Nicholas Pyke finds the Archbishop of York feels modern education is losing its way in abstraction.
In his 12 years as Archbishop of York, the Most Reverend Dr John Habgood has been unafraid to speak his mind or, when necessary, risk controversy. Yet his headline comments at last month's North of England Education Conference took him largely by surprise. His conference speech had dealt with something else altogether.
He made the mistake of answering questions on the fraught subject of collective worship: it is not, he said, working very well. It may be better to have less of it in the interests of quality. And the requirements on schools should be reviewed. Broadly innocuous statements, which in so far as the Church of England has an official position, probably sum it up. The Board of Education is already conducting just such a review.
That his remarks were seized upon with such fervour is, he says, a testament to the symbolic power of educational stories. They do not come much more powerful than alleged attempts by senior clerics to banish God from school - the drift of some subsequent coverage.
As if schools were not working hard enough, says Dr Habgood, society is pressing them to resolve the sort of social tensions which affect it nationally: questions of race, religion and identity, all of which crop up in collective worship.
"The Department for Education, in trying to define more precisely what the content of worship should be in its Christian references, has made it more exclusive. This then faces schools with a problem which is a much wider social problem: 'How do you become an inclusive community in which differences are recognised at the same time - enabling people to affirm their own tradition?'.
"That's a problem for the nation, but the poor schools find it focused in a particularly sharp form through the regulations. Previously there was more flexibility, which enabled schools to be more sensitive to where the pupils actually were in terms of their own faith or lack of it. The enormous problem now which faces schools is, how can you fulfil the requirement to do something which is specifically Christian without dividing the community?" One answer, he suggests, is to adopt a more flexible view of worship in schools - an approach also favoured by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ripon, chairman of the Board of Education: "There is another form of assembly, one which is concerned with the development of spirituality in a very broad sense. It needs to be related to more specific aspects of worship, such as belonging to different traditions. But in a way that affirms them without marginalising others. I have suggested that one way was sometimes taking children outside into real worshipping communities. It seems that another possibility might be to encourage different faith groups to put on their characteristic worship for the rest of the school. We would then have worship which then had some integrity. If collective worship means only a mishmash of different pieces drawn from different traditions then it is not sustainable.
"I think that what I have been suggesting could be done under the Act but not under the present regulations."
Dr Habgood's interest in the education system is both personal and professional; as a former university researcher and lecturer, and as the husband of a teacher. Uncertainty about the role of education itself is, he believes, one of the many tensions schools face.
"It seems to me that part of the educational change in recent years came out of the kind of thinking that was expressed in Correlli Barnett's book The Audit of War. It was a vigorous account of Britain's industrial record, tracing the failure back before the war and placing quite a big part of the blame for this on an 'elitist' education system. The failure to take seriously the sciences, technology and so on.
"When the education changes were taking place in the late Eighties I felt that a lot of this was drawn by the kind of thinking he was expressing. Our need to catch up and produce a highly trained group of engineers. I don't deny the need for that. But I can see how education becomes more and more instrumental to the achievement of a technologically equipped society. I think in the past few years the pendulum has begun to swing back the other way with the renewed interest in questions of moral and spiritual education.
"We see the gains and losses in the difficult business of assessment - in the tensions for schools which put a premium on examination results. We're in the middle of a continuing debate about wherepriorities lie. But it's also a debate about where priorities lie in the nation. This is the character of discussions about education. They do focus concerns about society at large."
One of the things we are in danger of losing, he says, is the language of the better self, of transcendence, and of "an inner breaking out from the ordinary" as he expressed it in his - unreported - speech at the North of England Conference. Is it acceptable, he asked, to envisage a system of learning reduced to the gleaning of abstract information from computer terminals (a popular account of the way forward for adult education)?
"In part it's the language of the whole community that enables us to communicate these things. If a community stops using religious language it becomes very difficult for people to make sense of their own experience. What's true of the larger scheme is also true of schools."
"We off-load many of our problems into schools. The churches at the moment are really in quite a muddle about relationships with other faiths. As you can see from debates in the General Synod there are deeply held differences of opinion. Some of these voices are then reflected in the kind of groups who put pressure on the DFE about school worship.
"Even though the numbers of people in Britain who hold to other faiths is comparatively small, this is one of the major issues facing all churches. Whether we're going to think of ourselves in exclusive terms, over and against other faiths or whether better dialogue between faiths is going to enable us to find better ways of respecting one another." Questions he can address when, this August, he retires.