on an educational topic for some time since he had been made Shadow Leader of the House of Commons.
He paid tribute to the teachers and the local education authorities for their dedication and professionalism. He also thanked the educational Press and correspondents.
He welcomed the statement by Mrs Williams that the Department of Education would not approve any more schools of more than 2,000 pupils. "Amen to that", he said.
He said he regretted that religious education had been left out of the great debate on education which the Prime Minister had started.
"I was concerned that we should discuss religious education in the county schools where the majority of our children are educated," he said. "Religious education has been treated as a Cinderella in the past but a transformation is on the way."
He remarked that he had never seen meetings so well attended as those on religious education. "People are really worried not only about religious education but there is a deep anxiety about the future of religious and moral values and the moral future of the nation.
"We must never forget that at the basis of our democratic system lies a moral system. Democracy is not a mechanism. Take that moral basis away and the institution will crumble into dust."
Turning to the question of Catholic schools, Mr St JohnStevas said they had both an historical and a philosophical basis.
"The Churches were there first in the educational sphere, long before anyone had ever heard of a Department or a Minister of Education and Science or even a Board of Education.
"The Churches were there providing and educating moral and cultural values for the people. They are part of our history, and we must build on that history."
The philosophical basis, he said, was that education was the duty of parents. "The education of the child belongs inalienably to the parents of that child.
"It may be that in the complex conditions of today's society this must be delegated to the State, but the right inheres in the parent, and from the Secretary of State to the anonymous dinner lady we are all here to serve the parents, and our attitudes and institutions should reflect that fact and not try to dominate or lord it over the parents.
"Catholics have a unique contribution to make; they are to provide moral and religious education in the round. Catholic apologists have put forward the idea of the ethos of the school since Catholic emancipation, and that is not an outmoded idea.
"You cannot put moral or religious education into a department for two or three periods a week and expect it to work. Let us not lose sight of that truth that Is the justification of the Christian school.
"It can give that kind of formation which no other school can give, and that choice should be available and open to all."
Rejecting the idea that the Catholic school was a divisive institution, he said that society was not in danger of falling apart through cultural diversity — quite the reverse.
"We are in danger of being stifled by cultural homogenity. There are plenty of institutions making for uniformity and common attitudes.
"We have sufficient strength to absorb religious schools, and this goes not only for Christian schools but for other faiths too.
The only area where this argument did not hold true, he said, was in Northern Ireland, where the particular conditions suggested that there could be a move towards sharing rather than moving apart.
"But having said that, how important it is that the Christian school should be an open school, conscious of others' views and beliefs.
Mr St John-Stevas attacked the move to get rid of Catholic schools altogether. He said: "I would not give up a single religious school in this country if it could possibly be avoided.
"Of course we have to take into account the falling birth-rate and the question of resources, but if it is viable, then for heaven's sake hang onto it. Once it goes it is gone for ever. Bring it into relation with the needs of the times but never let go of it."
On the problem of religious education, he said that although it was easier to teach it in a denominational school than a county school there was still a lot of common ground.
"It is perhaps the most difficult task in the whole of education, and therefore it is odd that it is left to just anyone.
"In the end it comes down to teachers. There is no attack from the outside; the threat is decay from within. The threat is the shortage of teachers, so we must see that there is an adequate supply of properly trained teachers."