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What’s the First Goal of Education?

What’s the First Goal of Education?

If you stopped someone in the street today and asked them, “What’s the first goal of education”, what do you think they would say?

It will be a surprise to many to learn the ‘official’ answer, according to the English National Curriculum and the Education Act 2002, is the ‘spiritual…development of pupils…and of society’.

Yes, listed before moral, cultural, mental and physical growth, the first purpose of an educational curriculum according to the Government is ‘spiritual…development’.

This idea, that every school should foster spiritual growth, has deep historical roots. The choice and order of words in the current national curriculum and legislation is taken (almost exactly) from the 1944 Education Act, which described the purpose of schooling as a contribution ‘towards the spiritual, moral, mental, and physical development of the community’ (s7). The only new term is ‘cultural’.

If we continue our journey further back, we can see the integral role the Christian Church played in the formation of the contemporary school system we largely take for granted today. It is worth noting at this point that no schools grow out of the ground. There is nothing natural or organic about a school. For most of human history, the vast majority of people never attended anything that we would recognise as a formal school.

After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the schools we know of in Britain were few and far between, probably informal and linked to monasteries, cathedrals and royal courts. Generally, literacy levels were low but priests and monks were supposed to be able to read and understand Latin to conduct services and study and teach the Christian faith.

In medieval England and France, a new development in the Church led to an unintentional expansion of schools and gave England its first boost on the way to educational leadership. Just before the turn of the first millennium, a practice known as ‘chantry’ took off. Monks offered to pray and offer Masses (i.e. chant) for the souls of deceased. Seeing an opportunity, royals and other wealthy people left money in their wills to pay for chapels and priests to pray for them after they died. These chantry priests had very light duties and in their spare time, as people who could read and write, they often began teaching local children. Informal chantry schools were very popular, as they offered some education to the children of families who were not wealthy and could not afford a private tutor.

In the 16th century, during the English Reformation, all chantries were legally abolished but a cultural custom had been established: that it was an inherently virtuous use of wealth to donate money for education. People of landed wealth and merchants who had made money in London left money in their wills to maintain hundreds of ‘grammar’ schools, many of which still exist today.

Grammar schools were only for boys and the curriculum was primarily reading, translating and learning Latin but as a result England had a comparatively widespread provision of formal schools for families who did not have substantial wealth. Boys such as William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton would enter grammar school at six or seven and by twelve read advanced Latin works by Horace, Cicero and Seneca. There was no compulsory leaving age, so students continued at the school until they were typically 14-18. Although the focus was on classical Latin texts rather than Christian doctrine, all grammar school teachers had to be approved by the Church of England and issued with a Licence to Teach until 1869.

By the 18th century, parents wanted more commercially and professionally orientated education for their children but most grammar schools were restricted to teaching classics by the terms of their original trusts. There was a general sense of need for reform and some educationalists such as Thomas Arnold (who had attended a grammar school in Warminster) opened new independent schools, free of the legal limitations of the old grammars.

To reduce costs and widen access to schooling, the British and Foreign School Society promulgated the ‘monitorial’ system developed by the Quaker, Joseph Lancaster, in which teachers taught senior students who in turn taught junior students. By this method, one teacher could supervise hundreds of pupils in a simple basic hall. The ‘British Schools’, as they were known for short, spread rapidly in the 19th century and the monitorial system became popular across the world. The British Schools were mostly run by non-conformists and included core ‘non-denominational’ Christian teaching. The Church of England did not want to be left behind and established its own National Society for the Promotion of Education in 1811, forming schools along the same lines to ensure: ‘the National Religion should be made the foundation of National Education, and should be the first and chief thing taught to the poor, according to the excellent Liturgy and Catechism provided by our Church.’

Over time, these non-conformist British Schools closed or were absorbed into the local school system but many National Schools remained distinctively Anglican. Today, the Church of England still runs more than 5,500 (mostly primary) schools in England. The reasons for this divergence, as we will see, were mainly legal and financial.

The most contentious issue during the formation of the tax funded school system was a denominational question over doctrinal distinctives: should schools teach Anglican doctrine and practice, those of another tradition or have no Christian teaching at all?

