I have written extensively about Catholic education on this blog, and for those who have somewhere between little and no interest in the topic, I can only apologise that I am about to do the same again. Whilst I intend, in future, to write about what a specifically ‘Catholic’ education looks like, I thought I’d throw down a few more comments about the cultural and political vice which Catholic schools, both now and increasingly in the future, continue to find themselves in.
Firstly, and most predictably, Catholic schools shall come under increasing pressure to conform to metroliberal mores, particularly with regards to a) the teaching of sexual ethics; b) the eschewal of the presumption of objective truth in teaching. The latter is a pedagogic matter very much inherent to current teaching culture and practice, whilst the former is primarily political and has reared its head rather prominently of late. Whilst Michael Gove appeared, in his response to the latest bout of attacks, to give Catholic schools some breathing space by stipulating that the Equality Act did not apply to the school curriculum, what he actually did was identify the next obstacle for activists and campaigners to seek to overcome. When that goal is achieved, Catholic schools will have little place else to go – appeals to ‘conscience’ and ‘freedom’ will fall flat on those who have assumed unto themselves the status of moral infallibility and who have pronounced, ex cathedra, that no deviations from their dogma shall be permitted. In the meantime, the slow drumbeat of opposition will further weaken the any hopes of countering the narrative – heads of unions trotting out myth and outright slander, politicians doing much the same, and even the (suspected/alleged) use of OFSTED inspections to further promote the ‘progressive’ judgment.
This will be the battle that makes the headlines. And this is the battle that would be the most comfortable to lose.
For in reality, it would not prove all that difficult a transition for many Catholic schools to make. Indeed, it would hardly be controversial to say that this is where many Catholic schools are already at anyway, such that bending the knee to this new master would only be a matter of doing it publicly rather than in private. In short, this would be the easier step – it would provide very little body shock to the Catholic schools system.
By contrast, there is emerging an alternative pressure from pretty much the opposite direction, one rarely talked of amidst caricatures of decline but also one with the potential (or so it seems to me) to be rather more potent. This is the increasing presence and prominence of a re-enervated laity, and indeed of a newly energised clergy, particularly among the younger generations. Whereas older generations, where they cared, might have avoided conflict by merely gritting their teeth or (which is not at all uncommon) abandoning Catholic schools altogether, there seems to be blossoming a generation with more of a stomach for the fight. They want their Catholic institutions to be, well, Catholic, and they’re willing to challenge those whose stewardship has lead to a weakening of this sense of identity and, indeed, mission. In short, should the new ‘creative minority’ of younger Catholics prove more demanding of their schools then this would apply a new pressure on the Bishops, and indeed the schools themselves, that would prove far more uncomfortable than the slogans thrown about by the ‘progressive’ brigade.
The reason for this is that the demands of the Catholics would prove, in many cases, more alien than the demands of the ‘progressives’, meaning that those demands would also be more difficult to assuage, particularly from within the current legislative framework within which Catholic schools operate. Many Catholic schools have simply outgrown their supply lines, such that they have effectively become non-distinct save for the occasional mention of ‘gospel values’ in the Mission Statement and a few superficial dainties to keep the governors on board (where, of course, the governors care). Further, whilst the Equality Act has made recruitment more of a sticky issue than it previously had been, nonetheless many schools have essentially jettisoned the consideration of faith in the employment process (except, perhaps, in R.E.) and plump primarily for teachers who promise an exam results boon. As such, the staff body of many Catholic schools is very rarely majority Catholic, let alone actively Catholic, and often contain voices that outwardly undermine any claim to the label ‘Catholic’, thus presenting obvious problems for instigating, developing, cultivating or promoting an authentically Catholic ethos.
Indeed, it has been suggested at various points that the biggest problem facing Catholic schools is not the diminishing number of Catholic children, nor the diminishing number of Catholic families, but rather the issue of Catholic staff. This is not all down to individual schools. The Bishops have rarely taken anything near an active enough interest in the formation of Catholic teachers, just as they have not taken anywhere near enough active interest in the development of the school curriculum nor, indeed, the creation and provision of suitable qualifications, particularly in Key Stage 4 and 5 (something that could easily be rectified).
Whilst there is an element of horses and stable doors about this, the sum effect is that the emergence of an energetic and demanding laity and/or clerical class, which is basically where the church is heading, will cause the greater body shock for Catholic schools. Trapped between these two poles, one demanding what schools can neither genetically nor legislatively deliver, the other demanding that which would be rather easy to deliver though not whilst remaining ‘Catholic’ and/or whilst taking public funding, one suspects they will simply buckle – and dioceses will have to rethink the way it helps parents bring their children up in the Catholic faith. It would not be too alarmist to say that, in a setting in which the battle for Catholic education has been definitively lost, the models from which the Bishops could learn most are those networks that both educated and catechised the faithful through the recusancy era of our forefathers in faith (more of potential ‘solutions’ in a later post).
As such, that the continuing existence of specifically Catholic schools remains in jeopardy is beyond question. Don’t be surprised, however, if, contrary to popular caricature, the final blow is delivered from within rather than without.