Set against personal struggles, moral confusion and fragmentation of knowledge, the noble goals of scholarship and education, founded on the unity of truth and in service of the person and the community, become an especially powerful instrument of hope (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI,2008)
There was a time when Catholics fought tooth and nail to build their schools. In the face of prejudice and obfuscation they persisted in their task, holding clearly before them a truth which we seem to have often forgotten today – that our kids deserve a Catholic education. And more, that a Catholic education is something distinctive, something unique, important enough to make the sacrifice and hard work necessary for bringing it about worthwhile.
And it has left us with some legacy. Over 2000 schools in the maintained sector alone, many of which were built decades ago in the midst of a birth-rate boom and before contraception culture really took hold. Buildings and land, sure, but also a living history, a testament in stone and mortar to the fortitude and sheer bloody-minded determination of those whose feats live on, even if the vision which energised them increasingly does not.
Knowing the history of our Catholic schools, of the hardships involved in securing first the freedom and then the capital to build them, makes one all the more determined to fling a defiant pair of fingers in the direction of any who would seek to restrict our right to educate our children in the way we see fit. To do any less would in some sense be a betrayal – of our faith, yes, but also of the toil of those who bequeathed to us such a gift.
But then, a squandered fortune need not be confined to a property portfolio, and there has emerged the distinct feeling that too often our schools are not quite what they say they are, and thus not quite what they were intended to be. And if we were to scratch around for a reason for this, then we might move beyond buildings and onto a question at once more fundamental: why do we do this?
The more politic, having long learned the placatory language of faith schools, will here mouth pieties peppered with hazy references to ‘gospel values’ before rehearsing clichés about academic excellence. This keeps the charade forefront, hiding the fact that too often we stop short of delivering the kind of authentic answer we could be expected to give: ‘to build the foundation [of] our spiritual development, our learning and teaching, the formation of culture and our society in Christ’ (Mgr Stock, 2012
All very well, some will say, but that is just words on a page, a pleasant stroll through a bit of theory swiftly forgotten once OFSTED rolls up and want to know why English results have taken a downturn and FSM kids did not receive enough C grades last year.
But here’s the thing: that quote, that primary mission; it’s not irrelevant. It might take an effort of the intellect to translate it into practical terms, but it nonetheless lies at the heart of what we should try to do. And it underpins why we do it. And it informs the goals we set and the decisions we make in trying to bring it about.
Catholic School DNA
Only, too often it doesn’t. Whilst we rightly acknowledge the achievements and popularity of our schools, the question of what makes them distinctively Catholic has been quietly sidelined, deemed impolite or just bloody awkward. Yet in the midst of growing costs, a poorer church, demographic change and wider cultural transformation, the issue of what our schools are and how they ought to operate is pertinent. Indeed, both the Tablet and the Catholic Herald have recently given special attention to precisely this.
More often than not, emphasis is placed on the Catholicity of schools as determined by the faith composition of those who attend or work there. Here, the statistics point to a clear trend: the number of non-Catholics attending Catholic school has risen dramatically – from 2% in 1974, when sizes were clearly more suited to constituency, to around 30% now. For some, this is evidence of bloated capacity, since if Catholic schools are about providing a Catholic education for Catholic children our size must remain correlative to the Catholic birth rate. But this gets it wrong. The religion, or otherwise, of the individual who rocks up at the start of Year 7 is not altogether crucial. If we take our mission seriously then the free offer, the encounter with that foundation, will be made regardless. Yes, Catholic children should get priority for entry – assisting in their education is why we built these places, after all – but if evangelism trumps statistics then the faith of the person who stands nervously at the gates is neither here nor there. Within reasonable limits, having fewer Catholic children need not undermine what we do, nor how we do it, and need not be an obstacle – unless some choose to make it so. Which is by far the more common problem.
As such, to suggest our schools are inhibited by the declining number of Catholic children is to grasp the wrong end of the right stick. For if we’re talking about the capacity to generate and sustain an authentic vision of Catholic education, set within the context of an authentic institution, then one must instead turn to Catholic teachers, or rather the lack thereof.
According to the CES census of 2013
, only 44% of those teaching in Catholic secondary schools are Catholic. This figure refers to ‘baptised Catholic,’ and is drawn from schools self-reporting (by ‘headcount’ and including peripatetic staff), with the accompanying incentive to inflate numbers in the hope of keeping diocesan spreadsheets looking healthy and diocesan inspectors looking pleased. If one were to refine the data to qualify Catholicity with reference to active faith and worship, then I would guess (the best I can do, since I know of no data which collects such information) that we would barely break 5-10%.
One can see why, in this context, the task of pursuing a Catholic vision of education would be quite a challenge. After all, how does one keep a Catholic school distinctively Catholic, as opposed to instinctively secular, when so very few who comprise the fabric of the school either subscribe to or live by that vision? The answer is: not very easily. The ‘Catholic’ becomes superimposed, an added ingredient to an otherwise secular model that is distinguished from other forms of school organisation primarily by how many hours RE the children get per week and how many Masses might be inserted into the school calendar in any given year. Or, as James Arthur puts it
, ‘many Catholic schools look no further than the secular models of education that surround them. They adopt a dualistic model of the curriculum, which divides education conceptually and practically into a religious section and a much larger secular part… Religious identity is eroded in these secular models, with links to Catholic educational principles becoming historical memory.’
