When Michael Gove left the Department for Education in this week’s Cabinet reshuffle, England’s Catholic community lost
a true friend in a key office of state. Gove was a staunch defender of the principles of Catholic education in the teeth of growing secularism right across the political divide. It is hard to imagine any other Secretary of State recognising, as Michael Gove did in an article in The Catholic Herald in February 2011, that “a key element of Cardinal Manning’s vision was that Catholic schools must be allowed sufficient autonomy to integrate the Catholic faith into every aspect of school life. A Catholic ethos is not something confined to RE lessons, but a pervasive set of values that find expression throughout the school day.” In that same article Gove offered Catholic schools the chance to insulate themselves forever from “unsympathetic meddling” on the part of secularist politicians and bureaucrats by choosing to become academies.
At the time Gove hoped that the Catholic Church would be in the vanguard of a truly transformative revolution in education, not merely removing its existing schools from local authority oversight, but massively expanding the provision of Catholic education by opening new schools through the Coalition Government’s academies and free schools programme. This was a once-in-a-century opportunity for the Church to achieve its stated objective of a Catholic school place for every Catholic child. On offer was not only sympathy and support, but money too. The Church would not have to stump up 10 per cent of the capital as it had had to for voluntary-aided schools previously. But sadly the Catholic bishops’ response was to look this gift horse in the mouth for an indecently long time, then ultimately refuse it.
Not everyone would have been surprised by this seeming churlishness. Even at that the time a retired Catholic headteacher, Eric Hester, was warning that the requirement for the local bishop to sign off on academy conversion would cause problems. “We are not talking about a benign figure in a mitre,” Hester told the Herald, “we are talking about diocesan bureaucrats, many of whom are as thick as thieves with the local authorities.” Hester had understood that the Catholic education establishment had its fair share of what the Secretary of State would later refer to as “enemies of promise” and were part of the Blob – that slimy and amorphous coalition of teacher unions, education academics and bureaucratic interests that always seeks to smother or choke off any attempt at school reform.
It was a short time after Michael Gove’s article appeared in The Catholic Herald that a group of concerned Catholic parents with children at Catholic primary schools in the Clapham, Brixton and Balham areas of south-west London began to meet in pubs, cafes and one another’s homes to discuss the possibility of starting a Catholic free school. We were concerned because we had encountered friends with older children weeping at the school gate on national offers day, having in some cases failed to have got their children into any of the six schools they had nominated on their form.
The do-it-yourself solution seemed quite natural at the time. The new Coalition Government was still paying lip service to the idea of a Big Society built on volunteerism. The state, we knew, had little or no money left. If our community wanted a great secondary school for local children, we had better start one ourselves, because, for sure, no one else would. That said, with Michael Gove’s rallying cry fresh in our minds we somewhat expected the local diocese to help us to some extent, or at any rate not be downright obstructive. A naïve expectation, as it turned out.
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