On the 2nd December 2016 the Bishop of Ely, the Rt Revd Stephen Conway spoke in a debate led by the Archbishop of Canterbury on shared values and their implications for public policy making. The Bishop of Ely spoke about the importance of character education in developing values and the role played by church schools in fostering good links between children of all faiths and none.
The Lord Bishop of Ely: My Lords, I thank my friend the most reverend Primate for securing this timely and essential debate. I applaud the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, on his excellent speech, not least on drawing together our concern for values with opportunity for our children and young people. When we talk about British values, we should be aiming not at the lowest common denominator but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, said, at the highest ideals that we want to promote for and with our children.
Character education is all set to be the foundation for the kind of person we want each child to become: a member of society who not only understands the world, but cares about it, is equipped to continue in the good and recognise and challenge the bad and is courageous enough to bridge divides and extend the hand of friendship. The Church of England vision for education actively seeks to provide an education that fosters this. Character education is about educating children not only to become efficient economic units, but to flourish in all areas of their lives, and enjoy life in all its fullness, as Jesus says in the Gospel of John. Fundamental to this is the nurturing of virtues as the intrinsic building blocks of a rounded human life with concrete outcomes in behaviour and service. St Paul takes the life of virtue beyond what had previously been categorised when he wrote in the Letter to the Galatians about the “fruits of the spirit”: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
All of us learn from the example set by others, and this is particularly true in the relationship between children and their teachers. As we all know, children can spot inauthenticity straight away. They carefully watch and learn from the behaviour of those around them. They learn from the rhythms of the rituals of their daily lives in school and at home. No number of laminated vision statements displayed in the school hall can come close to the modelling of learning and co-operation exhibited by all the adults involved in the life of that community. It is the commitment to living out our vision for education that led the Church of England to found its Foundation for Educational Leadership, which is training and supporting school leaders to lead from the front in character education.
Across the country, there are examples of schools living out this vision for education very effectively, schools such as St Luke’s Church of England Primary School in Bury. It has a Jewish headteacher and an overwhelming majority of Muslim pupils and is committed to their British and Christian values of tolerance, love, hope, democracy, respect, honour, compassion, faith and forgiveness. Like many other schools, it recognises the importance of teaching its pupils about faith and difference, and its pupils recently visited Manchester Cathedral and the Jewish museum.
Tolerance is not enough. We need to learn how to build the relationships that enable us to honour one another even after engagement with hard questions. The Church’s Living Well Together project is a tangible incarnation of this vision for education. It aims to provide inspiration and resources to enable schools across the country to put this idea into practice. The emphasis for the project is starting conversations to enable better understanding. Often challenging discussions take place in which there is a close examination and interrogation of each other’s points of view. It has shown the great value of giving children the opportunity to take responsibility and to come up with their own ideas of how they should interact responsibly with each other.
Perhaps most importantly of all, the test of values comes in disagreement and in dissent. We must equip young people to have genuine engagement about differences of faith and belief so that they can understand one another’s perspectives. It is essential therefore that all children be taught religious literacy. At the very time that this is most needed, not including RE in the EBacc will have a detrimental impact on the ability of schools to teach it. The importance of disagreeing well is also paramount in higher education. It denies the attempt to silence the public airing of opinions so that those we disagree with continue in their belief unopposed. Freedom of speech is essential, and so too is the opportunity for young people to learn to argue well against what they believe to be wrong.
It is more important than ever that we prepare children for the world they live in and to handle the challenges that may await them. Talk of values must not just be superficial. A life of virtue and developed character, like a stick of Blackpool rock, has the message running all the way through the middle.