that has supported them and enabled them to get on with their work," says Dr Gwynne. "If local authorities continue to decline in influence and capacity, then you are suddenly left wondering, `Who am I going to turn to?'

"If there is - as is the case with our diocesan boards of education - a significant infrastructure that you might have something in common with, then it's an obvious place to go looking."

The review - which is being carried out by Dr Priscilla Chadwick, who was the first female chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference group of major independent schools - will also look at how the Church can extend its involvement in free schools and even vocationally focused university technical colleges.

While it is not a business, the CofE knows the importance of market share in education, especially when its influence in other areas of public life is at risk.

Recent history suggests that it would be a mistake to consider Dr Chadwick's review as merely paying lip service to the reshaping of the school system. The Church knows the changes are too significant to ignore - a point made clear by the dropping of its opposition to outstanding schools being allowed to become academies when that became the politically prudent course of action.

The CofE had supported the original academies policy, aimed at improving educational chances of pupils in the most disadvantaged parts of the country, and is currently sponsoring 45 of the schools. But when the Coalition wanted high-performing schools to join the programme, the CofE - along with the Catholic Church - objected.

This was partly to do with moral concerns about a policy they feared could entrench disadvantage in certain areas, but it was also because of the risks to diocesan influence over schools given new independence. As soon as a deal was done that guaranteed existing diocesan power - and when faced with the sheer number of schools taking up the Government offer to convert - the Church opposition was abandoned.

As one senior cleric admits, it was an example of political pragmatism trumping genuine fears about the potential impact of the Government's programme. Already, around 100 high-performing CofE schools have switched to academy status, and the Church is now focusing its battles with the Government on other areas, such as the exclusion of RE from the controversial English Baccalaureate.

The academy programme has been a major success for the Church in growing its educational mission, but it was already in an expansionist mood when the policy came along. In 2001, the Dearing report, commissioned by the Church, examined how its schools should be developed in the new millennium. It fully acknowledged that education was of "central importance" to the mission of the Church and even its long-term future.

Significantly, Lord Dearing called for the creation of secondary school places equivalent to 100 new schools.

More than 70 new schools were created before the academy programme launched, meaning that the overall number of new schools now totals more than 100 in just 10 years. When the Church sets its mind on expanding its reach in education, its ability to deliver should not be in doubt.

The fallout from the Occupy London protest at St Paul's Cathedral gave the Church some of its worst headlines in years, painting a picture of an organisation that is out of touch and indecisive. But the Dearing report and the rapid response to the academy revolution show how far that is from the case with education.

According to Dr Gwynne, the dioceses are already working to build capacity so they are able to meet the new challenges. And while staff at the CofE headquarters in Church House, a stone's throw from Westminster Abbey, will draw up what the broad response to Government education policy should be, it will be down to the 43 local dioceses to decide how to enact it.

In Kent, the Canterbury diocese has been working on establishing formal collaborative relationships between different types of schools - faith and secular - since the summer. In part this will be pooling buying power to get cheaper deals, but it will also involve sharing good teaching practice and continuing professional development training. Reverend Nigel Genders, the director of education, insists that it will be down to the schools involved whether they want to involve the Church, but that it would be natural for the diocese to want a "seat at the table".

The diocese has already held a series of meetings to discuss the idea further, involving heads and governors from faith and non-faith schools. It is keen to emphasise that this should not be read as the Church trying to "colonise" other schools. But regardless of the reassurances that it is not interested in a land-grab, the diocese is keen to expand its reach and does not see why it should lose out to the competition from other chain sponsors to run academies.

The diocese is currently working on a groundbreaking set of plans that would allow it to sponsor community schools that are becoming academies without them becoming designated faith schools - a model that does not presently exist.

"We would see that part of our future is being able to offer that kind of provision and support to community schools if they desire it, particularly where the Department for Education is forcing the academy model on schools," says Reverend Genders. "We could be a sponsor just as (the) Harris (Federation) or others might be able to.

"We are already hearing from schools who are interested and who think we would be a good and useful partner. Schools locally are saying we see what you are doing and we are very keen to be part of that."

In York, the diocese has launched a pilot scheme that has already led to two non-church schools entering into a formal affiliation. Canon Dr Ann Lees, director of education, says these were schools that did not want to become faith schools, but wanted access to greater support.

Similar to Canterbury, the diocese is looking to expand its affiliation scheme, especially as more schools work in clusters. "It is something we are actively looking to develop as we feel there will be a need for it," says Dr Lees. "As we look at how the education world is changing, we need to be ready to respond, be more flexible and expand provision where it is needed."

