The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Learning Lessons from Church Schools

19th November 2013

Matthew Groves blogs on the Church's involvement in the state education system as an example for other areas of public service

The need for a new approach

It often seems that our current political class is unable to break out of the paucity of partisan debate, whereby solutions must be either market-based or state-based. ResPublica reminds us of this nation’s great heritage of institutions. These institutions can take a more holistic approach to addressing problems of under-achievement, family breakdown, crime and dependency on drugs, state welfare and alcohol.

ResPublica’s report Holistic Mission identifies the Church of England as an institution, both national and hyper-local, which undertakes social action through its network of volunteers (often of a professional and educated background). The Church works in a holistic way that treats the individual as a whole person. As the report puts it: “Neither state provision nor private sector competition could ever solve complex problems such as loneliness.”

A new role for the Church of England

The market cherry picks and avoids the most challenging cases on the one hand and on the other the state operates in silos and approaches problems in an impersonal and bureaucratic way. The Church however is embedded in local communities, is value-driven rather than target-driven, and despite congregational decline remains an important first port-of-call or gateway for communities in terms of social action.

Informal networks set up by Christians, and other faith groups, could become more formalised and thereby better sustained. This can be achieved through partnership with the state so that the Church may become a greater provider of public service.

The Church is already doing much in terms of providing food banks, supporting credit unions and providing premises for local groups such as mothers-and-toddlers groups. There is space for the Church to do more and on a more formal setting, in partnership with the state.

The empirical evidence – the success of Church schools in the state system

Can this work? Well we do not need to look very far before we find a concrete example of the Church as a provider of a public service. Education is an area where the Church took a lead before the state and still has a major involvement in provision.

As the National Society’s website states: “There are nearly 4,500 Church of England primary and middle schools and more than 190 secondary schools, including more than 220 primary and secondary academies. Nearly one in five primary school children are educated in Church of England primary schools by 19% of all primary teachers.”

Applying the lessons of the Church School

There will of course be differences between the very formalised public service of education, which by its very nature is didactic, and the more flexible social-action teams that ResPublica is proposing (albeit with the growth of academies and free schools the provision of education is becoming more flexible). Indeed part of the argument for the further involvement of the Church is the fact it is flexible, personalised, and less formal and bureaucratic.

Still there are lessons to be learnt from the Church’s role in education. The main lesson being that the Church can deliver a public service effectively and in the view of many parents more effectively than the state by itself.

Church schools were recently in the news when the Archbishop of Canterbury stated that admission on the basis of faith was not always a necessity. The key point about Church schools and their popularity is the ethos they provide. Much as the Church does not seek to proselytise in education, regarding its role as providing education for those of all faiths and none, so it would not be proselytising in provision of other public services. It would however provide an ethos that cares for the whole person with the clear benefits that it can lead to. Just as a pupil in the environment of a school with a Church ethos often achieves greater academic success, so the social-action teams could have greater levels of success as a result of their ethos.

The role of the Church in education came about because it is both a national and a hyper-local institution. The vision was for a Church school in every parish to provide an education for all, because everyone is a member of a parish of the established Church. That vision once applied to education should be applied again to social action.

Church schools demonstrate that the Church provides public services successfully and with a unique ethos. It demonstrates that there is nothing romantic about seeking to revivify the Church as a public-service provider, but it is rather vitally necessary. The only obstacle to this cannot be empirical evidence and it cannot be lack of volunteering-spirit on the part of Christians, it can only be current, myopic ideology. It is time to break out of the old, stale debate and look at the empirical evidence – the Church is already a major provider of education on a formal footing and informally at a local level, it is a driving force of social action. Surely this is a resource that must be utilised to its full potential.

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