The question was never completely settled but was pragmatically resolved by allowing two types of school. The Elementary Education Act 1870 enabled local school boards to be established to provide education for children aged 5 to 13. The school boards were financed by local taxation and could borrow money (capital) from the Government to pay for land and buildings. Anglican and Catholic schools could continue as before, as ‘voluntary’ schools. School boards could opt to pay for children to attend voluntary schools but they would not receive funding from the school boards. It was assumed that tax funded schools would continue to provide Christian teaching but rather like the British Schools, they would teach core Christian truths and not ‘religious catechism or religious formulary which is distinctive of any particular denomination’.

To enable those who did not want their children to receive Christian teaching at school, all religious instruction and collective worship had to be separated from other subjects and restricted to publicised times at the beginning or end of the day to make it easier for parents to withdraw their children if they so wished. It is interesting to wonder whether this division encouraged a de-Christianisation of the wider curriculum.

In the debate over the Elementary Education Act in the House of Lords, the famous Lord Shaftesbury expressed concern over the future of Christian teaching in schools:

“I am astonished, therefore, to hear of the fears which have been expressed by Secularists and Dissenters in the House of Commons, for it appears evident that the tendency of things in this country is to the establishment of rate-provided schools and the institution of secular education. The common school system of America is very similar to that which we are now about to establish, and there they are gradually eliminating the Bible from their schools. From the last paper which I received from Cincinnati I find that the decision has been arrived at that the Bible should be struck out of the great school there. Such is the tendency of the present day, and they are, in my opinion, in error who suppose they can redress the balance by means of Sunday schools. In America the Sunday schools are not attended by 40 per cent of those who go to the day schools; and when you send children to school for six days in the week it will be accomplishing something superhuman if you can secure their voluntary attendance on Sundays for the purpose of learning the truths of Christianity. As to the Bill, I must say I do not expect very much from it. Neither in Prussia, nor in America, has a similar system produced a moral, though it may have stimulated an intellectual, life. I can have no confidence in any system of education which is not based on the great doctrines of religion, and which does not impart to the mind of a child a deep sense that it is an immortal and responsible being, that an invisible Eye sees into its inmost heart, and that there will come a day when it must render an account not only of its actions, but also of its thoughts.’

In 1897, the Voluntary Schools Act gave central Government aid to the mainly Anglican and Catholic voluntary schools for the first time. Then, as part of a new system introduced by the 1902 Education Act, local taxes were extended to the voluntary elementary schools. This was a hugely controversial step at the time. The elected school boards, on which many non-conformists sat, were replaced with unelected Local Education Authorities (L.E.A.s). In 1918, the next Education Act made education compulsory to 14, after which most children continued at what we would now call ‘primary’ school until they reached the school leaving age.

There was no universal state system for secondary schools in England and Wales until the 1944 Education Act. This split schooling for the first time into our now familiar pattern of ‘primary’ education until 11, followed by ‘secondary’ education and beyond that ‘further’ education.

After 1944, most Anglican and Catholic schools became either voluntary controlled or voluntary aided schools, meaning they would receive Government funding but would be responsible for all or 50% of their capital costs to pay for land and buildings. Schools linked to other denominations had smaller pockets and chose to become mainstream schools, close or go independent. At peak, there were more than 600 Methodist schools in England and Wales. By 2012, this had fallen to 65 state funded schools and 14 private schools.

The non-church schools had to hold collective worship and provide religious education that was not ‘distinctive of any particular religious denomination’ or inclusive of ‘any catechism or formulary which is distinctive of any particular religious denomination’, harking back to the language of the Elementary Education Act 1870.

As Lord Shaftesbury suspected in 1870, the long-term direction of travel in the majority of schools was away from any distinctively Christian ethos. By the 1970s, religious education was no longer assumed to have any catechistic aim: it was essentially sociological, occasionally existential and selectively critical. Most state schools had to follow an agreed syllabus produced by their L.E.A., which ought to at least ‘reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian’ (Education Reform Act 1988). Only voluntary state schools (and today academies with a religious designation) can teach their own religious studies curriculum in accordance with their original trust deed or religious designation. In all cases, though, the need to prepare students for GCSE and A Level exams in Religious Studies has tended to funnel religious education into a predictable pattern: a somewhat modernistic (philosophically and textually critical) study of Christianity and/or a sociological (non-critical) study of other religions.

