As a religious community we value our partnership with the government in the provision of Catholic education. It is a partnership which has flourished over the last 170 years. The fruit of this partnership is the network of more than 2,200 Catholic schools across England and Wales, making the Church the second-largest provider of education in the country.
This relationship has been a resounding success on a secular as well as a pastoral and spiritual level. Not only are Catholic schools some of the highest achieving in the country, they are also considerably more ethnically diverse and take in significantly more pupils from the poorest households than the national average.
With this profile and record, the future existence of Catholic schools should be uncontroversial. However, we know this is not the case. Nationally, there are a number of organisations campaigning either to end the provision of schools in England which have a religious character or to transform the curriculum in such a way that it would remove the ability of Catholic schools to maintain their specific ethos. It is this ethos which makes our Catholic schools so unique and successful.
So now, more than ever before, we cannot take the future of Catholic schools for granted. With the general election imminent and when political parties are canvassing for our support, it is important that we ask about a political party’s commitment to our community’s precious schools.
It is still vital to remember that whoever forms the next government, whether comprised of a single party or a coalition, will implement a legislative agenda which could have a direct impact on both Catholic education and the curriculum that is taught in Catholic schools. We must be conscious too that some political parties, while holding favourable views on schools with a religious character generally, also hold policies that could damage Catholic education specifically. Therefore, it is vital you get answers on where a political party stands on the following issues.
Core principles It is not sufficient for a Catholic school just to be called “Catholic”. There are core principles which protect their ethos and the distinctive education they provide. Among these are the ability to give priority in the school’s admissions criteria to Catholic children, the bishop’s right to appoint the majority of the school’s governors, the right to reserve the school’s senior leadership posts for Catholics; and the right to teach and inspect Catholic Religious Education.
Religious Education Religious Education lies at the centre of the core curriculum in Catholic schools. Ten per cent of school time is dedicated to the subject and it is an academically rigorous theological discipline. Recently we have seen calls to abolish this and rename it “Worldviews” with a nationally set curriculum. Not only would this change the nature of the subject and reduce its importance, it could also result in the state determining how and what the Church teaches about the Catholic faith in Catholic schools – something that would be totally unacceptable.
Support for school leaders, teachers and staff Our school leaders, teachers and support staff are outstanding in the work they do. We need to ensure that political parties are committed to supporting teachers and the vocation of teaching. We hope that any future government will continue to provide support for the formation of Catholic teachers through continuing professional development and teacher training.
Relationships and Sex Education Catholic education is based on the formation of the whole child. Well-taught and age-appropriate Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) is an important part of this. However, even more important is the right of parents, as the primary educators of their children, to be fully consulted and to maintain their ability to withdraw their children from these lessons. While we are confident that the model curriculum in Catholic schools delivers RSE in accordance with the teachings of the Church and the wishes of parents, the same cannot be said for other schools. Hence for Catholic parents who do not have the option to send their child to a Catholic school, it is vital that this parental right remains in place.
New Catholic schools Since 2010, the Church has had to find space for an additional 50,000 pupils without being able to open new schools. As a community, we need to make sure that political parties remain committed to supporting the opening of new Catholic schools without a restriction on the proportion of Catholic children that they are free to admit.
As a Catholic community, we have provided our schools as part of our commitment to the common good of society and the education of young people in our country. For many years these schools have flourished. Now it is time to speak up for them and do our civic and Catholic duty to ensure that they can continue to flourish for many years to come.
The Rt Rev Marcus Stock, chairman
of the Catholic Education Service
and Bishop of Leeds