Labour in the Vineyard

The British Government makes threatening noises about “faith schools.”

For most of the past century, and especially since the reforms of education funding that followed the Second World War, Catholics in Britain have enjoyed an unusually generous arrangement for their schools. The schools, organized and run by the Church, have been funded by the public purse, ensuring that parents did not need to pay any fees.

The system—which means, in effect, that most Catholic parishes have a free school attached to them catering to children aged 5-11, with larger secondary schools catering to those aged 11-18 somewhere nearby—is essentially part of the State school structure. Catholic schools are distinguished, however, by having complete freedom to teach the Catholic faith and its associated moral principles—including, at present, the freedom to choose which guest speakers to invite and which to ban—and by their close association with the Church, with regular school Masses, Confession, processions, celebrations for feast days, etc.

Such schools are not the only Catholic schools in Britain: there are also the independent fee-paying schools. Some of these are famous, such as Stonyhurst (founded by the Jesuits, now lay-run), Ampleforth and Downside (both Benedictine foundations) and The Oratory School (founded by John Henry Newman). Others are smaller establishments, including some girls’ schools founded by religious orders and now largely under lay control.

Having Catholic schools—and also Church of England schools—paid for through public funds is a recognition of the part that the Church has played in education down the centuries. Britain’s schools were for hundreds of years run entirely by the Church. The great universities of Oxford and Cambridge were initially Catholic institutions. The concept of an entirely secular school was unknown until the 20th century, and to this day many of the country’s non Christian schools maintain some form of link with a local church.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Catholics campaigned successfully for justice in the education system, so that their schools would be funded alongside Anglican ones—a recognition that the Church had a place, as of right, in the education system of the nation. There is also public funding for Jewish and a small number of Islamic schools.

Of course, there has been much internal controversy surrounding the nature and quality of the religious education offered at all Catholic schools in Britain, both those that are State-funded and those for which parents pay fees. Such controversy has included revelations about inadequate or simply inaccurate textbooks, such as Clare Richards’ Roman Catholic Christianity, from which the imprimatur had to be withdrawn in 2001 after a long campaign by parents and teachers who drew the attention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the matter.

And there have been other serious problems. Many parents select a Catholic school not because they are practicing Catholics who want to see their children taught the faith, but because they like the school’s traditions, ethos, and sense of structure and discipline. A Catholic primary school (ages 5-11) will typically have a distinctive uniform, attractive traditional annual events and a reputation for success and high achievement.

But the school’s formal adherence to the Catholic faith may not be backed by actual regular Mass attendance on the part of parents, once they have fulfilled the necessary initial requirement for getting the child into the school. Nor will most parents be carrying out the basic family methods of fostering and teaching the faith at home.

At the secondary level (ages 11-18), many, probably most, Catholic schools have only a tiny minority of pupils who practice their faith, and this minority generally keeps silent for fear of bullying or teasing from fellow-pupils. Since this situation has been the case for several years now, it follows that there are fewer and fewer young practicing Catholics around—and so it has become increasingly difficult to find a pool of potential Catholic teachers. It is becoming routine for a Catholic school to have to advertise repeatedly in order to fi nd a practicing Catholic as a head teacher, or as head of Religious Education.

Does all this mean that the Catholic school system is now corrupt and useless, and should be abandoned? Some parish priests despair about the situation at the secondary level. They note that the sharpest teenagers in their parish are usually attending non-Catholic schools. Such schools are often respectful of pupils’ beliefs, and the young Catholics attending them tend to be conscious of their own identity and interested in their faith precisely because they are not receiving a watered-down version of it, or having to take part in unattractive school liturgies.

But things are changing. Under the present Labour Government, threatening noises have been made towards what are now routinely called “faith schools.” The Secretary of State for Children, Schools, and Families, Ed Balls, has singled out such schools for criticism, starting with Jewish schools. He has made claims that “faith schools” are elitist and are used by middle-class parents who are able to manipulate entry requirements to gain admission.

There have also been open attacks on the independence of Church schools, notably by Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Children, Schools and Families, who has suggested that there is concern over Catholic schools having the freedom to select groups invited to address pupils (this is a particular issue with respect to speakers discussing, for example, abortion or related topics).

