Faith Schools Provide An Essential Education
Tuesday 14th March 2006The Archbishop of Canterbury has launched a strong defence of faith schools as helping to provide the 'broadest possible access to ideas' for young minds.
In a keynote address (see transcript below) given at the National Church Schools Conference in London, Dr Williams argued that faith schools offer an essential contribution to the development of strong and integrated communities and rejected accusations that they encourage divisiveness, exclusivity and irrationality. Rejecting the misconception that faith schools offer mostly middle class families an alternative to paying for private education, Dr Williams said that the Church of England educates children from a diversity of social backgrounds and regularly provides a faith based education for those living in deprived areas:
"The often-forgotten fact that church schools are the main educational presences in some of our most deprived communities means that it simply cannot be said that these schools somehow have a policy of sanitising or segregating."
Dr Williams also argued that an avowedly secularist approach to the provision of public education had serious implications for good community relations in the future:
"If the choice appears to be between systematically secular schools in the public sector and explicitly sectarian schools privately resourced, the dangers should be obvious. Religious conviction becomes something fiercely guarded from the light of public discussion or scrutiny; the way in which it relates to other areas of life and thought can only be looked at in ways that are not publicly accountable. This really is educational ghettoisation."
In his speech, Dr Williams suggested that church schools should adopt national criteria for admissions and that the Church as a whole should encourage more young people to become teachers. He also recommended that church schools should adopt universal principals of teaching about other faiths and that they explored the possibilities of exchanges between schools to complement that.
He stressed that it is beneficial for both faith groups and for wider society if close partnerships were the standard between faith and public bodies in the provision of services:
"Far from cementing religious believers more firmly into their inherited framework, educational partnership with public authorities should have the effect of engaging religious groups with the stubborn realities of a wider world and making what they say and do in some ways accountable to that wider context, its language and its standards."
Dr Williams also said that church schools were already proven in their ability to reach out across faith boundaries and helped to build confidence amongst minority communities:
"Church schools are among the relatively few public institutions generally regarded with trust by minority religious communities. And it is this...which gives the lie to any idea that faith schools are automatically nurseries of bigotry. In our present context, an education system which conveys some sense of what religious motivation is actually like is more helpful in avoiding communal suspicion or violence - avoiding 'ghettoisation' - than one which rigorously refuses to engage with any religious practice on its own terms."
Dr Williams also rejected the charge that faith schools 'indoctrinate' children with irrational beliefs, asserting that they teach widely held and inherited moral and ethical values in context:
"It might look attractive, as it did to so many rationalists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to say that we all start with blank slates; but in the actual historical world, people learn from a variety of stories, practices and relationships. And for the majority, these naturally and unselfconsciously include religious elements. The struggle to keep them out of view or to demand that they be dropped in a sanitised container at the entrance to any educational institution is not a sensible one to get involved in."
The lecture was given at the National Church Schools Conference at the QE2 Centre in Westminster.
A transcript of the Archbishop's speech follows:
Church Schools: A National Vision
Faith schools are in the news again. Fresh government proposals have once again given opportunity for critics to repeat a variety of charges against faith-related education, reinforcing the complaint that public money ought not to support private conviction - especially when private conviction is responsible for promoting irrationality or violence or social division. The New Statesman editorialised last September about the dangers of subsidising bigotry. 'Children deserve the broadest possible access to ideas. Further, faith schools may have a tendency to 'ghettoise' communities, and they may teach as fact notions with no foundations in science or history, without supplying the equipment to evaluate those notions critically.'
These are the recurring worries about faith schools. They represent, we are told, a concerted effort to get children used to beliefs and disciplines, which no rational adult could be persuaded to adopt. They are a breeding ground for the kind of bigotry whose natural conclusion is sectarian violence, either between denominations or between different faith groups. And they are a cover for socially selective education, tempting parents to public hypocrisy about their beliefs so as to secure a protected middle-class environment for their children's schooling without going private. The broadsheets have been littered with anecdotes about the dilemmas of conscience facing agnostic parents in challenging areas, and the enforced duplicity with which they pay for educational privilege.
In my remarks today, I want to confront those three charges head on, to remind you (and anyone else who is listening) why our faith schools are and should remain an indispensable feature of our public policy in this country. I'll address them in reverse order, so that I can give a little more time to the most fundamental objection, and then I should like to make a few specific proposals addressed to all those involved in our Anglican institutions.
