Wed 22nd Oct 2014 | Last updated: Wed 22nd Oct 2014 at 08:20am

Facebook Logo Twitter Logo RSS Logo
Hot Topics

Comment & Blogs

Without Catholic schools our young people would be lost

Our schools must evangelise as well as educate: for some pupils they may be their only contact with the Church

By on Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Pupils wait for Pope Benedict XVI to arrive near St Mary's University College in Twickenham (CNS photo/Kevin Coombs, Reuters)

Pupils wait for Pope Benedict XVI to arrive near St Mary's University College in Twickenham (CNS photo/Kevin Coombs, Reuters)

In 2008, after Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue had published Fit for Mission? Schools, he was questioned aggressively by Barry Sheerman at the House of Commons Education Select Committee. Mr Sheerman was already on record as suggesting that “it seems to me that faith education works all right as long as people are not that serious about their faith. But as soon as there is a more doctrinaire attitude questions have to be asked.”

Mr Sheerman suggested to the bishop in his committee that Catholic schools indoctrinated children. He had not read the bishop’s paper very thoroughly but his assumption was of some interest: that education should be secular, and that religious faith was a private opinion, quite detached from the real world of utilitarian skills and a shared single common social experience, with all its implications for the approach to morality accepted by current social norms.

It was unsurprising that Bishop O’Donoghue’s paper had challenged this opinion. Bishops teach doctrine, and if they do not do so, they are not good bishops. Catholics have long asserted their right as citizens to the education chosen by parents for children. Catholics also are taxpayers; Catholics also have human rights. The difference between the situation today and that of the 19th century, when liberals agitated against “Rome on the Rates”, is that the ethos of the state schools at the time was Protestant, whereas today it is overwhelmingly secular. Catholics stand where they always have.

There is a common good in education, beyond the utilitarian norms proposed by the secularists. By opening such perspectives Catholic schools enable a choice that the totalitarian liberals of our day would close off. The skills set out in examination specifications, from literacy to numeracy, serve the proper purpose of a liberal education: the love of learning and of knowledge as its own end, with respect for the true, the good and the beautiful. In this context Catholic schools evangelise; they do not indoctrinate.

Central to evangelisation is the empowerment of the student to choose. No choice is possible if there is no vision of the whole person created in God’s image, of the reality of the supernatural, and of grace, God’s active presence offered in our lives. A child does not come to adult faith by some kind of automatic process induced by Catholic education: but a good Catholic school makes it possible for the choice to be made because there are teachers and other young Chr­is­tians whose lives provide a witness and an invitation to faith. Pope Benedict’s constant message, most recently in Madrid, is about faith as a free and personal relationship with the Lord.

Religious education therefore means holistic education in the faith, and neither simply a course for GCSE in basic theology, nor, as it is so often in secular schools, a sociological course in comparative religion. An academic course is still imp­ortant, and regardless of whether it is part of the so-called Ebacc, a misnomer for a 16-plus qualification if ever there was one, a Catholic school should be able to ensure that all study some theology: you can hardly expect a student to take the faith seriously if their understanding of it rem­ains at primary school level.

Catholic schools offer much in the way of social integration; the proportion of pupils receiving free school meals in our voluntary aided schools is high; on average, a higher proportion of Catholic schools are rated as good or outstanding than other maintained schools. These other goods should be the product of a school’s excellence. To quote the 2009 Ofsted report on the outstanding Coloma Convent Girls’ School in south London: “The strong Catholic ethos results in an orderly comm­unity where every child really does matter and a genuine concern for the development of the whole person.”

Some time ago, Bishop Malcolm McMahon said that the triangle of the Catholic home, parish and school was all important, and that Catholic schools are mission territory. For some students the school is their only contact with the Church. Bishop O’Donoghue’s Fit for Mission? gave a means by which a Catholic school could review its effectiveness in mission. There are lots of difficulties. Essential is the united support of teachers and assistants: a first task is to help the lay Catholics to fully understand and develop their own faith, and examine their own lives. Some Catholic independent schools are approaching this with care and imagination. This help must extend to non-Catholic teachers who have chosen to work in a Catholic school. Parents must be helped, and for that a core of committed Catholic families is essential. It is a reasonable thing to give such some priority over entry to the school. Most Cath­olic schools include many non-Catholic families. These are not admitted as some kind of secular quota, but because they are attracted to what a Catholic school offers, and that should be determined before entry.

