This column seeks not to be party political, because there are people of faith in all parties, and people of faith who vote for all parties. And – particularly in Scotland – the Catholic tradition is actually more strongly associated with the Labour Party than with any other.
Yet in the coming election, I think we must urge to unseat this present Government, which has in any case run out of steam (as all governments do). But it is a matter of urgency to protect faith schools from being undermined, if not wholly dismantled, by the influence of Ed Balls and Harriet Harman.
Mr Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families – and Gordon Brown’s chief cheerleader – is a committed opponent of faith schools and is clearly determined to do everything to reduce or destroy them. Faith schools are being stripped of their authority and control and their ability to administer their own intake of pupils. Even more dangerously, perhaps, the Government seems to be “nobbling” the Church authorities to move towards its own secularist agenda in weakening faith schools.
Myths are deliberately perpetuated about faith schools. The most egregious of these is that sectarianism in Northern Ireland is promoted by segregated education. Ulster divisions date back to long before any organised education – it is in the culture, not the schools, where the fault line lies. The schools in Northern Ireland are havens of enlightenment – and of high educational standards.
There is also the accusation that faith schools are middleclass enclaves which deny access to working-class parents. Quite the contrary: good faith schools make it possible for parents with modest incomes to obtain a decent education for their children. I can think of scientists whose parents were unskilled workers, doctors whose mothers were cleaning ladies, lawyers whose dads were chippies on the buildings, and who owe their education to a faith school. We must get rid of Ed Balls, and the best way to do that is to vote out his regime, and hope that Michael Gove will take up the education portfolio when a Conservative government is elected. Otherwise it’s curtains for faith schools, and for the struggles of young parents trying to provide their children with a decent education.
It is poignant to read of elderly people dying of cold and neglect because of the extreme weather. Last week Jean and Derek Randall, an elderly couple in Northampton, were found dead in a freezing bungalow because they couldn’t fend for themselves in the cold. Neighbours had failed to get NHS or social services help for the Randalls.
Naturally, I was concerned for my older brother and his wife in Dublin, who are housebound when the weather turns Arctic. I rang them to ask if they were okay, and if they had food and warmth.
“Oh, we’re grand,” he said. “We have a nun who looks after us!” A kindly Dominican nun, who is involved in the parish, has taken to calling on them and making sure that they are both all right, bringing them provisions if needed.
A nice example of Christian pastoral care, I thought. I do not disparage either the NHS or the social services, or helpful groups like Age Concern; but it is warming to see pastoral care at work in such a kindly way.
It’s Frédéric Chopin’s bicentenary on March 1 – he was born in 1810 – and we shall hear a lot more of his music throughout the year.
Chopin – half-French and half-Polish – has sometimes been regarded as a minor composer because he only wrote for the piano, rather than adding symphonies and operas to his repertoire. Yet Chopin introduced a whole range of innovations – the sonata, the polonaise, the ballade and nocturne (though it is sometimes claimed that the Irish composer, John Field, who died in 1837, is the true inventor of the nocturne).
The anniversary has re-awakened, for me, an interest in Chopin’s music. The captivating Etude in E major (op 10, no 3) known as the “Tristesse” my mother used to play, set to a beautifully sad song called “Deep Is The Night”. But not all his music is sad: the mazurkas pulsate with joie de vivre. The mazurka in B flat major, (op 7, no 1) is a rapturous ode to life.
As the world knows, Chopin suffered from TB and spent a winter in Majorca with the writer George Sand: this was regarded as somewhat scandalous, but she made clear in her own memoir that her feelings for him were maternal and protective rather than romantic. He died at the age of 39, and although he lived most of his life outside Poland, he is still honoured as a great Polish patriot as well as a master of romantic music.