Diocese of Liverpool
Education Conference 2016
Keynote speech: Fr Richard Peers
An atheist was walking through the woods. ‘What majestic trees!’ ‘What powerful rivers!’ ‘What beautiful animals,’ he said to himself. As he was walking alongside the river, he heard a loud rustling in the bushes behind him. He turned to look, and he saw a 7 foot grizzly bear charging towards him. He ran as fast as he could up the path. He looked over his shoulder & saw that the bear was closing in on him. He kept running hard. He looked over his shoulder again, & the bear was even closer. He tripped & fell on the ground. He rolled over to pick himself up but saw that the bear was right on top of him, reaching for him with his left paw & raising his right paw to strike him. At that instant the Atheist cried out, ‘Oh my God! Help me.’ Time Stopped. The bear froze. The forest was silent. As a bright light shone upon the fallen man, a voice came thundering out of the sky. ‘You deny my existence for all these years, teach others I don’t exist and even credit creation to cosmic accident.’ ‘Do you really expect me to help you out of this predicament? ‘Or, am I to count you as a believer?’ The atheist looked directly into the light & said, ‘It would be hypocritical of me to suddenly ask you to treat me as a Christian now, but perhaps you could make the Bear a Christian?’ ‘Very Well,’ said the voice. The light went out. The sounds of the forest resumed. And the bear dropped his right paw, brought both paws together, bowed his head & spoke: ‘Lord for what I am about to receive ….’
I love that story and tell it often.
For me it sums up something profound about our church schools. We are not faith schools, we are church schools providing Christian education for the whole community – atheists and believers of our own faith or others, alike.
More significantly I think the punch line of the joke requires knowing the words of the traditional grace; I never have to get further than “Lord, for what I am about to receive …”
As church schools that is what we want for every child in our schools, to be familiar with, to know deeply Christian culture and tradition.
Earlier this year the Church of England Education Office published a new vision document,
Called Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good, the title reflects the priorities of our diocese expressed in the phrase Bigger Church, Bigger Difference.
Most of us are in education because we want to make a difference. We are enraged by the injustice of the world and want to change it. We recognise that alone we can’t change the world but that together we can because Jesus has already won the victory over everything that stifles life; that saps creativity and that restricts and binds our living.
Alomgside the new vision document – which I hope you will take time to read and share with your Governors and staff; together with the staff of RE Today, the Education Office has produced a new programme of study for RE. Understanding Christianity seeks to match the new demands in other areas of the curriculum. David Thorpe who you all know as part of our Education Team at St James’ House, is working with others in the north-west to map and enhance the existing RE scheme of work to ensure that Understanding Christianity is delivered here too.
The third element of the national picture I hope you will take account of is the Education Office’s Church of England Foundation for Education Leadership. Here in Liverpool we are fortunate to be part of a north-west region pilot project for both school to school support and the launch of the Church of England Professional Qualification for Headship, if you or colleagues are interested please apply ready for a January start. There is also a year long programme of preparation for the to be Chief Executive Officer of a Multi-Academy Trust.
It is a rather frightening (for me) 33 years since I began training as a teacher. The year I started work as a Reception teacher, 1988, the first National Curriculum was published in a series of ring binders, one for each subject – I am sure I can’t be the only person here who remembers those.
I taught every age in the Primary phase and became a Primary Deputy, moving to Secondary as part of a transition project and eventually becoming a Secondary Deputy Head. I inspected schools across the country for two years under the SIAMS framework, did two school chaplaincies and have spent the last seven years as Head, latterly Executive Head, of a Secondary school in Lewisham, in south-east London, a school which in the seven years we re-built, re-named and re-branded and extended to become an All Through School.
Since I was appointed Director of Education lots of people have asked me what the job means, what am I going to do. The two liner I have come up with is: keeping the family of schools together and making sure they are really good.
As one of the children at my school in Lewisham said. “Oh, you mean like an aunty.”
In the last four weeks I have driven 1341 miles as part of my job. Thank you for those of you who have welcomed me and made me feel at home. I’m going to give you my initial thoughts in the form of a SWOT analysis, but I am going to change the order, strengths, weaknesses, threats and end with opportunities. Because if I have key message today it is that if we are going to be Bigger Church – deeply Christian, if we are going to make a bigger difference – serving the common good, we have to seize the moment; grab the opportunities that are presented to us and plan strategically for our future together.
First and foremost tremendous good will. I have not found anything other than warmth and a sense of positivity about belonging to this family of schools. That is a huge tribute to my predecessor and the team at St James House.
Alongside that is the sheer quality of our schools, over 90% Good or Outstanding. Everywhere I have been I have seen excellent practice in classrooms, and he enthusiasm from children to tell me about their learning.
Geography. This is both a strength and a weakness. But we have to acknowledge the huge differences in the diocese. Wigan is not Southport and Ormskirk is not Warrington. I have visited schools with huge ethnic diversity and schools with none.
Strategic thinking: academisation is not going to go away. There is simply no way that this Government is going to do a reverse turn and start funding Local Authorities again for school improvement and all the other functions of the past. The detail may change but the agenda and the direction of travel is clear. There hasn’t been enough strategic thinking about what the diocesan family of schools will look like in 10, 20, 30 and even 50 years’ time. This is as important a time of change as the 1870 or the 1944 Education Acts. In 2066 our successors will be referring to what we did to create the education structures they have inherited.
