Why are Catholic sixth forms playing down their religious identity?

Some Catholic sixth forms are Catholic in name only (Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

During the last twenty years we have seen huge expansion in the number of schools opening sixth form departments as part of their educational provision. This has been reflected in many Catholic schools where a sixth form was seen as a jewel in the crown, especially in schools which were already popular and oversubscribed.

Certainly many dioceses and governing bodies offered great encouragement to schools who thought of developing post 16 provision and significant finance was allocated to the development of state of the art sixth form accommodation.

However over the last few the tide has begun to change and a number of our Catholic schools have seen their sixth form close or seriously reduce their curriculum despite protests from parents and the wider community. Many Catholic sixth forms now present a major financial burden that could see further closures but also puts wider Catholic secondary education at risk.

2013 saw the introduction of a national funding formula by the Department for Education. Before this secondary schools with sixth forms often received a higher level of funding than stand-alone sixth form and further education colleges. As a result of this previous situation Catholic schools often benefited and the national funding formula will see many school sixth form budgets cut drastically.

A transitional grant was agreed to support schools adapt to the new funding level but in 2016 the government announced that such grants would now end. All schools and colleges will not begin to receive the same funding per student, which currently stands at £4,000 per head. Schools and dioceses will be faced with the full financial reality and the future of many of our smaller sixth forms hang in the balance.

One other problem that seems to be the elephant in the room is that many of our sixth forms are Catholic in name only. In a number of schools there appears to be a policy to play down the faith because of the need to market provision to students outside of the Catholic system. This is often compounded by the low number of practising Catholic staff and students.

Added pressure and expectations on staff and students also means that there are far less opportunities for developing Catholicity, chaplaincy, ethos and extra-curricular activities. Our Catholic faith, values and approach to pastoral care should be a unique selling point and it yet it seems something that we treat as secondary or are a little ashamed of.

In Catholic schools it is usually a requirement that the head and deputy head teachers are practising Catholics. However many of those who are in leadership positions in a sixth form are employed at the level of an assistant head teacher and therefore there is no requirement for them to be Catholic. This can have a huge impact upon the development of the faith life of the whole post sixteen communities within a school.

Whilst there are many hardworking and dedicated non Catholic staff in our schools there is no absolutely no substitute for a fired up and practising Catholic when it comes to leading and developing the life of faith and ethos.

Great challenges are going to need to be faced if we are to preserve post sixteen provision within many of our schools. The market is now very competitive and most Catholic schools and colleges offer a limited curriculum and other services in comparison to the many of the larger sixth form and vocational colleges. It is going to be an uphill struggle with a great deal of time and energy needing to be spent.

We also need to think about this issue within the context of the wider mission of the Church and our role in education. Maintaining schools which are Catholic in name only serves no one. Perhaps in some circumstances the loss of a nominally Catholic sixth form is not really that much of a loss after all.