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Archbishop's Address - Christian Distinctiveness in our Academies

Wednesday 21st October 2009

Keynote Address at Church of England Academy Family Launch Conference, Lambeth Palace.

The Church of England's record in the creation and shaping of new academies is a very extensive one; it is still the most active collaborator with statutory bodies, and has built up an impressive and enviable reservoir of experience in this field. But, as all those involved in the life of the Academies would confirm, there remains a set of questions about how exactly they relate to the traditional 'church school' model. Clearly they are not simply Voluntary Aided or Controlled schools under another name; yet their relation to the institution of the Church and to the Christian faith is a real one, and needs some further exploration. In these remarks, I want initially to go over once more the rationale for the Church's involvement in the first place, and then to look at some of the possible models for expressing this rationale within the actual life of the institutions. If in the last decade we have rediscovered quite dramatically the way in which church schools can be and should be agents of Christian mission in the widest sense, we need to extend the argument to these new phenomena and find appropriate ways of understanding their mission potential as well.

'Mission potential' can be a misleading term if it conjures up pictures of propaganda. So it is important at the outset to define what we do and don't mean by this. Mission is, for the Christian, God's action of reaching out into the world he has made in order to liberate men and women from the prisons they have locked themselves into by selfishness, aggression and forgetfulness of both their own nature and God's presence. In that sense, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are the supreme and decisive example of mission, setting before us both the cost of liberation and the scope and character of the new and liberated life. But wherever something of this newness comes through, we can talk of the presence of mission. Whether or not it is acknowledged, whether or not the connection is made with the central event of Jesus' life, there is a difference made which is the kind of difference that the act of God always seeks to make – a movement away from selfishness, aggression and forgetfulness.

This is why we should never separate mission from the search for justice and reconciliation; so that I'm glad we have in the Church of England a 'Division for Mission and Public Affairs', to remind us that we have or should have a concept of mission which includes the public sphere in all its ramifications.

This gives us a foundation for thinking about mission and education. Historically, the Church, in this country and elsewhere, has invested heavily in education as an aspect of the difference that God's action seeks to bring about. In earlier ages, education was seen as giving fuller access to the central Christian story: people learned to read so that they could read the Bible. But this was – especially in Protestant mission activity – so that they could make their own the teaching that was being given them. They were being treated, in other words, as responsible agents, whose human dignity required that they didn't simply accept what they were told at second-hand. They were expected to be active as well as passive, we might say, and to internalise the teaching they had been given.

The centrality of literacy so as to be able to read the Bible or the Prayer Book may no longer be at the heart of the Christian investment in education, but the principle remains. People deserve the freedom to make sense of their lives and to have access to the materials they need for this. It involves the risky business of putting into people's hands resources that they may use to challenge their own teachers. Whatever the risks, this has been seen as a far lesser danger than leaving people in ignorance, as victims of whatever power chooses to direct their future for them. An educated public may be an argumentative and even unstable one, but it is more in tune with the calling and capacity of human beings than a passive population always at risk of being manipulated and enslaved. Christians continue to be committed to education, therefore, as a matter of doing justice to humanity, seeking its liberation and self-awareness.

I suspect that we don't often enough talk about education as a matter of justice; but this is where the centre of the Christian moral impulse should come from. A situation in which some people are barred from the possibilities of growing in self-awareness and access to what they need to make sense of their lives is an unjust situation, as much in our own society as in a developing economy on the other side of the globe. And while we long since in this country agreed the principle of universal and free education, we are all painfully conscious of what our current practice does and doesn't manage to deliver.

The creation of new church schools and academies is underpinned in general terms by the continuing belief of the Church in giving people the tools they need; but the fresh pattern of investment by the churches in academies arises from a recognition that, especially in areas of severe social deprivation, many educational institutions, under-resourced and often unfairly stigmatised, struggle in giving their students the messages they want to give and that education ought to provide. Too many young people (and that means their families as well) may end up feeling that they are not worth investing in and will as a result conclude that there is no reason for them to invest their energies in education. What is urgently needed is a strategy that tells such students, their families and their communities that they are worth taking trouble with. As things stand, countless devoted individual teachers do just this; but it is important that there should be clear signs of investment in the institutions themselves as well. This is a crucial element in the rationale for Church involvement here: for many dioceses, 'severe social deprivation' is the key criterion for the sponsoring of Academies.

