Faith in Further Education?

Comments on the draft bill before the House of Lords, December 13 2006
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, there are, as we have heard, several potentially controversial aspects of this Bill, to put it mildly, but I will focus mainly on an important lacuna. We in the Church of England and the other Christian churches, are excited about this Bill and its prospect of wise and creative developments in the world of further education. We welcome the Bill’s raising of the status of FE colleges and of giving them a certain freedom to respond to local demand. The skills agenda will be important in doubling the number of apprentices. We in the north-east of England have a long tradition of apprenticeship, but people often now complain that it has been eroded. I hope that this Bill will not only increase employer training, but insist on it.

I also hope that the Bill will be strengthened in relation to the encouragement of people with learning difficulties. That affects me personally through a close family member, who battles with epilepsy-related difficulties, and who is right now holding on gamely to the rung on the ladder somewhere between FE and HE, and doing so splendidly. I hope that the proposed radical structural changes will not get in the way of implementing the LSC’s report, ‘Through Inclusion to Excellence’. I endorse the hope expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Low, just now, that the Government will, in due course, publish the relevant disability equality impact assessment and make it clear that those with learning difficulties, for whom FE is a lifeline, will not be disadvantaged by the effects of this Bill. A similar urgent point must be made concerning English language courses for asylum seekers and their children, of whom we in Durham have a fair share. I refer to the Children’s Society’s work in that area.

Looking wider and coming towards my main point, I want to highlight the church’s own experience in fostering education, not least among young adults. In my own diocese, that is well known. Bishops Cosin in the 17th century and Barrington in the 18th century were great educationalists and school builders. Van Mildert, the last of the Prince Bishops, used his townhouse, the castle in Durham, as the beginning of Durham University. I declare an interest as the visitor currently of that university.

Likewise, the first FE college, the Working Men’s College in Camden, which is still going strong, was founded in 1854 by two great churchmen—FD Maurice and Charles Kingsley. Several creative educational partnerships between church and wider society were formed in that period, and you do not make a tree more fruitful by cutting off its roots.

With this experience and memory, we in the church have sought to work with the FE sector in a whole raft of ways. Noble Lords may have seen our report, ‘Pushing Further’, which was debated in General Synod last February, and the joint Anglican Methodist publication on approaches to spiritual and moral development in further education. There are several other exciting current initiatives such as the DfES-funded review of spiritual, moral, social and cultural issues—SMSC—in colleges, and we are enthusiastic about the new project, ‘All Faiths and None’, funded jointly by the church and the LSC, which will develop pilot materials over the next two years for spiritual and moral development within colleges in partnership with humanist colleagues as well as other religious bodies.

In the light of this history and current work, I note that several people working today in FE are aware of a gap that needs to be filled. In last year’s LSC publication, ‘Faiths and Further Education’, the chair of the working group, Ruth Silver, noted in the preface that those working in FE know that they are doing,

“more than preparing people for employment and employability”.

They have a wider and deeper duty,

“to help … students and staff to develop a sense of well-being”,

as the foundation of the personal and emotional resilience they need for work and life in general.

This whole aspect of education is hard to define and easy to miss out when you are listing elements of classroom curriculum. When I was a school governor in a previous job, the inspectors one year said, in effect, “Great school, pity there’s no spirituality”. That precipitated a lively discussion between those of us who strongly agreed and those, including the head teacher, who claimed not to know what was being talked about. That is a symptom of a malaise. Our local LSC in the north-east admitted that there seemed to be a gap in its understanding of the link between faith and education and it has agreed to contribute more than £40,000 to research the whole area of spiritual and moral education among young people in the north-east. That will be approached on a fully interfaith basis, but the Church of England is perceived locally as a good lead partner because of our distinctive but inclusive approach to involvement in schools.

Many people today, not least young people, are a bit fed up with one-dimensional secularism and eager to explore the multiple dimensions of justice, spirituality, relationships and beauty—the SMSC agenda, in fact. We in the north-east—I was interested to hear what my neighbour, the noble Lord, Lord Sawyer, said about work in that same region—have seen young people enthusiastically embracing this larger agenda in local projects such as last summer’s splendid NE1 initiative. The notion of holistic well-being, with its irreducible religious dimension, was recently highlighted in the important report from the Theos institute, entitled ‘Doing God’: A Future for Faith in the Public Square—a reference to something that was said in Downing Street a while ago. Although that document ranges far more widely than education, it is very pertinent to our concerns here today.

In that context we are concerned to strengthen this Bill. As our local north-east FE providers have agreed, more needs to be done to understand what different faith groups require in relation to prayer, diet and so on. Dealing with these on a needs-led basis does not get to the heart of the problem. We would be delighted to think that this Bill might go some way towards bringing colleges into line with schools in this respect and, if necessary, with some additional resources. One of our local principals said that he supported the whole faith and SMSC agenda, but that it would need fresh funding. Fair enough. But that is only the beginning.

Specific vocational skills are not the only ones that young people need to help them to take their full place in the workforce and society and engage in public life. This is particularly relevant today, when to most people’s surprise, questions of religious belief, lifestyle and even dress style have been high on the public agenda. You cannot banish religious questions to the sidelines as though they were fit only for consenting adults in private. To face tomorrow’s world, today’s young people need a well-rounded wisdom which answers, not to the flatland fantasies of the secularist, but to the deep, multi-layered quest for an integration of proper and scientific study and skills with a supple spirituality which will infuse and permeate the whole. When people are not encouraged to explore these aspects of life in healthy and creative forms, they go looking for them in ridiculous and unhealthy places; hence the massive popularity of The Da Vinci Code. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, these are conversations that we need to have, as it were, “above ground”, rather than pretending they do not exist or do not matter and thereby handing a victory to the extremists with their campaigns and propaganda. Neither secularism nor fundamentalism, in other words, will help. We urgently need, today more than ever, to educate people into an informed understanding of religions and how they work, rather than avoiding the issue and colluding with a split-level world and the horrors that come in to fill the vacuum.

We in the churches in the north-east have increasingly realised that our involvement in FE does not just mean the provision of chaplaincy in the traditional senses, but the infusion of faith and SMSC issues into the curriculum at several levels, as indeed seems to be envisaged by the recent White Paper. There should be a duty to provide this. As I suspect that it was basically an historical accident that this element has been omitted, I very much hope that the Government will be happy to rectify matters.

The Bill offers an unparalleled opportunity for partnership not only in vocational education provision but also in the pastoral and citizenship areas. Faith communities, alongside representatives of all other points of view, are important potential partners in the equipping of young people to take a wise and informed place in public life. We in the churches look forward to bringing our history, experience, existing strategies and lively contacts into partnership both with the Government as they work on the current proposals and with local authorities as they implement them in due course.