To save Catholic education, do we need to give up some of our Catholic schools?

A boy holds a holy card and rosary as pupils wait for Pope Francis in Harlem (Photo: CNS)

In my last post I asked questions about the future of small groups within the Catholic Church and rural parishes in particular. Rationalisation of parishes and Masses in the face of reducing clergy numbers is certainly going to be a reality within the next few years. As the number of parishes and Masses are reduced, do we also need to think about how we will continue to maintain other institutions including our Catholic schools?

Catholic schools currently make up one in 10 of all school provision in England and Wales, with nearly 850,000 pupils educated in 2,245 schools. This is an incredible achievement, especially when considered that a higher proportion of Catholic schools are in deprived areas and that Catholic schools are often more diverse than average (34.5 per cent of pupils in our maintained primary schools are from ethnic minority backgrounds compared with a national figure of 28.5 per cent).

A vocations crisis?

A significant challenge today is the recruitment and retention of Catholic staff. There remains a requirement that headteachers, deputy headteachers and those staff responsible for RE and Catholic life are practising Catholics. This is essential if the Catholic identity of a school is to be maintained and to grow. Here lies the problem. The number of applicants to such posts is falling. Recently, in a school that I know well, there was only one applicant for a headteacher vacancy and this is not an isolated situation. The school in question was a good and attractive example, and a great deal of effort and imagination was put into the recruitment process. If we cannot recruit Catholic leaders for our schools, then what meaningful future is there?

To support the Catholic ethos of our schools and to ensure that we have leaders for the future we need many other staff, in addition to senior leaders, who can further the mission of our schools. While there are teachers and support staff who are non-Catholic who do a wonderful job in supporting the work of Catholic schools, there is no substitute for a fired up Catholic who has a strong sense of vocation.

In English Catholic schools in 2013, 69 per cent of primary teachers and 44.2 per cent of secondary school teachers were Catholic but this number is thought to be reducing year on year as long-serving staff retire.

Yet when was the last time that you heard a homily in which teaching as a vocation was promoted? When did your parish last have a day of adoration praying for vocations to our schools? We have a crisis in vocations not just to the priesthood but also to Catholic education.

Your sympathy will not do

One thing that I regularly hear in schools is that certain members of staff are praised for being “sympathetic” to the Catholic ethos. If Catholic schools are to be missional, is sympathy enough? It was determination, commitment, hard work and sacrifice that founded our schools. No mission will bear fruit if those who are supposed to be advancing it are passively sympathetic. We need people who are driving forward the vision with passion, enthusiasm, imagination and, most importantly, faith.

Worse still are lapsed Catholics who staff our schools. Only attending Mass when you are paid is certainly not an example of discipleship and faithfulness. Yet I meet so many people who are “school Catholics”. These people say they support the ethos and receive the sacraments at school Masses but are strangers to their local parish on a Sunday. Why would you trust someone with helping to hand on the faith to your children when they don’t live the faith in their own lives?

Governing our Catholic schools

The trustees of our Catholic schools (often the local dioceses or religious orders who founded the school) have the legal right to appoint foundation governors. Appointing foundation governors, who form the majority of the governing body, helps to ensure that the school is operating according to the teaching of the Church and has a Catholic ethos. Such governors are therefore essential in supporting and maintaining the mission of schools.

The difficulty here lies in finding people willing to undertake the role. It is also imperative that we have the right candidates with the necessary skills and abilities. School governance is now more complicated that it has ever been. With the ongoing introduction of Academies, OFSTED, statutory requirements, Section 48 inspections and a whole plethora of other developments, the demands on governors are substantial.

As our parishes get smaller and fewer, parishioners are older and more stretched. Many governing bodies and Academy boards of directors carry governor vacancies. In my own parish I have to rack my brain and make appeals every time a vacancy arises. It is a problem that will only increase.

Catholic numbers

The aim of the Church is to provide a school place for every Catholic child. In some areas the Church is struggling to meet the demand for places, while in others schools are struggling to recruit pupils and Catholic numbers are falling.

The loss in many areas of free school transport is a major factor in the reduction of baptised Catholics on school rolls. Parents, especially in poorer areas, cannot find the necessary finance to fund their child’s transport. One local authority area charges families £630 a child each year. This is prohibitive for many working-class families (especially for those who have read Humanae Vitae!). Many parents have no choice but to select a non-Catholic school for their children.

Sacramental provision

With the reduction in clergy numbers there is a real pressure to maintain sacramental provision in schools. When a parish closes the school will often remain. There are many examples where the parish school is still functioning following the closure or amalgamation of parishes. This can often leave priests with multiple schools in their parishes and comes with competing demands and expectations.

Many schools don’t even have a weekly Mass now and this is only likely to get worse. Children who don’t worship in their local parishes also don’t have much exposure to the Mass and other liturgies in their school. We risk leaving children with a vague and superficial experience of genuine Catholic worship. The introduction of lay chaplains in some schools has been one answer, but this is no substitute for priestly ministry. Lay chaplains have a valuable ministry but often post holders experience poor pay and have an uncertain role and status in some schools. Formation and training is also an area that needs developing for lay chaplains to fully flourish.

Do we also need to be realistic and question whether our schools are now the right place for sacramental preparation? Many clergy have already, controversially, grasped this nettle.


We hear lots about the rationalisation of parishes because of falling numbers of vocations and parishioners. When was the last time that we heard about the rationalisation of our schools? We could be in a situation where parishes and Masses get fewer but schools increase. How will we sustain this if the main body of the Church is shrinking? Do our schools need to shrink to fit? The danger is, without change, our schools could become Catholic in name only.