Hugh David applauds a brilliant initiative by the Bishop of Lancaster
Good to hear that others are flying the flag for the cause of faith schools. Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue in Lancaster, where I grew up, has urged Catholic schools in his diocese to remember why they are different from their secular counterparts.
It is not, he says, all about their undoubted successes in exam results subject of the usual wave of mild parental hysteria last week with the publication of the Primary School league tables. And its not about the "good discipline" and "nice manners" that my cab driver associated with Catholic schools when he dropped me off at the gates the other day to pick up Gabriel, nine, and Bruno, six. (My mother always used to be the last to arrive to pick me up and so I am determined to get there on time and not leave them hanging around like abandoned suitcases.) No, to echo Bill Clinton's election campaign slogan, its about the faith, dummy.
The pressures, as the bishop makes clear, to perform in examination league tables are great. Of course, every parent you meet tells you that s/he knows full well that these tables are a pile of rubbish, making no allowance whatsoever for the educational levels of the kids when they arrive. I'm with them up to that point. When they start repeating the tired old line about tables simply showing you which schools are in middle-class areas, though, I do get a bit irritated.
It has become a kind of secular orthodoxy that children from middleclass homes are brighter than those from poorer families. I've just been reading Eve Gamett's The Family from One End Street to Bruno. Back in 1937, Garnett knew that tall, thin, freckly Kate Ruggles, the daughter of a washerwoman and dustman, could be an educational prodigy. No doubt the book is regarded as terribly nonPC nowadays, but I see no reason to doubt its insights.
But, at the same time as they decry league tables, most parents are hooked on them. It's the educational equivalent of watching Katie and Peter: Unleashed on ITV2 (if you don't get the cultural reference, congratulations) while pretending to all and sundry to be one of BBC Four's six regular viewers.
So, good on you bishop. Let's get exam/performance table mania in proportion. Down at St Peter's we've just put our illuminated stable in the small front garden outside reception. It leaves no room for doubt among passersby over what our school is about, though Gabriel was wondering who would come on Christmas morning to remove the glass and put the Baby Jesus in the currently empty manger.
The approach of Christmas gives the bishop's words a particular edge since many schools seem to struggle nowadays to "adapt" the Nativity story to the secular times we live in. If it is a non-denominational school, we can't really complain. But the tendency to trim has been creeping into our faith schools of late. Too many Santas popping up, and reindeers instead ofsheep in the stable.
One thing I did worry about, however, reading the bishop's words, was his reference to the role of the faith school in instilling the basics of Catholicism in "pupils and parents" for whom the local Catholic school "is their only experience a Church". As I understand it and I wasn't around at the time of R A Butler's 1944 Education Act, so may have this wrong our government gives money to the Catholic Church to run schools because there is a demand from Catholic parents for that kind of education for their children. However and this may sound harsh, but you can rest assured some Whitehall mandarin will be having the same thought if we start using that state cash to educate children who aren't Catholic, then the question must surely be asked: why is the government giving it to the Church? Surely it should be used by the state to run straightforward secular schools instead.
It is hard to claim that parents and pupils who have no other experience of Catholicism outside their Catholic school are Catholics. And if they are not Catholics, they should be educated elsewhere. Yes, include the odd Anglican or child with one, under active Catholic parent, but once you start taking significant numbers of non-Catholics into our schools, you start having to make allowances in the religious education curriculum and thereby inevitably dilute the core purpose of the place. And once that has gone, there is no earthly reason why the government should give us a cent to run Catholic schools.
perhaps I'm overstating the case, but I'll be interested to hear your thoughts via the post bag.
You can e-mail me at editorial@ catholicherald.co.uk, marking your letters for the attention of Hugh David. You must all be busy with your Christmas cards because the flood has this week turned to a trickle. Simon Platt, a father of two, though, writes with an interesting proposal to deflect attacks from secularists on faith schools. "If I were in charge, there would be a sort of voucher system something like that which I understand works well in Sweden which would give parents the influence that would allow them to exercise their Christian responsibilities as primary educators of their children, independently of the state. I couldn't do it on my own, though: the bishops would have to support and encourage the emergence of truly Catholic, truly independent, truly high-class schools."