Pupils at Britain’s schools are now back after the Easter break – and education is very much around on the political agenda too. It’s an open secret that all is not well. What is called “grade inflation” has made the exam results suspect.
Is it really possible that the students are getting annually more and more brilliant, as shown by all those “A”s that are listed year after year? People are doubtful, especially when the newspapers publish examples of examination questions. One showed a map of Hawaii, with various volcanoes marked, along with their heights, and pupils had to state which was the highest.
There are other problems in schools too. A recent survey of teachers revealed much fear of violence from pupils – and from parents. Family break-up is at the root of the problem here. For many children, school is the first and only place where they have experienced any sort of consistent discipline, and they have never been taught to contain anger or obey community rules.
Catholics face a particular issue, which will be raised with increasing force as the General Election draws nearer. There is political pressure on Catholic schools. Jealous of their success, campaigners denounce such schools as “elitist” because most of their pupils come from Catholic families. It is claimed that this means that the schools have a disproportionate number of children from church-attending, well-functioning, united families, and are thus effectively “middle class” in style and attitude.
This debate has an absurd quality to it. Catholic schools are popular. Non-Catholics seek to get places there for their children because they like what they see: a community atmosphere, uniforms, traditions. But the schools were founded by the Church, and allocated public funds on the basis that they would serve the needs of Catholics.
Of course, the Church seeks to serve all and is glad to welcome non-Catholic pupils if there are spaces available. But is it fair to demand, as some politicians are now doing, that the Church should not “discriminate”? If Catholics cannot have priority, why do the schools exist?
The plan seems to be to force Catholic schools to take non-Catholic pupils on a large scale, and then to establish that such children have a “right” not to learn Catholic doctrine and morals, and thus to force the schools to abandon all Catholic teaching.
The paradox is that, within the Church, it is known that our schools are not all they should be. Most teenagers at Catholic secondary schools are not practicing, and there are sometimes religious textbooks and forms of sex education that are not in accordance with Church teachings.
Added to this are the problems of finding enough well-qualified practicing Catholic teachers – and the realities of life in the Catholic community, which has its own share of marriage break-up and divorce along with everyone else.
Much to ponder as the schoolchildren teem on to the London buses and tubes on their way to school at the start of this Summer Term.