What about the opportunities offered by the present Coalition Government? I saw some of the difficulties of present arrangements as a senior governor of a Catholic secondary school some years ago. They were multiple. The poor drafting of the original Academies Bill offered no understanding of the trusteeship and property issues in the voluntary-aided sector. But those problems have been solved. The freedom and responsibility offered is attractive; and so is the funding. Money will follow the student. The position would be secure from the kind of interference threatened in 2008 when a Secretary of State was frustrated by Archbishop Vincent Nichols in an attempt to force quotas of non-Catholics even on to schools without sufficient room for Catholic families. Since the present scheme is very close to that conceived under the Blair government, there should be some prospect for long-term stability: the thread actually goes back to the Direct Grant schools of 50 years ago.

Few Catholic schools have so far been able to head for academy status, though the number includes the London Oratory School. For the future, one could envisage a vibrant Cath­olic sector of academies and free schools, state-funded independents in effect, with warm co-operation for the common good with each other and with Catholic independent schools. But there is one final condition for such a future. Basic to the compact following the 1944 Education Act, on which modern Catholic education is foun­ded, was the right to free or subsidised transport. The schools of a minority are always likely to be a greater distance for the families concerned. This right is now under threat. It is on this front that the energies of all concerned should now be concentrated.

  • Mikethelionheart

    It is time we, the Catholic community of England, abolish the Catholic school system. Our schools are damaging the faith tremendously. I am an RE teacher and have worked in 3 Catholic schools. Quite simply, Catholic school head teachers could not give a stuff about the Catholicism of their schools. They are interested in their own career only. They pay only lip service to the Catholicity of the school and, sometimes, not even that.  The last school I was in was employing non Catholic RE teachers which is blatantly against the rules of the Bishops. Another common trend of Catholic head teachers is an obsession with expansion. The school I am now in was 92% Catholic 3 years ago. 70% Catholic now.
    I spent 12 years in the Catholic education system and after that time I could not even say the Hail Mary. I hated the faith because I associated it with school and therefore an authority that I despised and left the faith as a teenager, not to come back to it for another 15 years.
    I see this exact same scenario happening in every Catholic school I go to.
    Our schools are becoming less Catholic. The (so called) Religious Education is garbage and taught by people who are mostly ignorant of basic of the church. I have been in one school that employed an atheist as an RE teacher, another where the RE teachers were other subject teachers ‘making up a few hours’ and others (most RE teachers in Catholic schools in my experience) who are pretend Catholics. They have been baptised, pretend they are practising and get the job. We had an RE department staff meeting last week. Three of our five members were unaware there had been a recent change in the interpretation of the Mass, one of them was the Head of Department.
    The worst thing is the attitude of the churches and the parents who think if they send their kids to a Catholic school then they don’t have to bother teaching the faith, it’s done by someone else. The belief in a ‘holy trinity’ of home, school and church is an idealised fantasy. Only the church and home can teach the faith. 
    I have taught in one non Catholic school and the Catholic children there had a clear sense of identity of being Catholic. They were really hungry for me to teach them about the faith. Non Catholic children showed amazing interest also (although I have to say in all humility that is because I’m a damn good teacher). This contrasts starkly with the indifference and hostility in a Catholic school.
    Close our schools. It will help strengthen the faith.

  • Anonymous

    It seems to me that most of our children are lost WITH Catholic schooling, whatever that may be in 2011. They get taught just about everything about other faiths and precious little about The Catholic Church, her history and beliefs. There are exceptions to this of course, but the rule these days is; get “Catholic” schooling; lose the faith.

  • Bridie O’Shea

    Oh and Leo Chamberlain would know a lot about this as head of an independent school that certainly was not for the masses. This article stinks of hypocrisy, he writes as someone who knows a lot about Catholic schools and very little about Christian ones.

  • ms Catholic state

    I hate to have to criticise Catholic schools….but there is a hidden danger in them.  Many of the children attending Catholic are children of anti-Catholic Catholic parents…..and they have absorbed their parents antipathy to the faith…and pass it on to the other pupils.

    I wish sincerely that the schools would tackle this problem and teach the students to know and love their Faith.  Look at the way most Muslim teenagers love and respect their faith.  This sadly is not so evident among Catholic school children.

  • Parasum

    “It is time we, the Catholic community of England, abolish the Catholic school system. Our schools are damaging the faith tremendously.”

    Well said. Catholic schools, in the US or here, seem able only to create future atheists. Unless Catholics go somewhere really good (like St. John Fisher), they seem to be totally clueless about the Faith. Confirming Catholics when they are far too young to have much clue about what’s going on seems to me completely pointless, and to verge on sacrilege. It’s become nothing more than a rite of passage, something to “get done”. It really would be much better to join it with baptism, which is how it used to be celebrated. Then those who wanted to be Catholics, could join of their own free will, without being chivvied into taking part in rites neither they nor their parents understand or appreciate. This would mean major changes in how the Church organises its life at present, but that kind of turmoil is surely preferable to creating more agnostics, atheists, unbelievers, heretics by putting them through the sacrament-mill.