The team at St James House are amazing. I am loving working with them. But we are stretched very thinly. We have very limited capacity to improve schools. Even if slightly less than one in ten of our schools is in need of improvement that is still over 3000 children not getting the best education we can provide.
There is a real danger in the academisation process that the family of schools will not hold together.
There are also major threats in the changes that approach us:
Actually having seen the quality of hat is offered in our schools I have little doubt that curriculum and assessment changes in all key stages will be met brilliantly, but we have to acknowledgement the depth of the change. What happens in our classrooms will be different; the pitch is high, demanding every greater pace of learning. But the sheer volume of content and the need for memorisation take sus to a different place.
The threat that will be hardest to meet is financial. Schools across the country are already in deficit or forecasting deficits. Many schools are eating into reserves.
The fair funding formula when it comes will probably benefit many schools in the north west, but the reality of the economic situation through Brexit is that there are not going to be any increases in funding to match the increases in costs.
Our schools are in demand, parents want to send their children to church schools. They want their children to recognise, as in the joke, the words of the grace.
But our provision is patchy there are areas even with 110 Primary schools where there is no Primary provision. With only 9 secondaries there are huge swathes of the diocese without church secondary provision.
The Church of England’s national Education Office has called for us to expand our provision and particularly in the secondary phase. The time lines are short. The next fully funded wave of applications for new schools (slightly incorrectly labelled free schools) is due in by March; further funding is available for September 2017. After that we don’t know.
I would also ask us to think about all through schools. As both a primary and secondary practitioner I know that for the whole of my career we have been talking about the problems of transition at age 11. The simplest solution is to remove that transition. All through schools seem to me to be profoundly Christian, following the pattern of the Christian family who raise a child from birth to adulthood.
Technology provides us with opportunities to overcome the geographical problems. Social media is unfortunately named. Today we are launching our Board of Education Twitter account @LivDioceseEd
If we can get every school to follow that and be tweeting by the end of the year we will build up a huge store of knowledge and relationships and interconnectivity.
There were two superb conferences in our schools last week, at Hope Academy in Newton on school improvement and at The District school, also in St Helens, on reading. Just reading their tweets would have linked you to some of the best practice available.
I also hope that we will develop our use of either a blog or other means of communicating other than the large envelope of materials that comes to you. I know that as a Head my PA had the bin next to her when she went through the mail and that I did when I went through the already willowed pile.
School to school improvement is the way ahead. Already in the first month we have been able to broker effective partnerships between our schools.
What is the strategic way ahead for our schools?
Today we are launching the final phase of our consultation on academisation. It is an online process.
If the Board of Education is to be strategic, as I believe we should be, we need knowledge. We have two months, October and November in which we will collect through Survey Monkey information about where you are in the process. We have some excellent models of early adopters. Great academies in our family of schools. Whether your school has already had discussions or whether you have a detailed plan we need to know.
The Board is not going to force any school to follow any particular route but we would like your view on offering something we haven’t discussed before. Whatever we end up with will be a mixed economy. We are asking if you would be interested in us adding to the pattern of small multi-academy trusts across the diocese three middle tier, fully diocesan trusts, probably, as emerged in the earlier stages of consultation based on geographical areas and probably looking at being 5000 learners and more. If you saw last week’s TES this was seen as the financially optimal size for MATs.
These trusts would allow us to develop our school improvement functions and much greater flexibility in moving, if needed schools between trusts.
We must ensure that our trusts are not ‘intensive-care’ trusts. I am asking those of you, and that is the vast majority of you, who are in Good and Outstanding schools to consider entry into these trusts. I believe that the proportion of Good and Outstanding to RI or SM schools in a trust needs to be at least three to one, that is learners not institutions, if the capacity to improve is to be sustained.
By the end of November I hope that we will have a picture of what every school in the diocese is thinking about and if there is sufficient interest in diocesan MATs. If the Board approves that at its meeting on December 14th by the end of this academic year that is by July 2017 I hope that we will have a strategic plan, a map of what we expect the route for our schools to be. It will, I believe, be a mixture of small local, and larger middle tier sized trusts. The time scales will probably be 5-10 years but that will depend on the political and economic landscape.
If you visit me at St James House, you’ll see these two pictures in my office, two black, American writers who I first read in my late teens and who have remained hugely influential on me, James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. I’ve brought them today because this is Black History Month; I know that many of our schools are doing great work on this and it would be great to showcase this on Twitter. Difference and diversity are part of our Anglican, our Church of England, DNA; it is also what we believe as Christians about the nature of God, within the Trinity there is difference between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Whether it’s Black History Month in October, LGBT History Month in February, the history of glass making in St Helens or asparagus growing in Formby. Or whether it is a mix of diocesan trusts and small local multi academy trusts I hope that we will embrace and celebrate that difference in our family of schools.
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive;
And to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour and some style.”
“Fires can’t be made with dead embers, nor can enthusiasm be stirred by spiritless people. Enthusiasm in our daily work lightens effort and turns even labour into pleasant tasks.”
Colleagues, new friends, thank you for your enthusiasm, thank you for the passion, compassion and humour you bring to your work with children, and thank you for your style.