Summer time, so the song goes, and the living is easy. Maybe so, but for hundreds of students in Cheltenham there is something far less relaxing on their minds – exams.
This is the time of year when young fingernails are chewed and sleep is disturbed. The delights of guiding my own children through school age exams are still a few years away. Our daughter is currently having a great time at nursery in Leckhampton, oblivious to the exam fever yet to come.
First of all, to everyone sitting exams over the next few weeks, the very best of luck.
Benjamin Disraeli said “Upon the education of the people of this country the fate of this country depends.” I couldn’t agree more. We’re incredibly lucky to have so many great schools in Cheltenham. They’re recognised as some of the very best in the country. I have had the privilege of visiting many of them, and it’s a tribute to our local teachers and governors that, year after year, Cheltenham students do so well.
Cheltenham’s educational heritage stretches deep into our history. Pate’s, often described as Cheltenham’s first school, was first established back in 1574 when Elizabeth I was on the throne.
At that time the Church was the major large-scale provider of education. They provided buildings and paid for staff. And in 1902, when the Conservative Government introduced universal support, there were still 14,000 church schools educating roughly one third of the country’s young people.
Over a century later, the Church continues to play a key role. Here in Gloucestershire there are 115 faith-linked schools, both maintained and academy. Churches are the biggest sponsor of academies in England, with the Church of England teaching one million pupils across the country.
A truly successful modern example is the All Saints Academy, which opened in Springbank in September 2011 and which I visited earlier this year. All Saints was formed by the Anglican Diocese of Gloucester and Catholic Diocese of Clifton.
Recently All Saints was singled out for criticism by the Liberal Democrats. Martin Horwood MP argues that Cheltenham’s church schools ‘impose’ Christianity on its pupils and could make non-believers feel like ‘second class citizens’. I fundamentally disagree.
As the Principal of All Saints pointed out, 90 per cent of the academy's students join the school with no formal link to the sponsors. Second, the Academy welcomes students and families of all faiths and none. It is this inclusive and welcoming approach that will shape the students and give them the best possible chance, not just for exams, but for adult life.
I also believe you don't need to sign up to every last religious tenet to recognise the positive impact that Christianity has on our culture. It is felt in our language, music, art, and philosophy. It contributes to the fabric of our national life. There is nothing wrong in reflecting that ethos in education.
Church schools won’t suit everyone and it is important that our education system retains choice. But to undermine their very existence is wrong. Apart from anything else, it risk leading to the very thing critics claim to be campaigning against – intolerance.