There is a debate going on in Britain about Catholic schools. It is taking place at several levels.
At the level of government, there is much lip service paid to the value of “faith schools” because of their undeniable popularity, but there is also considerable tension about them.
The expression “faith schools” is irritating — it’s a way of avoiding the term “Church schools” and implies that any and every “faith community” can or should run a school and get public funding to do so.
In fact, this is not the case. Roman Catholic and Church of England schools have a long tradition in Britain — because the Church was running them for well over a thousand years before there was any government involvement at all. Catholic schools have for many years received full support from public funds. In other words, no parent needs to pay any fees in order to send a child to a Catholic school: such institutions are funded through taxes. (Of course, there are independent Catholic schools which are fee-paying — these range from the famous ones, such as Ampleforth and Stonyhurst, to many less well-known Catholic day-schools across Britain.)
For many years following the 1944 Education Act, Catholic schools were in a most favorable position in Britain. They had complete freedom to teach the Catholic Faith, and no real financial worries. They received generous support from the Catholic community to fund any gaps left by lack of public money, so all sorts of extras like chapels and swimming pools and good equipment were provided through money-raising events organized by parents and parishes.
But things are a bit different today. Over recent years a number of major concessions have been made by the Catholic education authorities, apparently in response to fears that the schools might otherwise lose some public funds. Thus, it has been agreed that schools can no longer interview parents to assess the suitability of the school for their child. Labour party policy is to eliminate “elitism,” and there was concern that Catholic schools might be using interviews to select children from practicing Catholic families with sound morals and strong Church affiliation, which might thus provide their offspring with benefits that could render the children part of an “elite.” The same Catholic education authorities have also apparently conceded the right to dismiss teachers who are openly living in a way opposed to Catholic teaching (for example, by being in a “gay marriage” through having contracted a civil union with a same-sex partner).
Catholics concerned about such trends have begun to be aware of the need to defend their schools. Thus, when the Secretary of State for Education proposed, in the name of eliminating “elitism,” that 25 percent of children at all “faith schools” should be from outside the faith, there was an uproar. It would have meant that many children from Catholic families would be denied places at Catholic schools, while non-Catholic children would be given priority under the new quota system — a bizarre and ridiculous situation. The government caved, but only after extracting a commitment from the Catholic bishops for some sort of informal voluntary quota agreement in association with local needs.
Can the Schools Be Saved?
The irony is that there is quite a lot wrong with many of our Catholic schools anyway: It is an open secret that in many of them the Faith is taught very badly, by teachers not fully committed to the Church, and that open denial of Catholic teachings is not infrequent. Some of the religious education materials used in recent years have been atrocious, with bishops continuing to defend them even when grave errors, mistakes, and omissions were pointed out. It took action by Rome — with then-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — to get one particular book, by an ex-nun, removed. It is still around in many schools.
Yet there are some good Catholic schools. Parents like them because they have traditions: uniforms, nice carol services at Christmas, Masses at which the choir performs, a sense of community through association with local parishes. But often such parents are not actually practicing Catholics — in fact, so far from being “elitist,” many Catholic schools have a very high proportion of children from unmarried parents, from families that are — in the coy modern term — “dysfunctional,” from backgrounds that have a sort of tribal Catholicism but no real religious commitment.
I am aware of Catholic teachers who are working hard to bring something of the Faith to teenagers who are actively hostile, have absorbed massive doses of anti-Catholicism from the media, and who are also fragile, badly damaged by premature sexual activity and soaked in a culture strong in pornographic and violent images.
Too often, when a devout teacher manages to convey something of the Faith to young people — often against the whole trend of the textbooks he has been given, and relying on his own initiative — he will meet opposition rather than encouragement, not least from parents. A teenager who wants to start going to Mass regularly is not necessarily regarded with favor by his family, who may see him as being irritatingly pious or critical of their own lifestyle. And he may face persecution from his fellow pupils: Most students at Catholic secondary schools (aged eleven to 18) are not practicing.
What to Do?
There are families — including some of the most devout — who simply do not use Catholic schools at all: They send their children to other local schools and find it works far better. There are no arguments about religious education, and the school is usually respectful of the family’s traditions and culture. A child from such a family will often be a good influence in his non-Catholic school, and a good advertisement for Catholicism to his teachers and fellow pupils.
Some families also like to educate their own children at home, although there’s no active homeschooling movement in Britain. I have met only two such families, and one of those was only homeschooling part time.
The Church has a long and honored tradition in education — the great universities of Europe were founded by the Church, run by the Church, and have their inspiration and tradition rooted in a Catholic heritage. Schools are essentially Catholic things. We need to be more vigorous about defending them — from problems within the Church to those from outside pressures.
We should press for a voucher system that enables parents — not bureaucratic Catholic education authorities — to be given funds, so that in choosing a Catholic school they are making a real commitment.
Catholic schools should be a partnership between families and teachers, not between government and Church bureaucrats. And so our bishops must resist further government intrusion, roll back what has already been conceded, and take a fresh look at internal problems relating to religious education. They must insist that only materials firmly upholding Catholic teaching are used for religious education– and for anything dealing with love, marriage, sex, and relationships.
And we must beg the good young people now emerging from the new movements in the Church — groups like Opus Dei, Youth 2000, some of the Charismatic Renewal Groups, and more — to become teachers. Please, we need you. Come to our Catholic schools and help renew them while there is still time. There is work to be done.
Joanna Bogle is an author and broadcaster living in London.