In July, a report from the Centre for Policy Studies, an independent thinktank, accused the Government of “aligning itself with the strident secularist lobby to threaten the future of faith schools in Britain.” The report entitled In Bad Faith says that the Government’s policy-makers on education are obsessed with “phoney egalitarianism and control freakery,” and suggested that there was rising pressure from the Left of the Labour party on the subject.

Earlier in the year, an attempt was made to force all “faith schools” to take a certain quota of children from outside their own religious denomination. This would have resulted in the absurdity of a Catholic school being forced to turn away children from Catholic families and offering places to those from families of no religious belief, who could in turn object to their children being taught the tenets of the Catholic faith. Such objections, even from only one or two disaffected parents, would in today’s climate be sufficient to ensure a public row, especially if issues of the Church’s moral teachings were involved.

In the face of widespread Catholic opposition, the obligatory quota scheme was abandoned, but there seems to be an informal agreement, the details of which are still unclear, between the Catholic bishops and the education authorities on the subject.

And, paradoxically, all this is happening at a time when there is a hint of an emerging new mood in Catholic education, a renewed confidence in the concept of a Catholic school as a place where the faith is celebrated and shared, centered on a clear Catholic identity.

A major factor here has been the publication of Fit for Mission? by the diocese of Lancaster. Originally planned as one of a series of documents which also looked at parish life and other aspects of the state of the diocese, this document dealing with Catholic schools hit the headlines for its rousing call to renewal. It called for a strong commitment to Catholic devotions in all Catholic schools—Confession, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, regular prayer each day, a crucifix in every classroom, devotions to Mary and the saints, and more. It emphasized the need for instruction in Catholic doctrine and morals, based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and in the Church’s heritage of teachings and traditions. It emphasized the Catholic school as assisting Catholic families in passing on the Faith.

Fit for Mission?, initially only published in Lancaster, was reprinted by the Catholic Truth Society and has sold widely. Bishop Patrick O’Donohue of Lancaster suddenly became a hero when he was summoned to Parliament and gave a robust defense of the Catholic position. Lancaster’s diocesan Director of Education, Father Luiz Ruscillo, has meanwhile been in demand as a guest speaker at meetings and conferences around the country.

“The Catholic school exists to support parents, who are the fi rst educators of their children” he told a meeting in South London “It is part of the body of Christ, part of the mission of the Church. Christ must be at the center of all that we do.”

Linked to this has been the formation of a new group, the Association of Catholics in Education, which is open to all Catholic teachers, whether in Catholic schools or not, and also to Catholic school governors and others involved in education. Based in the diocese of Southwark, it has attracted good numbers to its preliminary meetings.

“Paradoxically, attacks from outside— from politicians for example—could have a benefi cial effect on Catholic schools in one sense” says Fr Richard Whinder, one of the founders of the Association. “It seems to be producing a general sense of the importance of Catholic identity. If we are going to have to fight for our right to have such schools, it does tend to make what is taught there seem more valuable. And people do want their children to get something specific, something coherent, from a Catholic school.”

Meanwhile, the Association of Catholic Women this year ran a nationwide project for schools in association with the Catholic Truth Society which became a massive success. Children were invited to write about Christ and his Miracles—the aim of the project was to help them understand Christ’s full divinity—and essays poured in from Catholic primary schools across Britain. Prizes and trophies were awarded to the winners, and some 70 copies of the Compendium of the Catholic Catechism to runners-up, with publicity in the Catholic press, on the Internet, and in various local newspapers.

“Our aim in running this project is to support and encourage teachers of RE,” said ACW chairman Josephine Robinson “We were delighted with the huge response.” The Association noted that while there were large numbers of essays that showed a clear understanding of Christ’s divinity, others tended to describe Jesus as simply a “special person.” But the overall message was one of enthusiasm for teaching about Christ and encouraging the children to know him.

It seems likely that the issue of “faith schools” will be one that is raised at the next General Election, when Labour criticism of such schools could make for unpopularity among Catholics. But the deeper issues are not going to go away: if there is to be a real future for Catholic schools in Britain, it will be renewal within the Church, and a fresh commitment to the teaching of the Catholic Faith in all its fullness, that will ensure it.


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About Joanna Bogle 77 Articles
Joanna Bogle is a journalist in the United Kingdom. Her book Newman’s London is published by Gracewing Books.