Lost amid the headlines about the latest tragic deaths of British soldiers in Afghanistan, political speculations about the General Election that will probably come in May, and talk of the Copenhagen summit, there have also been features in the newspapers about successes and failures in our schools.
“Half of children in 85 schools fail tests in English and math,” said one headline. A London newspaper featured the capital’s top 10 primary schools. Interestingly, almost half of these were Catholic schools.
Now, we need to take any talk about either “top 10” or “failing schools” with a pinch of salt. The present Government has become obsessed with points and marking things on charts. Recently, there have been revelations about filthy hospitals, which had been given top awards for cleanliness, and the system of tests for children which results in schools being deemed a “success” or “failure” is recognised by most teachers – including those who head up the “successful” schools – as having many flaws.
Nevertheless, the media reports highlighted something which is something much discussed among parents – the place of Catholic and Church of England schools in the scheme of things.
These schools are extremely popular, and heavily over-subscribed. Most Catholic priests have become used to the reality of parents approaching them to baptise children who are already toddling about. As the parents start talking about baptismal arrangements, they also start inquiring about the local school and how soon the child can be put on the waiting-list! Some parishes have taken to insisting that places at schools will go to children whose parents show evidence of genuine commitment to the Church – seen, for example, in baptising their little ones within weeks rather than years of birth, and in regular attendance at Mass.
Noting this, some magazines and newspapers have published features suggesting ways of getting your child into a Catholic school: make sure you are known to the parish priest, show up early for Mass, volunteer for any and every job from serving coffees to stacking hymn-books, sing loudly, hovering around for an after-Mass chat, etc.
The popularity of Catholic schools rests not just on their academic achievements, but on other things less tangible but important to parents, such as a sense of community, involvement in attractive traditional events such as Christmas carol services and Nativity plays (currently under threat, in many other schools, as supposedly being offensive to atheists, etc.), uniforms, and commitment to identifiable values and standards of behaviour. Parents like to see children praying and attending church, and they enjoy a sense of attachment to a great tradition.
It is all a far cry from the 1930s and 40s, when there was sometimes a reluctance to use church-linked schools, which were seen as old-fashioned or deficient in equipment or opportunities for study in a wider range of subjects. Some Catholic schools were seen as less attractive than the local State schools, and some Bishops were worried that this would mean that Catholic children were sent to schools that had no link with the Church and would thus lose their souls. In at least one diocese, Catholic parents were threatened with being denied the sacraments if they refused to send their children to Catholic schools! Today, Catholic schools are well-funded by the taxpayer and have facilities that match all other schools. There are no fees to pay, although Catholics do have occasional collections at church to help supplement the public funds.
Do children learn the Catholic Faith in these schools? From my experience in visiting many schools at the primary level (ages 4-11), and also from reading the essays sent in by children participating in Religious Education projects, the answer is, in general, “yes” – although, of course, it varies. I have been to a great many Catholic primary schools, and joined in the prayers that begin the day. Seeing children cross themselves and chorus the familiar, time-honoured prayers, together with an invocation to the school’s patron saint, is moving, as is hearing them sing hymns and seeing the statues of Our Lady, the crucifixes, and the pictures of the Pope, that define the school and give it a warm atmosphere of faith.
At the secondary level – well, all the evidence points to the fact that the majority of school-leavers do not attend Mass with any regularity. There may be very poor Religious Education given by teachers who either do not practise the Faith or are openly opposed to Catholic moral teachings. Or there may be opposition from parents, who announce that they do not want their children “indoctrinated”, or from parents who are simply not interested. Students may think of the Church as something that the school holds as important, but they may personally regard it as old-fashioned and oppressive. There is a need for action there.
There is a problem when the parents either do not practise the Faith or practise it intermittently. Catholic families are not immune, either, to all the pressures that face all families today. No one can afford to be smug and announce that “in our family, everything is fine – we are a Great Traditional Family!” Everyone is affected by the morals and atmosphere of our common life.
What about parents who are not really committed at all – those who have gone through a sort of sham in getting their children baptised, whose only aim was to get their offspring into what was seen as the best school in the district? Well, God works in mysterious ways. Sometimes the growing faith of a child, nurtured by Catholic contacts and visits to a church that becomes dear and familiar, can begin to affect a family. Sometimes, a lone parent struggling to cope finds in a local church a source of support and help, and faith grows in an atmosphere of friendship. Sometimes, even poor Religious Education awakens an interest that is revived later on.
Despite – no, because of – their academic success, Catholic schools face new threats today. Denounced as “elitist” and threatened with plans to introduce compulsory sex-education that could mean they will be made to instruct in ways contrary to the whole Catholic ethos, Catholic schools are faced with Government pressure on a considerable scale. While pretending to be supportive, Government spokesmen have made it clear that much of what makes a school Catholic – its commitment to God and the Church, its links with old traditions and long-cherished values, its sense of discipline and structure based not on current notions but on timeless ones – ought to change. Under the guise of “making Catholic schools more open to everyone” there is going to be pressure to cut away at precious aspects of Church-based schooling. Well-to-do parents with strong structures of their own will find ways of coping – they will pay for their children to attend fee-paying schools, or educate them at home. For the more fragile families, for the poor – and for the common good of the whole community where the presence of an active Church means so much – we must defend our Catholic schools.