First, then, the charge of social divisiveness. The indisputable fact is that faith schools have a generally excellent academic record, which, not surprisingly, attracts candidates for admission. The suggestion is that there is a sort of vicious circle at work. The success of faith schools encourages high levels of applications; and an admissions policy, which is by its nature selective, allows for tacit selection on the grounds of ability or class, in a way that reinforces existing standards of achievement.
If true, this is, of course, a serious matter, suggesting that faith schools have wholly bought in to the competitive ethos of modern education, and are recruiting by means that collude with some of the worst trends in our society, those trends that dig deeper and deeper trenches between economic and social groups. But we need to look beyond anecdotal evidence - especially anecdotal evidence primarily from London - to the overall picture. It may be the case that the educational achievement of faith schools prompts more applications from parents concerned about the milieu in which their children are educated - though it is a bit hard to blame faith schools for standards that are so widely admired. But can it be established that faith schools respond by using admissions criteria to maintain a monochrome social pattern?
I speak primarily here of Anglican schools as the ones about which I have most direct information and experience. But it can be confidently said that the very fact that admissions criteria have regard to both religious allegiance and, in very many areas, to explicit community needs suggest that the anecdotal evidence cannot be conclusive here. The statistical evidence publicly available in fact makes it plain that the proportion of Church of England schools with significantly high numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds is much the same as the average within the community sector. The often forgotten fact that church schools are the main educational presences in some of our most deprived communities means that it simply cannot be said that these schools somehow have a policy of sanitising or segregating. And of the new church schools recently agreed or opened, over 2/3 are in areas of significant social deprivation. If there is any issue about the perception of church schools as socially selective, I suggest that it does not lie with those who administer admissions policies.
A brief bit of history may also help to out these anxieties into perspective. The Church of England was responsible for educational provision across great tracts of the country well before universal statutory provision arrived. Its involvement in education was a completely natural outgrowth of its pastoral vocation to be present in every community. And that is why, again despite anecdotal evidence, its continuing presence in areas of severe deprivation is expressed in its educational commitments as well as its church buildings and organisations. Church schools in such contexts are not recruiting agencies; they are there because of concern for a whole community, and nothing in their current policy or practice is meant to reduce that commitment by one iota.
This first charge about social exclusivity, of course, rather undermines the second; schools that are cynically promoting social division under the cloak of religious dogma are presumably not doing a very good job of strictly religious segregation. If the first charge were true, they might breed snobs but they would be unlikely to breed bigots. As I have made plain, I don't believe the first accusation is true in any case; but we need to examine the second just as critically.
Let me first reiterate a point that has been made many times in recent debate, but still has not quite penetrated the public consciousness as fully as it should. If the choice appears to be between systematically secular schools in the public sector and explicitly sectarian schools privately resourced, the dangers should be obvious. Religious conviction becomes something fiercely guarded from the light of public discussion or scrutiny; the way in which it relates to other areas of life and thought can only be looked at in ways that are not publicly accountable. This really is educational ghettoisation. Faith schools that work in full partnership with public statutory authority have to negotiate how a community's convictions are to be interwoven with what the wider society requires. And this involves some self-examination on the part of the religious partner, sorting out what is essential and not-so-essential, finding language that will communicate across certain gaps of understanding or sympathy, and so on. The exercise of negotiation is in fact a remarkably good training in how to cope with a pluralist environment, in which more than one set of beliefs is taken for granted.
So far from cementing religious believers more firmly into their inherited framework, educational partnership with public authorities should have the effect of engaging religious groups with the stubborn realities of a wider world and making what they say and do in some ways accountable to that wider context, its language and its standards. How to achieve this without compromise is a challenge, certainly; but a challenge which Christian schools in the UK have been working at for decades. Excluding religious conviction from the public sphere -once again to repeat a familiar enough point - is effectively to say that we should never expect religious belief to be visible or audible as a conversational partner in the market place. It is always and necessarily esoteric, hidden within the locked world of true believers.
Since it is always in the unbeliever's interest to represent religious commitment as shunning the light of day and incapable of holding up in rational discourse, such a position suits the convinced secularist very well. But it is necessary to point out to the convinced secularist that this is to impose on religious communities from outside a definition and characterisation of them which most would indignantly reject. It is comparable to that popular move in anti-religious apologetic, which insists that the only real believers are the ones who hold the most robustly uncritical beliefs. It's no use arguing that there is no fundamental incompatibility between some kinds of evolutionary theory and Christian belief, because real Christians are bound to be fundamentalist creationists. I don't think I really need to spell out why this approach to religion is as doubtfully rational as it is manifestly unjust.
