Bishop of Swindon's address to Synod

First published 25th September 2016

This morning I would love to take you through the history of the Church of Englands involvement with education since 1811 and how it is that 20% of all schools and over 850 000 children attend schools with a Church of England foundation.

I would love to guide you through the past 6 years of seismic change in education which began with the introduction of academies first for failing schools, then for the most capable schools, and now whether they wish to or not effectively for the vast majority of schools. I would love to speak about further and higher education, and the C of Es involvement in this.

I would love to - but I cannot given the constraints of an address like this. So what I want to focus on are some of the challenges and opportunities that the process of academisation in schools currently holds for the Diocese of Bristol, and particularly in relation to our vision for Creating Connections. I want to do this under the following headings: Foundation and Inheritance, Foundation versus Fortress, Foundation and Future.

First, Foundation and Inheritance. Twenty-six percent of all primary schools in England and 6% of secondary schools carry our brand and are designated Voluntary Controlled (VC) or Voluntary Aided (VA), C of E schools, the majority being VC. In general, C of E schools are held in high regard by parents and the local communities. In contrast to the suggestion in the title, the Governing Body of a VC school has a lower representation of Foundation governors than a VA school. More significantly, the Christian identity and culture running through a church school can be very deep or hardly noticeable and no different from one without a church affiliation.

The rise of Multi-Academy Trusts (or MATs) and the shrinkage of Local Authorities has focused attention on the implications of having a Church foundation - not only for local schools, but for dioceses and the National Society which is the Church of England body overseeing their governance. Despite the reservations of many in the Church of England around academisation, the National Society and dioceses have decided to respond positively to the challenge and make it an opportunity. The latest expression of the reasoning behind this and the vision set before us is articulated in a July 2016 paper entitled Church of England Vision for Education: Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good. In essence it reaffirms our historic commitment to the education of all children, regardless of their background - including in relation to religious convictions. This vision is underpinned and suffused with a Christian understanding of what life in all its fullness might mean and how it is nurtured in our complex societal dynamic.

The sea change of academisation requires dioceses to take responsibility for education in all its parts - in other words running schools and being totally accountable for their performance. This is what our Diocese now does through DBAT (Diocese of Bristol Academies Trust). Centrally, the Church of England has committed itself to establishing a Foundation for Educational Leadership which is based on its biblically and theologically grounded Vision for Education described earlier. The Foundation is in essence an Institute or College for providing high quality training and development; supporting and promoting excellence in what is, and will be, a continually evolving landscape.

With this background in mind we turn to the second strand: Foundation versus Fortress. Away from the centre and out towards the periphery - one might say the chalk-face - of the dioceses and their local schools, Governing Bodies and DBEs (Diocesan Boards of Education) are waking up to the implications of foundation status in relation to the options before them. With respect to church schools (the great majority of which are VC in Bristol diocese) a key question has been around choice. Can church schools join a Multi-Academy Trust other than DBAT, or form a MAT of their own with other schools? The former has been a critical issue for our own DBE to think through and has necessitated many hours of navigation, investigation, and discussion - the latter often robust and extended.

What is remarkable is that the Board, with all its diversity of experience and perspective, reached a consensus on the inadvisability of Church foundation schools becoming part of non-church MATs. Time does not allow me to elaborate on all the reasons behind the decision, but the reaction to it has been mixed. Some schools in the diocese now feel protected, others that they have been constrained. The fact that other dioceses have reached different decisions has led to the Board (and hence the diocese) being accused of having a fortress mentality, which I can understand. However, the Boards judgement accords with the latest guidance coming from the National Society. The Board has just begun exploring another request over choice which turns out to be much more complicated than it appears.

Complexity around many of the issues does not make for simple communication and, speaking for myself and my colleagues, we are learning from our mistakes and acknowledging them. Sadly, some members of Synod will be aware of how easy it can be for the Diocese to be misrepresented in such matters, which is of reputational concern. In relation to church schools, chiefly VC schools, academisation is a process which tends to either weaken or strengthen links with a diocese. The Board is looking to do the latter and DBAT is working with schools to provide the maximum degree of freedom given an agreed foundation.

Finally, Foundation and Future. There are those who have asked whether a Diocese should be running schools at all and whether this is truly our mission. Others ask whether our inheritance is now becoming a drain on energy and resources, rather than an asset and multiplier. These are important questions which Bishops Council and Diocesan Synod have acknowledged yet remain committed to making the most of this testing educational landscape. DBAT has a growing reputation for competence and quality which is recognised within the higher echelons of the educational establishment as well as in Church of England circles. Our success in making bids for new schools both reflects and reinforces this. Despite some of the challenges academisation has brought, we are already seeing how DBAT is Creating Connections which are building on, and deepening, those we have already established across the Diocesan network of schools.

As we think and pray into our Diocesan vision and aims, lets consciously ensure we, as Synod Members, and our PCCs, widen our view to include our church schools, remembering they are one of the most significant environments for Engaging Younger Generations.

Growing Leaders has clear resonance with what the national Foundation for Educational Leadership is looking to provide and will be resourcing high quality development for many teaching staff associated with our churches, and perhaps a number outside. There will be learning practical and theological - which can be passed on and shared more widely in churches as well as schools. We do not know whether children educated in a C of E school are more likely to become practicing Christians than others that is not the aim of our engagement - but there are associations linking their overall wellbeing as adults with such a foundation.

The nation as well as the Church has been given a rich inheritance in our church schools which we have often taken for granted. A challenge for us is that this inheritance requires renewed investment at a time when most dioceses are feeling quite stretched. This sounds like a recipe for potential disaster or the kind of combination which the Spirit of God prefers in order to do new things among his people. Lets pray that it is the latter!



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