The Enigma That Is Anglican Education

Dr Bryan Cowling has been the Executive Director of Anglican EdComm since 2007. Prior to that he was the founding principal of Thomas Hassall Anglican College. Throughout his long career in public education he was a History Teacher, state History Consultant, Inspector of Schools, Director of Curriculum, Director of Vocational Education and Director of Policy. He is an Honorary Associate in the Faculty of Education, Arts and Social Work at the University of Sydney.

This article was first published in the ASA News December 2016 Edition.

For half a century I was a willing participant in what is generally referred to in New South Wales as public education. Whether it was while I was a student, a teacher, an inspector or a senior administrator, I was unashamedly proud to be associated with public schools. When I told someone who my employer was, they immediately knew what I was talking about. They never asked me to outline the values or philosophy of public schooling. It was assumed that it was pretty much the same wherever the school was located.

But for the past seventeen years, first as a founding principal of an Anglican school and subsequently the Executive Director of Anglican EdComm (formerly the Anglican Education Commission) in the Diocese of Sydney, it has not been my experience that the ‘man in the street’ or even the parents enrolling their children in an Anglican school, can clearly explain the philosophy and values inherent in Anglican education.There is a plethora of reasons why this may be the case. At its simplest level, most families who enrol their child in an Anglican school probably have very little understanding of what the lived culture is in other Anglican schools. And after all why should they as, Anglican schools are private schools, and the meaning
of ‘private’ is open to many interpretations!

Is there such a thing?

So it did not come as a great surprise to me when my former Archbishop, Dr Peter Jensen, in his Isaac Armitage Lecture of 2009, said, ‘my concern about Sydney Anglican education is that at a formal level it does not exist. There is no literature devoted to discussing it. There is no faculty whose business it is to research it…. There is no philosophy which encapsulates it… There is no such thing as Anglican education as such in our midst.’ (cited in 1 New Perspectives on Anglican Education, Cairney, Cowling and Jensen, 2011, p.5) Needless to say, after delivering the lecture, the Archbishop established a think tank to explore the meaning of Anglican education, a book was published, erudite discussions occurred but the term remains undefined.

Does it matter?

Pragmatically, it could be argued that it does not matter what Anglican education is so long as each school bearing the Anglican brand knows what it is doing and enjoys the confidence of its parents, staff and students. This might suffice to a certain point, but it overlooks the potential that Anglican schools throughout Australia could realise if the term could be defined in a way that
was more readily and universally acceptable.

I’d like to cite a few instances where a generally acceptable understanding of the term ‘Anglican education’ could have been used to challenge the somewhat facile notion promoted by former Prime Ministers Rudd and Gillard ‘that what Australia needed most at the time was an education revolution, not a revolution in philosophy or pedagogy, but a revolution defined in terms of assembly halls, new classrooms and heaps of computers! Anglican educators across the nation ought to have challenged these politicians when they defined the purpose and value of education in terms primarily of ‘productivity.’ This brutally utilitarian purpose of education has now become the new normal so far as all sides of politics are concerned. Where is the Anglican education critique of this?

Most if not all Anglican schools offer a subject frequently known as divinity, Christian or Biblical Studies, and in many schools this is complemented by a regular chapel service. Responsibility for these items frequently resides with chaplains or is shared among the teaching staff. In my part of the world, each school establishes its own curriculum. This has much to commend it but
where it often falls down is that it sits outside the rest of the curriculum. Fortunate is the Anglican school where the teachers can integrate their studies of the Christian faith with their regular learning in English, Maths, Science and the rest. Fortunate also are those Anglican schools in which the rigour and depth of the International Baccalaureate is mirrored in the way religious education is practised in the school.

In their advertising some Anglican schools proudly declare that they espouse ‘the Anglican tradition’ which to me implies a holistic approach to education in which there is no division between the secular and the sacred, all truth is God’s truth and our mandate as human beings is to explore it and enjoy it. A revitalisation of this great Anglican tradition could lead to a redefinition of twenty-first century Anglican education in practice.

Deeply Christian and Serving the Common Good

I make no secret of my respect and enthusiasm for the recently released 2‘Church of England Vision for Education’ with its bi-line: Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good. What excites me about this is its fresh articulation of the Church’s vision for education as a whole, not just for its own share of schools. Its vision is permeated by its focus on ‘educating for wisdom, knowledge and skills, educating for hope and aspiration, educating for community and living well together and educating for dignity and respect.’ What a vision and it is being taken up confidently and courageously throughout Britain, notwithstanding the political and social currents since Brexit!

Readers of ASA News will be familiar with the work over the past three decades of Professor Trevor Cooling, Head of the National Centre for Christian Educational Research at Canterbury Christ Church University He has been a frequent visitor to Anglican schools throughout Australia. The most recent evaluation report on the whatif learning project, which many British Dioceses have begun to implement as a whole school approach to learning, demonstrates that when teachers, principals and clergy catch the vision of working collaboratively, Anglican education comes alive.

When I worked as an Inspector of Schools in the public sector, in the era when we spoke about learning outcomes, I frequently led school workshops in which teachers and parents identified their shared expectations for their children and then they identified a range of behaviours by which it would be possible for students, teachers and parents to see tangible evidence that their intended outcomes were being realised. This shared ownership the desired outcomes generated a conscious alignment between expectations and practice at every level of schooling.

In Anglican schools, more often than not, the values, beliefs and expected outcomes have been framed some time in the past by the school governors and the school leaders. There are good reasons why this is so, but it may be that what is happening in the UK could inspire us to explore new ways of being genuinely deeply Christian and in so doing serve the common

What is the future for Anglican education?

I am no more a prophet than you are, but my prediction for the next decade is that it will become increasingly difficult for faith-based schools to sustain their ‘privileged’ position in society unless it is patently obvious that they are distinctively different and they are serving the common good and not just their own ends. If what they do seems to the average citizen to be no different educationally to what government schools do, it is questionable whether they will be able to continue to attract funding of any kind from the State.

Maintaining deeply Christian schools within an increasingly secularist society is going to demand enormous wisdom on the part of school governors, incredible energy and ingenuity on the part of school leaders, a deep sense of teaching as a godly vocation on the part of all teachers and more than a little understanding on the part of parents and the churches with which the schools are associated. In their choice of a pedagogy, the driving force will be the lived-out worldview espoused by the teaching staff more than the theological rhetoric contained in many
school prospectuses.

If I had to summarise the characteristics of a robust Anglican education for the coming decade I would cite the seven intellectual virtues described by Dr Philp Dow in his book, (3) Virtuous Minds: intellectual courage, intellectual carefulness, intellectual tenacity, intellectual fair-mindedness, intellectual curiosity, intellectual honesty and intellectual humility.


  1. Trevor Cairney, Bryan Cowling, Michael Jensen, New Perspectives on Anglican Education, Reconsidering Purpose and Plotting a Future Direction, Anglican
    Education Commission, Sydney, 2011
  2. Church of England Vision for Education: Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good, The Church of England Education Office, London, 2016.
  3. Philip E Dow, Virtuous Minds, Intellectual Character Development, IVP Academic, 2013
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