by David Browne
FOR SCHOOLS throughout the country 1982 has been dominated by the impact of a dramatic fall in the school-age population. It has meant a reduction in applications and intake in practically all schools, and hard decisions about the future of some. Early in the year we reported that a scheme for the reorganistion of Catholic secondary schools in Liverpol had been finalised and approved by the City Council. It has taken some sixteen years of tortuous negotiations to arrive at the plan which involves closing a staggering 38 Catholic schools and opening just 15 comprehensive schools in their place, next September.
The situation in Liverpool is complicated by the fact that none of the earlier schemes for replacing selective secondary education in the Catholic sector was accepted by the Department of Education and Science, and the effect of falling numbers compounded the problems in the meantime. This year's scheme was accepted by the DES, as we reported in August.
Throughout the year meetings were held in London to explain to parents the schemes drawn up for Catholic secondary schools there. Plans drawn up by the Inner London Education Authority and the Westminster Archdiocese involved for example the loss of two mixed secondary schools and naturally there were protests and campaigns by staff, governors and parents to keep them. Fewer Catholic schools mean greater distances to travel if children are to continue to attend a Catholic school. There were protests too from another sector of the ILEA where it was alleged reductions were hitting Catholic schools in a relatively deprived area more than in a middle-class area served by prestigious wellknown schools.
The drop in pupil numbers was expected to have its "knockon" effect on the supply of teachers. Smaller schools or fewer schools mean fey,,,: teachers are employed. The Catholic sector of teacher training has always been' prepared for their share of the adjustment, but no one expected the bomb-shell that hit teacher training in the height of the summer holiday this year.
The DES informed 14 colleges — including two Catholic colleges — that they were to cease training teachers. The proposals were modified over the following months and Newman College in Birmingham was saved but De La Salle College, Hopwood Hall, was not. The campaign to save Hopwood Hall will continue well into the new year; MPs have joined in supporting the College and a lobby of MPs is being organised for a date in February.
Earlier in the year, the closure of St Mary's, Fenham, the Catholic college serving the north-east of England, was confirmed. The decision to close was made in June by the board of governors after long consultations with the DES, because the demand for teachers had declined.
The proposals drawn up for Hopwood Hall aroused considerable public debate far beyond simply the loss of one more Catholic college should it too close in three or four years' time. Unlike the case of St Mary's, or other colleges which have disappeared in recent years, the consultations occurred after the decision was made public and it was this departure from previous practice which has been interpreted as a serious undermining of the whole Catholic voluntary education system established under the 1944 Education Act. In addition, the overall plans for teacher-training targets reduce the Catholic share of places over the whole country and drastically reduce the share in the north-west of England where the Catholic percentage of the population is greatest.
The bishops of England and Wales, at their October meeting, took the unusual step of issuing a total rejection of the government's plan and instructed their education officials, the Catholic Education Council, to work to have it withdrawn. In the meantime the college continues the work it was set up to do of providing teachers but hopes to carry on recruiting to newlydeveloped degree courses in other fields of technology, science and humanities, in a Christian education community atmosphere.
It is one of those strange quirks of irony that occur in journalism that while reporting the fears arising from the possible loss of facilities for preparing Catholic teachers, the Vatican produced an important statement on the value and role of lay Catholics in schools as witnesses of the Faith. Like all Vatican documents, this one by the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, is too long, over-wordy and in a form of language which for ordinary readers obscures and clouds the simple statements which are its greatest asset.
The document is a follow-up to The Catholic School produced by the same body in 1979. It notes that the worldwide growth in the number of Catholic lay people working in education has coincided over the last few years with a general decline in the number of priests and religious dedicated to teaching, partly because of a lack of vocations and partly because of other urgent apostolic needs.
These trends are a sign of the times, the Congregation says, and their document stresses the vocation of the lay Catholic educator as a person who exercises a specific mission within the Church by living his faith as part of the community of the school. Very few Catholics, it says, have the opportunity that the educator has to accomplish the very purpose of evangelisation: the incarnation of the Christian message in the lives of men and women.