The Catholic Education Service, with its Chief Excecutive, Oona Stannard, and Chairman, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, are quoted at length in this week's Catholic press expressing their gratitude for the lobbying by ordinary Catholics, which has forced a government U-turn on the Education and Inspection Bill (see here). Catholic Action UK is proud to have played some small part in this victory, over the government's attempt to undermine the Catholic ethos of our schools.
This is a good moment to assess the wider threats to Catholic schools, especially state schools, and the response which the Catholic Education Service, and the bishops of England and Wales behind it, are making. The threats come in two broad areas:
1) Attempts to prevent Catholic schools selecting their pupils;
2) Attempts to prevent Catholic schools teaching the Faith.
1. Attack on selectivity
The Education and Inspection Bill is simply the most recent attempt by the Labour Government to undermine Catholic schools' freedom in selecting their pupils. A school which has no power over who attends has, obviously, lost control of its destiny, and the very notion of a Church school implies that it is intended for a certain group of people: the members of that church. While frequently praising the 'ethos' of Catholic schools, late last year Government ministers made a concerted effort to undermine it by banning interviewing by schools, as a basis for admissions decisions. Without interviews, the only way schools can judge whether a family is Catholic is by looking at a pile of identical letters from parish priests, which affirm that the family has attended Mass--a process which is inherently open to abuse. (See here for a parish priest's perspective.)
The response of the Catholic Education Service? They agreed voluntarily to adopt the ban. When the bishops were questioned over their failure to consult Catholic teachers and parents, they replied that they had consulted the CES. The Oratory School in London, one of the best-known Catholic state schools, successfully resisted the voluntary ban, and was criticised for this by the CES. Later, the ban was made law, and the CES welcomed this development.
It is not clear why the CES and the bishops decided to make a stand on the proposed quota system, which in itself is much less serious an attack on schools' freedom than the banning of interviews. It is to be hoped that they have realised, from the experience of successfully opposing the Joffe Bill, that with the help of the laity they can make the Government see sense. They must be encouraged in this new approach.
A letter to the Catholic Herald (10 Nov), from Fred Bull, says (in part): 'While I welcome the CES's change of stance, from pandering to the prejudices of uninformed parliamentarians and policy-makers to direct opposition, an apology to Catholic parents would have been a more appropriate response from Ms Stannard in the present circumstances. Had CES not shown a willingness to compromise on schools admissions in the first place, it is debatable whether politicians such as Alan Johnson and Lord Baker would have attempted the incursion os statutory quotas.
'May I suggest that Ms Stannard and the CES's change of heart is the fastest and most invisible U-turn in the history of Catholic education in this country. If politicians have the courage and humility to publicly admit they got it wrong, is it unreasonable to expect the director of the CES to do the same?'
Another aspect of the interviewing story is the irritation expressed by the CES and bishops at Catholic schools' independence. In the late 1980s Cardinal Hume tried to merge all the Sixth-forms of West London Catholic schools into a new Sixth Form College. This move was bitterly opposed by teachers and parents, who in general far prefer schools with sixth forms. Hume's plan was successfully resisted by the Oratory School and Cardinal Vaughan School, who had two of the most successful sixth forms, using legislation introduced by the Conservatives giving schools greater freedom. (The story is told briefly in Hume's obituary, here.) However, the policy of siphoning off sixth forms to separate colleges remains the CES's policy, and this continues to cause problems with the foundation of new Catholic schools in London.
2. Attack on the teaching of the Faith
The CES has been the vehicle for the bishops' criticism of various aspects of the Government's sex education programme, and the establishment of abortion-referral services in schools (for example, here). These initiatives are, in general, not imposed on Catholic schools compulsorily; it is up to the schools, and the CES, to what extend Catholic schools follow Government guidelines. It is becoming clear, however, that not only are some Catholic schools failing to resist explicit sex education for pre-pubescent children, in direct contravention of Church teaching, but that the teaching materials provided by the CES itself are gravely deficient. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children has uncovered the most appalling type of sex education in one Catholic school (see here: see section Child Abuse in the Classroom); at another, the promotion of contraceptives was exposed by the UK Life League (see here).
This should come as no surprise to those who have followed the debate about catechesis in Catholic schools. The history of this topic is long and complicated, but the bishops and the CES have promoted a succession of extremely deficient text-books for religious education. For a critique of 'Weaving the Web' and its successor, 'Icons', see here. For a long article on the subject by Daphne MacLeod, see here. Pope John-Paul II's commissioning of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and Benedict XVI's publication of the Compendium of the Catechism, were designed to promote a better approach, but have so far had little effect.
Action: the most urgent issue today is sex education. Please write to Vincent Nichols and Oona Stanard to ask them whether Catholic schools are encouraged and required to follow the teaching of the Church in this regard, as laid down by the document 'The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality'.
The teaching, in a nutshell:
- Explicit sexual information must not be given to pre-pubescant children (unless to correct errors picked up from other sources).
- Later education must be conducted one-to-one, by a parent of the same sex as the child, unless it is absolutely necessary for another person to fulfill this function.
The full text is here. Key quotes can be found at the end of this post here. Cardinal O'Brien rightly described Scottish Sex Education as 'child abuse'; see here.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols can be contacted through firstname.lastname@example.org
Fr Martin Pratt, Archbishop’s Secretary, Archbishop’s House, 8 Shadwell Street, Birmingham B4 6EY
Oona Stannard can be contacted at email@example.com
Catholic Education Service of England and Wales, 39 Eccleston Square, London SW1V 1BX
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