For those who still believe that a church school is always essentially a place of unbalanced propaganda, it is worth noting that in many areas, not least in areas of social deprivation, local Muslim young people are just as likely as others to be educated in church schools precisely because church schools are among the relatively few public institutions generally regarded with trust by minority religious communities. And it is this latter point, amply demonstrable through several surveys, including a very recent poll, which gives the lie to any idea that faith schools are automatically nurseries of bigotry. In our present context, local and global, an education which conveys some sense of what religious motivation is actually like is more helpful in avoiding communal suspicion or violence - avoiding 'ghettoisation' - than one which rigorously refuses to engage with any religious belief or practice on its own terms. If we really are interested in 'the broadest possible access to ideas', the implication is obvious.
I shall mention in passing the anxiety that, while Anglican schools may have learned the lessons of pluralism and tolerance, this could not be taken for granted in schools of other traditions - Muslim schools especially - within the public sector. A sensible answer to this anxiety would require some simple examination of the actual record of Muslim or Jewish or Sikh schools in this country. All of them are governed by the same requirements in terms of educating students in the habits of civil society; all are inspected and accountable. We should be very careful of projecting on to such institutions a set of vague and largely fictional models of what we expect other traditions to do or to look like; this would be to fall into just the trap we have already noted, of refusing to allow faith communities to define themselves in their own
But all this brings us to the most searching critique of all. Do faith schools indoctrinate? Do they infringe the rights of our children by inducting them into damagingly false and irrational habits of mind, habits that no normal adult would freely adopt? I pass over the odd assumption that there are never any adult converts to religious belief except those who could for unspecified reasons be called irrational or abnormal. And I pass over the implied set of awkward issues about the liberty of parents to share their convictions with their children; however dressed up, there is a hidden presupposition here that is potentially very hostile to freedom of thought and to the rights of the family.
We need to be clear about one or two basic issues before we consider this charge of indoctrination. The appeal to rational and universal grounds for an ethics of education, on the basis of 'science and history' in fact takes a great deal for granted. It assumes that there is a variety of human talk and thinking that is really obvious to everyone, a variety of human talk and thinking that needs no justification, has no background of development and refining, and works in exactly the same way everywhere and for everyone. And this Enlightenment assumption is powerful and attractive partly because of a collective memory of centuries of appeal to unaccountable and tyrannical religious authority, the refusal of the right to question, the absolutising of local and transient structures of power. But we have a problem when the justifiable revolt against historic abuses becomes itself a timeless, unquestionable tyranny. We need to be honest about the fact that the values of 'science and history' took time to develop and are not so easily boiled down to a few self-evident principles. The rationalist philosophy of the modern West, its understanding of rights and liberties, its assumptions about the nature of intellectual enquiry, its scientific method, are all things that themselves have a history. They are not just the 'default position' of every reasonable human being; and so they need to be examined, argued, defended, modified, refined, especially in a world where religious conviction remains the basis from which the majority of the human race actually works.
The temptingly simple philosophy is to say that there is a clear choice between universal rational principles on the one hand and unreasonable, authority-based rules on the other. But in fact our moral vision is - precisely - something that needs to be educated. We learn how to conduct ourselves as humans not by a simple process of following reasonable principles but by being introduced into communities that do things in a certain way. Unlike other animals, human beings have a consciousness that exists in the awareness of time passing and words spoken and relationships being built. The skills of being human are developed in listening and collaboration. So educating a child in a 'reasoned', tolerant Enlightenment spirit is as much or as little a violence to the child's 'liberties' as educating them in religious faith; it is a process of listening and collaboration like other such processes. Now the values of the Enlightenment are those we often assume need no defence, no proof of their rationality, because they are so familiar to most of us in the West. But this doesn't mean that they are necessarily values that are acquired without a process of induction, listening to authority, working from history and its examples.
The religious believer is thus not an eccentric, interfering with the ordinary business of growing up, but someone who, like all other humans, is involved in passing on the skills of human existence as he or she has learned them, conscious of living in a world where there are lots of ways of passing on skills and lots of different lists of the skills we need. What the believer claims in this context is not that it is impossible to pass on any such skills without religious commitment, but that what counts as education in our society should properly recognise the reality that for most of the human race, past and present, this commitment has significantly shaped and resourced their moral and imaginative sense. It might look attractive, as it did to so many rationalists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to say that we all start with blank slates; but in the actual historical world people learn from a variety of stories, practices and relationships. And for the majority of human beings, these naturally and unselfconsciously include religious elements. The struggle to keep them out of view or to demand that they be dropped in a sanitised container at the entrance to any educational institution is not a sensible one to get involved in.
