Ethos and education: the Bishop of Chelmsford makes maiden speech in House of Lords

“…it is impossible to understand and inhabit the modern world, especially in east London, without a critical appreciation of faith and, even more than that, a mature spiritual, moral, social and cultural worldview. Moreover, good religious education has been shown to be one of the best ways of countering religious extremism” – Bishop of Chelmsford, 9/6/14

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The Bishop of Chelmsford, Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell, made his maiden speech on 9th June 2014, during the debate on the Queen’s Speech. He spoke of the importance of religious education and the positive role played by church schools. He also welcomed Government proposals in the Queen’s Speech for tackling the emotional abuse of children. The speech can also be watched on Parliament Live TV.

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford (Maiden Speech): My Lords, I think that the correct medical term for my condition is imposter syndrome. I have suffered from that for a long time. How could a boy from Southend who was not brought up going to church and who, aged 11, fell the wrong side of the line and went to a secondary modern school end up sitting on these red Benches and speaking in this House? Because of this, I want to say something today about the place of education in the life of our nation.

However, I must begin by thanking your Lordships for the welcome I have received in this House and the staff and officers of the House for showing me the ropes. I also pay tribute to John Gladwin, my predecessor as Bishop of Chelmsford—he is well known to many of your Lordships—and to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, who first took a punt on me 10 years ago when he invited me to be Bishop of Reading. These and many others are people who believed in me and, as I shall go on to say, without affirmation none of us can live well.

The diocese of Chelmsford, where I serve, is 100 years old this year. We have recently enjoyed splendid visits from Her Majesty the Queen and his Grace the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. The diocese is vast and varied, from the Olympic park in Stratford—yes, the London Olympics were in the Chelmsford diocese, as I like to tell the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London—to the end of Southend pier; from Tilbury to Harwich; and from Harlow to Saffron Walden. We are the second largest diocese in the Church of England and, without doubt, the most diverse. And we are in good heart. Many churches in east London and Essex are growing. More and more people want to engage with the possibility of faith and are rooting around for a set of values and a moral compass that shape and direct human flourishing.

As the church of this land, we exist first and foremost to make Christ known, but where Christ is known there is joy and well-being and this is something that people notice, particularly in our schools. One of the few things that parents and politicians agree on is that they want education to be about more than results. Ethos is what everyone is after, but how is it achieved? Most would agree that it comes from a common set of values, articulated by the head and shared by staff, governors, pupils and parents.

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As Madeleine Bunting wrote some years ago,

“This is where faith schools can have an advantage. They can fall back on a well-known, religious narrative to which there is still considerable adherence in some form. As the last census showed”,

over 50% of people in this country,

“still describe themselves as Christian; that may not mean going to church but it may mean wanting children to grow up with broadly Christian values”.

It is not that other schools cannot achieve this; of course they can, but it may be harder:

“Secular ethical traditions are honourable but they lack the familiarity, the symbols, the narratives and histories that bring the abstract to emotional life”.

Those are her words, not mine, and she was writing in the Guardian, not the usual champion of faith-based schools.

In Newham, the most culturally and ethnically diverse borough in the country, the diocese of Chelmsford has recently accepted an invitation to be a co-sponsor of—it is not a very snappy title—the London Design and Engineering University Technical College. Although pupils at this school will receive the very best technical and practical training available, all the school’s sponsors agree that that is not enough for either the modern workplace or the communities that we want to build. Religious education will therefore be given a high priority on the curriculum, for the trustees recognise that it is impossible to understand and inhabit the modern world, especially in east London, without a critical appreciation of faith and, even more than that, a mature spiritual, moral, social and cultural worldview. Moreover, good religious education has been shown to be one of the best ways of countering religious extremism.

Consequently, one of the first things that the school is doing is recruiting a chaplain. To me as a secondary modern schoolboy, it has always seemed rather strange that in English public schools, where many of our political class send their children, the presence of a chaplain is deemed essential, their role is understood and their contribution prized, yet in the state system this is seen as either irrelevant or an excessive luxury. If we want our children to be mature citizens of a cohesive multi-ethnic and multi-faith society, and if we really want to combat extremism by helping each of us to understand and appreciate the other and to love the stranger in our midst, we may need to think again.