Interestingly, despite its shared origin collective worship is still treated differently and ought in theory to be ‘broadly Christian’ (School Standards and Framework Act 1998) in all schools, except where local demographics make this unrealistic. Anecdotal evidence suggests this disparity has been resolved by the gradual watering-down of distinctively Christian content, particularly outside of voluntary and religious academy schools.

To most people who have grown up in post-war England, this situation seems completely normal. Seen through a wider international lens, it is actually very unusual. Where religious teaching is provided in government run schools, it is typically catechistic with the option of withdrawal: following the teaching of a particular denomination or religious tradition. The main alternative model is to avoid formal religious instruction in state schools, for example in the USA, France or India.

Drawing these strands together, the result in England today is an uneven and irregular school landscape. The options available to students vary completely depending on where they live. Christian values in the state sector means (with only a few exceptions) Anglican or Catholic primary and secondary schools, where they are available. Between different Anglican and Catholic schools, ethos varies enormously, influenced by the theology and outlook of the parish church, the diocese, the governors and senior leadership. In the independent sector, there are plenty of schools in towns and cities but comparatively few with a strong Christian ethos, compared to the USA, Canada or Australia.

Two key factors that have shaped and limited this contemporary landscape are innovation and capital. As we have seen, Christians were able to substantially expand basic school provision in the nineteenth century through the monitorial system, spread by the British and Foreign School Society and the National Society for the Promotion of Education. When national and local government began to absorb and develop a school system from 1870 onwards, church schools were squeezed out or limited (particularly at secondary level) by their lack of access to capital funding unless they gave up their denominational distinctives and accepted L.E.A. supervision of their religious teaching. Without capital funding from the government, they struggled to compete with the facilities offered by ordinary state schools. Private Christian ethos schools have faced the same challenge. How can a sufficiently professional standard of education and modern, expansive facilities be provided without charging fees affordable to only a small percentage of the population?

Here innovation comes in, which I believe can once again reshape our education landscape. In 2020, as pandemic restrictions took effect, schools had to become online schools. For most, but not all, this was a sudden and unexpected change. Few systems and lessons were originally planned with online learning in mind and adaptation had to be fast. In fact, online schooling is not a new idea but has existed almost since public access to the Internet took off in the late 1990s. The pandemic highlighted the progress that has been made in video conferencing and online learning platforms. The Internet has the potential to revolutionise education not just in England but also globally. A student can join a classroom in Eton from a village in Eritrea. This is no longer ‘in theory’: it is already do-able without massive cost or difficulty.

Online learning completely changes the innovation and capital equation. It is a re-adjustment of expectations for sure, but, as we noted at the beginning, schools do not grow out of the ground. There is little that is natural or given about the way a school looks or operates. In a school designed to be online from the ground up, there is no need for expensive buildings and grounds, less time lost moving between lessons and dealing with discipline problems and an ability to deliver far smaller class sizes than would be possible pound for pound in site-based schools.

In this context, I believe there is now a real window of possibilities and freedom to develop new forms of schooling and education. If they had the choice, many parents would prefer their children to attend a school with a clear Christian ethos, rather than a school with plainly secular values. For reasons of geography or cost, their options have been limited. With online schooling, students can now study anywhere, at any type of school, at a much lower cost than has been traditionally possible without scholarships and bursaries. A number of Christians in England are now working on online schools or different forms of online education, including the new secondary school project I am involved in, Immanuel Online School. The shared aim of these projects is to significantly widen access to high-quality education with Christian values in the United Kingdom and beyond. At the moment, the scale is still small but the contours of the map are being redrawn. In so doing, our prayer is that new schools might be formed, as we labour with the energy that God provides, to make a substantial and effective contribution to the ‘spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society’.


Jonathan Marvin

School Director, Immanuel Online School














Jonathan Marvin
School Director, Immanuel Online School

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