Last night we had the pleasure of hosting a gathering here at Bennett of heads and governors from a range of other Church of England schools in this part of the Rochester diocese, and it was wonderful that the new Bishop, James Langstaff, was able to join us to open the meeting. The purpose of it was to share thinking about the future of Church of England education, both primary and secondary, in the diocese, particularly in the light of the rapidly changing context both nationally and locally. One particular aspect of this is the very fast reduction in size of the local authorities, from which Kent is certainly far from immune. This leaves a feeling of insecurity for many in Church schools, especially primary schools, who have spent their entire working lives in a culture where the local authority was seen as a supporting partner in education. It is rapidly becoming clear that the role local authorities are going to be able to play in the years ahead will be much reduced.
One of the positive things which emerged from the discussion is that this presents a huge opportunity for Church schools: there is the possibility of them working much more closely together in Church school partnerships, sharing ideas and expertise, sharing solutions to problems, and fostering the ethos more effectively than ever. This is already beginning to happen; we just need to find a way to accelerate and co-ordinate this process. We were reminded that the Church’s involvement in education goes back several centuries, and that from the 19th century the prime purpose of education was to serve the needs of the poor. The kind of physical poverty experienced by our ancestors 200 years ago may no longer exist in this country in the same way. However, there is a genuine need for the Church to be present in education to help alleviate a different kind of poverty which afflicts our society, and the evidence for which we see all around us, and certainly every time we listen to the news, a poverty of belief, and self-belief, of identity and of purpose. That is the new challenge for Church education in our country, and we will certainly have to find new ways to meet these challenges in fast changing circumstances.
Bureaucracy is in the news a lot at the moment. The new government has a crusading approach to it: all bureaucracy is deemed pointless, time wasting and likely to prevent you from doing your job. We are told that schools will experience a drastic reduction in bureaucracy so teachers can ‘get on with their job’, and yesterday we were told that social workers are doing too much bureaucracy and ‘box ticking’ (Professor Eileen Munro) such that they cannot get on with helping their clients, some of whom are facing huge difficulties. The very term ‘bureaucracy’ is heavily loaded with negative connotations.
It’s probably worth stopping to think before jumping on this particular bandwagon. Certainly, there is a natural tendency to solve successive problems which arise by adding a further tasks, checks or responsibilities to what we do. We see examples of this everywhere: the notorious Soham murders, for example, led to the criminal records checking regime we now have, because a mistake was made in that case which led to appalling consequences. It is right that we periodically review the work we do, which grows with time as successive issues need to be addressed, and work out what is and is not still important. But to say that there should be no bureaucracy in jobs such as teaching or social work is completely disingenuous. Teachers need to keep records, they need to be able to track progress, they need to be able to report on it, they need to be aware of a wide range of individual issues, they need to be aware of important school policies. If all of that were to be ditched, we would be putting education back into the 19th century. We tend to look at the past through rose tinted spectacles, but actually in the 19th century vast numbers of children got very poor education, or none at all, and the society they were being prepared for was a far simpler one than the world of the 21st century.
We need to concentrate on ensuring that administrative tasks and record keeping are always purposeful, but let’s stop talking about eliminating them all together, and be honest about the complexity of the modern world and the need to respond to its many challenges.