Catholic schools under fire


Universe Column for November 5th 2006

by David Alton

During the debate on faith schools, the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Taverne launched a tirade against Christianity and church schools. He described Catholic beliefs as superstitious and condemned the practice of teaching children about miracles and how to pray. He commended to Parliament the words of the Latin poet, Lucretius, who said “Such crime did religion inflict upon the world.”

Sadly, there are others who share Lord Taverne’s view and who fail to see the positive contribution made by people of religious faith – and, in particular, the contribution of church schools. Even sadder is our own failure, as laity, to tell the success story of  our schools and how they came about.

10% of this country’s schools are Catholic: 1,723 Catholic primary schools and 352  secondary. In addition there are 17 Catholic sixth form colleges and 156 Catholic schools in the independent sector.

Those schools were only possible because of the sacrifice and generosity of previous generations of Catholics – many of whom were from poor immigrant communities. Even today, in addition to many other forms of support, parishes contribute around £20 million each year towards capital costs.

Their achievements are significant. 42% of Catholic schools have high value-added status and above average points scores. According to Ofsted’s figures that compares with a national average of 30% for other schools.  A fifth of the top performing comprehensive schools at A level are Catholic; and Ofsted says they provide better value for money than other schools.

Many of these schools have waiting lists of families from Catholic parishes. The logic of what will happen if the Government now allow local councils to interfere with admissions policies is that even where parents have helped raise the funds to build a new school and are keen members of the Catholic parish, they would be denied a place at the local school. Think of the resentment this could easily engender. Far from encouraging community cohesion and integration we will have sown the seeds of division.

The Leeds Association of  Catholic Head teachers said in a letter to me:

“The introduction of quotas would have an adverse effect on the social and ethnic diversity of our schools as the restriction of places for Catholics would, in some instances, result in children from ‘poorer’ backgrounds being denied access to Catholic education.”

It’s a classic example of the law of unintended consequences.

And why exactly are we contemplating doing this? For the worst reasons of muddled social engineering.

The issue of Islamic schools is constantly raised.

But, if we introduce over exacting and hostile measures across the board, those schools will simply be established in the independent sector, where there will be no ability to influence admissions criteria. Secondly, in the present climate I find it hard to believe that a Muslim school will be able to ill the 25% quota with non Muslim children.

So this wrong-headed approach will have an adverse effect in dealing with the perceived problem and simultaneously antagonise a sector which has an exemplary record. Not a good example of well thought through public policy.

Without the imposition of externally imposed criteria the Catholic sector has been making a huge contribution to the development of communal co-existence and responsible citizenship.  Without external interference it already has significant diversity, with 18.2% of its pupils drawn from ethnic minorities – compared with 16.7% in the state sector.

As Trevor Phillips, the Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality said last year:

“…when we look at the ethnic mix of schools, Catholic schools tend to be far more mixed than local authority schools.”

I was also struck by comments in a letter from Anthony Spencer, Director of the Pastoral Research Centre, and who was a government advisor on education in Northern Ireland . In 1984 he founded the Belfast Charitable Trust for Integrated Education, of which I was a patron.  Like him, I believed that in the sectarian circumstances in Northern Ireland schools like Hazlewood School and Lagan College were a helpful initiative.

What is often forgotten is that these initiatives were not secular ones. Those schools are Christian schools. No compulsion was involved and no quotas invoked. In opposing the introduction of compulsory quotas, Mr. Spencer says : “The situation in England has been and remains quite different.” He says that “The lesson of integration in Northern Ireland is that it must be voluntary. It should be supported not imposed.”

Without outside interference, as I  know from personal experience of my own children’s schools, that without anyone telling them to do it,  Catholic schools frequently admit significant numbers of children from other an no-faith backgrounds.

The recent report “Quality and Performance in Catholic Schools” convincingly demolishes many of the hoary old arguments. The survey reveals that Catholic schools are socially and ethnically mixed, and they may have large numbers of pupils who are not Catholics. The high standards reported by Ofsted are not confined to the academic but also encompass positive attitudes, good behaviour, respect for others, and excellence in personal development.  The survey also noted the high degree of parental involvement in Catholic schools and in supporting children’s learning and it highlighted good governance.

If there is an issue to be addressed about whether schools with a religious character are not promoting proper respect for our democratic institutions, and pluralism and our way of life, let them be subject to inspection and let Ofsted report accordingly. Transparency and scrutiny about how schools contribute to community cohesion is not an issue Catholic schools will fear.

Instead of hiding behind covert measures designed to undermine church schools those politicians who want to close church schools should have the courage to say so honestly and have done with it. Then at least we will all know where we stand.