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William Oddie FAITH Magazine May – June 2011

Last March, Archbishop Longley gave a lecture under the auspices of the School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion, at the University of Birmingham, in which he questioned the Coalition Government decision to leave Religious Education out of the so-called English Baccalaureate, which was introduced in 2010 and is awarded to all students who achieve GCSEs (this is nothing like the much broader, far more advanced and highly prestigious French article) at grades A* - C in English, Mathematics, Science, a Humanities subject and a Modern Foreign Language.

His lecture followed a similar attack by Archbishop Nichols and a "call to action" by the Catholic Education Service of England and Wales, of which, more presently. "For centuries", asserted the archbishop, "the Church has made an enormous contribution to education in this land and beyond....

Wherever the Church is, her mission and task to educate will be found." All true enough. What he was getting round to saying was that "Failing to recognise RE amongst the humanities ....surely implies a judgment about what religious education can contribute towards the formation and education of the human person?"

Well, maybe. But the real question to be asked is this: what difference will it make to anything real? It is, of course, true that RE as the English and Welsh Church conceive it, has suffered a political setback, a loss of territory: but what difference will that make to the cause of the Catholic faith?

That is an entirely different question. The archbishop was responding to a campaign led by the Catholic Education Service (from which, if I were a bishop, I would keep my distance). In its own statement demanding the inclusion of RE in the English "Baccalaureate", the CES professes quite a high-flown idea of what is to be gained from this subject, a vision which I suspect that many of those who have undergone the reality in other words, have direct experience of what is actually on offer in our Catholic Schools, will be hard put to recognise:

"In RE pupils have the opportunity to engage not only with the most profound metaphysical questions concerning human existence and the nature of reality, but also with the most pressing ethical problems of our day. RE itself is a broad based humanity, demanding knowledge and skills in history, textual criticism, anthropology, ethics, philosophy and theology. Thus it seems aptly suited to being part of any qualification which seeks to ensure that our pupils receive a genuinely broad education. We therefore urge the government to ensure that RE be regarded as a humanity for the purposes of the English Baccalaureate."

Thus, the Catholic Education Service of England and Wales. How much the CES actually cares about "the most profound metaphysical questions concerning human existence and the nature of reality" within any recognisably Catholic perspective is, however, to put it as mildly as possible, perhaps in some doubt. The last time they hit the headlines was under the Labour government, during the passage of Ed Balls' fortunately doomed Education Bill, when after a supposedly heroic process of negotiation with the government, they almost totally capitulated. As The Catholic Herald reported it at the time, "Catholic schools must teach pupils where to access an abortion, Schools Secretary Ed Balls has said":

Mr Balls was speaking hours before a crucial vote on a Bill that would introduce sex and relationships education for children as young as five and forbid parents from removing their children from sex education classes once they turned 15.

The Bill, which was passed by 268 votes to 177 and now goes to the House of Lords, is strongly supported by the Catholic Education Service (CES), which last week hailed an amendment to the Bill that it said it had secured after "extensive lobbying". [My italics]

According to the BBC, the CES had "gone to ground" before the debate; so did Archbishop Nichols. The CES, however, re-emerged with a statement astonishingly claiming that the Bill safeguarded the rights of Catholic schools: "The provisions of the amendment will enable schools with a religious character to fulfil these requirements in the teaching of Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) Education, which includes Sex and Relationships Education (SRE)."

Actually, as we soon learned, whilst they seemed to have gained a technical opt out on referring for abortion (the CES's overall support for the Bill implied no need for non-Catholic schools to have such an opt out), this is what the CES had actually agreed to (this is the BBC's report):

Mr Balls dismissed suggestions the amendment to the Children, Schools and Families Bill, which was first revealed by the BBC News Website, represented an "opt out" for faith schools.

He told the Today programme: "A Catholic faith school can say to their pupils we believe as a religion contraception is wrong but what they can't do is therefore say that they are not going to teach them about contraception to children and how to access contraception.

"What this changes is that for the first time these schools cannot just ignore these issues or teach only one side of the argument.

"They also have to teach that there are different views on homosexuality. They cannot teach homophobia. They must explain civil partnership."

In other words, they were allowed to teach the Catholic view on these matters, but only as one option among many, and not as if it were actually true. And they had to tell children how to "access" contraception and abortion. The Bill was in the end lost, of course, through delay in the Lords, Tory Opposition, and the ineluctable arrival of the last general election. If our bishops had told the government they would instruct their schools to disobey the government over these provisions, they would have had to back down. As it turned out, our schools were saved from the Bill not by the bishops but by the Tories.

