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franciscan - January 2000

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1999

Christian education: where are the nation’s children going to find faith?

by John Hall

The 2001 census will ask explicit questions about people’s religious affiliation. In the meantime, we can only make assumptions on the basis of the available evidence.

The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) publishes a Factsheet on Ethnic Minorities in Britain, which interprets the evidence. It estimates that there are forty million Christians in Britain, between one and one-and-a half million Muslims, up to half a million each of Hindus and Sikhs, 300,000 Jews and 130,000 Buddhists. Ethnic minorities, including black Caribbeans and Africans, make up altogether five-&-a-half per-cent of the population.

For the overwhelming majority of white Britons of Christian heritage educated during the last thirty years, religion does not make a significant impact on their lives. On the other hand, not many people are positively anti-religious. According to the European Values Survey 1990, only 4.4% of the population are avowedly atheist. The CRE Factsheet quotes evidence, gathered by the Policy Studies Institute, which demonstrates that, whilst for at least two-thirds of people of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage in Britain religion is very important to the way they live their lives, for the white population of Britain religion is very important for no more than four per-cent of 16-34 year-olds.

Can that be changed? There is talk of young people’s spirituality but little sign of them finding answers through the Church. Schools must have a part to play. What goes on in school can, of course, only be a small part of the story; parental attitudes and the prevailing norms in society will continue to have a dominating influence. There are some signs that RE is beginning to stage a comeback. At a recent conference at Church House, three professors of religious education spoke of a renewed importance and confidence for RE. Inspection, model syllabuses and the new popular short course GCSE have all made a positive impact.

The Chief Inspector’s last annual report lent some encouragement to this view. Of primary schools he said, ‘Non-compliance with the requirement to teach RE to all pupils is less than in previous years, and there has been a slight improvement in pupils’ progress . . . there is more good, and less unsatisfactory, teaching than last year.’ Of secondary RE he said, ‘Pupils are making more progress than previously in understanding concepts, symbolism and the impact of religion on people’s lives.’

RE is, however, only a small part of the story. Maintained schools in England and Wales are required to arrange for each pupil, not withdrawn by his or her parents, to attend a daily act of collective worship wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character. They must also provide for the spiritual development of pupils and of the community. The Chief Inspector reported, ‘Provision for pupils’ spiritual development is unsatisfactory in two-fifths of all [secondary] schools. In a number of schools prayer plays an important rôle in encouraging pupils to reflect on spiritual matters. Teachers often lack understanding of the nature of spiritual development or of the ways in which it may be promoted. Seven in ten schools fail to comply fully with the requirement for collective worship.’ The situation is better in primary schools, where only one school out of ten is non-compliant. ‘Where worship is carefully planned to contribute to spiritual development, it does so by creating an atmosphere of reverence and opportunities for reflection in a period of calm and quietness; by providing opportunities for pupils to learn and think about the values of Christianity and other religions; and by encouraging participation and self-expression.’

The Board of Education and The National Society continue to use every opportunity to promote spiritual development and worship in schools of all kinds and to support RE. The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church working together recently persuaded the Government to give greater prominence to spiritual development of pupils in the revision of the National Curriculum for September 2000. The National Society has published extensively on these matters. The National Society’s new website (which can be found at: www.churchschools.co.uk) will have frequently changing resources for collective worship freely available to all teachers.

The Church of England pioneered education well before state involvement. The Church’s concern for education in all schools does not mask the opportunities created by the Church’s own network of schools. Whilst there are many Christian educators in schools of all kinds, it is really now only possible to guarantee Christian education in Church schools. The Chief Inspector reports that provision for spiritual development generally receives greater attention and is significantly better in voluntary-aided church schools than in the maintained sector. Even there, complacency would be quite inappropriate.

Greater public accountability has meant that many Church schools have been recognised as making a strong impact and have become increasingly popular with parents, many of whom would deny the importance of religion for themselves. The General Synod has debated the opportunity the popularity and relative success of so many Church schools offers the Church. A year ago it supported, with no dissenters, a resolution recognising that Church schools stand at the centre of the Church’s mission to the nation.

In response, the Archbishops’ Council has initiated a review to look at three aspects of the Church’s provision: the effectiveness of Church schools, the development of provision and the recruitment and training of Christian teachers. Lord Dearing, with his strong track record of educational review in the past five years, will chair the group. The review will consider what contribution is made to a school’s success, academic and otherwise, by its distinctive Christian character. Does it, in fact, contribute positively to the local Church’s mission and to the faith development of the pupils and community?; and if so how? One in four primary schools in England is a Church of England school but only one secondary school in twenty. Secondary schools reject large numbers of pupils and thus are seen by some to be selective and divisive. Clearly there should be greater secondary provision. How can that be achieved? Finally, Christian education depends on Christian teachers willing and able to share their faith in a positive but open way. How can a supply of such teachers be ensured and what should be the rôle of the Church’s eleven colleges of higher education?

At a recent conference at Lambeth Palace this last issue was addressed. A Government minister, DfEE officials and senior staff of government educational agencies endorsed the need for Christian teachers and promised active partnership with the Church in recruitment. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of teaching as a Christian vocation and a Christian ministry. It must be true that only teachers for whom their Christian faith is very important to the way they live their lives will be able to offer a genuinely Christian education and enable their pupils to find a living Christian faith. We all have a rôle in discerning and encouraging such vocations.
If the distinctive character of Church schools as places of encounter with the Christian gospel and Christian life can be strengthened and developed in response to public demand, it might mean two things: first, that there is a generation of parents aware of the need for spiritual development for their children and for themselves; and second, that there might be a new generation growing up, aware of the Church’s response to their questions of faith and life, perhaps even accepting the answers for themselves. §

John Hall is General Secretary of the Church of England Board of Education.


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