Bishop Rachel speaks in the House of Lords in a debate led by the Archbishop of Canterbury of the role of education in building a flourishing and skilled society.
I too thank the most reverend Primate for bringing forward today’s debate, and indeed for naming the recently established Church of England Foundation for Educational Leadership, of which I am privileged to be a trustee.
In my own diocese, I am delighted that we have 116 Church of England schools—not single-faith schools but centres of community cohesion in urban and rural areas, committed to offering each child the opportunity to discover life in all its fullness, as spoken about by Jesus Christ. The Church of England’s vision for education highlights the ideas of wisdom, hope, dignity and community, and we aim to make our schools places where fulfilling academic potential is not separated from our children’s spiritual, physical, emotional, moral and social development.
In the brief time I have, I would like to focus on three areas crucial to children and young people flourishing and thriving in education. First, preparation: in 94 local authorities—almost a third of the country—less than half of all disadvantaged five year-olds are developmentally ready for school. As has already been said, early intervention has a marked impact on children’s life prospects, and without help and support we cannot expect children to show up at school “ready to go”. Churches and faith groups across the country do a tremendous job in running parent and toddler groups and programmes which support very young children and their parents. However, partnership and collaboration with local and central government is required. More than 400 children’s centres have closed since 2010, and the life chances strategy promised by the previous Prime Minister was dropped in December 2016. Surely a vision for giving children the best possible start in life is a necessity.
Secondly, we must remove barriers to children’s flourishing. As has already been mentioned, there are many, but let me underline just a few, of which the first is poverty. In 2015, the Children’s Society facilitated a youth-led Children’s Commission on Poverty. Since the publication of its report there has been work with Church of England schools to poverty-proof the school week. This includes things such as ensuring that school uniforms are affordable, that school trips are accessible to all, and that there is no stigma attached to claiming a free school meal. Then there is the need to remove barriers to flourishing for children with physical and learning disabilities, not least when it comes to further education and moving into adulthood. In Gloucestershire, we are fortunate to have the National Star College for young adults with complex disabilities and learning difficulties. But to access such support you now need an education, health and care plan. In 2016, local authorities turned down nearly 15,000 requests for such a plan. Last year, the National Star College supported 11 students who went to tribunal to obtain funding; 10 claims were settled just before the hearings were held and often months after the beginning of the academic year. The parents of those young people had stamina and a good education, but what about the others?
A number of noble Lords have already spoken about barriers due to mental health and I endorse all that has been said. I also endorse what has been said about school exclusion. We know that children excluded from school are 10 times more likely to suffer recognised mental health problems. Only 1% of excluded children get five good GCSEs, and the number of children permanently excluded has risen 40% in the last three years. In my own diocese, Gloucestershire has the highest rate of school exclusion in the south-west. We need to find effective mechanisms to help disadvantaged children stay and thrive in school.
As part of that, we need our schools to be trauma-informed. There is not time now to go into the details of adverse childhood experiences—ACEs—10 traumatic events which can occur before the age of 18. But focusing on ACEs and working with a child’s story about what has happened to them, rather than with the presenting behaviour, has been shown to be effective in bringing about positive change. I would like to see this approach encouraged and supported by local and central government. Again, it is about those values of dignity and hope.
Finally, I will say something about relationship, which is core to what it means for us to be human and made in the image of God. My ongoing visits to schools remind me that we have much to do to ensure that education not only recognises and affirms the dignity and value of each child and young person, but enables them to appreciate and value each other, including those who are different from themselves. In the past two weeks I have visited a primary school, a secondary school and a college, where I have engaged in conversation with children and young people about body image and not taking our value from physical appearance, which is so often promoted by social media. Those conversations with young people have led to conversations about what they value in each other—which is more than simply pressing a “like” on a social media platform. The response in those young people has been rewarding and poignant, as they have affirmed one another in who they are and how they are different from one another.
Our places of education shape and reflect the society we live in. For children to flourish as adults, they must be enabled to flourish in their education. By investing in early years, including the disadvantaged and building communities of good relationship in our schools, colleges and universities, we can use education to shape a flourishing society.