The Church’s role in education works!
At a time of declining congregations and financial constraints the Church of England has managed to expand its mission in one very important area: education. As Andrew Adonis points out in his new book Education, Education, Education, the Church was an early supporter of academies and now sponsors more of them than any other organisation.
Sometimes academies have replaced failing C of E schools but more frequently dioceses have got behind them as a way to further the Church’s social mission by opening schools in deprived areas. Opening academies has also been a way to remedy the imbalance between the large number of C of E primary schools and the much smaller number of secondary schools.
It is a tribute to the Church that most local authorities welcome it as a sponsor. In the case of academies the Church has usually opted not to have faith-based admissions so the schools cannot be seen as sectarian or divisive. Not all C of E academies have been a success. Adonis mentions two in South London that have run into problems. One of them has had to seek an additional sponsor. But by and large the Church deserves praise for a lead it has taken in a development that has improved education for the better.
Adonis himself, of course, deserves the most credit for a change he conceived and introduced despite a great deal of opposition. His book should be read not only for the light it sheds on education but for the insights it offers into politics in modern Britain.
A key point Adonis makes is that the real division in politics is often not between the Right and the Left but between the radicals and the conservatives. There was a great deal of suspicion of academies in the Labour Party but as Adonis remarks, there is no way they can be seen as right-wing unless educational failure is somehow regarded as left-wing and investment and reform to combat it are seen as a reactionary trick.
NUT officials were vociferous campaigners against academies, yet another sign that providing good public services often means being ready to take on hidebound trade unionists. Not all union members fall into this category but some are always ready to resist reform. Many local authorities resisted academies and chief education officers can be more ideological than politicians.
Civil servants were another problem for Adonis, not so much because of outright opposition as because they are ill-prepared to manage major programmes of change. Few of them stay in the same job for more than two years. To do so is seen as a mark of failure. There is little continuity of management and often little experience of what is happening at the coal face. As a minister, first in the Education Department then in Transport, Adonis got out and about, visiting schools and travelling on trains. One of the impressive features of his book is how much Adonis knows about individual schools.
Adonis does not refer directly to his own faith. He was educated at Kingham Hill School, an evangelical foundation originally designed for orphans and destitute boys from London’s East End. Like Tony Blair, Adonis is no ideologue. He started his life in politics as a member of the Social Democrat Party. Instead of being motivated by tribalism he sees politics as a way of changing the world for the better. He is ready to recognise a problem for what it is and call a spade a spade, even when it is not politically correct to do so.
As a result, he was clear eyed about the comprehensives even though it was not fashionable in the Labour Party to criticise them. He saw that many of them simply represented a continuation of the secondary moderns. They lacked sixth forms or teachers with good degrees ready to inspire pupils to aim for the top. They also lacked the independent, effective governance that had often been a feature of the grammar schools. Only rarely were they inspired by vision and an ethos that encouraged learning.
By creating academies as independent state schools, Adonis aimed to remedy some of the defects of the secondary moderns.
He recognises that other measures need to be taken as well. A key to improving education is the recruitment of able, young graduates from top universities as teachers. Adonis is not afraid to sound elitist about this. Pupils in deprived areas of the country have as much right to be taught by the brightest and the best as pupils at Eton or Westminster.
Academies are leading to improvements although there are those that fail. Particularly in London standards are rising. A number of private schools have turned themselves into academies. Adonis is encouraging universities and public schools to become sponsors and he has achieved some success.
Although Labour has yet to decide whether it supports free schools, Adonis reveals they started on his watch under a different name. They are really part of the academy system.
The story of how Adonis set about changing education in Britain is a rare example of a politician driving through reform against vested interests, including those in his own party. The Church of England can be proud of its own role in the story.