Bishop of Norwich speaks on educational selection and grammar schools

norwich121016bOn 13th October 2016 Baroness Andrews led a debate in the House of Lords “that this House takes note of the Government’s proposals for the extension of grammar schools and selection in education”. The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for securing this debate. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely, our lead bishop on education, cannot be in his place today, but I am glad to contribute from these Benches and to hear an excellent maiden speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Vere.

Like many others in your Lordships’ House, I attended a grammar school. I was also the first in my family to receive a university education. At Northampton Grammar School for Boys, as it then was, you imbibed an ethos and culture which simply assumed you would seek university entrance. My grammar school was hierarchical, full of petty rules and almost entirely male—the perfect preparation for a career in the Church of England.

I am not sure whether many of our masters knew much about teaching. Quite a few had no teaching qualification at all, but they were bright, interesting and knowledgeable, and loved talking about what they knew. You caught the excitement of knowledge from them, especially from the most eccentric of them, who, if they had a lesson plan, kept it very quiet. Even at the time, we thought that most of them would never survive teaching in a secondary modern—and that is the problem. I fully understand why grammar schools are thought to be the engines of social mobility for some, even if it is contested territory, but I never hear anyone saying, “Bring back secondary moderns”. We can relabel them as high schools, or give them some other title, but they remain schools where around a quarter of the pupils, and the most able in any area, are missing.

The challenge for the Government, surely, in taking these proposals forward is to ensure that no one is educationally disadvantaged. The emphasis must remain on ensuring that every child can attend an excellent school. I remember only too well the shaming threats at my primary school about the prospect of wearing the green blazer, which was the secondary modern uniform. We were threatened that if we did not work hard, that is what would happen to us. How the Government would prevent that happening again seems to me absolutely fundamental to this proposal.

Selection through academic ability is not the only form of selection in the proposals in the Government’s consultation, although we have not mentioned any of the others. I welcome the vote of confidence from the Government in the quality of education provided by schools with religious designation. This is indicated by the removal of the cap on faith-based admissions. However, such a move will make minimal impact on the fundamental principle on which the Church of England’s engagement in education rests. Our schools educate around 1 million children and the overwhelming majority are community schools providing the best possible education for everychild, regardless of faith. Just as the ministry of parishes in the Church of England is to a designated local population, and not to a congregation, so it is that our schools are intended to serve the common good and the wider community. That is why they are attended by children of other world faiths or those whose parents have no faith at all. It is also why, within my own diocese of Norwich, admission criteria make scarcely any mention of faith but are based on catchment areas, with looked-after children and siblings, for example, as the priorities, not the children of regular churchgoers.

I am pleased that the Government have chosen to make Norwich one of the six opportunity areas announced by the Secretary of State last week. The Social Mobility Commission named Norwich as the second-worst cold spot for social mobility in the country—a distinction the people of Norwich do not want. Chloe Smith, the Member for Norwich North in the other place, formed a steering group in response to this, bringing public sector, business, voluntary and faith leaders together, and I am glad to play a part in that. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us what parameters there are on the new funding and whether there is more information about it.

The Church of England remains committed toits broad role in education, and actually we are looking forward to expanding our capacity in technical and special education. It was the failure to embrace technical schools in the old system that was one of its greatest weaknesses. If my grammar school had one educational advantage, I suspect it was that it operated within a relatively settled framework. There is a weariness among the teaching profession—I speak on behalf of my daughter who is a teacher—about the constant reshaping and fiddling within our educational framework. If the Minister could promise us the prospect of a more settled period in education, that would be a blessing in itself.

 

Viscount Younger of Leckie [extract]: The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich asked about the parameters of funding for the new opportunity areas, as Norwich is one of the first that we have announced. We will make available up to £60 million of new funding to support targeted local work in the opportunity areas to address the biggest challenges that each area faces. We expect it to be used to fund local, evidence-based programmes, local project management and evaluation.