I went to RC schools as a child and, after a period in my 20s and early 30s of being a “lapsed catholic”, I am now a practising catholic. I was told around the time I was beginning to apply for headships that I couldn’t lead a catholic school as I had had a short marriage in the church and was divorced. This was despite being happily married to a good man who was supporting me in bringing up our children as catholics. Church schools (particularly RC ones) struggle to get heads and will of course continue to do so if those who have had failed marriages or who are openly gay are excluded. I shrugged my shoulders at this, thought “their problem” and went on to 2 successful headships – one of a community school and one of a CoE academy. As a woman who is a catholic I am well practised in shrugging my shoulders, thinking the institutional church has problems and carrying on living my life and serving as best I can. I am concerned, however, that church schools, particularly RC schools, may be sowing the seeds of their own destruction as the leadership crisis deepens.
In my experience church schools seem to be either very good or very bad and sometimes those that are very good are highly selective. (I’ll say something about those that are very bad at the end of paragraph 6) When a parent chooses to send their child to a church school that is a form of selection in itself, exacerbated by those schools which require attendance at church regularly. Schools which do this cannot, in my opinion, call themselves comprehensive nor inclusive. I heartily disapprove of schools which argue they are “serving the whole city” by making attendance at a Christian church an admission criteria. My children attend a good RC school which is inclusive in that it takes every baptised catholic who applies, but with the free travel for faith-based choice having been abolished just about everywhere this school will become less inclusive. I can afford the travel; many can’t.
If church schools exist I cannot see how they can justify their existence by having any admission criteria based on anything other than choice and proximity. The Christian message is one of service to all regardless of race or creed. The parable of the good Samaritan and everything in the life of Christ demonstrates this. Furthermore church schools (even some fee-paying ones whose existence almost defies belief) were founded originally to serve the poor.
I do not believe that the role of schools is to evangelise. The role of the school is to educate, nurture, serve and guide the young within an appropriate ethos. For some of us our choice of appropriate ethos is one of Christian values. Many people of faiths other than Christianity choose for their children to go to a church school for this reason, and the best church schools value those of all faiths and those of no faith. At most the school can only reinforce the values of a faith; its job is not to indoctrinate, convert nor drill in catechetics: responsibility for bringing children up in a particular faith lies with the family and their faith community. Offering young people the opportunity to explore and question matters appertaining to all faiths and give them opportunities to practise their own safely and securely is consistent with a good education. I worry about schools being founded to serve specifically children from one faith community as it seems to me they will be confused in their purpose.
Our church schools should have an amazing headstart on developing an appropriate ethos for the education of the young. Firstly the Christian narrative is one of hope and redemption for all: all are to be loved, all challenged to do their best, all are made in the image of God, and no-one is unforgiveable. This interpreted into the daily life and practices of a school community creates high aspirations for everyone; offers a discipline system which is confident of forgiveness; inculcates the values of service in the next generation; creates respect for others, has an atmosphere of celebration and is inclusive.
Secondly a school founded on Christian values demands that we see the face of Christ in every child. I taught for 31 years, 13 of them as a head and 2 as an executive head and always in challenging circumstances, and I can tell you some children are hard to love! If you are reading this I expect you are an educator and you will therefore know this. People are flawed and annoying and the most damaged of them are the most difficult. As my senior VP used to remind staff “the students who need the most love will often ask for it in the most unloving ways”. When there is a belief running through a school like the lettering in a stick of rock that we are all made in the image of God and that he loves all and forgives all, it is far easier for us to make the choice to love those who make it difficult for us to do so. Of course this can sometimes go very wrong and the very worst church schools interpret this in a “cuddle and muddle” way, forgetting that we need to be judgemental about behaviour and have aspiration and challenge. For example I knew a school where the head responded to a member of staff who had been sworn at by a child by saying “Ask yourself if he had had breakfast this morning?” Mmmm………… perhaps making sure the children have a breakfast and dealing with their behaviour in a discipline system confident of forgiveness and redemption might have been a better response.
There are certain values shared by people of faith which lead to long-term happiness and challenge popular culture which is too often focused on pleasure rather than happiness: for example humility, selflessness, conscientiousness and compassion. Adults who exhibit these values are far happier than those who seek instant pleasure, are greedy and self-serving, seeking maximum personal reward for minimum effort, and make zero contribution to the betterment of society. Values cannot be taught but they can be caught through the ethos of the school.
Some of my readers will say “but you don’t need to be a church school to have an ethos like this”. I agree – you don’t. Indeed I know many schools who have an amazing ethos which are not church schools: what I am saying is that church schools should have an amazing headstart in this regard and it saddens me when it is not capitalised upon. If we are to have church schools which capitalise on this headstart and if the churches are to truly serve the education system then they need to be totally inclusive in admissions, be clear about their purpose and have a sensible response to the leadership crisis.