Catholic Schools Revisited: What Future Now?

Editorial FAITH Magazine November-December 2006


Spiritual Battle for Catholic Education

“We believe that our schools are still worth fighting for”. So we said in the Editorial
article “Catholic Schools: Time to Decide” (Faith Mar-Apr 2005). Sadly, even in a year and a half, the situation of Catholic education in the UK has deteriorated rapidly both with regard to the political climate and—as Eric Hester puts it in his own analysis in this issue—because "the English Catholic Church had lost the vision and the will to resist" the pervasive secularisation of the surrounding culture.

In any fight, we need to keep our eyes open to developments and to understand something of the strategy that will be needed to win. If we are involved in a spiritual struggle for Catholic schools, what we need to do is to survey the various possible battlefields, the strategy of the enemy and the weapons that we will need to win. We may also need to consider alternatives to the conventional cultural war, especially in the UK. There can be no question of surrender where the future of children and young people are concerned. However, if the enemy has overwhelming superiority on the field, less conventional means of engagement may be more effective in gaining results.

OFSTED’S Control of Schools

In 1944, the “historic agreement” allowed that Catholic schools in England and Wales would be maintained by the State and receive 90\% funding for capital improvements. (The Scottish Bishops obtained a slightly different and, arguably, more favourable agreement.) This made sense for the state because the children educated in Catholic schools would have to be educated somewhere. With the Catholic Church providing the buildings out of the “pennies of the poor”, the State was released from this burden of capital expenditure. On its part, the Catholic Church could appoint staff, determine the curriculum and arrange Catholic Religious Instruction and Religious Worship, while the same staff and the capitation for books and equipment would be paid for by the State—expenses that would have to beincurred in any case for those children. The State, for its part, would have the benefit of schools that, in most cases, offered a very good education. A happy agreement indeed.

There were always 'border disputes' within this settlement. A story from the 1960s will serve to illustrate. Her Majesty’s Inspectors came to a Catholic school, undertook the inspection and delivered their report, describing the staff as “a pretty mediocre lot”. The parish priest read the report to the staff, screwed it up, threw it in the bin and said “I want you to know that you are all hand-picked”. The staff continued in post, many of them for years to come, delivering an excellent education, both in the general curriculum and in the Catholic faith.

Such defiance of the inspectors and of the Local Authority would be unthinkable today. Through OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education), the State now has power that would be the envy of any totalitarian government. (Cf. Inspection, Inspection, Inspection, Anastasia de Waal, Civitas. London. 2006). A school’s OFSTED report is published and the judgements of the inspectors form the basis on which the school is judged by parents, by the Local Authority and by the newspapers. Few dare to question the validity of these judgements: to do so is itself seen as weakness. Government and opposition parties use the judgements as if they were objective descriptors of the quality of education provided by the school. A weak OFSTED report, or even a few weak points in it, can be made the focus oftrenchant criticism in the local press. A bad report affects the retention of staff and the recruitment of pupils, leading to further problems as the school is forced to make up numbers by accepting pupils who cannot get in elsewhere or whose parents are not interested in inspection reports. Any parish priest affirming the “hand-picked” staff in these circumstances would be a figure of ridicule.

The influence of OFSTED has penetrated deeply into education as a whole and Catholic education in particular. The National Curriculum constrains the use of teaching time, and the requirements to provide written evidence of policies, lesson planning, assessment, monitoring and evaluation have meant that teachers are focussed relentlessly on meeting Government guidelines in order to avoid the 'second death' of being put into what is known as a “Category”. The latest revision of this process actually requires schools to monitor themselves first through the 'Self Evaluation Form'. In the bad old days, in some schools, boys were expected to say “Thank you” after being caned, but they were never expected to cane themselves!

OFSTED as a Tool of Government

In theory 10\% of curriculum time is given to RE and collective worship in Catholic schools, but few schools would dare to follow this directive if that were at the risk of achieving the unyielding targets set by the DfES (Department for Education and Skills) and enforced by OFSTED. Hence, in many secondary schools, 'extra-curricular' events such as class Masses or opportunities for sacramental confession are routinely substituted for classroom RE lessons. On paper, there are curriculum and inspection requirements for RE, and so extra time for the celebration of the sacraments within the school day ought to be shared among all the curriculum areas. However, try suggesting this to senior staff and they will simply smile and shrug. They know that you are absolutely right, but they also knowthat there is absolutely nothing they can do about it.

