On 19th May 2016 the Bishop of Ely, Rt Revd Stephen Conway, spoke in the first day of debate on the Queen’s Speech. He focused his response on the Government’s proposals for academies, universities and further education.
The Lord Bishop of Ely: My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, in thanking my fellow right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for his speech. I join my right reverend friend in reminding the House that, in particular with children and young people, we are about ensuring their experience of love and the fullness of life. If you like, we are interested in human flourishing and community. That is the prism through which I will look at some of the direct provisions from the gracious Speech and the implications for future policy.
Research done already on the implications of what has been said by Ministers is that academisation will proceed very fully. The think tank CentreForum suggests that only about 3,000 free-standing schools might be left that are not academised in the future. I am concerned that we do not end up with thousands of outstanding schools going it alone. We need to ensure that all strong schools, in MATs or otherwise, support schools that are struggling. There is no way of flourishing that does not take in support for others.
Another thing relating to structural change as it continues is that it is very important that this change, however important it may be, does not distract us from the business of front-line support for children and young people in school. In that regard, I am thrilled that the Government intend to sustain the pupil premium, and I am very pleased that one of my right reverend friend’s schools, the Northern Saints Church of England primary school in Sunderland, was a joint winner of the DfE’s pupil premium award very recently. It won that award because it used the pupil premium to establish a reader-in-residence scheme. This funds a reader for two days each week, transforming the children’s early reading experience. It set this up following research that says that successful adults have a love and enjoyment of reading. Northern Saints works with national and community groups using evidence-based strategies and a knowledge of their pupils’ needs to give them access to a broad and varied curriculum.
But funding on its own does not solve the challenges faced by schools. It requires good stewardship of those resources, an interest in what actually works and a commitment to the children that they serve. Collaboration, aspiration and creative thinking are as important for schools as the funding that they receive. I assume that the proposed legislation on fairer funding for schools will make good the White Paper’s commitment to support isolated rural and small schools with additional funding, but we hope it will also encourage them to collaborate and find sustainable ways of working for the future, sharing CPD and ensuring that children have access to a breadth of educational opportunities.
I note the intention of the digital economy Bill to improve access to broadband. In the Fen country the architecture for broadband and mobile access has hardly got beyond early English, let alone to Gothic. Although I will offer every available spire and tower to improve this, the main concern on this is about connectivity and how this directly facilitates the delivery of education across remote rural areas. Lack of connectivity is not just a nuisance for us adults; it is a genuine deprivation for our children and young people.
We must also be mindful in these straitened times that adjustment to the funding formula for schools will mean losers as well as winners. There is a need to support education in any disadvantaged community, whether rural or urban, if this Bill is truly to benefit all.
I also wish to raise a question of religious literacy. We live in an age characterised by globalisation, social media manipulation, and concerns about religious extremism and the limits of pluralism. In this febrile as well as fertile context, religious literacy is more and more vital. This is never neutral, but it should be reasoned and generous. As the Church of England’s chief education officer recently said:
“Religious education is about giving people the critical skills they need to recognise deep differences in religion, belief and worldview, to understand our history and to take the diversity of voices seriously … This means much more than simply accumulating knowledge about religion and belief. It’s about enabling children and young people to encounter and wrestle with fundamental questions about God”.
This should never involve coercion or violence, but should ally passionate faith with a deep honouring of the other. Our Church schools are not proselytising communities, but they are places where we are sufficiently confident in ourselves and in our faithful witness that we are even more confidently inclusive and diverse.
In the past, local authorities have been a key link in ensuring that children have access to high-quality religious education and collective worship in schools that do not have a religious designation. This has enabled engagement with local faith communities and given children access to information about religion that dispels fear and promotes understanding. Currently, local authorities are statutorily obliged to maintain a standing advisory council on religious education. I ask the Minister: will this be lost as the role of local authorities in education changes? If so, how will we be able to monitor and assure the quality and provision of religious education in areas that have become fully academised? This is an issue of great concern to all those of us who believe in the importance of religious education and see the need for improved religious literacy.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, I say that the implication of closer working between the RSCs and the dioceses is very important. In the case of the diocese of Ely and our RSC it is working well, but it continues to need further development.
Moving on to FE and higher education, I note the intention of the Higher Education and Research Bill to link the quality of university teaching to the level of fees that institutions can charge. It would be unfortunate if this were to lead to a situation where only the wealthiest could attend the best universities, and I hope that the legislation will seek to avoid this. In our Anglican foundation universities we are clear that the best education goes beyond simply serving the knowledge economy or providing a ready supply of well- trained employees, important as these things are. Indeed, without a wider perspective it is difficult to do those things in any case.
I look forward to finding out more about the Government’s skills plan and reforms to technical education. The further education and skills sector, which already educates more than 3.5 million learners every year, including a large number of those studying HE-level programmes, is worthy of greater recognition. It would be a great shame if HE and FE provision were separated like sheep and goats. This would, I fear, further reduce the prestige given to vocational education, a long-standing problem in our system.
Whatever the shape of the future it is clear that a key factor in implementing this legislation is leadership. Great leaders not only set out a bold vision of what educating for flourishing should look like, but equip their teams to deliver it. This is why the Church of England is establishing a foundation for educational leadership, offering the kind of networks, training and research to potential leaders which will enable them to make manifest in our systems a vision of education which sees its purpose as human flourishing for teachers and learners together.
The Church of England will soon make public its renewed vision for education, at the heart of which is the teaching of Jesus himself that he has come that people,
“may have life, and have it abundantly”.
This is not theological code for coasting. Life in all its fullness means being exacting, rigorous, ambitious and having appetite for all that excellence demands. Any school which accepts underperformance from children is failing those children. Academic rigour and progress are vital components of school life lived to the full. The Lord who promises us fullness of life tells us in John’s gospel that he is the good shepherd who is not going to lose even one of his sheep. No child is ever to be written off and we must do all we can to ensure that they receive fullness of life.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Baroness Neville-Rolfe) (Con) [extract]…I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely for his remarks about the importance of strong schools supporting weaker schools. We plan to support rural schools through the new national funding formula, and agree totally with his remarks about the importance of them collaborating together and with his comments about the vital importance of religious literacy. It is well known how good Church schools are at community cohesion. The SACREs continue to play an important role in supporting schools to teach high-quality RE. Local authorities have a statutory duty to support these activities and we do not have any plans to remove the duty.
Our work on academies will complement our programme to raise the quality of teachers, school leadership and governing bodies. I pay tribute to the establishment of the foundation for educational leadership mentioned by the right reverend Prelate.