Catholic schools are very popular in Britain and many—perhaps most—are oversubscribed. It has become a cliché to say that the only reason Catholic churches are so well-attended is that young parents are desperate to appear to be enthusiastic, visible members of a parish so that when they approach the priest to ask for the all-important signature on the school application form, he will know who they are and be glad to sign.
Church schools, both Catholic and Church of England, are funded by the taxpayer, as are some Jewish and Muslim schools. So they are free: no fees to pay. There are also, of course, a number of independent—i.e., fee-paying—schools. (Incidentally, just to clear up confusion among Americans: some of these are called “public schools” because historically many of the upper classes educated their children privately at home with tutors: thus boarding schools were seen as “public” rather than “private” places.)
Independent schools are popular among those who can afford them, and in addition to the famous “public schools” there are a good number that are available to people of more modest means. But the overwhelming majority of children in Britain attend state-funded schools, and for most people the term “Catholic schools” means those that are within this state-funded sector.
A typical Catholic primary school (ages 5-11) will be near, or even adjacent to, a Catholic church, be dedicated with a specifically Catholic name (St Joseph, Sacred Heart, Rosary, Our Lady Immaculate) and display statues and crucifixes. The children will wear a uniform. There will be daily prayers and hymns, Masses to mark special events, celebrations for the school’s patron saint, Nativity plays at Christmas. It is all very attractive. The quality of religious education may vary considerably, and it can raise some tensions. Sometimes parents get resentful about implied criticism of their own values: “How dare you tell my child it’s wrong to miss Mass on Sunday!”—and sometimes the teaching is confused, carried out by teachers who are themselves not practising Catholics or who are not well-formed in the faith. But, on the whole, the evidence is that Catholic primary schools do a good job of introducing children to the Faith.
At the secondary level (ages 11-18) things get much more complicated. Most teenagers in Catholic secondary schools are non-practising: devout pupils who attend Mass regularly get teased or even bullied, and it is not easy to find genuinely devout and knowledgeable teachers who are passionately committed to teaching the fullness of the Catholic Faith, and capable of doing so. Teaching is a tough job these days: many children come from homes broken by divorce or serial cohabitation, and all sorts of basic human values that were once taken for granted in British society are now regarded as weird. Children’s lives are ruled by the lure of the computer, the mobile phone, fashion fads, and the “must-haves” of a consumerist era.
But in addition to all these challenges facing Catholic schools, something new has emerged. The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (OFSTED), the official system for inspecting schools, now insists that schools enforce “values” which appear to be translated as promoting acceptance of homosexuality and endlessly emphasising that Britain has many people of different religions. Recently, two Christian schools run by Evangelical groups have been told that they fail to meet the required level of correctness. In one case the school was the top-achieving school in its area, with excellent examination results. Parents were appalled to find that the OFSTED inspectors seem to have spent time asking peculiar and intrusive questions: one child told her mother tearfully that she had been asked if she “felt uncomfortable in her body” and several children were asked about lesbianism and homosexuality. There is some suspicion that the inspectors were anxious to find some evidence that the children were bigoted and narrow-minded.
The problem, of course, stems from the discovery of extremist Muslims taking over schools in Islamic areas of Britain’s cities and, against the wishes of most of the Muslim parents, imposing rigid codes of Islamic behaviour and belief, in what has become known as the “Trojan horse” problem. The schools concerned were ordinary state schools, but in areas where the population was almost entirely Muslim.
Guidelines issued to OFSTED inspectors in the wake of all this have resulted in a ridiculous situation: no one dares to suggest that the Muslim problem is a specific one, and so there has to be the suggestion that Christian schools are in danger of becoming hotbeds of dangerous religious extremism.
What prospect, then, for Catholic schools? The Church will not find this an easy one to tackle. A Catholic school must be allowed to teach the Catholic faith, just as a language school must be allowed to teach French and German and Spanish and Greek. Catholic schools are happy to emphasise tolerance, neighbourliness and goodwill—as well as detailed information on the Scriptures, the Sacraments, prayer, and specific moral teachings. Will they be free to do so?
Teaching the Catholic Faith is not difficult, but it requires some knowledge of the Faith, and some dedication and delicacy. Sometimes it seems that the only certainty that pupils have about the Catholic Church is that it is against abortion. It is fairly standard for pro-life speakers to go into Catholic schools. There may be other guest speakers: representatives of various Catholic charities or—rather less likely—from Catholic movements enthusing about the Faith, as part of an evangelistic outreach. But day-to-day religious education can often be bland, boring, or confused, and too often is offered by a teacher who is openly opposed to Catholic moral teaching, for example on cohabitation before marriage. The temptation for Catholic schools to succumb to political correctness is going to be great.
Courage and goodwill are crucial, as is good leadership from bishops. It will be necessary to insist on the rights of Christians to teach Christian doctrine and morals in Christian schools. And there needs to be a sustained effort to encourage young practising Catholics to choose teaching as a career, which is not easy as today education is associated with bureaucracy, problem families, tension, and the above-mentioned pressures from OFSTED.
Some families home-educate their children, but to do so requires at least one parent (or step-parent, or grandparent) who is literate and numerate, and who can remain at home at least for a good part of each week to supervise the children. For the overwhelming majority of children in Britain, attending school is the most practical option. And the Church has a special care for children from nominally Catholic families whose parents are keen for their children to “be Catholic” but are themselves hazy about many aspects of the Faith and unable or unwilling to teach it, because they do not themselves practise it.
Defending Catholic education does not mean just celebrating families who can teach their own children, but helping those who cannot. Perhaps we are going to have to take a lesson from Poland in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s: when the Communist authorities made it impossible for schools to teach the Faith, the Church took on the task and gathered children in churches after school on weekdays in classes to do it. A whole generation of Solidarity activists were taught their Faith this way. Food for thought there.