I spent this evening at a meeting of chairs of school governors of Croydon schools. As chair of governors of a one-form entry school I struggle sometimes to keep up with the latest government initiatives and the strings of abbreviations and acronyms - it took me some months to discover that the mysterious Elsie Vapp that our headteacher would refer to at meetings was actually Local Authority Co-ordinated Voluntary Aided Programme (LCVAP). It's one of the myriad paths that schools have to negotiate to get money.
It seems to me that schools today are being asked, from central government down, to provide the cure for all social evils. Last year it was Gender Equality Duty', this year it's simply 'Equality', and now 'Community cohesion' is the latest duty that schools have to take on. Each school will have to show evidence that it is promoting 'community cohesion', as the government seems to believe that this is one way to stamp out discrimination, racism, inequality and, ultimately, terrorism.
The other big thing that schools are expected to do provide is extended services - from breakfast clubs in the morning to community activities in the evening. 'Eight till eight, twenty-four seven'. It's a good way, perhaps, to use the buildings efficiently as a resource not just for the immediate learning community but also the wider neighbourhood, but I'm concerned that schools are in danger of having more contact with children than parents in an average working day. A child who is dropped off at a breakfast club at 8 am, and then picked up from an after-school club at 6 pm spends 10 hours at school. Taking into account time for sleep, that's longer than he or she will be able to interact with parents.
Schools seem to be taking the place in the community that the church traditionally did, which is ironic as it was the church that set up most schools in the first place. It's a challenge to me as rector of a parish church to know what is left for the church to provide for the community. In our part of the world other agencies and organisations provide clubs for children, and recreation for the elderly - perhaps we're more fortunate than other areas. But what the church can provide, which no other agency can, is space for people to encounter God in a real and living way. Our church motto is 'Helping people to meet Jesus.' That's what keeps me going when I question what the church is here to do. Sometimes helping people to meet Jesus may be through providing community services as an expression of God's love, but I believe, at least, it's through meeting Jesus that a whole new world of limitless possibilities is opened up to us.