Down the road in Dagenham, a community school that was struggling two years ago has become a Church of England school. I have visited it twice. Within 18 months of it reopening, with basically the same staff but a new set of values, a recent report has said that these values have transformed,

“the quality of relationships and effectiveness of learning within the school”.

This school, too, has a chaplain.

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As this care needs to span the whole of a child’s upbringing, the diocese has recently pioneered a childcare venture called sparrows. We aim to support and strengthen churches and communities by providing high quality, mixed-delivery childcare with Christian distinctiveness in church settings. This will provide the places that the new scheme to pay for childcare announced in the gracious Speech will make possible.

In my own life, I have experienced the best and worst of education. The school I went to, though good and well run in its own way, had pretty basic expectations. You left at 15 and got a job—“Bishop of Chelmsford” was all the job centre had when I went—and you took CSEs not O-levels. Clever children went somewhere else. The choice had already been made. I somehow managed to get three O-levels. As a consequence, I was considered at my school to be something of an intellectual. However, three O-levels were not enough to swap to the grammar school which had a proper sixth form. Believing I was capable of more, but not being in an environment where more was on offer, with two friends I enrolled in the sixth form of the secondary modern girls school next door. Since a school, whatever its title, is only as good as its teachers—although various politicians over the years do not seem to have grasped this fact—I found myself in an environment where teachers believed in me and saw my potential. Under the affirming gaze of their encouragement, I flourished and became, I think, only the second or third person from that school to get a degree.

Human beings need affirmation to live well. That attitude of believing and encouraging needs to encompass family, school, community and church. I was blessed to receive that affirmation in my family and eventually through that school. Without it, I do not know where I would be. The best schools—church schools serving their local communities and all sorts of others schools as well—know this. The proposed introduction of the so-called Cinderella law, which will criminalise the emotional abuse of children for the first time, is very welcome, for not only do thousands of children suffer in this way, but the need for this Bill is the shadow side of what the church believes should be at the centre of all educational policy and praxis: namely, that dogged and persistent determination to value and affirm every child and to nurture the God-given potential in everyone by giving them the greatest gift of all, which is the knowledge that they are valued and loved.

This is the Christian ethos that makes our work distinctive: you are valued not because of your birth, wealth or achievement, but because you are. Of course, it is our greatest desire that children receive this affirmation in their home, but the need for this law sadly reminds us that this is not always the case. It also reminds us that our schools should be places where this affirmation is commonplace. That will lead not only to better results but to a more loving and cohesive society. I am able to love and affirm others in their difference and their diversity, with their different gifts, cultures, faiths and personalities, because I have seen and received love and affirmation myself. It is therefore vital that resources for much needed school places go to where there is greatest need, and the Church of England stands ready to help the Government open new schools and develop pre-school childcare so that more places can be provided with the same high standards.

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Coupled with my interest in the arts and with issues of peace and justice, I hope that my experience as someone who did not get an education the easy way, and who now leads a huge and diverse diocese, will be of service to this House and this nation as we seek to build a fairer education system where there is opportunity for all, especially for the poor and the excluded—and a set of values upon which a fruitful, cohesive and fairer society can be built. I do not know how to end speeches without saying “Amen”—so I will say thank you.

As is traditional, a Peer then welcomed the Bishop to the House:

Baroness Byford (Con) [extract]: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford is to be congratulated on that amazing maiden speech. His commitment and knowledge, surrounded by a little humour to make his point, earns him a warm place in our hearts. We wish him well in this House.
Noble Lords will not be surprised at his background, as he has told us a little about it. He was ordained a deacon in 1984 and priested in 1985. He was an ordinand in the diocese of Chelmsford and, as he acknowledged in his own CV—which is where I found the humour—they are getting a return on their investment. The right reverend Prelate also served as a diocesan missioner in Wakefield. He has been for many years involved in developing and writing the Emmaus programme for evangelism, and that came over clearly today.
In 1997, he was a member of Springboard, an initiative for greater evangelism. In 2004, he became the area Bishop of Reading. He has written widely about evangelism and, in his spare time, managed to write a children’s book. His interests include reading, cooking and music and, as he said to us today, he wishes to promote joy and well-being and to communicate them to others. I wish the right reverend Prelate every success in this House. On behalf of all of us, he is most welcome….
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