    If we carry on as we are now, we will turn into the C of E.      

  • cl

    Is all I can say is “go and visit The John Henry Newman School” in Stevenage, Hertfordshire. The Head is a true fatherly presence to the whole school community. As a community, staff, pupils and parents alike, seek to live out the Gospel and keep the faith alive from the very simple everyday events and routines to the bigger manifiestations of Gospel values… and all in a VERY HUMBLE MANNER. Indeed there are many members of staff who are non Catholics and they show sincere respect and many say they are enriched by the goodness and Christian lifestyle of the school – or better, of EACH INDIVIDUAL of the school. I can understand that you have not experienced this in your schools and this is sad. But this is by no means a reason to “abolish” Catholic schools. Then sort those ones out which need sorting out. I know very well of Catholic schools that are struggling and of Heads AND staff, and parents that are in those schools for the wrong reasons. What are you doing about it apart from expressing deep anger and outrage against ALL Catholic Education. That means against me, and against all those who I know BUT you don’t… who ARE LIVING A TRUE CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE in our school. God’s presence is felt and experienced there. And NOBODY can take that away. Visit JHN, Stevenage.

  • Mikethelionheart

    There are always exceptions to rules.

    The 10% running costs are churches have to pay for the upkeep of Catholic schools (soon to be not-very-Catholic-schools thanks to declining percentages of Catholic students) would be better spent making our churches vibrant centres of community life.

    As to what I am doing about it. I run 3 courses in my church, a catechising course, Christian meditation and an evangelising group. Not to mention being a catechist for RCIA and confirmation. 

    By the way, in our church’s confirmation group this year, there are 40 candidates. 20 of them go to local private schools, only 20 of them go to the local Catholic high. There are 140 pupils in year 9 of our local high school, but only 20 of them are on the confirmation course. There is only one confirmation course in the area as the churches decided to do a joint group. Not a good show is it?

    Rather than getting irate about people pointing our that the ship is sinking I recommend you help in finding ways to stop the water flooding in.

  • cl

    As I said, not at all in an irate manner, “come and visit John Henry Newman School”. You may find that your comment “It is time WE, the Catholic community of England abolish the Catholic school system” is a very legitimate response to a very clear and realistic problem which YOU and perhaps YOUR community are living in your part of the world. Indeed, the issue needs to be addressed. By no means can it be addressed by generalising and abolishing “THE CATHOLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM”. We are experiencing God’s presence among us in our school each day. In my travels through life I have come across numerous parishes that reflect the way of life you describe (re. the RC schools in your area): poor doctrinal teaching, absurd liturgies, very career minded priests and some laity who are in positions again for the wrong reasons. Do we abolish “all” catholic parishes? A far fetched example, perhaps, but I only what to say that YES, I too have seen that “poverty” in schools and it MUST be seen to. BUT the answer is not to abolish Catholic schools.

  • Maryp

    As a Catholic teacher, catechist and parent, I feel that sadly, few Catholic schools fulfill the purpose for which they were originally built, which was to propagate the faith.  There are exceptions. It all very much depends on the Headteacher. The Oratory in Reading, under the guidance of Clive Dytor, is firm in the faith, as is Ampleforth but both of these are fee paying.
    Living in the US now the picture is depressing familiar. The bright spots on the horizon come from home schooling. In my parish many of the children are home-schooled; speaking as a catechist, they are bright, articulate, show maturity beyond their years and are absolutely firm in their faith. 

  • Mikethelionheart

    I think the answer IS to abolish Catholic schools.

    Unless, of course, the people at the top will start listening to the people at the bottom and start putting the faith ahead of their own interests.

    And pigs might…..

  • cl

    I find that the answer you give is by no means a solution and in no way addresses the problem from its roots in an intelligent and Christan way. I am somewhat surprised to read this from a Catholic RE teacher. Problems are identified, called by name and dealt with. INDEED there are serious, VERY serious problems, in MANY scools. I couldn’t agree with you more. But by no means the solution is found by wiping out a whole reality. It is not in the logic of the Gospel and therefore neither of the Church. This is why I find your very comments “Abolish the Catholic School system” not in harmony with the thinking and living experience of the Church and of the Gospel.
    On this very forum some contributors have expressed great anger and have referred to Fr Leo Chamberlain as a “hypocrite”. The man has written an article for a Catholic paper praising the good work of many people in Catholic education! I feel that the anguage used against him is not at all in the spirit of this “Catholic Paper” and disturbs me profoundly as a reader. This is not a forum in which one can rip another apart. Discuss, debate criticise, of course. But I find the whole way in which many of these comments written very disturbing and doesn’t help us to identify ourselves as Catholics/Christians.
    I close now and withdraw from this forum -but not wthout saying that many people have GIVEN THEIR LIVES for the cause of Catholic Education and Schools in the UK. I know of some of those. Sadly they are no longer with us. But they continue to watch over us from above and guide us. Perhaps it is worth looking into the history of your school…. perhpas your school has a few guardian angels that might welcome a prayer or two for their intercession. God bless!

