Bishop of Ely – education should be as much about care and character as it is about core skills

On 8th December 2017 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Most Revd and Rt Hon Justin Welby, led a debate in the House of Lords, ‘That the House takes note of the role of education in building a flourishing and skilled society.’ The Bishop of Ely, Rt Revd Stephen Conway, spoke in the debate and his speech is below. The Archbishop’s opening and closing speeches can be seen here.

The Lord Bishop of Ely: My Lords, as the lead Bishop for education in this House, I am grateful to my most reverend friend for the opportunity to address the crucial place of education in providing value and enabling every member of our society to contribute and flourish. We must continue to develop the curriculum to suit our developing industrial and commercial needs. This means that we must work to nurture and support our children and young people so that they may be employable on the grounds of their skills and their rich and steadfast character, and give them the support and foundations for good mental health that will be necessary throughout their lives, as we have already heard.

We are currently experiencing a period of great uncertainty politically, socially, financially, industrially and morally. While we may not know exactly what things might look like come March 2019, we do know that we must continue to prepare for the longer term to meet the demands of our changing industrial and commercial landscape and be ready to face the competitive markets we will engage with. People therefore must be skilled, adaptable and resilient. This will be possible only if we tackle inequality of access to the acquisition of life and technical skills. Inequality of access is the scourge of our generation. I applaud the commitment to social mobility and the tackling of educational disadvantage of the Secretary of State for Education and the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, the Minister in this House, but we are not doing anywhere near enough.

Faith in the City, the report that came out in 1985, inspired me, as an ordinand, to seek ordination in the north of England in a poor community. The Church continues, with other institutions, to be passionate about seeking to reach out to the most excluded to relieve need and to renew dignity in the home, school and workplace. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, about the challenges faced by schools in some of our northern towns. I was visiting church schools in Blackpool myself earlier this year and saw the challenges that they face. Severe deprivation, of course, does not happen only in urban areas, but also in some of our coastal towns and more remote rural areas, where I live. As this year’s Good Childhood Report from the Children’s Society shows, disadvantages accumulate. For example, children living in poverty or family debt are more likely to experience mental and physical health deficits, as well as an impoverished life of the imagination. All these factors have an impact upon a child’s educational and life outcomes. We must seek out those in need and use education provision to fuel and enable aspiration so that we can ensure that no member of our society is hampered by their background.

I am very encouraged by the policy of Her Majesty’s Government for opportunity areas, with targeted funding to tackle disadvantage in education. The Church of England is a recognised partner in the working of this policy, not least in east Cambridgeshire and Fenland, where I live. Her Majesty’s Government are working hard to develop a curriculum and qualifications that meet our future industrial needs, most notably through the recent introduction of T-levels and the continuing development of apprenticeships. I am thrilled that the ​diocese of Chelmsford is a founder member of the London Design and Engineering UTC in London Docklands, the country’s first school to be an approved apprenticeship training provider. The Church of England is committed to opening more secondary schools, such as the free school we have won in Huntingdon in my diocese, to take to the next stage the model of a single campus providing academic and innovative technical pathways on the same site, with a special school which we have also created a partnership to run. We aim to foster a student-focused, economically ambitious approach to education. It must also be prophetic enough to equip young people for an agile and robust 50 or 60 years of wholly human adult productivity in a global setting not yet visible to us.

However, education is not simply about imparting skills or knowledge. As the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, said, this is fundamentally about character and about creating an educational environment that goes beyond the metrics of the core curriculum. We need a holistic attention to each individual child and young person, a large part of which includes being attentive to their mental health needs, as the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, said. The arrival of the Government’s Green Paper on mental health provision and schools is timely. I am pleased to read that the Government are committed to ensuring that every school and college will be able to play a vital role in identifying mental health needs at an early stage, as well as promoting positive mental health practices from the very beginning of a child’s education. I regularly visit the students at the Phoenix Centre in Cambridge, where they can continue their education while in hospital receiving treatment for their self-harming and eating disorders. It is a constant pain to me to see these children, whose needs might have been met sooner.

The work of St Catherine’s College in Eastbourne, a disadvantaged coastal community, is a perfect example of a school engaging with children’s mental health needs at a very early stage. As part of the Church of England education office’s national project, Unlocking Gifts, St Catherine’s is running a project to help overcome mental health disadvantage through early identification and targeted support for children who have mental health needs.

It is very easy to dwell on the negatives, but the Church of England’s vision for education is rooted in hope, the hope offered by Christ to us all and the opportunity we can all have for fresh starts and the full dignity of our humanity in Him. We do not despair in the face of cumulative deprivation. We seek to tackle it head-on and make a significant difference to the lives and confidence of young people and their families.




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