The Catholic case for grammar schools

Prime Minister Theresa May announces a new wave of grammar schools (PA)

I benefited thoroughly in my state education from the Protestant English Reformation, attending a King Edward VI Grammar School under the 11-plus system, and Trinity College, Cambridge, founded by Henry VIII in 1546 after the confiscation of Church lands.

Yet I am also an English Catholic, and now teach Religious Studies in a Catholic school, providing the one perhaps essential element so palpably lacking in my own education: an understanding of the Catholic faith.

Something I have found deeply puzzling in my years as a teacher is why there are so few Catholic grammar schools, currently six out of 163 grammars in total, all of them founded by religious orders. These would seem to offer in theory a tremendous combination of academic rigour and, as an extension of the Church, a sacramental practice and intellectual comprehension of Catholicism for those academically able pupils who are also Catholic. (I should say in passing that I regard 11 as rather too young to determine genuine interest and ability in academic pursuits; 13 is a much better age to gauge some of this.)

Yet there seems to be an ideological objection at work in the Catholic Church in this country to the very idea of selection of any kind in education, whether indirectly by money or directly by academic ability. According to this view, selection seems to contradict the very idea of being Catholic – interpreted as an inclusive concern for all, a solidarity with the poor, a valuing of every human person made in the image of God, a concern for the common good in which no one group’s interests are paramount. Grammar schools are unspokenly perceived as socially divisive and, for a Catholic, an undesirable element, undermining the common good, social cohesion and equality of opportunity.

It is certainly true that admitting a majority of children from wealthier families “runs the risk of being a counter-witness” (The Catholic School, para. 58). Yet why should this apply straightforwardly to grammar schools? It is an error to think that Catholic social teaching points to comprehensive schools at the expense of grammar schools; it is an error to think that selective education on academic merit is somehow anti-Catholic; it is an error not to support the opening of many more Catholic grammars if that were to be a possibility under Theresa May’s premiership.

For there is absolutely nothing explicit in official Catholic social teaching to support comprehensive education, or prevent the support of Catholic grammar schools. Scour the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church and you will draw a blank on this issue. Scour the documents of the Vatican Congregation for Education and you will draw a blank.

As with all ideologies, the ideology of comprehensive education has a tight and deep grip. Yet everything at work here is by implication, and the implications have perhaps been erroneously drawn. What, for example, do the defenders of comprehensive state education make of these startling thoughts in paragraph 241 of the Compendium?: “Whenever the State lays claim to an educational monopoly it oversteps its rights and offends justice…The State cannot without injustice merely tolerate so-called private schools. Such schools render a public service and therefore have a right to financial assistance.”

The main point in this document and many others is that parents are the first and foremost educators, and they have the right and duty to impart a religious and moral education, which can be delivered just as well through a grammar school as a comprehensive.

Furthermore, as Gravissimum Educationis points out, a school “In nurturing the intellectual faculties, which is its special mission… develops a capacity for sound judgment and introduces the pupils to the cultural heritage bequeathed them by former generations.” Grammar schools have a greater sense of the nurturing of the intellectual faculties; and they could also benefit by borrowing from the astonishingly rich and rounded vision of the human person that some independent Catholic schools such as Downside offer.

To borrow an analogy from Allison Pearson of the Daily Telegraph, young people capable of elite sports deserve an education commensurate with their ability, and this is usually best done when they are with other elite sportsmen and women. No one argues with this; the whole country applauds the success this produces. Why do we not do the same with those who are academically interested and gifted? They are both elements of human flourishing; knowledge and play are both, to use the language of John Finnis, “basic” or fundamental or intrinsic goods. They are both worth pursuing and dedicating oneself to. They are both elements in a civil society, both elements of a common good.

Some people soar in the realm of ideas; others do not. Why should there not be establishments in which these people can soar with the least hindrance and the most encouragement? A flourishing society would surely have a large variety of educational possibilities, and it is not for want of money that grammar schools are forbidden. Why should they not be part of a genuinely pluralist vision of society in which there are many different ways for people to flourish?

Grammar schools are not a panacea, but they are not a bogeyman either. They cater very well for the academically motivated; they give opportunities for those who might not have so many; and if they were socially divisive, why has social mobility now declined? Some people suggested that availability of contraception would reduce abortion; yet the opposite has happened. Some people suggested that the number of grammar schools be reduced and social mobility and cohesion will be improved. The opposite has happened. There must be something wrong with the logic here too.

We cannot all be Olympians academically, but some can, and the comprehensive system will and does only produce these if there is, ironically, clear selection within it. Why should there not also be grammar schools to enhance this possibility further? Forbidding grammar schools is a bit like forbidding the Extraordinary Form Mass so that everyone must worship in the vernacular – which now just seems mean-minded.

Hugh Walters is Head of Theology at Downside School