Nominally, OFSTED is independent of the Government. Nonetheless, the Chief Inspector reports to the Secretary of State and OFSTED acts as a tool for implementing Government policy by policing initiatives foisted on schools by the DfES. The appearance of independence and objectivity gives OFSTED considerable power, particularly when its reports can easily be found on the internet by any party sympathetic or hostile to a school. The actual link between OFSTED and Government means that this extensive power can be used to implement the Government's ever changing policy and centrally imposed targets in a highly authoritarian way with the outward appearance of legitimacy.

Staffing and Governing Catholic schools

Recruitment and retention of teaching staff has been made difficult by the resulting bureaucratic workload imposed on teachers. Many have left the profession to seek refuge in less pressurised office jobs. Recent efforts to alleviate the pressure have focused not so much on reducing the paperwork itself but on recruiting teaching assistants to look after classes while the teachers do the admin. The mantra: “Planning, Preparation and Assessment” sounds very worthy until you realise that in undertaking the tasks under these headings, most time is spent on preparing a paper trail to provide “evidence” for the next OFSTED Inspector, showing that Government initiatives have been faithfully implemented.

Catholic schools in England and Wales are expected to follow, the Memorandum On Appointment Of Teachers To Catholic Schools issued by the Catholic Education Service on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference. A previous version of this document stipulated that for every teaching appointment, practising Catholics should be given preference, all other things being equal. However, the revision of 2003 states that the Head, the Deputy and the Head of RE should be practising Catholics but as regards other teaching staff, finding practising Catholics is only to be “a high priority”. In practice, for many secondary schools, baptized Catholics form somewhere around a half of the complement of teachers. A significant proportion of these Catholics do not practice their faith. It is ironic thatoversubscribed schools apply a draconian test of Catholic practice for the admission of students, while many staff in the same schools are non-Catholic, or Catholics who do not go to weekly Sunday Mass themselves.

An Outdated Culture of Dissent

It is far from uncommon to find Catholics teachers who dissent from the teaching of the Magisterium, especially on matters concerning the family and the regulation of birth. The spiritual and doctrinal developments of the 'John Paul II generation' seem to have passed by our Catholic staff rooms, especially in the secondary sector, without any real impact. Thus we hear of increasing clashes between 'old-school' RE practitioners and newly ordained chaplains who insist on actually having scriptural readings in the Mass, for example. Many of our senior Catholic staff belong to the 'baby boomer' generation and are surprised and shocked when evangelical young Catholics come into the school and talk openly and with conviction about Catholic doctrine and morals.

As regards school Governors, the emphasis is almost entirely on compliance with diocesan and governmental employment policies rather than with Catholic formation. So whilst a governor might fail to be re-appointed if they are related to an employee of the school—an increasing problem owing to the large numbers of non-teaching staff now recruited from the local parishes—however it would be unlikely that a Governor would find their re-appointment blocked because they spoke in favour of women priests or civil partnerships.

Owing to Government pressure on schools, the Diocesan Schools Commissions have been forced to focus on supporting schools in meeting the requirements of OFSTED simply so that Catholic schools retain a good reputation in the public domain. By and large they are successful in this, and such compliance has been one of the most powerful political arguments against the abolition of faith schools. However, this has come at the expense of promoting solid Catholic teaching.

The Loss of Integral Catholic Teaching

The deeply flawed Here I Am and Icons programmes still hold the field in English schools despite the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and some very fine alternative resources that have been developed through private initiatives. A common reason for teachers to resist any change to these more orthodox schemes is that the local diocese provides no training or support for them.

The role of Governors becomes impossible in this situation. On paper, they have wide-ranging powers over the content of what is taught in the RE class. In practice, these powers are entirely circumscribed by OFSTED, DfES regulations and the minefield of employment law. It is a myth that Governors “set the curriculum”. They do nothing of the sort. They simply carry the responsibility if government regulations are not carried out to the letter. Even in terms of the “Catholic ethos” of the school, Governors are very limited in their power to change policy in a school. All too often concerned Governors, even when they are the local parish priest, have found that, if they try to raise serious concerns about doctrinal, moral or liturgical issues, when push comes to shove, "the Diocese" will notback them.

