Bishop of Ely highlights role of church schools during Lords debate on Education and Adoption Bill

“We are committed to excellence and parents choose Church of England schools because of the broad and rounded education they provide… I urge the Minister and his officials and his officials to ensure that clear protocols and their consistent application are used to support the continued partnership between church and state as providers of education.” – Bishop of Ely, 20/10/15

14.10.16 Bishop of Ely 1On 20th October 2015 the House of Lords debated the Government’s Education and Adoption Bill. The Bishop of Ely, Rt Revd Stephen Conway, who is chair of the Church of England’s Board of Education, spoke about the work of church schools in character education. He also underlined the commitment of the church to helping improve standards through collaborative work between church schools, diocesan bodies and multi-academy trusts. The text of his speech and the minister’s response is below.

The Lord Bishop of Ely:
The Church of England is firmly committed to delivering outstanding education that promotes academic excellence, together with the development of the whole child. I welcome all that has already been said about any approach to metrics in education to take a holistic view strongly into account.

I have already spoken in this House about the importance of character education. Last week, the Church of England launched a new discussion paper, on character education in schools, at a conference that was attended by teachers, school leaders and many people involved. The point was our doing this in partnership with the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, so that the work we are seeking to do in this area is of interest not just to those of us in the church but looks at how we can take a holistic approach to the education of the whole child across the maintained education service.

I have been very reassured by statements made in the other place about the way in which church schools, diocesan bodies and multi-academy trusts will be the solution in the majority of cases when it comes to looking at schools that need improvement. Let me reassure the Minister that I say that not because we want to delay the improvement of any school but because it is our conviction that we want to enable our families of schools—including MATs and school-led MATs within our diocese—to support one another into excellence. That needs, of course, to be tested at every turn. We are not in any way seeking to retreat from rigour in any of this, but we want to work as one family with one underpinning philosophy.

In my own diocese of Ely, a quarter of our schools are now in the diocesan multi-academy trust and I think we have a fine example of outstanding schools supporting weaker schools into making much greater improvements. This reinforces my point about our being one family of schools because of our determination to celebrate all that our teachers do for us and for our children. The children come first, but without fine teachers, those children would not be served. We are therefore determined to equip our teachers and celebrate their gifts, as well as further to develop the work and capability of our governing bodies. For us, this represents a generous sharing of expertise between stronger and weaker schools that is entirely in the interests of our children.

One of the key relationships for our director of education in the diocese of Ely is that with the regional schools commissioner, Dr Tim Coulson. So far, not only has that relationship been sustained, it has been very fruitful. It does help in terms of our strategic planning to be working closely with him so that he understands our commitment to our schools and helps us in the increased level of our strategic planning which will promote the development of all of our schools both in the immediate future and over the long term. But I would like to ask the Minister how we can ensure consistency of practice across the country. Crucially, we all need to see high levels of objectivity and clarity around decision-making in respect of how the capacity of providers or sponsors, including in a diocese like mine, is assessed.

The role of the regional schools commissioners and the demands placed on them and their teams will be substantially extended by the provisions of the Bill. It would be unfair to expect them to operate this vast remit without published criteria that provide the clarity and consistency required. I hope that such consistency will enable positive working relationships to develop between dioceses, the regional commissioners and officials from the department that will support the continued development of the Church of England character of our 4,700 schools. A key element is the recognition that the governance structures of church schools, whether they are subject to intervention in the different ways set out in this Bill or not, must reflect their roots and the requirements of the trustees under which they were first established. Charity law demands that these requirements be respected. This is not a small point because the governance of church schools cannot be worked round.

We are committed to excellence and parents choose Church of England schools because of the broad and rounded education they provide. This will be delivered only where leaders and governors fully share that rounded vision. I urge the Minister and his officials and his officials to ensure that clear protocols and their consistent application are used to support the continued partnership between church and state as providers of education. With the ability of dioceses to plan strategically for their families of schools based on a consistent approach by the regional schools commissioners and officials, we can then ensure that our schools continue to play the vital part in the education that parents so clearly want.

Lord Nash: …I pay particular tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely for his work in the Diocese of Ely Multi-Academy Trust; he knows that I share his interest in the importance of character development. I also share his concerns about consistency of practice, and I hope that the Schools Causing Concern guidance will provide considerable clarity on this. I also look forward to working with him on refreshing the memorandum of understanding that we have with church schools. We had a helpful meeting this morning and I will work with him to ensure that we achieve the consistency that he desires. The right reverend Prelate succinctly summarised the importance of school-to-school support, as did the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes.