Bishops should give two cheers to free schools

Prof Philip Booth, writing in the Catholic Herald, asks whether free schools are free enough.

For Catholics, the importance of parental autonomy in education is unambiguous. As with all Catholic social teaching, the policy proposals that flow from that principle are a matter for prudential judgment. Judgments now need to be made about the Coalition Government’s “free schools” policy and the Bishops of England and Wales are in the process of deliberating about what they should say.

The common good and human flourishing can only be realised if families are able to educate their children in the way parents, in good conscience, believe is appropriate for them. Children are all different so the precise institutional setting that is right for one child may not be right for another. Some children may thrive in big schools with lots of facilities and others in small schools where the resources are focused on more personal contact between teachers and children. Still others may thrive through homeschooling. In all cases the teaching of the faith should be properly provided for. In addition, of course, there is a role for the Government to ensure that children are protected from harm and that basic civic norms are nurtured.

Unfortunately, Catholic parents have got used to being told where their children should go to school both by the bishops and by local government bureaucracies. Realistically, today, most only have a choice between the local voluntary aided school and the local non-Catholic school.

In fact, most parents would be surprised to see how strong the accent on parental autonomy is in Catholic teaching. Canon Law states: “Catholic parents have also the duty and the right to choose those means and institutes which, in their local circumstances, can best promote the catholic education of their children … Parents must have a real freedom in their choice of schools.” Bishops, as has been pointed out by the Catholic Education Service in the current debate over free schools, can choose whether to give a school the title “Catholic”. But the spirit of subsidiarity is not just applied in the political domain. There is no reason why dioceses should be the sole or even main provider of education that is designated Catholic. Canon Law says: “If there are no schools in which an education is provided that is imbued with a Christian spirit, the diocesan bishop has the responsibility of ensuring that such schools are established.” In other words, bishops may establish schools if necessary, but this responsibility is not a reason for putting impediments in the way of parents, lay movements and other groups who wish to develop a school with a distinctly Catholic character. Indeed, in the spirit of Vatican II bishops should encourage the laity to be active in education. While the bishops have every right to be cautious in allowing new schools to be formally described as “Catholic” they should not be deliberately obstructive.

Catholic social teaching in the matter of school financing is also interesting. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church argues that it is an injustice for the state not to support attendance at non-state schools, that a state monopoly of education offends justice and that the state cannot merely tolerate private schools. In a spirit of solidarity, it is quite appropriate that the state should finance education on some basis because, without such finance, human flourishing would not be possible for some people. But the principle of subsidiarity demands that such funding is directed through parents in ways that help them to meet their legitimate responsibilities.

This may provide a case for the bishops supporting free schools. There are, though, legitimate concerns about the model. In the last few years, there has been increasing state control of all aspects of education. This includes c