In her recent speech on education and social reforms, the Prime Minister Theresa May spoke of her aspiration for Britain to be a true meritocracy: “I want Britain to be the world’s great meritocracy – a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow.”

Let’s reflect on these ideas for a moment, and particularly how they apply to education, and especially, for us, to Church education.

My initial response to the Prime Minister’s overarching ambition was a positive one. It is offered in reaction to what is perceived by many to be a growing gap between the advantaged and the less advantaged in our society, and an increasing sense of anger and disenfranchisement among the less advantaged groups. Too often those who are successful are seen to have been born with so many advantages, from the word go, that the people who feel at the bottom of the pile have no way of ever catching up. Wealthy parents, educated and successful families, a wide circle of influential contacts, and access to excellent schooling, all seem to weigh the dice heavily in the favour of the ‘haves’ at the expense of the ‘have nots’. This cannot be right, and is ultimately dangerous for our society if it is not addressed. No-one can argue with the analysis and the aim.

If ‘meritocracy’ is interpreted as ensuring that, for example, when it comes to accessing the best jobs and opportunities, only the abilities of the applicants are taken into account, rather than their connections and background, then I fully support it. And when it comes to education, if ‘meritocracy’ means making sure that the least advantaged have access to schools as good as those which the most advantaged have, with excellent teachers, good quality teaching and support, a rigorous academic curriculum as good as the best elsewhere, and outstanding extra curricular opportunities, including sport and music, all of which undoubtedly maximise future life chances, then, again, I am a most definitely a meritocrat.

But further reflection on the idea of meritocracy throws up some challenges. If a meritocracy is interpreted as, literally, the ‘rule of those who deserve to rule’, rather, presumably, than those who don’t deserve to, but got lucky with their families, backgrounds, or education, then there must by definition be some who ‘don’t deserve’. Not a big problem if we are talking about access to jobs, for example, because it’s pretty clear that we want lawyers, doctors, politicians who are good at their chosen profession, rather than those who aren’t. But applied to children, it’s not so straightforward.

For Christians, ‘merit’, however interpreted, is not something any one of us can gain entirely through their own efforts, nor claim entire credit for ourselves. We are called to believe that everything we have comes from God, through grace, and is freely given to us by God. That is why Christians are called to use what gifts they have to be of service to others. Of course, some people work harder to maximise their potential than others, but, for Christians, anything good we do achieve, we do only as a result of God’s grace. When Christians speak of ‘vocation’, we are talking about a sense that we must use and develop what we have been given first and foremost to help build up the common good. It is also why Christians are called to live a life of gratitude, and certainly not self-satisfaction. Grace and gratitude, vocation and service: these are the key watchwords.

The recently published ‘Church of England Vision for Education’ cites the story of the wedding at Cana in Galilee in John’s Gospel in its reflection on the Christian underpinnings of education. Several things strike me about this story. The first is the sense of unexpectedness and surprise at the transformation of water into wine. Everyone will have thought that the supply of wine was limited, and once gone, it was gone – end of story. They would have to make do with something less good. But such limited thinking is blown apart by the miracle recounted: no-one expected to still be drinking wine, but lo and behold, that is exactly what is happening. The second thing that strikes me is the sense of sheer abundance in the story. As the Church of England document says, “it is a sign that does what is necessary to save the day, and far more than necessary.” And, we might add, far more than the wedding guests may have ‘deserved’.

Unexpectedness and abundance: these are also two of the great joys of teaching, providing we are open to them. A positive, optimistic approach, a preparedness to be surprised, an unconditional commitment to developing every child’s God-given gifts, an ability to rejoice in the unexpected, and an understanding that the whole person must be nurtured – these are the hallmarks of a Church school.

I was privileged last week to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, at a gathering of Church educators. He spoke of the need to offer young people a positive vision in our schools as an alternative to the negative, self-serving and sometimes nihilistic influences many young people encounter. We are in many ways living in a ‘post secular’ age: the proportion of people globally identifying as having no faith is decreasing, and is expected to fall from 16% of the world’s population now, to 13%, over the next decade or so. The attempt in the western world to relegate and neutralise humanity’s age-old relationship with faith has produced, at best, underwhelming results. Now is the time to assert with confidence the potential of Church education in this country to enrich what the school system as a whole offers, and, specifically, to offer young people a positive vision for living which is greater than themselves, believes unconditionally in their potential, is open to being surprised by the abundance of that potential, and inspires a commitment to serving the common good.