Justice for people in situations of challenge and deprivation is the guarantee of resources and attention that will let them know they are worth liberating. To go in with this purpose is not to make light of the efforts of the desperately overstretched and often phenomenally dedicated people who have worked in education in such areas within existing institutions, but to join in the search – which our society as a whole is obviously struggling with – for ways of building educational communities that look as though they grew out of taking young people with that sort of seriousness. Where the resources of the statutory system alone and unaided buckle under the pressure of poverty and low expectation, part of the answer has to be partnership that releases new energy and new resource.

But there is another point to be made about justice at this juncture, a slightly more controversial one. If the task of education is to provide the tools for making sense of a human life, then it is crucial that what education offers in practice should include as wide a range as possible of those tools or resources. Thus for education to include intelligent and imaginative reference to what religious belief means and has meant in human society is a necessity; ignoring this dimension is another kind of injustice. The Church through its involvement with Academies offers a framework in which this element is provided for not only securely but fully sympathetically.

It is a resource: it cannot be an imposition. But it unashamedly claims that an educational institution incorporating a level of seriousness about Christian teaching offers a distinctive and valuable way of 'doing justice' to the needs of its students. Of course, statutory provision in the UK requires there to be attention to the religious dimension. The Church in the Academy simply says that, in situations where general provision has often been stretched or damaged because of a climate of deprivation, it is particularly important that the quality of education in this particular respect be guaranteed as part of the best possible provision of resources for living and learning.

As I have said, this will not be an uncontroversial claim. But it is an intelligible aspect of the Church's approach to the whole educational situation; and so long as the philosophy of statutory education in this country assumes that religious literacy is an aspect of the liberated mind, I see no reason to apologise for it. The challenging issue is how precisely it is to be fleshed out in the practice of Academies – not only in terms of the coverage of religious topics, but in the entire ethos of the institution. Given that, as many people have argued in recent years, the religious character of a school is not defined simply by the quantity of time given in the curriculum to religious studies or even religious practice, what should we see as distinctive about the 'feel' of an Academy with Church connections?

What should we see as distinctive? Some of what we might rightly think of as admirable and desirable will, of course, not be that different from what any intelligent educationalist would wish to see. Respect for the individual gifts and challenges of every student, a formation in mutual respect along these lines, a scepticism about forcing everyone into a misconceived academic model, a sensitivity to cultural variety – all these are properly common ground. I want to suggest that some of the distinctiveness comes in not so much in terms of a complete difference in approach as in a 'rounding-out' of some of these things and a fuller grounding for them. It is very much to be hoped, incidentally, that the National Society and the Church of England's Education Division will able to draw together thoughts about the distinctiveness question that are particularly directed towards Academies and to share some good practice – building on what is appearing on the recently launched Christian Values in Schools website. But perhaps the focal idea of liberation as I have sketched it could help us here; and I want to propose that the distinctive Christian contribution can be traced by looking at four elements in what a Christian is likely to understand by the word 'liberation.' These are –

(i)Liberation as being set free for relation. This means that a liberating education will not just recommend tolerance as the supreme virtue – a rather tired formulation, which too many people fall back on when challenged about values in education. Liberation needs to be seen as a capacity to approach the stranger without fear and with the intention of learning and befriending, so as to generate a mutual dependence. Thus -

(ii)Liberation as being able to cope with dependence. It sounds like a paradox; but at the heart of Christian practice and piety is a fusion of authority and surrender, fleshed out in the life of Christ. The Christian seeks to grow into a relation with others and with God in which others nourish him or her so deeply that he or she is able to arrive at better discernment in daily affairs, a discernment less vulnerable to selfish distortions – and so more free.

(iii)Liberation as freedom from the temptation to link your worth with your measurable achievement. To be Christianly free is to be able to feel secure in what you are rather than what you have done, because God's love is not measured in proportion to achievement. In practice, this means a certain freedom from obsessions around productivity, success, busyness, and what an ancient monastic writer famously called 'the heavy burden of self-justification'.

(iv)Liberation as a state in which the imagination and the emotions have a proper place. To be free must involve being able to nourish the imaginative side of your nature, not in a self-indulgent or fantasising way but simply in a way that allows you to see that the world is both mysterious and capable of change. And one lesson that is particularly hard for many to learn these days is about emotion. 'Liberated' from a culture that was afraid of emotion, we have often fallen into a new slavery to unexamined emotion, an uncritical attitude to feelings, desires, prejudices, ambitions and so on. The free person is on the road to a fusion of feeling and self-aware intelligence.

