Bishop of Norwich draws attention to social impacts of education and media

On 3rd June 2015, during the debate on the Queen’s Speech, the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, spoke on the social and cultural aspects of education, as well as those of broadcast media. The text of his speech is below and can be watched online here:

14.06.12 Bishop of Norwich

The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, the gracious Speech said that the Government intend,

“to improve schools … and create more academies”.

I declare an interest as one of the sponsors of the first academy in Norfolk, the Open Academy, set up under the last Labour Government. It is now part of a thriving diocesan academies trust committed to school improvement. So I support the Government’s overall aim to improve schools, but there are areas where the direction of travel needs a few extra signposts.

The annual investment of the Church of England in our educational system runs into many millions of pounds. There are 4,500 Church of England primary schools and around 200 secondary schools. But direct responsibility for school improvement lies with the Church of England only in its academies. We do not currently have the power provided to local authorities to intervene where our voluntary schools do not perform as they should. Diocesan boards of education work closely with such schools, supporting them in a host of ways, but have no formal power when a school’s performance causes concern. So I ask the Minister whether his department will grant diocesan boards of education such powers, because dioceses are sometimes criticised for failing to take action without the capacity to do so.

The original aim of the academies’ programme was to improve the educational opportunities for young people in areas of social deprivation. That is how I got involved. The Open Academy in Norwich, which I mentioned earlier, has just been rated good by Ofsted and is on a journey to becoming an outstanding school. Not long ago the police noticed a remarkable drop in the recorded crime rate within a half-mile radius of the school and an even more striking reduction in ASBOs. The local population talks of a greater calmness on the estate. It is equally important that scarcely a pupil has left the academy in recent years without going into further or higher education, employment or training.

However, the recent Ofsted inspection, good as its outcome was, did not suggest much analysis of the school’s social context or its social and economic impact. Something profound was missed. I would be grateful to know how our schools are seen by the Government as agencies of social and community transformation.

Only once was there a change of gear in that inspection when, as governors, we were asked what we were doing to promote British values. I inquired, politely, what British values were and was told that tolerance was among them. Yet we do not tolerate bullying, disrespect, violent behaviour, possession of drugs and a good deal else. We need to get our language right if we are to impart the right values in our schools.

Language matters. During the election campaign we heard a great deal about hard-working families from all sides of the political divide. This always seemed to mean families whose members were in employment. Back in the 1990s, when I was involved in poverty hearings, I vowed never to equate hard work only with employment and jobs again. I remember a young woman at a poverty hearing in Cornwall describing how she had been seeking a permanent job for more than two years and saying that it was very hard work indeed being poor and unemployed and attempting to make ends meet while also sending off applications for jobs when, time after time, no one responded. She had had some temporary employment but said that it was much harder work being unemployed than it was in a job. I am not sure that the language we use about the poor and unemployed is always sensitive to this basic truth.

If language matters, so too does culture. In relation to education, it is altering the culture of a failing school which is the hardest thing to do. It is about reshaping expectations and nurturing creativity but also building the right ethos. I remember being told years ago that as a diocesan bishop I could delegate almost everything to suffragan bishops, archdeacons and other members of my staff. However, there was one thing I could not delegate—the ethos of the diocese. Ethos is very hard to pin down, especially the ethos of a nation. The Prime Minister of the day helps to shape the ethos of the country and I am glad the beginning of the gracious Speech invoked the one-nation approach and governing in the interests of everyone. It struck exactly the right note and the legislative programme will be judged in this light.

One of the strongest shapers of the ethos of our nation continues to be the BBC. It is truly British. Its range and reach seem to irritate some people but it is one of the most socially cohesive of all our institutions—as one would have seen at Norwich over the recent bank holiday weekend when 50,000 young people gathered in devotion to Taylor Swift and many of the pop stars of our time, only a few of whom I have heard of. Many others in Norwich—indeed, rather more—were on pilgrimage to Wembley on a quest to get Norwich City back in the Premier League, a happily successful mission.

The range and reach of the BBC stretch well beyond these shores, of course, and I have never understood why the World Service ceased to be financed from the Foreign Office. In terms of soft power in the world we have a treasure which is the envy of other nations, not least because people in every part of the world regard the BBC as impartial and trustworthy. In a world in which cultures of trust need building—desperately in many places—to possess such a building block in the BBC should be something we cherish. I hope we will remember that in the run-up to the renewal of the charter.