Education that sets out to abstract the moral and imaginative from the religious has the effect, as I suggested earlier, of isolating the religious and thus intensifying the risks of a religious identity developing that is separate from or even hostile to the ordinary processes of civic and civil life. What is more, I've argued it presents a thoroughly inadequate view of how human beings acquire moral skills, and encourages a bland picture of the obviousness of moral sensibility. You don't have to subscribe uncritically to any religious worldview in order to grasp that moral discernment requires a lot more than argument and assertion for it to develop robustly. It flourishes where there is a clear vision of human dignity and possibility and of our place in the whole of a complex natural order; and, to put it as neutrally as possible, such a vision is unquestionably one of the things that religious faith offers. Even the person who does not make that vision their own may learn from the way it works and find their own moral discernment enriched by following how the vision works itself out. And if in the long run they do not want to make that vision their own in the way they have received it, they have plenty of exposure in and out of schools to alternatives.
This in itself is not much more, perhaps, than an argument for the place of religious education overall. But I think it can be developed further. You can have access to religious views of the world through literature, through description, through occasional contact and sensitive teaching. You can also have access by sharing in an atmosphere where such views are taken for granted. The phenomenal success of the recent television series, The Monastery, points to the difference that can be made by simple participation. This series was most certainly not an exercise in recruiting propaganda or indoctrination for either monasticism or Roman Catholicism. But the sheer experience of sharing in a pattern and an environment shaped around the conviction that God was real and challenging made a palpable difference to the men involved.
Translate this to a less intensive and dramatic level and you have one of the most compelling arguments for religious schools being part of the public system. For those who want their children to undertake the experiment of living in a climate of commitment, such a school offers, not a programme of indoctrination but the possibility of a new level of emotional and imaginative literacy through the understanding of how faith shapes common life. And this matters for the lives of individuals, agnostic or even atheist as much as believing; as it matters in a world where not to understand how faith operates leaves you at sea in engaging with the other, the stranger, at home or abroad.
In other words, if you grant the argument for religion being treated seriously in the whole educational process, you may well also be granting the desirability of schools for which religion is not a matter of external observation only. No-one expects that this will or should be the norm for every institution; but the more religious schools are integrally part of a general strategy of education for our country, the better the chances of educating students sensitively in what it actually feels like to share convictions of faith.
And of course for this to happen does require quite a lot from faith schools. It does take it for granted that, for example, an Anglican school will have a part to play in the life of local parishes, and that - to pick up a phrase I have used elsewhere - it will itself be a kind of church. But, like other Anglican churches, its doors will be open to a community in general, not guarded and barred against those who don't share the commitments. We are talking about opportunity, not coercion. To speak of the religious 'mission' of the church school is not to define its task as being recruitment - an easy misunderstanding, but a very serious one. It means that those engaged in running a church school will interpret what they do as part of God's transfiguring reaching-out to the world. It will involve elements of worship and direct instruction for those who are content to share it, and it will involve trying to see the priorities of a school in terms of the priorities of the Body of Christ, in New Testament language. Those priorities involve among other matters a sense of expectation about the gifts each has to offer to all, a sense of the possibilities of healing relationships by openness to God as well as each other, and a sense of the glory with which our entire environment is pregnant. Whatever this means in practice, it is not a programme of propaganda. But it does mean that when a child who has been educated in such an environment makes adult decisions about religious commitment, there is at least a fair chance that they will know what it is they are deciding about. And neither governmental nor Anglican policy suggest that any child should be protected in their education against finding out why and how secular philosophies work.
All of which reminds us of the call from the Dearing group and others in recent years to be unapologetic about the role of the church school as a dimension of the life of the Church itself and about the distinctiveness of the climate of thought and behaviour to be expected. There is nothing sectarian about this; it is simply making clear what exactly is being offered in the public square - the opportunity for a child to live for a while in a particular atmosphere so as to understand some of what shapes some people's deepest motivation. To refer again to remarks made elsewhere, a system that requires such motivation to be left behind or concealed when anyone enters the public space of a society, in politics or community development or education, invites alienation and suspicion. It is that method that is the real ghettoisation.