If these aspects of freedom are essential to what a Christian seeks to introduce into the educational mindset, what are some of the things that reflect it in institutional practice?

A Christian-based institution, from this perspective, might be expected, for example, to lay particular stress on possibilities for sharing experience across diverse communities – exchanges with other schools, not least with schools representing other faith backgrounds or none, relationships built with schools in other cultures. One of the serious advantages of the Church connection is a ready-made set of global contacts; I have repeatedly been moved and impressed by the capacity of Church-related institutions to work at relationships with schools in deprived settings abroad, in developing countries. The liberation this entails is a liberation from a narrow –and potentially resentful – concern only with local challenges and privations, and a strengthened capacity to understand the possibilities (and limits) of the difference that individuals can make in an unjust world.

That is certainly an instance of being set free for relations you might not otherwise have imagined. What about dependence? Serious attention to building 'pastoral' relationships between students in addition to providing pastoral care from staff f is an important element here. Again, I have been struck by imaginative mentoring and befriending schemes in the Academy context, and by the possibilities sometimes offered of acquiring some counselling skills. Behind this is an assumption that it is acceptable both to need help and to seek it out, and acceptable therefore to make yourself ready to give help – and to learn enough about yourself to give it effectively.

The point about worth and achievement hardly needs labouring. We have in the past few decades created an extraordinarily anxious and in many ways oppressive climate in education at every level in the search for proper accountability. This search is laudable in itself, but its outworkings have been unhappy: an inspection regime that is experienced by many teachers as undermining, not supportive, an obsession with testing children from the earliest stages, and in general an atmosphere in most institutions of frantic concern to comply with a multitude of directives – all of this gives a clear message about the priority of tightly measurable achievement over against personal or spiritual or emotional concerns. We are in danger of reintroducing by the back door the damaging categorising of children at an early age as successes and failures.

This is not a culture that will be turned around overnight – though it is deeply encouraging to see opinion beginning to shift, a shift strongly supported by research like that underpinning the Children's Society's Good Childhood document earlier this year, and the recent Cambridge Report. But it would be good to know that Academies were going to be part of the shift. They exist, many would say, to demonstrate that excellence is really possible for schools in disadvantaged contexts, and that is a wholly praiseworthy aim. The further challenge for a religiously based Academy is to show that this is feasible without buying into the over-anxious habits of so much of contemporary educational practice.

Which is why it has been argued that a religiously connected or based school will demonstrate its religious character by a quality of spaciousness in its timetabling and by its positive valuation of art and sport, as ways of recognising the imperative in education of doing more than producing 'results'. The liberation of the imagination and the valuing of things other than success in what gets tested are equally ways of conveying the message that worth is something you will discover as you discover your distinctive gifts and concerns.

These are admittedly very sketchy accounts of why certain things might matter more intensely in a Church-related institution; but if we cannot spell out something like this as a part of what makes such an institution different – and yes, in some ways counter-cultural – we are not really meeting the challenge that the existence of the institution offers. Academies have provided us not simply with a useful platform for building religious awareness in the educational establishment, but also with a platform for constructive critique of a world that – for so many professionals within it – seems to have lost a great deal of its liberating potential.

The Church's commitment to the new possibilities in education opened up through the creation of the Academies is thus a highly significant opportunity for the Church to make (again) the points it ought to be making about our educational culture. Much anxiety is generated each year by the late summer stories of inflated grades and falling real standards in A-Levels. But this is a little bit of a distraction from what a growing number of people see as the underlying problem, which is the narrowing and reducing of educational practice in response to mechanical ideas of accountability. One of my own strongest hopes for the Church's Academies, as indeed for all Church-related educational institutions, is that they will be able to model something better and more creative for our educational future, along the lines I have sketched. This is potentially a life-giving contribution to one part of the social project that Academies represent – the inclusion of the disadvantaged as capable of becoming critical and intelligent citizens. But we should not lose sight either of the relation of this to the Church's 'project' – the mission which is defined by the liberating difference that God makes in the world. As we have seen, this is not exclusively about the content of education, though this is essential insofar as it provides the full range of what we have been calling the tools for making sense; it is about helping to form a human culture that is just that bit more free from the aggression and unintelligent selfishness that imprisons us, individually and collectively. If we keep before us the twin themes of justice and liberation, we shall, as Christian educators, have a major task ahead of us, but one also that has the capacity to restore some of the energy and hopefulness that the teaching profession and the educational establishment so badly needs. I hope we shall continue to rise to this challenge with enthusiasm.

© Rowan Williams 2009

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