I am part of a large evangelical, charismatic church in the UK, the head teacher of a small independent Christian school which, for the most part, is an irrelevance to the community I am part of. The New Frontiers International (NFI) family of churches, which my church is a part of, lauds apostolic spheres in the third world that set up schools but is indifferent and sometimes antagonistic to my life’s task.
Before I joined an NFI church, I was part of a small locally grown fellowship and before that, a Roman Catholic. Taking a responsibility for the education of the children of the church and if possible having a school was important. In the former case this was because we believed God had called us to be a set apart people and in the latter because Catholic tradition is that Catholics educate Catholics. As a pupil in a large Comprehensive in South Wales where there was no Catholic school, we were removed from RE lessons and the priest came in and taught us Catechism each Friday lunch time. The church cared and its actions taught me that my faith was important.
If I look around at the schools in this area, most were established by the church. The buildings of the original local village school nestle beside the huge Rectory, presumably an establishment similar to those we see in novels like Jane Eyre, set up by local churches or ministers (Charlotte Brontë, 1847) to educate the poor.
St. John Rivers, the pious minister and suitor to Jane says of his parish“… I will exert myself to the utmost for its improvement. Morton, when I came to it two years ago, had no school: the children of the poor were excluded from every hope of progress. I established one for boys: I mean now to open a second school for girls.” (Chapter 30 )
Newport Free Grammar, now a thriving comprehensive, was founded by a bequest from Joyce Franklands in the 16th century, a pious woman, who after losing her husband and son, determined to bestow her wealth on young scholars to “…season them in the Bible and the doctrines of the Church of England.” There is the Public School, Felsted, set up to win favour with God for Lord Riche, established in 1564 using the wealth Riche had gathered from the dissolution of the monasteries. Later the school was favoured by Puritans, a notable pupil being Oliver Cromwell.
More recently, Bishops Stortford College and The Friends School in Saffron Walden were established by communities of faith. These schools were as much political statements as educational establishments. They were set up as a reaction to the dominance of Anglicanism and the forced compliance with the tenets of the State Church through education. These were non-conformist schools set up by people who were dissenters from Anglicanism and would not conform to its demands or allow their children to be educated in what they believed to be that church’s false doctrines. Their beliefs excluded them from established schools. In setting up their own schools they revolutionised the education system churning out young businessmen and technologists and prospered.
For the most part, all these schools are now secularised as is our whole educational system. We live in a pluralistic society and in our schools the voices of many and no religions speak and in theory all voices are heard. Some of the things being said may not be to our taste but are tolerated if they are not hateful. This is the dogma of our secular state.
To some extent this is to be welcomed. The Christianity I encountered in schools was largely dead and dull, delivered too frequently by spiritually dead people. It is a good thing that these false teachers are not permitted to deliver hypocrisy or enabled to preach a false gospel.
Pluralism also enables Christians to work with integrity within the system living out a personal gospel before their students. In fact the curriculum encourages teachers to share their beliefs in a way that demonstrates respect and introduces pupils to a wide variety of viewpoints. It also demands accountability.
The society we are part of, values education and is committed to universal provision financed by the state. The state is committed to pluralism and, through its aims and values, promotes, “…our relationships, as fundamental to the development and fulfilment of happy and healthy lives, and to the good of the community.”
Theoretically Christians should feel safe in the hands of the state and free to work within the system. Despite this in 1989 I was part of a group of Christians who set up a small Independent Christian School and continue to be its head teacher.
The principal drive was, as a community, to be salt and light by living an alternative way. We also felt very strongly that our children needed to be protected from the consequences of living this in an unsupportive culture. We felt responsible for their education and were privileged to have the resources to open a school.
For many of the parents who now send their children to our school it is this that continues to be their first goal; that their children feel happy and safe and are enabled to succeed freed from the pressures of a hostile culture. The alternative way, espoused by the founding church, has been lost and found to be wanting, so much so, that the original church fell apart. In the place of this alternative way is a vacuum to be filled. This is a parable of what has happened to education in the UK.
There is an undefined sense that we deliver a Christian World View. We also claim to have shared values but there is little discussion of these and often we only address them in times of crisis. There is little stomach for the process that would be necessary to arrive at an agreed set of values or a mechanism for accountability within them. It appears to work on a day to day basis. For this reason, wider leadership impetus is lacking and we are constantly defending or attacking values, rarely building consensus.