  • Mikethelionheart

    “I find that the answer you give is by no means a solution and in no way addresses the problem from its roots in an intelligent and Christan way.”

    Please do not be so vile and nasty as to call my/our Christianity into question. I’m sure you can discuss in a more adult and Christian way.

    “I find your very comments “Abolish the Catholic School system” not in harmony with the thinking and living experience of the Church and of the Gospel.”

    See above.

    I have not noticed any vitriol against Fr Leo Chamberlain.
    Given to constant aggression and vitriol that Catholic receive on a daily basis in this country I would expect Fr Chamberlain to be thicker skinned.

    Rather than criticise the fact that so many of us have negative comments about Catholic education has it actually occurred to you that there might, maybe , actually, be something in what we are saying, y’know, seeing as so many of us seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet.

    By the way, with reference to an earlier comment about me making conclusions based only on my narrow view, over the last few years I have been involved in schools (Catholic and non Catholic) and churches in Chester, Flintshire, Shropshire, Stoke-on-Trent, Warrington, Wallasey and Liverpool. That’s across FOUR dioceses.

    There IS a problem.

  • Sr Sandals

    Whilst full of respect for Fr Leo and for teachers who are attempting to fight the good fight without despairing, I too firmly believe that, apart from starting to provide an education service of the highest quality to the poorest and most neglected in the roughest areas of Britain, I think that the Church does itself a grave disservice in the current set-up. It is creating apathetic non-believers, and it cannot help itself.

    It must be abolished and start over again as an urgent A&E unit to attempt to hand on some semblance of faith, hope and charity, but only to those who need urgent help to survive the car-crash of the worst of modern life: moral depravity, crime, abuse, spiritual & emotional poverty, media-obsession, exceedingly poor parenting and lack of role models.

    For the rest, I agree with posters that the Faith can only be handed on by parents, and that this MUST be so. If a parent doesn’t take that responsibility then they neither care enough about their faith or their child, or both. 

    Families must pray together in order to see each other as unique individuals before God made in his image and likeness. Yes, this is true education, this is truly handing on the faith, and ANY individual, whether Catholic or not, craves this knowledge, which is both a mystery, requiring faith, and yet the key to existence. To be shy about it is not an option. To “have faith” that someone else can or ought to do this for you is not just an utter dereliction of duty and a total failure as a human being, it is and has been a disaster for the Faith. Truly handing on the faith to your children is, yes, home education, and yes, it contradicts everything that “schooling” seems to think it is.

    Schooling and education are not the same thing. If you wish to understand the truth behind what is the purpose of schooling (other than a blind faith in it, a faith that ought to be reserved for God alone, and not put into “systems”, even ones which the Church has involved itself with), then you would do well to educate yourself about its roots in 18th century Prussia, a system of social control only which has been imitated the world over to actively suppress true education and to promote dependence on the state for everything.

    The Church must constantly have the humility to understand that the constant attack of evil on its actions, including the corruption of any ‘good’ its attempts to do, is something that ought to give it pause to see whether or not it is doing the right thing. The numbers of confirmations, the low numbers of those who believe and practice their faith, should have rung alarm bells among church leaders decades ago – this isn’t leadership, it is a horror show. Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, Henry VIII, the Cecils, the Cromwells, even Dawkins, couldn’t have done better themselves then the catholic authorities. We too are to blame, we haven’t exactly been lions led by donkeys, more like sheep led by foxes.

    There’s a war going on and we all seem to lack the education to see with our own eyes. What we don’t lack is the schooling – we have all been so fiendishly stupefied and dumbed down by our schooling that we just shrug and hope it gets better. Wake up, there is no ‘better’. The only hope is home education by good strong catholic families – all the infomation and resources are available at the click of a mouse – so what on earth is this “schooling” system all about, and where precisely does Jesus mention it in the Gospel?

  • Clare H

    What is missing is Catholic leadership.  In our local Catholic school, the chairman of the governors has never been seen at mass, but this does not seem to perturb the PP at all. 

  • Clare H

    What is missing is Catholic leadership.  In our local Catholic school in Oxford, the chairman of the governors has never been seen at mass, but this does not seem to perturb the PP at all.