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23 May 2009
An article by the Head Master in the Eastern Daily Press addresses the challenges and opportunities facing schools with a defined Christian ethos.
The full text is reproduced below, while a pdf of the original article can be viewed here.
Click on the logo below to visit the website (launched in 2009 by the Church of England) which is mentioned in the article.
A Christian Ethos is Good for a School
When any story about religion in schools hits the press, I brace myself for a harrowing read. Our faith schools struggle to get good coverage at the best of times - and this is not the easiest of moments to be promoting the faith agenda.
Nationally, we have around 7,000 faith schools in the state system. All but 50 or so are Christian. In the independent sector, most schools have a discernible faith-orientated ethos - again, usually associated with the Christian church.
I work in a school that gathers in Norwich Cathedral every morning for corporate worship, and even there I find that the maintenance of a Christian ethos is not always easy. The prevailing wind, as regards media coverage and reported societal attitudes, is usually against us.
In recent months, faith schools have been accused of covert social selection, of propagating extremist views, fomenting prejudice and denying scientific truth. The National Secular Society never seems to miss an opportunity to provide a provocative quote. That organisation promotes the secularist cause very effectively and maintains a disproportionate media presence.
While critics of faith in education will be keen to dwell on admissions policies, sex education, creationism and other emotive topics, we would do better to discuss a more fundamental issue when appraising the true worth of faith schools.
All schools these days attempt to make a formal declaration of ethos and aims (they have to - Ofsted requires it), with varying levels of success. Whether or not those statements truly reflect the daily experience of teachers and pupils, they reveal something of the attitudes and priorities adopted by the school's head and governors. A well-written ethos statement is pithy and telling.
Ethos is a well used word in educational circles, and so it's worth our dwelling for a moment on its meaning. Here's what I think: the distinctive character, attitude and spirit of an organisation - the nature of its heart and mind.
It is impossible for a school to avoid having an ethos, when defined in those terms. It may not be succinctly expressed in a prospectus or on a website homepage, but it will be there, in its activities and among its people. It will be lived out in the relationships that form, the conversations that happen and the choices people make.
This is where faith schools hold a strong position. They typically have a tried and tested and recognisable set of values on which to build. In the Christian context with which I am familiar, I find those values to be meaningful, profound and, at times, intriguingly counter-cultural.
Furthermore, in my experience, families of other faiths welcome a recognisable Christian ethos. They like to know 'where a school is coming from'. (Opposition tends to come from secularists, who frequently refer to the rights of other faith groups.) A recent ComRes poll for the BBC supports that judgement. It was found that 79pc of Muslims supported a strong role in public life for Britain's traditional Christian values. Hindus reacted similarly with 74pc in favour. In typically restrained fashion, professing Christians gave 70pc support. The call by some organisations and politicians to take faith out of mainstream society looks to be at odds with a quiet majority who value it greatly.
Schools must, of course, be places for inquiry, questioning and debate. Like any effective family, however, there is a need for some solid, non-negotiable values that provide security, rather than a bewildering array of options and a hope that a child will pick the right ones.
The Church of England has this month launched a nicely crafted website (christianvalues4schools.co.uk) which outlines the sorts of values that an effective Christian ethos will promote. Championed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, it's being seen as a rallying cry to schools - an encouragement to assert their Christian principles more positively.
The 15 carefully chosen key words are: reverence, wisdom, thankfulness, humility, endurance, service, compassion, trust, peace, forgiveness, friendship, justice, hope, creation and koinonia. Those are all, to my mind, very powerful characteristics and concepts - relevant to all young people, whatever their faith position. (In case your Greek is a little rusty, koinonia relates to fellowship, partnership - that sort of thing.)
Furthermore, concepts and attitudes such as reverence, thankfulness, humility and forgiveness are powerful, timeless ones that will outlast today's tastes and retain their relevance to every human being, young or old. They may seem strange, but strangeness is often thought-provoking, and young people are perfectly capable of dealing with heavy thoughts. Such values are an effective antidote to the self-centredness that permeates popular culture.
As Dr Rowan Williams puts it: 'A Christian school is one in which the atmosphere has that kind of openness about it, that sense that people are worth spending time with, that people need time to grow, need loving attention.'
‘It doesn't necessarily mean that everyone involved has to share the same theology or philosophy. But a Christian school is one in which the entire atmosphere is pervaded by the conviction that there is something mysterious, and potentially wonderful, in everybody.'
The challenge for our faith schools is to make that sort of stated ethos a daily reality for the pupils.
EDP, 23 May 2009