Ross Playle considers the importance of Church Schools to our national life

At the start of June I undertook two weeks’ classroom experience at St Stephen’s CofE Primary School, in Lewisham, South London. Having never made any past observations in a church school I had only stereotypes and my own imagination to go on. What could I expect to find? Pushy parents from outside the catchment area? An institute churning out nuns and priests? Staff who had been in dog collars from birth? Fortunately, what I discovered was very different. On my first day, feeling a bit like Gareth Malone, filled with excitement for the adventure that lay ahead lighting candles provided an opportunity for pupils – regardless of age or religion – to share in the school’s values of kindness and respect, to name just a couple. These values were often openly discussed, and it was good to see the children engaged with them and putting them into practice throughout the school day. A parent of any or no faith, I believe, would appreciate these Christian values installed in their children: an example of how schools do more than just teach times tables.

You don’t have to spend too much time in a school before you get a good understanding of how it admittedly with a slight sense oftrepidation of what exactly I would find – I entered a very modern and vibrant environment in which from first glance it seemed that there would never be a dull moment.

St Stephen’s single-class-per-year formation might suggest that there is no interaction between the 5-year-old reception-class pupils and the 11-year-olds in their final year; however, possibly my most interesting observations made each day were at the school assemblies. These brought every pupil and teacher together for a short time to share in the Word of God with one another: singing songs, re-enacting Bible stories, and operates and, more importantly, who operates it. It became clear very quickly how dedicated every member of staff was to the school and to all its pupils. Although this would be expected of any school, St Stephen’s staff demonstrated a real conviction – driven by their own personal faith – to ensure that every child achieved his or her very best, as well as creating a safe environment in which the children could develop physically, mentally, and spiritually.

In return, the children had respect for every member of staff: they regularly praised and thanked the teachers of St Stephen’s for their efforts. Being in the London borough of Lewisham, the school has large numbers of first- and second-generation migrants, and an average of 75% pupils of ethnic minority can make even an experienced teacher worry about the delivery of a British educational system to a student with little or no English. However, St Stephen’s is able to break down both social and linguistic barriers to help all children achieve: one pupil I was told about arrived at the school with absolutely no English, but now, less than three years later, she is excelling beyond the national average for speaking and writing for her age; and the school is able to boast many other similar success stories.

It’s important not to forget that in the past education was delivered primarily by churches and other religious institutions; often to students who could not afford to pay for schooling. This is a historical fact that, as Christians, we should be proud of. When certain groups and media outlets criticize the part played by the Church in our education system, we can be proud of the fact that the Church was the first institution to offer free education to working-class children long before the state did.

My experiences at St Stephen’s opened my eyes to institutions that are delivering social change every day to children: schools that continue to deliver a first-class education to children who need it the most. Children who are unlikely to attend high-performing independent schools can still access a high standard of teaching in CofE schools. St Stephen’s and many other CofE schools across the country have been attaining this standard for years; and to me that’s a school report which we should be shouting about! ND