Ripe remarks get to the core of CofE's mission

20th May 2011 at 01:00

I've reached that age. I find myself going into a room, only to ask: "What did I come in here for?" Sometimes I go back whence I came; other times a quick look around and a glimpse of my glasses reminds me. But there are moments when, robbed of purpose, I am left asking a question not dissimilar to the one recently asked by Rt Revd John Pritchard, the Bishop of Oxford.

Advocating more community focus in admissions policies, the Bishop, chair of education in the Church of England, suggested that those involved in church education should look around and ask the same question: what are we here for?

Let me be clear at the outset: I am headteacher of a CofE school, a supporter of their existence, and have debated the subject on the pages of this paper. However, that same church adapts to meet new circumstances. Like the Bishop, I would argue that a renewal of our sense of purpose in education is timely.

One timely reason is the year itself. This year marks the bicentennial of the National Society, the body that first set up church schools and is now chaired by the Bishop of Oxford. As we take stock of this historical moment, we can debunk one myth: the National Society was not formed to set up separate schools. Its founding statement was about Christianity forming "the foundation of national education". It did end up establishing schools, but that's because back then it was pretty much the only one doing it.

My school began life in the Old Harrow Pub in Sheffield in 1787 - not in competition with local education, but in the absence of it. At that time the CofE's involvement in education was, to quote our current Archbishop of Canterbury, "a completely natural outgrowth of its pastoral vocation to be present in every community".

A founding visionary of the National Society, the philanthropist wine merchant Joshua Watson, was described by one contemporary as a layman with "a ripe theological judgment". In this context, I like the word "ripe". To me it denotes a founder who caught the moment, the particular season. Jump forward a couple of centuries and the Bishop's point is a similar recognition that we may have something here ripe for the picking, namely the mission we will cultivate into the next 200 years. In a society where the concern of educating the young is well established and where the shape of school provision is changing rapidly, that earlier vision of an education open to every child needs to be revisited.

This could take two strands. One would explore how, through schools' work, curriculum support, community involvement and sharing of resources, our churches could provide for all schools who wish to form partnerships. The other would enter into the Bishop's discussion about admissions.

Sadly, coverage of the Bishop's views became somewhat hung up on the idea that there would be quotas of places for church families, with outcry from those who missed out. The Bishop of Oxford did raise the technical issue of admissions policies, but, crucially, he did this by contrasting schools' openness to their community with the narrow philosophy that such schools are the preserve of church families. He didn't dispense with the latter, but pushed forward the need to consider the former and, in doing so, came up with his 10 per cent quota.

As ever, a visionary call such as the Bishop's will take some translation into policy - the devil in the detail - but that's where his challenge has immediate relevance. Current admissions procedures already involve us in debates that balance our openness with our distinctive offer. Admissions criteria don't ignorantly sort out the churched from the unchurched. They open to certain children's specific needs, they give weight to the place of current pupils' siblings, they balance consideration given to church families who are not from the local community with places for children within the community. Our governing bodies already annually engage in the sort of debate the Bishop is stimulating.

But if the devil is in the detail, we need to be wary of being tempted into minutiae when there is a broader principle at stake. Two-hundred years on, the current chair of the National Society has again indicated that the time is ripe for discussion of CofE schools and their mission - as he put it, "Good, honest, robust discussion about what church schools are for."

Isn't that what I came in here for?

Huw Thomas is headteacher of a Church of England and Catholic primary school in Sheffield.

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