Bishop of Ely on importance of life skills and character education

On 29th June 2017 the House of Lords held the final day of debate on the Queen’s Speech. The Bishop of Ely, Rt Revd Stephen Conway, spoke in the debate about countering extremism and the importance of character education.

The Lord Bishop of Ely: My Lords, like many in this House, I am sure, the events of the past few weeks have been very much on my heart and in my prayers, and in the aftermath of the terror attacks in London and Manchester, it is unsurprising that the Government have placed such an emphasis on counterterrorism and counterextremism measures in the gracious Speech. The Government are right to look at reviewing specific measures to tackle extremism and the places where extremist ideology is able to spread, but stopping extremist ideology where it already exists cannot be all that we do. Although we in this House may divide debates into topics and the Government into departments, as we know, in reality society is not just a series of policy areas, it is a rich fabric of connected life experiences of which education is formative for all. Its value in developing and defining the kind of society we want to become should never be underestimated.

It seems to me that extremism is bred in vulnerability, exclusion and isolation, insecurity and low esteem. To tackle this, we need to provide greater opportunities, in particular in what are already disadvantaged areas of the country, so that there is much greater access particularly to skills-based learning through technical and vocational education which is regarded as being of equal value in society as any academic path that ​might be followed. So the development of life skills for our young people needs to be attended to even more urgently than it is currently.

It is also the case that that we want to build in our children and young people life skills that go beyond the practical; that is, the skills that build character and purpose so that children and young people not only know about the community in which they live but care about it and thus want it to grow and flourish. In the past month, a significant character education conference was held at the University of Oxford about developing virtue among undergraduates, and only yesterday an excellent conference on character education was held in Gateshead in the north of the country. What we need to be doing is addressing more seriously character education in all of our schools so that children and young people feel that they have a stake not only in the community but in the narrative of their own life story.

Only recently, I was on an official visit to a Church of England school in Blackburn where 96% of the pupils are Muslim. Three young ladies in year six gave me a very good lesson in Christian doctrine as they showed me around. They were young people in a setting where their own faith is honoured, they find themselves valued, and they therefore have the confidence to reach out and explore other things.

We are proud that Church of England schools provide an environment that is hospitable to all faiths and where faith is respected and explored, but it is important that all schools, even those without a religious character, should strive to ensure that children are given the opportunity to develop their understanding of faith, which motivates more than 80% of the world’s population. The answer to perverted theology in any faith is not to ignore the theology but in fact to encourage good theology in response to combat the bad. Religious literacy is more important than ever and all children should be offered the opportunity to explore and understand faith. However, the decision not to include RE in the English baccalaureate, as well as the way it is being treated in the Progress 8 measures, means that we are seeing a reduction in the number of students taking RE at GCSE. Head teachers are predicting that this number will drop off significantly in the coming years. More and more schools are not offering RE at all, with 28% offering no RE in year 11. This number is far worse in academies, with 42% not offering RE at key stage 4. These unintended consequences of accountability measures in education policy can lead to an inability properly to address the important issues facing wider society.

Teaching children to live well with difference of any kind is extremely important. It will not serve our children and grandchildren well if we bequeath them an educational system that limits their ability to think and learn about all these important areas of life. We need to teach them how to disagree well and to live well together. Children, after all, absorb information from the world around them, from what is modelled for them in their families and by their teachers. The narrative of division and fear must not be the primary narrative with which we ask them to live. We should help them properly to understand faith so that they can see and understand the incredible generosity of ​spirit and self-sacrificial love that has motivated people of faith in their remarkable response to the tragedies that we have all witnessed recently.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord O’Shaughnessy) (Con) [extract]…I also wanted to highlight what I felt were some of the more uplifting speeches. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely talked about how we could live well with difference and create a society that supports common flourishing….The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely talked about the importance of character education. I am delighted to say that he has visited one of my schools, and that we continue to invest in that element. I can also reassure him that religious education is compulsory at all key stages and that entries into the RE GCSE full course have been rising each year since 2009…..Discussions in this Chamber are not always conducted without rancour, and I am as guilty of that as others, but on reflection it is noticeable that the speeches I highlighted to begin with for their uplifting qualities came largely from either Baronesses or Bishops, despite their being in a minority in this House—that is probably a lesson for us male, temporal Lords.


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