There is much good practice in Catholic education, but it is an uphill struggle for those trying to succeed. The institutional environment determined by our bishops and politicians is not conducive to good outcomes.
The bishops’ 2007 joint pastoral letter on education said: “For a very long time now, the Catholic Church has been an important partner with public authorities in the provision of education.” This perspective, which sees education as something that is handed down to parents through a partnership of bureaucracies, needs reviewing.
Catholic social teaching, consistently and without variation, makes the case for parents to be at the centre of decision-making on behalf of their children. Instead, the best that parents can hope for is a choice between a state Catholic school and a state secular school. In parts of London, places at the state Catholic school may not even be available. Also, if the Catholic school is poor, either in terms of its educational standards or the Catholic formation that is given to children, parents are powerless.
Those schools that really are beacons of excellence and operate within the Catholic state education system overcome significant obstacles. Secular legislation and regulation imposes a bleak uniformity on schools, pressurising them to accept secular, moral relativist norms. Those parents who stay outside the state system have greater freedom, but they inevitably struggle as a result of having to finance their own children’s education while paying the taxes to finance the state education they eschew.
There is only one solution. Policy must change to put parents at the centre of decision-making. Parents should be given the finance to obtain an education for their children instead of the state taking our taxes and financing schools. Within broad norms, schools must be free to establish and to develop their own character, rules, curricula, admissions policies and approaches to relationships education and so on.
After all, Catholic social teaching demands this. As Gravissimum educationis states, it is an injustice for the state not to support attendance at non-state schools to the same extent as it supports attendance at state schools. And, as is stated in canon law: “Parents must have a real freedom in their choice of schools.”
Of course, defenders – including Catholic defenders – of our uniform, state-centered, comprehensive model argue that choice benefits the well informed and the well-off. The reality is precisely the opposite. The academic work suggests that choice raises standards, but especially for the less-well-off and those with special needs: a pro-parent education policy is a pro-poor education policy. The well-informed are currently able to manipulate state-administered systems, as we see annually in the fight for places in popular schools in London.
So we need a change in public policy. Insofar as they get involved in policy debates, our bishops must push for the rights of parents and freedom for schools. It is only when parents are at the centre of decision-making that children will get the Catholic formation and education they deserve.
Philip's article was published by the Catholic Herald.