Learning to be a local church school for all

Huw Humphreys's picture
Last year I moved to be head of a large maintained primary school in Milton Keynes, where there is huge mobility and growth - especially on the west flank of the city where we work. Our school - Christ the Sower Ecumenical Primary - has a fantastic, fully comprehensive and locally-rooted admissions policy, which we are really proud of, and which enables us as Christian educators to be a proper church school i.e. one that is open to and available to all, and which challenges us to put Jesus' teaching into practice not just for those who love him and attend local churches, but for anyone who needs educating and who lives nearby. This also gives us a wonderful population of parents and children who speak over 25 languages and who come from as many countries, who are our greatest resource. I just think that localism in virtually any area of life (Just where does your supermarket get its food? Does your MP live in your constituency? Do you teach about your local history in your school?) is to be striven for and applauded, and that local accountability is generally better than being linked by an iron band to the Department of Education. So, no plans to convert to an academy, then.
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Margaret Nelson's picture
Tue, 08/05/2012 - 16:29

What you say about putting "Jesus’ teaching into practice not just for those who love him and attend local churches, but for anyone who needs educating and who lives nearby" worries me. How do you mean? If you mean that the children who attend your school are subjected to Christian indoctrination, through more than the legal requirement for collective worship that's broadly Christian, then I'd be unhappy about any child of mine attending your school.

I live in rural Suffolk, where many primary schools are church voluntary aided schools. For non-religious parents, there's no other choice. I was also a humanist SACRE member for years. I hear from parents who are unhappy about their children coming home with religious stories that they've been taught as fact, contrary to the open-minded, secular world view that they're familiar with at home. It's one thing to have a totally inclusive admissions policy, but what are you teaching your children about religion or belief?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 08/05/2012 - 19:45

Hi Margaret,

I'm also a humanist and our community school is a CofE school so I thought long and hard about sending my children there and I did have reservations.

Putting 'Jesus' teaching into practice has meant, in reality, that great importance is places on the socialisation of children and on inclusivity. From day 1 children are explicitly taught to be aware of each other, to care for each other and to constructively resolve issues. For example at the beginning and end of each day parents are welcome (and explicitly invited) into the classroom and if children are worried about issues involving each other they will be encouraged to talk to each other about these worries. Parents (or a teacher or helper if the parents is not there) stand in the background to support where necessary and ensure children feel confident in expressing their views and reassured that things will be resolved. Many strategies like along these lines are explicitly used to ensure children work together in a caring way. Many visitors to the school comment on how well behaved the older children are and it is not 'regimented' good behaviour - it is the behaviour of children who are polite to everyone and have respect for themselves and each other.

The schools is actively inclusive - situated as it is in the middle of a council estate and accommodating many children with special needs.

The teachers are very clear to me that these are the values which are at the heart of the Christian ethos of the school and this has been my experience.

The children do say prayers and discuss Christian stories but the implications of this are not, in my experience, particularly worrying with young children. My son seems to rate Jesus somewhere below Perseus Jackson and Ben 10 but above 'Ben from Beast Quest', Superman and George from the Stephen Hawkin books and I find in practice this doesn't worry me. Young children believe lots of odd things and it doesn't seem to do them much damage. I think there are more important things to worry about in this world.

They use the church for events like 'mock weddings' where they all play roles. But these are explored in the context of other religious and non-religious ceremonies and the explicitly stated objectives are that children become more confident and comfortable in experiencing and enjoying all formal ceremonies.

I've found that I personally like and respect the vicar and overall I'm extremely happy with the school and feel very lucky that it is our local school.

Re: localism
The reception class children crocodile round town once a week exploring the places they are likely to visit - going to the library and shops and the dentist and the mountain rescue station and so on.

In year 3 they explore their town again - studying its history and architecture in particular.

Later on (and again at secondary) they will do projects which consider infrastructure and how things might be otherwise and so on.

Along the way they will go to the school community bingo and meet a wide spectrum of members of their community in many contexts.

I value this detailed exploration of their community greatly. I think children have a much more rounded intelligence if they deeply understand their own community. It gives them a context against which to compare, contrast and analyse alternative experiences.

Margaret Nelson's picture
Wed, 09/05/2012 - 12:11

Rebecca, you and your children are clearly having a very positive experience of a church school. I wish I could say that they're all as good. However, as I've only had complaints from a minority of parents, maybe most are.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 09/05/2012 - 16:28

Your post has prompted me to think hard about the nature of community faith schools Margaret.

In many cases the faith schools are the preferred choice of parents and I've been wondering why that might be in the cases where the cohorts are as challenging as those of the neighbouring schools.

I've come up with two reasons which I think are worthy of some consideration.

The first is that I suspect the presence of a strong and explicit value base which has a substantial reservoir of validity helps the schools to decide against some of the policies which challenge that value base, while other schools may not be aware that those policies may not be wise or may not feel sufficiently confident to challenge them.

The other aspect of Christian custodianship of schools which I have seen being very beneficial to them is that the church tends to provide them with very well qualified and dedicated local governors who may well serve long terms and guide the school through changes in headship and difficult issues arising. After he retired my father was asked to be such a governor of a community church primary school and unfortunately it was then beset by very serious issues which absorbed much of his energy for nearly two years, severely testing his professional skills and personal character. Such governance in very difficult situations can make a very substantial difference to the quality of the school in the long term.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 10/05/2012 - 08:17

The best faith schools are like any other good school – they adhere to human values and promote basic human rights. None of these is exclusive to any religion. However, some faith schools promote the idea that these values belong only to a particular religion and will, therefore, only be found in schools which promote the religion.

Rebecca has rightly pointed out the importance of schools being inclusive – welcoming all who wish to attend. But when the Bishop of Oxford pointed this out in April 2011 he was swamped with a “wave of anger”. The Daily Mail said “the move is likely to spark outrage among middle class parents who fight to get their children into a top faith school.”

The language is telling – Christianity is supposed to be a religion of peace but was being promoted using the language of war to defend exclusivity.

Schools, whether faith-based or not, who to open their doors to all are showing they understand the key tenets of the main religions (who all profess love and peace) than those schools who formulate tortuous admission criteria (insisting on proof of baptism or attendance at worship for example) to keep their schools exclusive.


Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 10/05/2012 - 08:33

Message from the Synod - don't divide the children. “You can only love your neighbour if you know your neighbour in person.”

Christ the Sower Ecumenical Primary School demonstrates through its admission criteria that it does not discriminate on the grounds of faith. Unfortunately, not all faith schools are so inclusive.



Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 10/05/2012 - 13:56

Talking at length with heads of faith based schools, one challenge they regularly face is dealing with the pressure groups within their own faith communities.

So for example you'll quite regularly get someone with a bit voice in the Catholic church demanding Catholic schools should be Catholic only and so on. Heads can suddenly have to pay a lot of attention to counteracting such moves.

I think the biggest win for policy reform in this area would come from engaging with the mainstream moderate elements of faith schools of different persuasions and working with them to develop policy which combats the influence of those pressure groups.

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