but Catholic educators could still reverse the decline of recent years
ago a number of Catholic prep school heads came together in an informal group and arranged to meet once a year to discuss matters of mutual interest.
It was from this group that the organisation the Catholic Independent Schools' Conference developed. For some reason our discussion in those years in the Thatcherite eighties was always focussed on one issue: "What it means to be a Catholic School".
This was and remains a very difficult question to answer satisfactorily. We all liked to believe that our schools were caring and had a special focus on pastoral concerns. However, in truth Catholics could not claim a monopoly on this. Indeed with some of the recent scandals in our schools we would need to question whether we do as good a job as many of our non-Catholic secular sister schools.
Thirteen years ago, I undertook a study on Catholic Independent Boarding Schools. It was perfectly obvious then that whilst boarding generally was in decline. Catholic decline was twice the national rate.
The last ten years have not really changed this perception. Over half the Benedictine Schools within Britain have closed. Many previously predominantly Catholic boarding schools have either ceased to take boarders, or boarding has become a minority function. The day children who have replaced them are often non-Catholic, or even Christian, either in practice or culture. Most Catholic independent schools arc now significantly less than 50% Catholic. My own experience as head was that one's main anxiety was always that of numbers. One was always looking for a new angle, a new marketing approach that might somehow slow or even reverse trends.
Many, perhaps most middle class Catholic families have deserted their own schools. From my own experience. I would conclude that few Catholic families put the religious tradition of schools first. Other issues such as geography, academic reputation and, perhaps least creditable of all, social status play a much greater part in parental choice.
IWAS INCLINED to blame the Bishops and the clergy generally for their lack of support. I still believe that the lack of will evident in the way the hierarchy has overseen the tragic loss of so much of the 19th century Catholic educational achievement is a disgrace. To be fair, much of what has happened is beyond the control of the institutional church. The collapse in vocations, the unforeseen consequences of the Second Vatican Council, the majority of now mixed marriages and the general secularisation of soci ety as a whole and Catholic community in particular have been developments so radical that one suspects that even a Manning or a Bourne would have found it difficult to deal with.
Yet so many bishops and priests seem embar
rassed by the existence of a independent sector, rather than celebrating and supporting it. However, there has also been a loss of nerve and faith in the schools themselves. This is a vital factor in our recent decline: but it can be reversed.
To some extent the seeds of our recent problems were to be seen in the origins of many of the Independent Schools themselves. The 19th century foundations so often aped the structures and ultimately culture of their Anglican betters. So often our Catholic independent schools accepted the petty snobberies and injustices of the indigenous system. In an extraordinary act of self-delusion we aspired to the status and grandeur of our Protestant neighbours. This was despite the fact that our foundations at Douai and St Omer predated all but a
small minority of non-Catholic schools. Quite bluntly such a delusion ultimately backfired. Our parents started also to understand that Catholic schools were often second best and therefore they increasingly reverted to the original rather than accepting Catholic schools at their own estimation.
WE HAVE become precisely what our recent history has led us to. We educate fewer children and vastly fewer Catholic children, in an educational culture which is largely borrowed and is seen by many as having all the virtues of the second hand and tawdry. Even by the criteria of our borrowed values we have failed to make our mark. Hardly any Catholic independent schools can claim to be in the top 100 in the country. We are thus forced to be judged by criteria which are ultimately alien to our tradition.
However, we all know, or at least should know, that education as a whole is in crisis. There is an opportunity
to offer genuine leadership. We need to show that our values are genuine, relevant and provocative.
There has been a huge emphasis in recent years on standards. The Woodhead revolution has been seen by both the political and educational establishment as the driving force behind the improvement of standards. The National Curriculum, frequent inspections and the comparison of statistical data in the form of league tables are now seen as the holy grail of future educational improvement.
Nevertheless, in the view of many this process is, at hest, a mirage, at worst, fundamentally destructive of all that is best in the liberal educational tradition.
The Christian tradition of education sees the process as essentially a moral one. Vatican 11 makes this clear when it says: "Among all educational instruments the school has a special importance. It is designed not only to develop with special care the intellectual faculties but also to form the ability to judge rightly, to hand on the cultural legacy of
previous generations, to foster a sense of values". Where, one asks, are such lofty ideals evident in the new orthodoxy of bureaucratic mediocracy whose edicts and dogmas are daily pumped out from the portals of the DfEE?
YET CATHOLIC educators in both the independent and State sectors seem to have bought in to this new orthodoxy with all the zeal of the convert. To question is seen as a kind of heresy. Yet of course this orthodoxy is not new. It is simply the reworking of the old. This is firmly rooted in the old 19th century Utilitarian notion of payment by results, We are dealing with an old hag beautifully reclothed and packaged. A true symbol of the age of spin, appearance is designed to replace substance and statistics, truth.
Despite the comparatively recent launch of the Catholic Independent School Conference, the organisation actually plays little part in the life of our independent schools. The reality is that most Catholic school are firmly wedded to their traditional associations such as 1.A.P.S and the HMC. So enthusiastically have these organisation accepted the new orthodoxy that they have even created their own inspection organisation which seems to be at least as enthusiastic as its OFSTED parent.
In its true utilitarian tradition the new OFSTED approach to inspection is to judge by the standards of the tick box. There is little room for any analysis of the moral, relationship and spiritual dimensions of education. If we as Catholic schools accept this definition of our worth we will either become indistinguishable from our secular neighbours, or inure tragically seen as an inferior product.
Our survival as well as our integrity depends on resisting this process. We should defend our traditions of moral and religious truth. We should lead the critique of this new secular assault on the lives of our children.
Most of all we should genuinely defend our independence. We should focus on those values that cannot be tick boxed and celebrate the real quality and value of' our tradition. This may mean rejecting our IAPS and HMC links and making the CISC. the one and only representative institution of Catholic Independent Schools. Perhaps in the end we will have fewer schools, but at least they will exist as the genuine article and as a symbol of what is hest in our rich educational heritage.
The author was for twelve years headmaster of Moor Park School, Ludlow