“Here is a paradox:If we live in an increasingly multicultural and secular society, in which, it is claimed, the Church is largely irrelevant, why does the demand for church schools so massively outstrip supply? There is, without doubt, much to be said on this issue but Lord Dearing, who headed the Church School’s Review Group, had a simple and pragmatic message for the Church of England – “Don ’t mess about; build more schools!”
Lord Dearing’s review faced a big problem. Only one in five of the 790,000 children currently educated in Anglican primary schools can find a place in a secondary school with the same Christian ethos. In response the review’s initial findings, which were revealed last December, proposed building 100 new church secondary schools to cope with the problem.

Both Tony Blair and David Blunkett, are keen personal supporters of church schools. The Prime Minister sends his sons to the Roman Catholic London Oratory and David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, “wants to bottle the secret of their success.” And after having had the opportunity to digest the review’s recommendations, the recent Government Green Paper, Building on Success, praised their work and promised £42 million towards capital costs for a new generation of such institutions. So, with both parental and Government support, Lord Dearing surely isn’t wrong when he suggests that there is, “perhaps the greatest opportunity for church schools since the 19th century”.

But not everyone is as enthusiastic about the Dearing proposals. Local Education Authority leaders quickly raised concerns that such a scheme would lead to demands by other religious groups wanting similar schools to promote their faith and disturb what they see as a ‘delicate cultural balance ’ in the inner cities. And predictably the National Secular Society once again voiced its reservations to a government funded school system giving any space to church schools,let alone an increased share in education.

Also entering the brewing debate has been Professor Richard Dawking, evolutionary biologist and chair for public understanding of science at Oxford. He aggressively points to Northern Ireland to suggest that it is self-evident that the existence of religious schools is not only absurd but, ‘lethally divisive’. In his view all religion is good for is war, persecution and oppression. History itself, however, bears witness to the fact that those who would claim to be atheists, or even humanists, have meted out far worse atrocities – Stalin, Hitler and Chairman Mao to name but three. And more than that, if Professor Dawking took a moment to walk the corridors of his establishment he would discover that evidence of the religious origins of Oxford are all around him. Put bluntly,the reality is he wouldn ’t even have a job to go to if it wasn’t for religious education.

It’s time we all woke up to the fact that there is no such thing as value free education. The voice of the RE department in most schools is virtually silent before the roar that comes from the science labs. That ’s because faith is seen as a private, personal, and by implication, non-factual subject. Science, on the other hand, is seen as absolute truth, even though the science that children are taught often says nothing about the debates that rage among the scientific community as to the truth about cosmological theories and evolutionary ideas. Even Dawking himself recognises that there is little consensus among his esteemed scientific colleagues on a whole host of theories that our children are spoon fed as being true. Christian values are no more subjective,or faith-based for that matter, than atheistic and humanist ones. But they are somewhat more popular with parents.

Having said all this, there is, perhaps, one major concern that the Christian community should listen hard to when it comes to the role many secondary church schools play in our present education system. One parish priest from Surrey, quoted in the Times Education Supplement, put his finger on it when he said he couldn’t understand Government or Christian support for the new breed of church schools because even existing ones have subtly evolved to become the antithesis of what they were originally set up to be. “Church schools were founded to help the poor, but we have ended up pursuing money for schools that now exist for the more fortunate in society.”

Certainly during the 18th and 19th centuries the work of the Church in setting up charity and Sunday schools led to a high degree of literacy among the poor. And, even more significantly, during the 1800 ’s schools were founded, known as Ragged Schools, specifically for the children of the poor who could not afford education. But far more than teaching the three ‘Rs ’, they fed, clothed and even trained children for specific jobs, so that they might have a secure place in society. When the Ragged School Movement had to close in the late 1800’s, the Shaftesbury Society took over its work.

Sadly in the 21st century the public persona of church schools, even if in some cases it may well be a false one, is that they tend to be selective,academic,middle-class, high-achieving institutions. Many have strict regulations and put a pupil through rigorous clearing procedures before admission. It is not enough simply to pew sit for a couple of weeks at the parish church.(Though many parents have been known to start attending church with their children in the belief that this will help.) The reality is that for most you need proof of long-term attendance and involvement in, not only Sunday services, but also of activities that are church related during the week.Then there are the complex forms your selected referees must fill in on your behalf. And believe me getting into General HQ at Cheltenham is easier, as I have been asked to fill in many of these reference forms over the years. The Times Education Supplement even ran a cartoon a few weeks ago based on Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel painting of God giving life to Adam. Instead of life, God is passing on a large bag of money to Adam to run a school. Meanwhile,Adam himself is preventing two parents entering the school gates with the words, “Clear off unless you can get a letter in triplicate from your parish priest!”

