The parties have all made pledges relating to education and schools in their manifestos, but are these promises and commitments missing key issues at this election? Here are a few questions to help you think about some underlying issues, as well as to ask your candidates if you get the chance.

Empowering parents

  • Will you support educational diversity, empowering parents in their primary responsibility of raising children, by providing a full opt-out from both Relationships and Sex education (or their equivalent in the nations)? 

Over the last few years controversy has grown around relationships and sex education in schools. Long-standing protections have so far upheld our society’s diversity by allowing parents to opt their children out of classes they deem inappropriate. However, these protections are now being eroded: having been diluted in England, entirely removed from new proposals in Wales and likely to be under review in Scotland in the New Year.

This development has its source in increasingly divergent answers in our society to a key question: 

Who is responsible for a child’s education? Parents? The state? Teachers? The church? The child? The local community? All of the above? 

Our answers to this echo throughout all our subsequent education policy decisions. While most people would perhaps not just name one of the above authorities, the question of who is primarily responsible (and how) has profound implications for the way in which we understand rights and responsibilities in education.

The Evangelical Alliance’s education resource, You Are Not Alone, asks precisely this question. Our answer is clear: it is parents who are primarily responsible. The resource highlights the role of parents, along with the extended family, as the primary nurturers, role models, socialisers and sources of morals for their children.” 

This foundation reminds us that children do not suddenly appear in the world as autonomous individuals. Instead, they are conceived, they are born, they are nurtured by mothers and fathers in the family — their first human community — which also serves as their first school.

There are of course important questions regarding what happens when families become fragmented and when a child’s first community is unable to be responsible in the ways it has been designed to. But the existence of such fragmentation does not negate the primary role and responsibility of the family. Instead it asks others, including the church, the local community and the state, how each can address this fragmentation rather than use it to justify replacing the family with another primary carer. 

Empowering schools

  • With school communities increasingly needing more support, what would you do to help faith communities provide support to schools?
  • Are you committed to the freedom of various types of schools and their freedom to teach in accordance with their religious beliefs? 

With these two questions, we turn our attention from family and parents to schools, exploring both how faith communities can be better supported, and how they in turn can support schools, particularly through their work in pastoral and community support.

Schools, of various different types, all play a vital role in their local communities across the UK. However, this often requires the provision of diverse types of schools for diverse groups of pupils. Just as every child is unique and different, so too should schools be able to reflect this diversity in their approaches.

This is why it is vital to safeguard the rights of all schools to serve children and their families in the most appropriate way. Proposals to narrow the diversity of schools (whether by applying far too restrictive criteria around the curriculum or by targeting one type of school for ideological reasons) undermine educational diversity.

Empowering pupils

  • Given one estimate suggests there are perhaps as many as 50,000 children a year who experience some form of exclusion from mainstream schooling, what steps would you take to address this? 
  • Given research that says significant numbers of schools fail to fulfil their legal duty to teach religious education, how would you help change that? 

These questions illustrate two (of many) ways in which public policy can help empower pupils in various types of school, and so help uphold educational diversity. Crucially, particularly for the most vulnerable, education policy can help ensure that all pupils receive a suitable education and that the state fulfils its responsibilities to those on the margins (e.g. those who undergo or are at risk of permanent exclusion). Engaging with the issues around exclusion is an important area of education policy that requires a sustained focus and perhaps new policies and laws.

The provision of religious education, however, only involves applying existing laws. There is a legal requirement for all schools to teach Religious Education, in view of the critical importance of religious literacy in navigating the modern world. However, research would suggest that many schools don’t fulfil this requirement. With this in mind, appropriate enforcement mechanisms should be an important element of any education policy.

This election provides an important opportunity for Christians to communicate a compelling and coherent Christian vision of education for the good of all – as part of our vision for the kind of society we want to see. We hope these questions help to do this.