In 2008, after Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue had published Fit for Mission? Schools, he was questioned aggressively by Barry Sheerman at the House of Commons Education Select Committee. Mr Sheerman was already on record as suggesting that “it seems to me that faith education works all right as long as people are not that serious about their faith. But as soon as there is a more doctrinaire attitude questions have to be asked.”
Mr Sheerman suggested to the bishop in his committee that Catholic schools indoctrinated children. He had not read the bishop’s paper very thoroughly but his assumption was of some interest: that education should be secular, and that religious faith was a private opinion, quite detached from the real world of utilitarian skills and a shared single common social experience, with all its implications for the approach to morality accepted by current social norms.
It was unsurprising that Bishop O’Donoghue’s paper had challenged this opinion. Bishops teach doctrine, and if they do not do so, they are not good bishops. Catholics have long asserted their right as citizens to the education chosen by parents for children. Catholics also are taxpayers; Catholics also have human rights. The difference between the situation today and that of the 19th century, when liberals agitated against “Rome on the Rates”, is that the ethos of the state schools at the time was Protestant, whereas today it is overwhelmingly secular. Catholics stand where they always have.
There is a common good in education, beyond the utilitarian norms proposed by the secularists. By opening such perspectives Catholic schools enable a choice that the totalitarian liberals of our day would close off. The skills set out in examination specifications, from literacy to numeracy, serve the proper purpose of a liberal education: the love of learning and of knowledge as its own end, with respect for the true, the good and the beautiful. In this context Catholic schools evangelise; they do not indoctrinate.
Central to evangelisation is the empowerment of the student to choose. No choice is possible if there is no vision of the whole person created in God’s image, of the reality of the supernatural, and of grace, God’s active presence offered in our lives. A child does not come to adult faith by some kind of automatic process induced by Catholic education: but a good Catholic school makes it possible for the choice to be made because there are teachers and other young Christians whose lives provide a witness and an invitation to faith. Pope Benedict’s constant message, most recently in Madrid, is about faith as a free and personal relationship with the Lord.
Religious education therefore means holistic education in the faith, and neither simply a course for GCSE in basic theology, nor, as it is so often in secular schools, a sociological course in comparative religion. An academic course is still important, and regardless of whether it is part of the so-called Ebacc, a misnomer for a 16-plus qualification if ever there was one, a Catholic school should be able to ensure that all study some theology: you can hardly expect a student to take the faith seriously if their understanding of it remains at primary school level.
Catholic schools offer much in the way of social integration; the proportion of pupils receiving free school meals in our voluntary aided schools is high; on average, a higher proportion of Catholic schools are rated as good or outstanding than other maintained schools. These other goods should be the product of a school’s excellence. To quote the 2009 Ofsted report on the outstanding Coloma Convent Girls’ School in south London: “The strong Catholic ethos results in an orderly community where every child really does matter and a genuine concern for the development of the whole person.”
Some time ago, Bishop Malcolm McMahon said that the triangle of the Catholic home, parish and school was all important, and that Catholic schools are mission territory. For some students the school is their only contact with the Church. Bishop O’Donoghue’s Fit for Mission? gave a means by which a Catholic school could review its effectiveness in mission. There are lots of difficulties. Essential is the united support of teachers and assistants: a first task is to help the lay Catholics to fully understand and develop their own faith, and examine their own lives. Some Catholic independent schools are approaching this with care and imagination. This help must extend to non-Catholic teachers who have chosen to work in a Catholic school. Parents must be helped, and for that a core of committed Catholic families is essential. It is a reasonable thing to give such some priority over entry to the school. Most Catholic schools include many non-Catholic families. These are not admitted as some kind of secular quota, but because they are attracted to what a Catholic school offers, and that should be determined before entry.
What about the opportunities offered by the present Coalition Government? I saw some of the difficulties of present arrangements as a senior governor of a Catholic secondary school some years ago. They were multiple. The poor drafting of the original Academies Bill offered no understanding of the trusteeship and property issues in the voluntary-aided sector. But those problems have been solved. The freedom and responsibility offered is attractive; and so is the funding. Money will follow the student. The position would be secure from the kind of interference threatened in 2008 when a Secretary of State was frustrated by Archbishop Vincent Nichols in an attempt to force quotas of non-Catholics even on to schools without sufficient room for Catholic families. Since the present scheme is very close to that conceived under the Blair government, there should be some prospect for long-term stability: the thread actually goes back to the Direct Grant schools of 50 years ago.
Few Catholic schools have so far been able to head for academy status, though the number includes the London Oratory School. For the future, one could envisage a vibrant Catholic sector of academies and free schools, state-funded independents in effect, with warm co-operation for the common good with each other and with Catholic independent schools. But there is one final condition for such a future. Basic to the compact following the 1944 Education Act, on which modern Catholic education is founded, was the right to free or subsidised transport. The schools of a minority are always likely to be a greater distance for the families concerned. This right is now under threat. It is on this front that the energies of all concerned should now be concentrated.