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Is the Church Abandoning the Rural?


Last Thursday evening I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in the first of the Faith Debates on the Future of the Church of England organised by Linda Woodhead and colleagues at the University Church. This opening debate was on the future of the parish system. Four distinguished speakers offered their thoughts: a representative of Radical Orthodoxy from Cambridge, deeply committed to a vision of both church and theology which felt like a throwback to a different era; an entrepreneur who provided upbeat examples of what churches with extensive capacity could do; a sociologist of religion, himself a non-stipendiary Minister who advocated this pattern of ministry as the way to the future; and then a Canon Missioner from Exeter who actually had some recent parish experience. My role was to throw a spanner in the works and to challenge each of their interpretations of where the parish system is in reality, although the speaker from Exeter was also close to the mark on this.

Had there been more chance to expand my brief contribution I would have pointed out that “parishes” are no longer the correct unit of currency, certainly in the more rural areas, and that it is benefices or clusterings of parishes that make up the majority of charges for rural clergy. As it was I could only mention lack of capacity as the major inhibiting factor, along with a lack of critical mass of people to populate new initiatives and the problem of lack of continuity of contact for most rural clergy who do not even see their regular congregations sometimes for weeks on end, as they dash from church to church and meeting to meeting. I was informed by the entrepreneur that this was a problem of “mind set” not capacity, and I would love to have invited him to my own benefice where we have worked on a raft of new initiatives, but without the people to cooperate on these, success is inevitably limited.

Two other factors are worth a mention. The first is that there is a glut of clergy of my generation coming up to retirement over the next five years, more than will be replaced by new recruits, and that the policy in my Diocese at least, is to redeploy the remaining resources into the urban areas and new towns. This will further reduce the numbers of clergy for rural benefices. Then there is the challenge of recruiting ministers in the first place into the ever expanding rural empires. Who, in their right mind, wants to be running a scattered benefice of 12 small churches struggling to pay their parish share let alone for the upkeep of their buildings? One can generate as many exciting new ideas as possible, such as that of ‘Festival Churches’ which are only used for occasional offices and Harvest, Christmas etc., but none of this is, in itself, going to stem the continued decline of rural churches and congregations. A friend who was with me has the experience of worshipping in a remote rural deanery with 27 churches where, at the moment, there are only two full time stipendiary incumbents and one lone curate. The development of lay ministry which should have been further encouraged 25 years ago when there was still time and energy seems to have been blocked by a hierarchy afraid of losing control, or simply not interested in the smaller benefices out on the margins. So, like the other denominations before it, the CofE is effectively abandoning its rural presence and focusing its resources on the centres of population.

Only four days later, a report was published on the future of church rural primary schools which concluded that “the days of small autonomous rural primary schools are numbered”.  Despite subsequent attempts to row back from what reads as a very negative response to the problem, there is a failure to face up to how and why this pressure on rural schools has come about. In an article in the Daily Telegraph by the Bishop of Oxford, current Chair of the Board of Education, the reason given for the threats of closure and amalgamation are simply those of financial pressures. Those pressures have been there for well over 30 years and led already to the closure of rural schools. I would suggest rather the current pressure is a direct effect of government policy of Academies which results in any school with less than 250 pupils not being financially viable as a stand-alone Academy and thus facing merger or closure. Somehow this stark fact is being lost or quietly buried beneath the “spin” of all the new initiatives which such schools can take such as hosting Post Offices on their premises!

The reality is the Church of England is so worried about losing government funding (which accounts for 90% of its funds for schools) and thus its stake in the formal education system, that it is prepared to collude with Coalition education policy rather than rock the boat by challenging it. The hope is that its own Diocesan Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) which become the umbrella replacement LEAs for some of its church schools, will be effective enough to maintain a church presence in at least some areas. The impact, however, is that those small church schools on the margins of the urban areas and often with challenging financial and teaching scenarios, will not be wanted by such Diocesan MATs as they are desperate to recruit “good schools” rather than problematic ones. Once again then, this is a policy for abandoning the rural. It has been pointed out that for many rural clergy it is their contact with the local schools that is the main channel of outreach. Remove the schools, or absorb them into larger units managed from outside the benefice, and that channel is closed for good.

