The Church of England published a significant report today on its role as a provider of education. Indeed the Church is responsible for more than 4800 schools and educates more than a million pupils.
The report asserts that Church schools stand at the centre of its mission.
- wants to strengthen its role as a major provider of provider of schools at a time of educational change.
- highlights that the Church has created a strong and distinctive “brand” and proved it can manage schools successfully.
- wants a wholehearted commitment to putting faith and spiritual development at the heart of the curriculum and ensuring that a Christian ethos permeates the whole educational experience, particularly high quality religious education and collective worship.
In the accompanying news release the Bishop of Oxford, who is the national lead on education, indicates that he would not be surprised to see at least 200 more Church schools developed in the next five years.
Unitarians have always had major concerns about single faith schools funded by the taxpayer. In the early days of the General Assembly in 1929 the Assembly affirmed its support for a National System of Education, Free, Unsectarian and under Public Control. They opposed new facilities for sectarian teaching or ecclesiastical privilege and the imposition of any religious tests upon teachers in the employment of public bodies. In 1942 they welcomed better and more efficient teaching of religious knowledge by the use of agreed syllabuses and trained teachers provided. We should not forget that Church schools have special rights to discriminate in admissions and in the employment of staff.
More recently in 2001 the Assembly affirmed the value of education taking place in a multi-faith and non-sectarian environment and opposed any moves to support an increase in the number of schools with a religious foundation. Such moves were seen as socially divisive and impeded the growth of genuinely pluralist communities. It did not mean no faith in schools but a respect for all faiths and where pupils could be encouraged to explore issues of ethics and religious belief in an open and unbiased way. I would be concerned that the Church of England has a goal of expanding the number of schools when all the evidence points to a rapidly declining number of those claiming to be members of or associated with the Church of England.
The fact that Church schools, and a very small number of those of other faiths, exist and won’t be disappearing has encouraged Unitarians to support the AccordCoalition; a campaign group for inclusive education in faith and non-faith schools. Rabbi Jonathan Romain, their chair, has described this report as a missed opportunity. I would concur.
The report in particular wishes RE and collective worship to allow pupils to engage seriously with an develop an understanding of the person and teachings of Jesus Christ. This is a much too narrow view of religious education. It should be education about religion not about one religion. I would see a contradiction between "collective" and "worship" when a degree of compulsion is involved.
If you wish to explore one Unitarian view on school education there is a chapter by Dr Melanie Prideaux in “Unitarian Perspectives on Contemporary Social Issues” available free from Unitarian Headquarters.