There has always been hostility to denominational schools and there is evidence that opposition is growing. Many, including some Catholics, believe that they are detrimental to society, segregating children at an early age and reinforcing prejudice. For others, they provide enclaves of privilege, allowing middle class parents to secure better schooling for their children at the expense of the rest. And for many others, the church is seen as a bulwark against the extension of human rights and equalities legislation.
The relationships between church, state, parents and pupils are sensitive. State funding of religious schools is an immense privilege granted to churches which we have to work hard to promote and defend. Because our schools receive so much taxpayers’ money, the state has a right to discuss with the church the basis on which those schools operate.
And the church and the people involved in Catholic education have a responsibility to engage with wider society to explain the facts and counter the fictions about what our schools are for.
So what should be our approach?
First, we should not be too defensive. Parliament has consistently supported plurality of provision in education and strong, fairly-funded denominational schools. Where ministers have occasionally thought about radical changes, they have quickly backed off when they have realised the strength of opposition from Catholic parents. So we should support the work of the bishops and their agencies to engage with politicians, civil servants and the media to explain and defend.
Second, we should not be apologetic about the Catholic nature of our schools. Parents expect schools to teach the faith, to have crucifixes in the classrooms, to engage in collective worship, and to be part of the broader mission of the church. Catholic ethos isn’t only about catechesis and religious knowledge. It informs the whole curriculum, giving pupils a broad view of their role as Christians in society.
Third however, we need to take criticism seriously. For those of us who are governors, we need constantly to review our admissions procedures and performance indicators to ensure that we are representative of the broader Catholic community and that we are helping to realise the preferential option for the poor.
Finally we need to be highly sensitive to issues of equity and equality and to how Catholic ethos is nurtured and developed in our schools. We have moved a long way from the 'who made me? God made me' approach to Catholic formation and we need to be open about how we communicate the church's moral and ethical teaching.
The bishops have a right to communicate church teaching to schools. Helping pupils to grow in the Catholic faith means encouraging discussion, debate and enquiry. And having properly informed the conscience, it is also an important aspect of Catholic formation that you have the right respectfully to dissent.
Mike Craven, chairman of governors of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, writing in a personal capacity