I am not arguing that abandoning the rural is a deliberate strategy of the Church of England – that would be to assume that the CofE is capable of a deliberate strategy on anything – but that, like it or not, this will be the impact of current trends and decisions. Perhaps it is time for a dose of honesty and realism so that those of us who continue to be committed to some form of rural ministry can at least know where we stand.

Revd. Dr John Reader is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.

John Reader will be running a workshop at ‘Reclaiming the Public Space’ on 10th November in Manchester. Other speakers including Linda Woodhead, Craig Calhoun, Elaine Graham, Raymond Plant and more. Book Now!  

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What is Religious Education? And Who Sets the Agenda?

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Our guest blogger Dr Joyce Miller is Chair of the RE Council.

All opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the RE Council.

In a recent speech at the RSA, shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt addressed the question ‘Who should have the power to create the school curriculum?’  His answer was teachers and head teachers, through the opening up of opportunities for them to be more creative and autonomous in curriculum design, employing new technologies to aid learning and thereby increasing pupils’ motivation and attainment. He also talked about the ‘social mission’ of education and the promoting of ‘social justice’.

This raises some very important questions about the purpose and aims of education as a whole: Is it about increasing opportunity? Raising attainment? Contributing to the economy? Improving society? All of these? And who decides priorities?

The place of Religious Education in the (maintained) school curriculum as locally determined puts it in a unique position in relation to the curriculum as a whole and who ‘owns’ it. By law, agreed syllabus conferences consisting of local representatives of religions, teacher organisations and the local authority have the task of agreeing what should be taught and to what end, for all pupils throughout their schooling.  It is a hugely complex and responsible task, the outcome of which is then passed on to teachers to use as the basis for their classroom planning.

There is on-going debate among educationalists and beyond about RE – its nature and its purpose- and sometimes there is evidence from research projects that takes us by surprise. For example, at a recent All Party Parliamentary Group oral evidence session into RE and community relations it was stated that only 27% of primary and 24% of secondary subject leaders rated learning about religions as very important in RE.  What those subject leaders did rate as important was character formation in primary schools and dealing with ultimate questions and thinking critically about religion in secondary schools. Other interesting evidence came from the recent major research project Does RE Work? conducted by the University of Glasgow which found no fewer than 13 different aims in the RE teaching they observed.

Are these worrying pieces of information? Do they suggest confusion about aims or do they reflect a plurality of purpose? Is this a subject in which teachers don’t really know what they’re doing and why, or is it effectively fulfilling many and varied purposes in different classrooms round the country?  We know from Ofsted and other sources that the quality of RE teaching and learning is not as good as it could be. On the other hand, we also know that there is a great deal of outstandingly good practice taking place led by committed and enthusiastic teachers.  Those good teachers will have differing understandings of their subject and its educational priorities.

The question of what should be taught and why are matters that we need to continually re-address. Every school and every teacher of RE needs to develop a philosophy of religious education that is coherent and rigorous and subject to scrutiny, which then underpins the approaches to RE adopted, within a whole-school context that promotes a holistic education for the children and young people in their care.

For many teachers and politicians, promoting community cohesion is one of the main aims of RE and there is an argument that it can prevent the radicalisation of young people – though, of course, these are not the responsibility of RE alone. By increasing young people’s understanding of difference, we can promote equality and respect; by teaching them how to think critically about texts and authority we can prevent others taking advantage of their immaturity or insecurity; by developing empathy and curiosity we can help them develop their potential as human beings who are responsible and informed members of society.

But some of this can be uncomfortable for RE professionals, particularly in relation to preventing violent extremism. Is our subject being subverted so that it is an instrument of the state?  Do we want to be part of a political initiative that is interpreted by some as contributing to fear of a religious and ethnic minority group?

There are many answers to these questions but perhaps two will suffice for now.  However much some might rail against the idea of education being an instrument of the state, it is the case that in publically funded schools, the state has the right to demand something for its money. Teachers and governors have to be accountable and there have to be broader social as well as educational benefits to society as a whole from the expensive provision of compulsory schooling.

The second answer is that in my experience as a teacher, young people do have a strong commitment to social justice and they both expect and need the opportunity to explore some of the complex socio-political issues that they see in the world around them. These inevitably include questions about race and equality, and about religion and violent extremism. The criterion to apply to the demands that are being made on schools is whether or not they have a sound educational purpose and then to be able to articulate a justification for their inclusion – or omission – from the curriculum. Addressing questions about society and conflict, engaging in dialogue about difference, asking questions about humanity – who we are and how we live together – these and other issues help schools to promote pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and it is essential that these are at the heart of educational endeavour if we are to avoid a reductionist view of education in which everything has to be easily quantifiable.

