PETER NOLAN interviews NORMAN ST. JOHNSTEVAS, M.P.
Mr. Norman St. JohnStevas, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State. Department of Education and Science, said in a recent interview that Catholic apathy was in fact a threat to religious education in schools.
"Religious education in maintained schools is the one statutory responsibility my Department has for the Curricalum," he said.
"Catholics in the past have rather tended to wash their hands of the agreed syllabus and all its works. I would like to see Catholics taking much more interest in religious education in general.
"The difficulty is that in maintained schools religion sometimes tends to be a 'sump' subject and the feeling is anybody can teach it," he said. "All the Churches should get together on this, I would think the schools would welcome help on it." Mr. St. John-Stevas suggested that former priests in good standing with the Church might make excellent teachers of religion and that their skills could be made use of in this field.
Asked about the increasing costs that had to be met by denominational schools in England and Wales (unlike Scotland, where the Govern ment meets the full cost) Mr. Stevas said he was "sympathetic" to their position. I got the impression that further help was likely to be forthcoming but the Minister limited himself to saying that he hoped something might be done "at some time in the future." Mr. St. John-Stevas said the shortage of teachers. said to be acute in London, was minute when looked at on a national scale. Out of over 5,000 Secondary Schools in England and Wales, only 22 had reported a shortage up to late last month, he said.
"At most in England and Wales out of over 28,000 schools, only about 50 are short of teachers, despite the raising of the school-leaving age," :le said. London enioyeci better teacher/pupil ratios than many other parts of the country and his Department quickly heard about any shortages, he added.
Schemes such as making cheaper housing available were up to local authorities, he said. "The basic trouble is teachers are underpaid but they have been for many years: this gives rise to an anti-Government feeling rather than a specifically anti-Tory feeling," he said.
If sufficient school places already existed in an area for all the local pupils, it was virtually impossible for the Government to provide extra places for Catholic children in a Catholic school. The St. Albans Parish Association. of North Finchley, London, had for example petitioned for a Catholic school, but the local authority carried out a survey which hidicated 200 surplus school places already existed there, he said.
"It is difficult to justify additional school places at denominational schools in such circumstances," he said, Additional places could he provided either at the Church's expense with local authority support or, in North Finchley, if the authority agreed an old school about to be replaced there might be replaced as a denominational school.
Mr. St. John-Stevas's special brief is higher education, tor which he is well qualified. He studied at both Oxford and Cambridge, becoming Pres;dent of the Cambridge Limos subsequently being called to the Bar. He has lectured at Southampton University, King's College, London, and at the University of California.
"Recent incidents at universities have had a bad effect — we are getting to a position where it is no longer automatically assumed that higher education is a good thing," said Mr. St. John Stevas. "However, we have not yet reached a point where it is thought to be a bad thing," he added. "One motive for my condemnation of what happened at the London School of Economics when Professor Eysenck came to speak there this year was to stem the tide of anti-higher education feeling."
"I think there should be a feeling of community in education" he said. When people like Mr. Max Morris, President of the National Union of Teachers, went so far as to say that Mrs. Thatcher's 197 White Paper should be burnt, what he really harmed was not Mrs. Thatcher, but education.
Mr. St. John-Stevas denied it was Conservative policy to ex pand places at Polytechnical Colleges and schemes like the 'Open University' at the ex pense of traditional higher education in Universities. He followed the Robbins Report policy of trying to make higher education available to all who could profit from it.
A great deal of money was being invested in Polytechnics, the sums to be spent on buildings being planned to rise from E7m. this year to £27m. by 1974-75.
The number of post-g_raduate students had risen by 7,000 to 52,000 this year but the rate of increase would be slowing down. One had to consider employment factors and avoid "a glut of Ph.D.s." Students could no longer expect higher education to entitle them automatically to a good job.
The Government were now spending, more on education
than defence and each student place cost £1,200, he said. By 1981 the country was expecting to provide 22 per cent of the 18 to 21 age group with places in higher education. "I would like to see much more being done by the Church authorities for Catholics in the Universities," he said. He suggested lectureships in such subjects as philosophy and theology; well planned graduate courses: and even the appointment of an academic Bishop. The Newman Associations are doing wonderful work, but much more needs to be done, and they have only limited resources.
He recalled the Church had not taken the opportunity to sponsor Oxbridge lectureships when Catholics were first ad. mitted to the ancient Universities.
He also thought Catholics should beware of Labour's policy to close independent schools, as more than 20 pei cent of the pupils in them were Catholic, many of them girls attending convent schools.