Murray White reports from the annual conference of 350 headteachers from the country's independent Catholic schools
ONE HEADTEACHER summed up the dilemma perfectly.
John Badham of Moor Park School, in Shropshire, recalled inviting controversial peace campaigner Bruce Kent to speak to pupils last year. The talk seemed to go down well, but some parents complained, saying they did not want to see their children subjected to that kind of "troublemaking" influence. "Our difficulty," Mr Badham told the 350 headteachers of Catholic independent schools attending their annual conference, "is that we are part of the establishment." He was replying to the challenge thrown down by keynote speaker at the conference of the Nineteen Nineties Group, Jesuit provincial Fr Michael CampbellJohnston. The esteemed, and himself often controversial. Provincial of the Jesuits, told the conference at New Hall school in Chelmsford, Essex, a fortnight ago, that to educate without instilling a sense of justice was to fail as Catholic schools. "What kind of person are we trying to produce? If we take away the word Catholic is there actually any difference at our schools?" he asked. "Education for justice", he explained, meant schools should qestion the status quo, should actively discover the injustices in their local area. pray and reflect on them, and encourage pupils to undertake practical projects. "Becoming men and women at the service of others. means not just giving to Cafod, but using our insights and skills to criticise the injustices in society, whether that be helping the handicapped or elderly." Warming to his subject, Fr Campbell-Johnston, asked delegates whether a "preferential option for the poor might be a contradiction to running elitist, fee paying schools? No, there is no contradiction. providing that the social teaching of the Gospels is at the heart of our institutions".
The new headmaster of Amplefonh, Fr Leo Chamberlain, was perhaps the least receptive to
Fr Campbell-Johnston's suggestions. "It is clear to me, that what is rather missing from the heart of our society is a sense of transcendence. Without a concept of truth, justice is being relativised," he said. The Jesuit provincial agreed that young people need a personal experience of God, but argued that "many of them can find that in meeting the poor, of being taken out of themselves". At the unusually sober conference, many headteachers were not their usual confident selves, and it was material matters that weighed heavily. Some felt Fr Campbell-Johnston's words merely added to the overburdening of the economic and curriculum constraints of the day. There were, some argued, higher priorities. With at least ten independent Catholic schools having closed in the past 12 months, and many others reporting falling roles, it was hard enough to hold tight onto the purse strings. Some even gave a mixed reaction to the positive suggestion for re-assessing their Catholic principles. The "mission statement", cohesively explained to delegates by Fr George Stokes, Education Director for Brentwood Diocese, is best distilled as a list of practical targets each school can set to ensure development of character and standards. In the following workshops some heads dismissed these mission statements as mere "gimmicks" but for others the discussions sparked off the perfect opportunity to "go back to basics". The host of this year's Nineteen Nineties Group conference, New Hall headteacher Sr Margaret Mary, though, summed up the feeling: "Although there was an inbuilt resistance from some, many felt it is terribly important to think about the reasons why our schools exist at all. With all the pressures on teachers today, it is easy to lose focus." Elsewhere, there were glimmers that some independent schools are prepared to buck the establishment and engage in the sort of gritty social projects that irked Moor Park parents. Bro Roger Bosse, head of Sacred Heart junior school, St Albans, in Hertfordshire, spoke of a popular initiative, the Volunteer Service Community, where young men spend a year living alongside the brothers who run the school and work in various local social projects. The scheme worked so well perhaps because it is not directly connected with the pupils. Sr Margaret Murphy, head of the Ursuline High School, Westgate. in Kent. described how she has launched a successful venture for students from Eastern Europe. For the third year now, a small group of them are spending a year learning English with the nuns and in return relieve staff by helping with simple duties. "To be honest," she confided over lunch. "it is one of the best things 1 am doing."