Abortion, same-sex marriage, assisted suicide – the secular society encroaches every day. But I keep my focus on faith schools because this battle is not yet lost. While politicians for the most part support the existing arrangements, the campaign to eradicate religious schools from the public education system in Britain is so well managed and so vocal that we may soon discover that it has become a vote-winning issue.
The National Secular Society, the British Humanist Association and the Accord Coalition (distinguished by its figurehead being a rabbi) are extremely active. Announcements and news stories are frequently well publicised, and there is no shortage of newspapers only too pleased to cry scandal. The term “faith schools” is easily extended to include all denominational schools, and then judged by the most extreme examples.
The arguments are powerful. The major claim is the insistence that there is no reason why religious schools should be funded by the taxpayer.
If we want to have specialist schools we should be prepared to fund them ourselves. Next, they address the issue of selective entry. Why should a child be unable to attend their local school which happens to be Catholic, but be obliged to travel afar for education?
Finally, they argue that the segregation of groups by religion damages the cohesion of society. This is aggravated by social selection since, by the measurement of free schools meals, Catholic schools attract more prosperous children. It is easy to understand why the unwary reader is likely to accept that the case is made.
A trifle more wariness might suggest that Catholics pay for education through taxation like everyone else and, if Catholic parents are prosperous, they will, in fact, be paying higher taxes. Add to that the 10 per cent of capital costs charged to voluntary-aided schools and one might conclude that we subsidise public education rather than the other way around.
In fact, in Catholic schools, the percentage of children qualifying for free meals is only fractionally lower than the average, while the proportion of pupils from ethnic minorities and deprived areas is higher.
The larger catchment areas of Catholic schools are a positive contribution to the cohesion of society. The issue of selective entry will always be a tricky one as long as the public believe that Catholic schools provide a better education than secular schools.
Any filter chosen to distinguish genuine Catholic households from the pretenders can be represented as bias in one direction or another. But an absence of filters would be an invitation to all the free-riders who know a good thing when they see it. We need to choose our filters carefully so that they can be recognised as fair.
Catholic social teaching on the duties of parents and education is detailed, explicit and well worth reading. Notwithstanding their primary responsibility, parents must work in concert with the civil agents of education.
In practice, this means that parents should ensure that children receive satisfactory religious and moral education within the national curriculum required by the civil state. Thus the interests of both the parents and society are addressed. Normally, the two are complementary, but the trends in civil society today suggest that we should be watchful.
It is inevitable that those who seek to engineer society to accord with their own agenda will recognise that the control of education is an important weapon. Karl Marx knew that when he proposed that the young should be taught from the earliest age how to be conforming units in a collective society.
So we must accept that the secularists will lose no opportunity to imitate his approach. Under the banner of human rights we already see attacks on Catholic moral and social teaching. A useful word is “indoctrinate”. It applies to any teaching which is deplored by the secularist, but not to teaching which the secularist wishes to inculcate.
Another useful target is the facility of voluntary-aided faith schools to discriminate between staff on religious grounds, although it seems reasonable that the qualification of teachers responsible directly, or indirectly, for moral and religious education should be a factor in their selection.
The National Secular Society claims that “With the long-term decline in Christian observance in the UK forecast to continue, the special privileges granted to religious organisations in selecting teachers on religious grounds become more unreasonable and unsustainable.” We have been warned.
So it is important that the Catholic community as a whole – and not just those directly connected with education – should be aware that Catholic education is under sustained siege by those who would like to eradicate religious faith from our society.
The prospect of the elimination of faith schools may, as yet, seem remote. But recent history has shown us how quickly the remote can become proximate, and the proximate become fact – and enshrined in statute.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (31/7/15).
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