The reality is,we live in a performance dominated age of school inspectors and league tables, where success is increasingly and narrowly equated with academic achievement. Gone are the days when the word ‘education ’can be easily aligned with its Latin roots meaning ‘to wholly nourish ’. Success is based solely on intellectual attainment,with the Government coming down hard on ‘failing ’schools. Is it any wonder that the ability to select your pupils, even if it is on purely religious grounds,is an option that many schools,religious or not,take up? After all what teacher wouldn’t prefer teaching well-behaved, motivated children from stable backgrounds. An observation recently made by the inspectors themselves.

The sad truth is that church schooling can be divisive, but not for the tired and lame reasons Richard Dawking suggests. It ’s divisive because it can break up friendship groups formed during primary years. It can damage the self-esteem of those that fail to get a place in the more ‘successful ’schools.

It can create a ‘brain-drain’, sucking out the elite from communities and leaving David Blunkett ’s now famously entitled, ‘bog-standard’ schools with no hope of meeting Government criteria for success. Selection turns out to be another word for exclusion, based, not on what a child might do, but what a child can ’t do. Rather than Dawking’s evolutionary survival of the fittest, our education system is turning into another kind of natural selection – the survival of the ‘brightest ’.

In Jesus’ day, education was also a process of selection. The Hebrew system was one in which the priests and teachers of the Law took on pupils who would spend all their waking hours with them,learning not only theology, but everything pertaining to life. It was a system known well by Paul,who, from the age of 12,had the privilege of sitting at the feet of one of the greatest of all Jewish teachers – Gamaliel..

Jesus, however,would never have had the opportunity to experience the educational privileges which were enjoyed by the elite of his day. He was simply, ‘the son of a carpenter,’(Matt.13:55) and as such,ineligible for the social and religious acceptance which was a pre-requisite to becoming the disciple of a respected rabbi. He would have found himself excluded from access to the best ‘church ’education of his day because he was born on the wrong side of the tracks. But not only did he go on to prove the rabbis and the system wrong about his intellectual ability, he also set up an alternative ‘school ’of his own with open access for all, whatever their background and gaining a reputation for a depth and authority that eluded others.

Luke 4 records the story of Jesus’ declaration at the synagogue in Nazareth. The people were amazed by his wisdom, but also by his education policy.

Reading from Isaiah he effectively announced to those present, “I ’ve come,not to give the privileged the benefit of my wisdom, but to teach the poor, the excluded, the rejected; those without opportunity.” Throughout his ministry Jesus’ teaching method remained that of a rabbi, but he always actively modelled an inclusive education system. He gathered disciples from the edges of society. In true rabbinic style he allowed Mary to sit at his feet – except for the fact that no other rabbi would ever have considered taking on a woman and educating her. Another rabbinic teaching method, which Jesus adopted with a new twist, was a time-honoured mealtime discussion about law,life and the hot topics of the day. But for Jesus these ‘dinner debates ’were never exclusive but, rather,open to all, even prostitutes and tax collectors (see Luke 7:36ff and Matt: 9:9ff).This, of course, was something the Pharisees didn ’t like and couldn ’t understand – “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and other sinners?” For them Jesus was a teacher teaching all the wrong people, in all the wrong ways and in all the wrong places.

So what would Jesus the teacher have to say to Lord Dearing about Christian Education and the plan for 100 new church schools? I ’m convinced he ’d start by applauding the fact that the Church is involved in schooling young people and in producing, for those who have the privilege of that education, such outstanding results. But given the inclusive community that Jesus constantly fought for,and judging by his own reaction to the selective and privileged education system that he had to endure, Ron Dearing and his Church Schools Review Group might also be presented with some probing insights.

“Yes,be involved. But think differently. If the work you are doing in educating young people is that good,then apply it to the most needy of cases also. Work to model a radical alternative to the standard selective,league tabling, competitive and exclusive pattern of the politicians and the educationalists.

Academic success must not be your measuring line! You are called to a bigger vision that finds value and worth in the least able and the disadvantaged; to encourage those who can and help those who can ’t. You ’re called to get back to your roots and to find patterns of education that include rather than exclude.”