Page 10, 6th June 2008

6th June 2008
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Page 10, 6th June 2008 — Are joint faith schools the future?

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Are joint faith schools the future?

The number of Anglican-Catholic schools has risen sharply since 2005. Mark Greaves finds out why

There is a school in Liverpool where prayer is done through Powerpoint presentation. Each morning pupils sit in their tutor groups and watch as words and images flash up on a screen. It is all written and prepared by the school chaplain, who takes his inspiration from events in the calendar such as Mother's Day or Christian Unity week.

The images can be of anything — sunsets or flowers or people running on a beach — and the musical accompaniment varies from Taize choral singing and Gregorian chant to Bryan Adams and the Beatles, Afterwards the children take a few moments to sit in silence. No prayer is usually recited; instead pupils are encouraged to reflect on the theme and "to place themselves in God's presence. They generally finish by reading a prayer based on the presentation.

This unusual morning ritual is not the only innovation at the Academy of St Francis of Assisi. For a start, it's a joint Anglican and Catholic school. The principal is Catholic, the vice-principal is Anglican; the board of governors is chaired by both a Catholic priest and the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool.

The Eucharist is never celebrated: to do so, it was felt. would be divisive, because only half of the school would be allowed to participate. In fact, most of the prayer — both in class and in the weekly assemblies — is done in silence. The lay chaplain, Martin Curley, says the prayer is focused but "left open to interpretation".

`That's part of having a joint school — the kids are coming to that common prayer from different places and, whatever way they can feel comfortable and whatever way they can express themselves, that's best for them,he explains.

According to headteacher Jim Burke. the daily Powerpoint prayer has made a fantastic difference to the school and is popular among pupils and teachers. He points out that a visiting adviser from the Anglican education body said it was the only school out of 20 in the area where all the children said they had collective worship every day.

The academy, which was opened by Tony Blair and was mentioned in his final speech, has been hailed as a massive success story. In its first year it was the top school in England and Wales for "value added" — which means that its pupils improved more than in any other school. And Mr Burke says the foundation of its success is undoubtedly its strong Christian ethos.

Anglican-Catholic schools are not an entirely new phenomenon: the first one opened in the late 1970s. But their number has grown rapidly over the last few years. Since 2005 AnglicanCatholic schools have opened in Liverpool. Sheffield, Gloucester, Derbyshire and Wales. There are now 15 joint schools in total, and three more are expected to open in Liverpool, Manchester and Runcorn.

One reason for this sudden growth is that there are, in general, fewer children to educate. In some areas there are simply not enough Catholic pupils to justify a separate Catholic school, and a joint school is therefore the only way of preserving faith education.

But there is a more important factor to consider: the Church of England's ambitions to expand its presence in education. Every one of the joint secondary schools that has opened since 2005 was originally proposed either by the Anglican diocese or the Anglican bishop. The Academy of St Francis of Assisi was first suggested by the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, while both St Joseph's in Wrexham and Christ College in Gloucester were set up because the Anglican diocese had primary schools in the area and wanted to extend into secondary education.

The Church of England's plan to increase the number of secondary schools and academies is outlined clearly in the 2001 Dearing report. More recently a spokesman said the Church of England was "constantly seeking opportunities for further joint projects wherever local circumstances make this a realistic possibility".

That enthusiasm is not matched in the Catholic sector. A statement from the Catholic Education Service said it was "pleased" at the number of joint faith schools in England and Wales, but added: "It is still the preference of the bishops in England and Wales that, where possible, Catholic families... are able to choose schools with a distinctly Catholic ethos."

Some Catholics have protested against the opening of joint schools in their area, especially when they are to replace Catholic schools which have served the community for decades. Robert Williams, a teacher, was described as "narrowminded" and "a bigot" in the local press when he lodged an objection to plans for a joint school in Wrexham. He and other concerned Catholics, including millionaire hedge-fund manager John Gunn, bought a fullpage advertisement in The Catholic Herald to protest against the plan. Their objection held up the process for almost a year, but was eventually overruled by the Welsh Assembly.

Mr Williams's main worry was joint religious education: the pupils would be taught Anglicanism and Catholicism as if they were equally valid aspects of Christianity. "We believe that Catholicism has a unique message to the world and it can't be mixed," he says. "We believe that Rome would not approve joint Anglican and Catholic RE. It is like entering into a marriage which will turn out to be a disaster."

Daphne McLeod, head of the orthodox Catholic group Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, agrees that the joint teaching of RE is unacceptable. Her recent publication, Will Your Grandchildren Be Catholic? criticises the current state of Catholic education in England and Wales because it systematically fails to instruct children in the truths of the faith. Joint RE is a step entirely in the wrong direction. She argues that an Anglican teacher — who could well be a female vicar — cannot be expected to teach "about the one true Church. or that Jesus is the head of the Church, or that contraception is wrong". She adds: "If she does teach about contraception she will say it is fine for the Anglican children, but for the Catholic children it is wrong. What kind of message does that send out?"

Serena McCloskey, the head of religious education at the Academy of St Francis of Assisi, says little to assuage these fears. Unlike in some Catholic school, she says, RE teachers do not tead to use the Catechism; instead they focus more on genera] moral issues. It is not about the specific details of doctrine, she says, but rather about encouraging the children to live out the Gospel in their everyday lives. This means that the lessons do not distinguish between different Christian beliefs unless it is required by the syllabus. "There's no clear distinction . between what the Anglican children and Catholic children are going to be taught," she says. "It's just ecumenical, it's all together, and we're trying to fuse the two so there's no clear distinction."

Miss McCloskey believes that RE is absolutely fundamental both to the lives of the kids and the atmosphere of the school. "It's the core," she says. "It impinges on every other subject and Vee use every other subject to teach it. It impinges on the whole school life from the moment you walk through the front door." The caring atmosphere of the school, she says, is one reason for its academic success: it acts like a "security blanket" on the pupils and makes them feel safe.

The school chaplain Mr Curley agrees that the school should focus on what Anglicans and Catholics have in common. "If people come in wanting to do a test on certain distinctive Catholic beliefs then they may be disappointed," he says. "But I would challenge anyone to come to this school and not see the Gospel message being lived out."

Clearly, though, each Anglican-Catholic school has its own approach to the situation. Christ College in Gloucester opened last September after an ecumenical working party spent five years considering exactly how the school should function. Teresa Gilpin, the headteacher, stressed that it was important "not to fudge the issues". "We wanted the school to be truly Church of England and truly Catholic. The advice from other [joint] schools was that if you fudge the issues it doesn't work."

She explains that when one year group was studying the Eucharist a priest came in to prepare and celebrate it in school — and a vicar also did an Anglican service. "We made it clear when it was appropriate to receive and not to receive," she says.

When I visit the Academy of St Francis of Assisi before Easter the Way of the Cross is laid out in the chapel. Quite often, it seems, pupils ask their teachers for permission to spend time there; they can pray, reflect quietly or even draw pictures. There is a stereo in the corner to play calming music and sofachairs to relax on.

At one place in the room pieces of paper are left at a Cross; on each bit of paper children have been asked to write down the hurtful things that they have done. One child has written: "Not seeing my Dad." It is the sincerity of the message that's touching — a sincerity that's shared by the other messages I read. They are genuinely contrite and free of the usual teenage cynicism.

The academy clearly fails to teach the Catholic faith in the way set out by some campaigners. That doesn't seem to be its main purpose. Yet it nevertheless manages to engage the children with the story of Christ and make them think about how they live their lives. A school which could combine that with instruction in the Faith would be a model for Catholic education anywhere.

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