But I digress; we have heard all this before. Back to the CES in 2011, now waxing indignant over the government's recent marginalisation of RE. It will have been noted that in its windy statement about RE in the English baccalaureate, the CES doesn't point to RE as being a way in to religious faith: that wouldn't be of much interest to the government, of course, but it ought to be for Catholics. However, as has become increasingly clear over the years, it is not for the CES, or, indeed I fear for quite a few (though of course not all) teachers of RE.

Many Catholics still suppose (as I did when 20 years ago I crossed the Tiber) that one way to pass on the faith to our children is to send them to a Catholic school. I began to smell a rat when, at the convent school to which my wife and I finally sent one of my daughters, the sister who taught RE told me proudly that she didn't believe in "indoctrination". "Why not?" I said: "don't you WANT your pupils to believe in Catholic doctrine? I do: that's why I sent her to a Catholic school. Indoctrination is precisely what I was hoping for". From her reaction, you would think I had uttered some grotesque indecency.

But I almost certainly wouldn't have found any very different attitude in any of the other Catholic schools available to us: the school we had chosen was probably the best we could have hoped for. At the first school we had a look at, the sixth former who was showing us round, when I asked whether the chapel was ever open (it wasn't) and whether the Blessed Sacrament was reserved there, asked me what the Blessed Sacrament WAS.

There is, as the excellent Mrs Daphne McLeod has pointed out, a "total failure to teach the authentic Catholic Faith in Catholic schools, resulting in a staggering 90\% lapsation rate among school leavers". That's worth repeating. NINETY PERCENT: it's higher than the lapsation rate among Catholic children who go to secular schools.

And that's because Catholic education is no longer focused where it should be focused. Compare the CES's idea of what RE should be about with this:

"The fundamental needs of the human person are the focus of Catholic education - intellectual, physical, emotional, social, spiritual and eschatological (our eternal destiny). These fundamental needs can only be truly fulfilled through a rich and living encounter with the deepest truths about God and the human person."

That, of course, is by Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue, and it comes from that wonderful document Fit for Mission? Schools (p. 17, CTS Expanded edition), about which I wrote in Faith magazine when it first appeared in 2008. It was, it will be remembered, received with great acclaim in Rome, among others by Archbishop Mauro Piacenza, Secretary for the Congregation for Clergy, who said that his outfit had "studied the document with great interest and hopes it will become an example for other Dioceses in the country in their implementation of the General Directory for Catechesis and the Catechism of the Catholic Church." It didn't, of course.

Bishop O'Donoghue directed that all Catholic teachers in his diocese be supplied with a copy of the Catechism. I wonder how many other bishops followed his example? And I wonder how many RE teachers not only possess a copy of the Catechism, but use it as a constant teaching resource? This is a genuine question to which I do not know - but greatly fear - the answer.

Meanwhile, forget making RE part of the English Baccalaureate. It will do nobody any good as it is taught now: and it could do considerable harm, if any more children get the idea, as I suspect many already do, that what they are taught is really all that religion is about. But religion isn't what the CES is in the slightest interested in. It would seem that what it's worrying about is the loss of influence that would come in the wake of a large reduction in the number of RE teachers. Consider this, from the Times Educational Supplement:

“RE and music lose out in sudden curriculum changes.

"Schools are rushing in dramatic changes to their curriculums that will cut the time devoted to subjects not recognised in the English Baccalaureate, The TES has learned. Subjects such as RE and music have already been hit as schools attempt to move pupils on to courses that will count towards the controversial new league table measure.

"Heads are even prepared to break their statutory duties to teach RE as they switch resources to other qualifications, the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE) has warned.

"In a survey by the National Association of Music Teachers, 60 per cent of respondents said their departments had already been adversely affected by the EBac. Music teachers in 57 out of 95 schools said their schools plan to reduce opportunities to study music from this September.... The omission of RE from the list of approved humanities and wider arts subjects has prompted an angry response from subject associations, which fear they will be sidelined. Fears have also been raised that teachers of those subjects could face redundancy."

Well, I'm very sorry indeed about all those redundant RE teachers, truly I am, and I certainly think that more subjects should be recognised as "humanities". But I have to say that I'm much more worried about the possible decline in the teaching of music in our schools than of RE as it has mostly become. For, music really IS still a way in from the "post-Christian" secular world to religious belief.

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