This erosion of identity trickles down throughout the school, as one might expect: after all, how could we reasonably expect someone of no faith to lead prayer? Or uphold the truth of teachings that, in all conscience, they reject? Indeed, it would be callous to do so. And what trickles down also rises up: with so few Catholics in the system, finding leaders is a key challenge. Since school governance rightly insists that key positions are held by Catholics with an active faith who commit to living by the teachings of the Church, so the pool for leadership becomes incredibly narrow. This has an predictable impact on recruitment, but it also encourages further erosion in Catholic identity and presents another obstacle to the fulfillment of that founding vision – in such constrained circumstances, which diocese has never turned a blind eye to such requirements, choosing to appoint someone whose enthusiasm for the Mass was sparked around about the same time as the job advertisement went out, or whose commitment to the faith could be said to be lukewarm at best, where it exists at all?
Some might declare this justified, indeed moral, on the basis of inclusivity and the avoidance of discrimination, though this logic always seems to sit on the doorstep of Catholic schools and rarely moves itself off to harry other groups where freedom of association would be presumed an automatic right. Either way, it presents a challenge. Of authenticity, yes, of honesty, of course, but also of mission. If Catholic education is something distinct, more than mere secular models with some colourful festival thrown in, then having so very few of those delivering it also being adherents to it brings its consequences. Or, in the words of Pope (Emeritus) Benedict, ‘Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual.’
Which necessarily brings us to the key question: do we have too many schools? Can we retain an authentic mission within the framework in which we are forced to operate? Can we really claim to be doing what we promised to do when we first opened our schools? If we spread ourselves so thinly, can it really be a surprise that what is presented is often a pale reflection of the fullness of the vision with which we originally sought to vitalise in our schools?
These questions are not new of course, and Bishop Michael ofLancaster probed the very same themes
in his pastoral letter of a couple of years ago. Or, in his words: ‘Is it right or sustainable to expect our Mass-going population of 21,000 to support our schools and colleges in which often the majority of pupils, and sometimes teachers, are not practising Catholics? Is it time for us to admit that we can no longer maintain schools that are Catholic in name only?’
Answers to those questions came there none, but the contexts in which such concerns arose have not gone away. They might even be said to have intensified. And so we come to the point where we must at least consider another possibility.
One must admit that in so doing we are thrust under the duvet with some uneasy bedfellows. There are plenty, after all, who will happily cheer the closure of Catholic schools as an aberration in an enlightened secular society, that being their own eccentric understanding of liberty and freedom. Whilst the presence of anti-Catholic voices automatically causes one to react in anger – or fear – and assert the status-quo as a means of retaining social and political leverage, there is little reason to believe that this is what the status-quo really delivers. And as time goes on, and demographics change, we become prostrate before a change we have failed to respond to, instead busily working against ourselves by upholding within our schools precisely those secularised models that we ought properly to be countering. And if we become merely secular schools with some festivals thrown in, with enough protection to let three or four post holders be determined by faith criteria, then those who protest our existence have a point about the (in)justice of our privileges.
We need, therefore, to consider that Caesar’s shilling might have become the millstone around our neck, perhaps even the thug at our door, rather than the enabler it once proved itself to be. As I have written before
, the culture clash is making its way to our schools and we are not well placed to resist it. Whilst all focus is currently on the ‘extremism’ deemed present in certain schools in Birmingham, it is a small jump for the mischievous to pronounce that the Catholic church teaches Truth that some would caricature as equally extreme. Indeed for some Headteachers, being Catholic is already a disciplinary issue
, and legal action has been threatened for any exam board that allows anybody the opportunity to express an orthodox Catholic viewpoint. A grandstanding legal case similarly demanding the abandonment of Catholicity is surely just around the corner – the defences have already been scouted
. All things considered, it might be best to organise a suitable settlement before that becomes the case.
Of course, pulling down a temple demands none of the effort or intellect needed to bring about its original construction, and so alternative accommodation needs to be considered carefully; these might range from micro-schools, to the development of free-schools (but not under current regulations), to reconfiguring the geography of our provision, to re-envisioning the nature of our delivery, to a quiet curiosity as to whether religious orders might do for our schools
what one order in particular has done for the churches of Philomena
. It is worth noting, also, that there are nearly one hundred Catholic independent schools, whose rates of Catholicity compare even less favourably and whose contact with their state maintained counterparts tend to be, by and large, limited at best. Withdrawal from public provision would undoubtedly be difficult, but it might also prove an important social corrective, allowing us to confirm our belief that education is fundamentally the responsibility of the parents with which schools assist, a principle long since abandoned by the state sector and an important restatement of liberty in a world increasingly hostile to Catholic witness.