The Impact of Secularisation

Catholic schools do retain distinctive characteristics, but sadly these are not always what we might hope for. Ideally we would hope that young people leaving Catholic schools would be going to Sunday Mass, solidly grounded in Catholic doctrine, orientated to developing a life of sacramental and personal prayer. In the case of the 'high-flyers', we would hope to see some becoming active pro-lifers, apologists and apostles: “co-workers in the truth” with the College of Apostles.

Schools can legitimately protest that the failure to achieve these objectives cannot be laid exclusively at their door. The young live in an aggressively secular society. Many do not receive support from practising Catholic parents, and of course they may rebel or fall in with peer pressure as many teenagers do. But unfortunately, many Catholic schools do act against the objectives of true Catholic formation at times.

In some areas of the curriculum, Government policy tends to make one’s “personal view” into the most important factor. “Values clarification” is often the preferred model for teaching. This means that young people are encouraged to explore various issues and clarify their own opinions and attitudes without any guiding orientation or authoritative intervention.

Impact on Practising Catholic Pupils

The impact of this approach will be more harmful in Catholic schools than in the state sector. In community schools under the control of the Local Authority, Catholic pupils are a minority whose views are often respected as such. The Catholic viewpoint on any moral issue will itself be an “alternative viewpoint” and of interest for that reason if nothing else. Whereas in Catholic schools, the approach of “looking at alternative views” mistakenly assumes that the young people have been indoctrinated with Catholic views and need to consider different viewpoints. This is a disastrous misreading of the culture in which young people grow up in Britain today.

The truth is that their “different viewpoints” will already form almost the default mindset of the young because they are those of the secular mass media, routinely hostile to Catholicism and presented convincingly, persuasively and unremittingly. One of the saddest examples of the “values clarification” approach is the utterly misguided desire of some Catholic teachers to invite a “pro-choice” speaker to give the “alternative view” on abortion, or a “gay” speaker to give the “alternative view” on homosexuality. Given the influence that popular teachers have on their students, this damage is compounded if the teacher also has a general view that the Church is too “patriarchal” or “authoritarian”.

When the content of the local sex-education programme is contrary to Catholic teaching, for example, parents who complain can find that their most difficult opponents are the senior staff, Governors and even “the Diocese”.

Practising Catholics a Minority in their Own Schools

Peer pressure against practising the faith can be intense in many Catholic schools. Whereas students in a non-Catholic school may see the priest as a figure of fun or curiosity, students in Catholic schools may find that it is “social death” to be seen talking to their parish priest or to admit to serving Mass.

If the school RE policy starts by assuming that young people will not listen to the Church’s teaching, the effect will be to further marginalise practising Catholics among the students, unconsciously aiding and abetting the pressure that they receive from their peers. This will be especially true for those from large families whose parents are known to be “difficult” over the school’s sex education policy.

Perhaps many of those within Catholic education who read this piece will be angry that we have painted a bleak and negative picture of Catholic education in Britain today. However, many parents and young practising Catholics who have recently left school will be nodding their assent vigorously, knowing that we have been realistic and honest. We are speaking out on this issue particularly for the sake of good Catholic families who, in some cases, are at the end of their tether.

In our increasingly inter-faith society we need to make clear distinctions between secular thought patterns and lifestyles and those of integral Catholicism. Muslim parents are rightly saddened and confused by the degree to which, even in Catholic schools, Church life has taken on a materialistic and hedonistic hue. They can take some convincing that our Prime Minister is not an orthodox Christian; and the fault does not seem to lie simply with them or with Mr Blair himself.

Not all Bad News

In many areas of Church life, there are indeed hopeful developments on the horizon. The new movements and communities have provided the Church with new vocations, young men and women who should in time to revitalize the Church. But with regard to Catholic education, it may be a much more difficult task to turn the ship around, perhaps it has already become impossible. The growing trend of opening "mixed faith" schools will not help, to put it mildly.