And this purposelessness I feel extends into the churches with regard to education. Do we as local churches actually hold a view about how the children, God gives us as a gift, should be educated? Our honest answer would have to be, we don’t, and we depend on the state to work it out, picking up the pieces when it goes wrong, not engaging in the process. We like to pretend that things are basically alright so why interfere.
To build a consensus on child rearing and education would be painful for many churches and risky. For the most part we are ploughing resources into extra curricular activities and youth events and effectively hoping that the educational leaders amongst us are being sufficiently blessed so as not to need the help of the church. Individuals are purposeful but the local church appears directionless as to the classroom.
Parenting is a gift from God. All work is a vocation; a calling. Children need training and guiding in the role they are to fulfil. Education means preparation and schooling is time set aside for training. The state has enabled all children to have their early years set aside to learn in the belief that they will become productive and good citizens, happy and of benefit in society. The local church needs to be at the forefront of defining this space.
In the modern world, education means preparing a child to leave the family and become self dependent, able to provide for their own and others through taxes and charity. Not many are able to follow a family trade and be apprenticed into it. Learning is complex and its content dynamic. Being able to learn effectively is as much a requirement as knowing a lot of static information and having specific skills. This-day demands flexible learners with adaptable skills.
But without a purpose so many drift and work is not a blessing. We live in probably the most materially blessed times there have been but we are the unhappiest of nations with deep anxiety, drug abuse and poor sexual health. Many of our young people are really just drifting and this is not because of a lack of schooling.
Proverbs says that in times of need we need to tend to our flocks because they feed from the grass of the hills and provide us with clothing for our backs, meat and milk. In other words get back to basics. The church thrives when it gets back to the basics of serving the needs of its local flock and should look at schooling.
Scripture says that if you don’t work you shouldn’t expect to eat and that work is good as it keeps our hands from evil and provides for the poor. It is a shameful thing if we do no provide for our families and we are encouraged to look after the interest of our own families and those around us rather than expect the church to look after them or depend on the state.
These basic purposes are built on the bedrock of a Christian world view; we believe we are created by God and loved by him; we know our nature is fallen, and we reject that love by sinning. Our faith is that meaning and purpose in our lives is only to be found in redemption from sin through Christ. In Christ we are able to realise the joy of being loved by God and live the lives he has called us to. This for me is my mandate as a parent and as the head teacher of a school.
A Christian world view is foundational to giving the purpose behind learning. And where this purposeful education is lacking we find problems. We are not talking here of religion or Biblicism we are talking about teaching firmly embedded in the mission of the church to reach the lost and serve the poor. A Christ like school is at its heart a school that reaches out to serve the community; it is the focus of a ripple of blessing. The impact of each lesson should first be that the student is blessed, those around them and then the community they are part of. In this way the Kingdom of God is established in hearts.
It’s not about character programmes, it is not about bible teaching; it is about encountering God in what is being taught. How does this happen? Well we are no better than those who teach us, says Jesus. He also tells us that the Kingdom of God is inside us and if we cleanse the inside then the outside will be made holy.
Christ like education is an education with the expectation that Christ will be established in the hearts of the learners and is achieved as the teachers seek to establish Christ in their own hearts. A Christ like school is one that employs teachers who are clearly walking with God, in the church, serving the poor and grounded in prayer and the Bible; does not overstretch its teachers and recognises that God works so that he might rest with his people and so takes care that the teachers are rewarded and rested, and does not forget the poor in everything it does. Most schools by this definition are a work in progress and always will be. In fact even the most secular of schools can be viewed as somewhere on this journey and God blesses them too.
I am not saying that the church in the UK should be exclusively opening such schools but I do not believe it should be doing nothing. Parents should be choosing their schools on the basis of who is teaching and leading as much as what is being taught. Churches should be providing and training school governors, lunch time assistants, support assistants, library assistants, caretakers, cleaners, teachers and school leaders. Churches should be training up and celebrating those able to go into schools to demonstrate and support Christian values.
And so there may not be the need in your area to open a school because the poor are ill served; there may not be the need to open a school because opportunities are being denied those of faith; there may not be a need to open a school because what is being taught attacks your faith. But is what you are choosing not to do honouring to God, reaching the lost and caring for the poor?
Maybe as Christians we should collectively move into areas of poor educational provision, encouraging gifted people into key positions of influence. We might consider opening good schools in areas of deprivation in the UK as well as abroad. We should be training leaders schooled in a Christian World View and guiding our best into positions of influence. The world has done this with the Teaching First Programme with respect to academic achievement. Should we be providing a Christian equivalent and be steering our gifted young people into a time in education?
We are not the church if we do nothing.