By Norman St John-Stevas
CONSPICUOUS among the thousands of parents who
took part in the national
lobby at the House of Commons last week to save the direct grant schools (presenting incidentally a petition with half a million signatures) were groups of militant Catholic patents, representing different parts of' the country but especially Manchester and Liverpool.
Their fury with the Catholic EducationCouncil, which has thrown its whole weight behind a policy of appeasement and cooperation with the government even if it means the destruction of educational standards for generations, was intense,
Their sense of betrayal by the bishops who have failed to champion their cause was deep. They begged me to do all I could to help them to save their schools.
The Catholic direct grant schools occupy a very special position in our educational system. Of the 173 direct grant schools, no fewer than 54 are Catholic, catering for nearly 40,000 children.
Even this does not tell the whole story, because the schools are concentrated in the North of England, the traditional stronghold of Catholicism, and represent a very high proportion of Catholic grammar school education.
These schools are of particular importance to the Catholic body which by and large is drawn from the less well-off sections of the population. They provide the avenue by which talented Catholic children of modest background may enjoy a first class education and contribute to their own and their country's prosperity.
The Manchester experience is of particular relevance to the current dispute. Almost a third of the children in the Manchester area are in Catholic schools.
In 1967 the non-Catholic schools went comprehensive whereas the Catholic schools remained selective. Seven years later it is possible to see the effect of the change on a whole school generation. The results have been startling.
In 1967 the non-Catholic schools were ahead of the Catholic schools in academic results: five years later the position had been reversed.
The 1971 statistics show that the Catholic schools have moved ahead over a broad front, yet this is the moment that the Catholic authorities in Manchester have chosen to go comprehensive and to do away with the grammar and direct grant schools.'
In Liverpool the situation is equally dangerous for the future of Catholic education, Liverpool has been for long one of our great cities. Like Glasgow it has beauty, charm and soul, although it has had to struggle for generations with deprivation and poverty.
For Catholics, Liverpool has a special significance as the centre of Catholic life in the North, and as a city which has made heroic efforts to educate its Catholic children.
The school population is 47 per cent Catholic and it is now proposed to move a large number to the outskirts of the cit y. and at the same, time destroy the excellent direct grant schools such as St Edward's and St Paschal Baylon which have served the cause of Catholic education so well.
What I fear is the creation of Catholic ghetto schools which will draw their children from a confined area. In such a situation the bright child in a bad neighbourhood is going to be deprived of the chance of an academic education.
The tradition that has been built up over many years in the Catholic direct grant schools will be destroyed. The only Catholic parents who will be able to have any choice in education will be those who can afford to pay for it.
The response of the Catholic Education Council to this threat has been obvious and abject. The official Catholic policy, states its secretary, Mr Richard Cunningham (who himself enjoyed the advantages of a privately paid education) is "to co-operate with local authorities in the implementation of national policy."
What this means in more homely terms is that in response to the government offer to increase the capital contribution to Catholic schools to 85 per cent, the Catholic Education Council has agreed to cooperate in the government's plans to impose comprehensive schools everywhere.
Furthermore, the Catholic direct grant schools are to be sacrificed and the government in return has offered to take over the /3 million of debt which has been incurred.•
The wishes of Catholic parents, the need to preserve educational standards and the great traditions of the schools involved have been ignored.
What then can be done? Catholic parents must continue to make their voice heard, they must not allow themselves to be deprived of their schools as they have already been deprived of the Tridentine Mass.
They must insist that the Catholic Education Council, financed by the contributions of the Catholic laity, pays attention to parental views.'
The parents must also seek support from their bishops: if the Catholic authorities stood firm on the maintenance of their schools they could stop the iconoclastic policy of the socialist theorists dead in its tracks.
The Catholic Direct Grant Action Committee (at 27 Park Avenue, Crosby, Liverpool) is anxious to ,receive all offers of support, financial and otherwise. It is contemplating an appeal to Rome to obtain an impartial judgment on its claims.
Meanwhile, the time for action is now. Catholic parents from all over the country, but particularly those in the North West, should rally to the defence of their schools and ensure to future generations the great heritage which past generations of Catholic children have enjoyed.