In the time left to me, I'd like to mention a few practical implications for taking all this forward in what remains overall a positive and supportive public climate. All I have said reinforces the need for high quality Religious Education across the field, and we need continuing pressure for the best. The National Society's guidance, issued last year, is of key importance here. Particularly within the church school, RE should be on offer throughout the whole time of schooling; and it is certainly a mark of a church school doing its job when it encourages a significant number of students to take RE at A Level. More Anglican schools taking up the A Level in Theology that some have pioneered would be wonderful. More focused development overall of the post-16 agenda is an imperative for church schools. But one fundamental principle which can be supported by all, in accord with the recent aspirations agreed by government and faith leaders, is that in a faith school a good religious education is one which teaches students something of other faith commitments, helping them to understand them with just the same 'internal' sympathy that is expected in the approach to their own belief. Thus strong and explicit Christian commitment should never be an alibi for failing to help students grasp the feelings and motivation of believers in other faiths - or of convinced unbelievers, for that matter.
And there may be opportunities for schemes in which, where possible, students from Christian schools of different confessional background are able to spend time in a school of another denomination; and even opportunities for students from schools of different faiths should be able to have exchange arrangements. This is a vision shared by myself and the Chief Rabbi, and it is something we are both keen to promote in our communities and to encourage among those responsible for Sikh and Muslim schools. And given that other religious groupings don't have faith schools as such in this country (though a Hindu school is due to open before long), it could also be important to make sure that individual students of whatever faith in community schools could spend time in a faith school of a tradition other than their own.
Earlier I mentioned the continuing unclarity in the minds of some about admissions. As we noted, admissions become a problem when schools are seen to be achieving goals that parents endorse; but the result is often a lot of headache and heartache in the maintenance of a just and constructive policy. This is one reason why the current very successful campaign for more church secondaries is so important. But the situation means that we need some simple objective criteria, applicable across the country, for admissions; and, to avoid
misunderstanding, some clear public commitment in the whole sector to guarantee places for local children and for children of other faith backgrounds - a priority clearly stated by my predecessor in an article in the TES four years ago, and still of great importance. If such criteria could be embodied in advice from Diocesan Boards of Education to VA Governing Bodies, and if Governing Bodies could be required to follow such advice - perhaps by provision in the new Education Bill - we should be well on the way to countering a persistent misrepresentation and also to excluding any possibility that admissions policies could ever be used for purposes alien to their expressed goals. The National Society clearly has a crucial role in developing and clarifying criteria along these lines, and I look forward to seeing progress in this area.
One other matter, which is obviously of cardinal significance in the whole picture, is of course the quality of leadership in our schools at every level. The Dearing report laid strong emphasis on the need to present young Christians with the challenge to see teaching as a vocation, a major way of sharing in God's mission (once again, not as a platform for proselytising but as a context for witness and for taking forward the values of the Kingdom of God in ordinary life). We now need a policy that will push this forward; it would be a very positive step towards this if we could develop a network of diocesan advisers who would support young people (and not young people only) exploring a possible calling to teach. The work of the ecumenical Transforming Lives project, supported by the Jerusalem Trust, is of significance here (and I am very glad to see here today Trevor Cooling, whose work for Transforming Lives has been so significant); but this priority needs to get into the DNA of every diocese. And alongside it we need to remember the training and support needs of clergy involved in school work, even casually; the visiting local cleric has a capacity for doing a great deal of harm as well as a great deal of good! And certain basic bits of training can make a considerable difference. Clergy carry a heavy load of expectation as church schools develop further - in pastoral support, in teaching support, in governance. This should not become yet another unmanageable anxiety for the overworked cleric; we need the best possible resources to prevent this.
So we should be looking for -
- nationwide criteria for admissions, guided by the National Society and reinforced by statutory authority;
- universal adoption of last year's guidelines for teaching about other faiths and an exploration of the possibilities of furthering this also through exchanges between schools;
- a definite programme of encouragement through diocesan structures of the vocation to teach.
All these represent no more than a further outworking of commitments that are already there; but a full implementation of them will at least help to set aside more firmly the various urban myths about faith schools that bedevil us (perhaps I should call them metropolitan myths rather than urban, since the anecdotage is disproportionately London-based). I have attempted in these remarks to outline the case for church schools and other faith-based institutions as a guaranteed element in a sound and creative national educational policy, and I fully believe it is a solidly grounded case, practically and intellectually. But the best argument is still excellence in practice. Happily, we have abundant evidence of that. Today we can celebrate this excellence with gratitude to all those on the front line, who continue to maintain the extraordinary standards of intellectual, pastoral and creative work that characterise our Anglican schools. I hope today's event will renew everyone's energy and willingness to tell this story and to make sure that it continues to grow from strength to strength as a contribution to a nation's ongoing learning and public maturity.
© Rowan Williams 2006