I have never met anyone who went into teaching in order that a school can reach its floor targets or that x% of pupils will gain five A*-C grades at GCSE.  If we are to liberate teachers and their pupils to engage in a joint learning endeavour that is broad and balanced, rigorous and relevant, challenging and fun then we need to open minds and hearts to some of the most difficult questions that life presents, and some of these will be part of the state’s agenda.

Some of the UK’s leading thinkers on religion and public life will be at our conference…will you? Book now!

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Will The Real Trojans Please Stand Up!


As the controversy about certain Birmingham schools continues to rage, along with the spat in cabinet which is in danger of diverting attention from the deeper issues, it is worth asking ourselves, ‘Who are the real Trojans?’ This question was brought to the fore as I watched an interview with local priest Revered Oliver Coss – a governor of one of the schools – on the day that the OFSTED reports were made public. Rev’d Coss appeared to be arguing that the matter should be resolved locally by those aware of and trying to respond appropriately to local constituencies and issues. Further he suggested that equating Islam with extremism and terrorism is dangerous, inaccurate and damaging to relationships within and between communities. Without commenting further on the Birmingham issue, except to say that I find those comments above convincing and legitimate, there is a much wider debate here about control, independence and power within the Academies and Free School movement now sweeping through our education system.

I comment as a trustee of a Diocesan Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) in the Diocese of Oxford set up three years ago to establish an umbrella body for church schools in the Diocese who are not big enough to become stand-alone academies, or who wish to join a larger organisation. What is effectively the founding document of all such trusts is the Scheme of Delegation. As the name suggests, this is the document which sets out the relative responsibilities of the local schools and the central trust. This is hugely important for a number of reasons. The reality is that the buck stops with the trustees on all crucial matters — they are the ones directly accountable to the Department for Education now that Local Authorities have been removed from the picture. So the questions that arise are multiple: how much power and responsibility is delegated to local level? What are the local bodies to be called given that they no longer have the same powers as former Boards of Governors? Without the term “governing” in some way in their title, (thus suggesting they are simply ciphers with no real authority), who will be prepared to give the time and effort to serve on such bodies given that it is already difficult to find such volunteers? If considerable powers are still delegated to local level where and how is the line to be drawn, let alone exercised in practice?

As a matter of principle, and because we believe that local autonomy and responsibility are something we should foster in church schools as we value local community involvement, this particular Diocesan MAT has decided to leave Local Governing Boards with a fair degree of freedom. However, every time it comes to discussing and putting in place such policies as discipline, grievance, capability and anything related to performance of the school and its staff, the tension between the local and the Trust comes back to the fore. If the school begins to fail in any way, it is not the local board who are accountable but the trustees. How much can trustees therefore, afford to trust the local delegates and what powers need to be reserved in order to be able to take control if and when things go wrong?

At the end of the day it is the trustees who will be called to account by Michael Gove – a reassuring thought – not the local governing body or whatever they are called. Therefore whilst the Academy and Free Schools movement is presented as a means to granting and gaining more local control and autonomy for schools, it is in fact a smokescreen for the constant threat of central government intervention. This is surely exactly what is becoming evident in the Birmingham example. In which case, who are the real Trojans here, slipping into the local apparently unnoticed, always at the ready to exercise their true power as and when they see something they find threatening or politically unacceptable? Clearly the Trojans are central government and the Department for Education, themselves running scared of being held to account for any supposed failings further down the system.

The real issue therefore is that of appropriate governance and of the balance of powers between local communities and central authorities now that an intermediate level – itself politically unacceptable and thus to be removed – has been disbanded. Like my colleague Rev’d Coss, I would agree that more should be left to local communities who have a grasp of what is happening and can respond accordingly. But – and this is a huge “but” – this brings its own risks and fears, and one can see why those at the centre would be nervous of this. Who is to be trusted with our schools and the welfare and wellbeing of our young people? The consequence of removing the intermediate level of governance has been to highlight the lack of trust between the remaining levels.

John Reader is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.

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