Each year we welcome a great cohort of new headteachers to help lead our wonderful family of church schools in the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. As part of that welcome the Bishop has them to lunch, and of course takes the opportunity to “say a few words”: here are the words (or at least a formal version of them) from today’s lunch if you’d like to listen in…
A very warm welcome to you all, not only to Park Road today, and its lovely to have you here, but to our diocesan family, of which our schools are a very special and important part.
I’d like to celebrate with you for a moment some of the distinctives that make them so special and important, and to make them easy to remember over what I hope will be a good and convivial lunch, I’ve grouped them under three words that rhyme: roots, shoots and fruits.
Roots first. The bottom line for us is that every child matters because every child matters to God. We want every child to have the very best foundation, the very best roots for their lives, and we believe that God’s love for them, shown in Jesus and also shown by us, is such a foundation. We aim as teachers and leaders to show that love ourselves; and we take the proper opportunity to teach about the place of faith in human lives, in its various forms, aware that it can be the root of the very best and sometimes the very worst for those lives – which makes achieving religious literacy, if I may call it that, all the more important. Recent research shows that schools have been falling somewhat short in this, and that Christianity in particular has not been well introduced – and it is interesting to think what the reasons for that might be.
The key of course to remedying the situation is to have good curriculum material readily available, and I am thrilled that our own Helen Matter has been helping the Church of England nationally produce just such material under the banner of The Christianity Project that will be launched soon. As we’ve had a hand in devising the material I have no doubt that it will be on its way to you as soon as it’s published, and I do commend it to you. I want us to be and stay class leaders in helping our children understand the Christian faith in which our schools are rooted, which can if they choose be an excellent root for their own growing lives to draw on.
Shoots come second. They’re the children. Because every child matters to God, our schools above all must be places where every child is not just included but is welcome and belongs, and not just belongs but has their own particular gifts appreciated and developed. Academic achievement is part of that, and there is no escaping the standards agenda. We as a diocese are investing in advisors who can offer help, so that even if the pressure is intense , you are not alone. But those sorts of standards are not everything. We often speak of our ethos and our values, and they matter too, perhaps in the long run even more. They underpin a vision in which the “gifted and able” cohort are not an elite, followed by a long tail of also rans, but include every child because their own special and gifted contribution to the school community, and one day to the community at large, has been recognised and is flourishing. I suspect in fact that this will lead to better results on the narrowly academic measures as well, but that is another story. I suspect that many if not all of you with agree with this bigger vision, but my challenge then is not to let that be just a warm feeling, but lead to positive and well-thought through actions. Just what is that ethos and what are those values? There is a vast cloud of value words out there, and if I am frank we can sometimes be rather pick and mix in the way we deploy them. And an ethos in itself can be bad as well as good: the challenge is to develop a good one and know why we believe it’s good – and for us to root that ethos in our Christian faith.
I wonder how you would go about developing an ethos and set of values which was more than those picked by you or the staff or even the children? (And so of course could be equally validly unpicked by your successors.) Faith, hope and love are the three great Christian virtues and there’s a start. Less fashionable but worth an exploration are the four virtues of the classical age adopted by the church – temperance, prudence, justice and fortitude. How old-fashioned do they sound? But if I re-translated them as learning to desire well, decide well, distribute well, and dare well they start to sound more relevant, even to the playground. And then of course there are the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and the rest – which do more easily come to mind and are not to be forgotten. What would you go for and why?
Finally, fruits. One of the things that gets my goat is when schools other than church schools trumpet themselves as “community schools” – as if ours weren’t. In fact the track record of church schools as being key players in the development of their local communities is second to none. Which is not a surprise because our vocation as Church of England Christians is not to pull people out of the world and the everyday community into some sort of faith ghetto, set against the rest, but to use the good things we do dare to believe that we have been given in the service of others and for the benefit of all. That was the way of Jesus, sometimes called the Man for Others, and that is our way too. Now we have to acknowledge that any person or organisation that is under siege tends to look inwards. And schools have been under siege for a good generation now from successive changes, increasingly interventionist, in our educational system, with small and rural schools in particular finding that the deck is stacked against them. The temptation is to pull the waggons into a circle. But counter-intuitively, the way forward lies in persisting in looking outwards, living out our collaborative ethos even more strongly, and not being defensive.
We see the same with our churches. There really is no reason why nearly all of them can’t survive, as long as they are willing to work in partnership and accept that they can do what they can do and do it well – like celebrate Christmas and Harvest and provide weddings and funerals – and need not do what they might like to but actually struggle with, like have their own governance or a vicar-led service every Sunday. It really is better together, and a new report has just come out from the church on rural and small schools which gives some of the detail, and I commend it to you. But all of this is just the means: the end is keeping a vibrant connection between the schooling of our children and their local communities so that our big vision is not lost of growing good people and growing good citizens, not just skilling them up to be productive assets for a globalised economy. However small your school, however much of a struggle you face, you and your school are really, really worth it, because our good future is in your hands.