Nor will accepting the latest Government proposal/diktat about all faith schools taking in at least a compulsory 25\% quota of students of other faiths and none. The Catholic Education Service seems to be standing up for Catholic education and opposing it. Yet, as Eric Hester argues in the following pages, it may be too little too late. It is unrealistic to hope that this will be the end to Government pressure upon our schools.

One English bishop recently remarked in public that in 20 years time we may not have state-funded Catholic schools at all. Frankly, it is a question of whether they will self-destruct before the opponents of faith schooling secure enough political support to abolish them.

What Does the Future Hold?

In Faith, we often speak of the importance of the spiritual environment for the growth of the soul. We do need to consider the various ways in which the present and future generations of young Catholics will be exposed to the sunshine of the soul. It may be necessary for priests and others in the active apostolate to consider where they may most effectively use their limited time and energy.

First and most important is the family. This will always be essential regardless of the state of our Catholic schools. The strong Catholic families in our parishes need the untiring support and encouragement both of priests and of the new lay movements within the Church. They have their own battles in Britain today. House prices are being forced relentlessly upwards—not least by the prevalence of child-lite cohabiting couples ('straight' and 'gay').

The tax regime, as well as cultural mores, pressurise mothers to work even when they would prefer to do the “childcare” themselves, and regulation begins to hit them as their children are monitored by the state. Our society increasingly caters exclusively for families with one or two children. Our correspondence column has in recent months highlighted the social predicament of parents who are open to going somewhat beyond this norm. Even the new car seat regulations work against such families.

Nonetheless, the example and influence of good Catholic families is infectious. With solid backing, they can be effective apostles of other families, promoting the Gospel of Life and the teaching of Humanae Vitae. This, more than anything, will provide a firm anchor for the future.

We may find that an increasing number of families take the option of home-schooling. This can never be a solution for the majority who do not have the educational skills nor the financial security for one parent to stay at home and teach their children. Yet for some families it can be a way to safeguard the faith and morals of their children. The Church should at least respect such conscientious decisions and be a source of loyal and friendly advice.
The parish itself is also vital. As a “family of families”, the parish can provide a stable spiritual environment where the living God is encountered by a wide and diverse group of people. The parish currently faces its own battles, as the defeatist mentality of “planning for a Church with fewer priests” sees the dismantling of the parish structure itself, including the guaranteed presence of a parish priests and hence the familial relationship at the altar of God. It may be that parishes will have to offer more in the way of catechesis. At least this has the advantage of allowing legitimate freedom to draw on the many excellent materials that have been produced in recent years, of which the latest outstanding example is the CTS programme Evangelium.

Time for Reassessment?

Our editorial eighteen months ago argued that a choice concerning whether or not we should fight for the integrity of State aided Catholic education was upon us. Since then the crisis has deepened—rapidly. The historic settlement by which the State supplied 90\% of the costs of schools, which in turn contributed Catholic values to society, has been turned completely on its head. Now a dwindling Catholic laity are paying 10\% of the costs of schools that are, in many cases, less and less distinguishable from their secular counterparts.

The gravity of the situation, no doubt, varies from school to school and diocese to diocese. There are, of course, beacons of light and goodness in the gathering gloom. There are still some Catholic schools in the UK where the influence of loyal Catholic teachers, governors and priests is bearing fruit. But in all honesty, the odds are heavily stacked against them, both from external attack by the political forces of secularism and from internal neglect from doctrinal confusion and dissent in the local Church.

Everyone must make their own conscientious decision, but we know of many parish priests who are feeling forced to make a sharp assessment—in the best OFSTED fashion—of their rôle in Catholic schools. They are taking a long, hard look at the time they give to Catholic Education: Governors meetings and training days, Diocesan education meetings, and perhaps even some of the time spent with children and students in a school context. They ask themselves what positive 'outcomes' result from all this for the building of God's Kingdom.

They may decide that more fruitful outcomes result from time spent in the parish Church and the parish Hall with children, young people and parents. Historically speaking—especially recalling the battle cry: “Schools before Churches!” of the nineteenth century hierarchy— this may seem heartbreakingly defeatist. Yet, continuing the military metaphor with which we began, it may now be the most effective means of insurgency against institutionalised modernism and the ever increasing encroachment of the State on Catholic education.

Faith Magazine

November - December 2006