The diocese is also looking at how it can sponsor more academies, especially community schools that might want to become faith schools. Like Reverend Genders, Dr Lees is aware that this could look like "empire building" - she insists it is not. "It is an opportunity for the Church to adapt to new challenges and focus on serving the needs of young people," she says. "We are in a period of substantial change and need to look at how our mission plays out in new circumstances."

Aiming high

Undoubtedly, some dioceses will be more entrepreneurial in their approach to the changes in education than others, and will be more proactive in trying to expand their work.

The Government wants a more diverse range of providers to run schools and, following in Labour's footsteps, has supported the expansion of faith- based education. It lifted a ban on Christian charity United Learning Trust running more academies; has overseen the growth of Oasis Academies, led by Baptist minister Steve Chalke; and approved the opening of 11 free schools with a religious or spiritual ethos in September.

Before these changes were brought in, the CofE, along with the Catholic Church, was squarely in the position of being the only game in town when it came to alternative providers. Now they know there is competition and that they will have to fight their corner.

At the moment, the Catholic Church does not have plans to evolve in the same way as the CofE. Maeve McCormack, policy and briefing manager at the Catholic Education Service, says that it may happen in the future, but not yet. "We would not rule it out, but we will wait and see what happens with the Church of England and take it from there," she says.

The education secretary is looking for hard-edged accountability from whoever is running schools. If the CofE is to exploit its position and grow its influence, it will need to prove it can deliver. The history of Church provision - and the fact that it already educates around one million children - will carry it some considerable distance.

That said, the role of dioceses has previously been more to do with overseeing ethos and mission than standards. "If that isn't going to be the case going forward, the Government needs to be convinced that the Church can do the job," says Dr Gwynne. "We are working out how to go with that grain of Government policy, but also assert what is ours. There is a great deal of detailed work going on. There is a big game in play."

The CofE's critics attack it on two fronts: the fact that it is given such a prominent role in education in an increasingly secular country, and how much the success of its schools is down to an admissions policy skewed towards awarding places to middle-class pupils.

Terry Sanderson, director of the National Secular Society, says that while the Church may talk of wanting to improve schools, there is a clear ulterior motive.

"The Church is ambitious to influence the whole education system," he says. "Education has become the raison d'etre for the Church of England as fewer and fewer people are bothered about their primary purpose any more. There is no doubt that there is evangelising in schools in an attempt to create new Christians."

Jonathan Bartley, co-director of think-tank Ekklesia, which examines the role of religion in public life, says the Church is unwilling to face up to problems regarding school admissions.

"Schools are claiming to be inclusive, but are taking way below the national average when it comes to children who are vulnerable, have special educational needs and are from deprived backgrounds," he says. "The Church already runs a significant number of schools and is clearly failing in some respects. It might want to move into other areas, but I don't know if it has the track record to show it will be a success. Its results are down to a form of selection."

Regardless of these concerns, the Church is set for an ever more powerful role in state education, an idea that has already won support from Michael Gove. "I don't think we should interpret what's happening as some kind of clerical takeover," Mr Gove told TES. "It's not like the dissolution of the monasteries being reversed with our children's education being placed in the hands of monks and abbots. The truth is that CofE schools are generally popular and the direction of travel we want to go is to give more responsibility to schools that have proven successful."

So, the ball is in the CofE's court. According to Mr Yarrow at Chelsea Academy, the Church must be wary of affiliating with all-comers. There is a brand to protect that is in danger of being watered down should the tenets of the faith be replaced with a more general focus on community, charity and volunteering. "CofE schools don't have the monopoly on those," says Mr Yarrow. But the Church must still grasp the opportunity to promote the faith through education and expand its influence where it can.

"The Church has to relate to contemporary society," he says. "It might be presenting some very traditional and timeless beliefs and values, but if it doesn't meet people where they are at, it is unlikely to be highly effective.

"The secular and humanist argument against us will fall on deaf ears because the market says, `We want more Church schools'."

UNDER THE INFLUENCE

1m - Children attending CofE schools

15m - People alive today who attended a CofE school

25% of all primary and middle schools are CofE

6% of all secondary schools are CofE

22% of all independent schools declare themselves to be CofE

Source: Church of England

OPEN AND SHUT

Faith schools have long been accused of enjoying exam success and good reputations because of skewed admissions that favour middle-class parents.

At the moment only around half the CofE's schools control their own admissions, with the other half bound by their local council's admissions rules.

The Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, chair of the Church's national board of education, has predicted that 70 per cent of CofE schools will become academies in the next five years, giving schools more power over who they admit.

But Bishop Pritchard has called on schools to cut the number of places they reserve for followers of the faith, suggesting a cap of 10 per cent.

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