The Bishops were right to claim in their recent national pastoral letter on education that Catholic Voluntary Aided schools provide some of the best education available in the state sector. But the focus of that letter, and the Bishops comments on the recent agreement between the government and faith bodies, suggest that more thinking needs to be done on Catholic education in the UK. For example, why did the pastoral letter champion collaboration between the Church and the state and not examine the role of schools in supporting parents in their duty as prime educators? The stated justifications for Catholic schools were the long collaboration of the Church with the political authorities and the quality of the education provided. The only substantive mention of parents was a plea that they should support Catholic schools that are provided for them by politicians in partnership with the Church institutions.
Perhaps the letter was a pragmatic response to the hostile climate that has developed in Westminster towards the whole concept of religious schools indeed towards religion. Perhaps by laying out the benefits of religious schools, and their willingness to cooperate with the state, the Bishops thought that they could try to influence political opinion in their favour. The agreement between the government and religious bodies about faith schools might be taken as an indication of success.
But what the Bishops must do, privately or publicly, is think about the long term, survey the wider scene and lay down the important principles that should underpin education policy in a society that allows parents and families to undertake their proper roles.
The wider scene is bleak but hopeful. There is little appetite in Westminster for the status quo of the traditional Voluntary Aided faith schools alongside local authority schools, despite recent proposals to expand faith-based education. Secularists and moral relativists within government amongst politicians, bureaucrats and advisers see the system as an anomaly and a privilege that is granted to an increasingly irrelevant and outmoded group of people. We might see secularism and moral relativism as outmoded but they are the strongest forces on todays political scene! If the Catholic Church is wedded to the voluntary aided model then it will probably be lucky to see Catholic schools survive three more general elections.
The good news is that many, though perhaps not the majority, of politicians would like education to burst out of its current state-guided strait jacket. This could manifest itself in different ways. Moderate Labour politicians are keen to promote City Academies and specialist schools. Many Conservatives wish to see genuine parental autonomy.
It is quite possible that we will see Catholic schools thrive in new Labours world of City Academies, trust schools, specialist schools and so on, but probably with increasing state control of admissions policies and the curriculum. The Catholic aspect of our schools would be diluted. This is clearly happening, within the framework of the recent agreement between government and faith bodies on education.
More fundamental reform offers the better hope and the Bishops do need to champion some fundamental Catholic principles of education policy which were absent from the Pastoral letter. The correct justification for faith schools is not the one given in the pastoral letter but their importance in assisting parents in fulfilling their duty to educate their children according to their consciences. Parents and families are the prime educators and the Church and the state are there to provide support. Currently the state does not provide support it removes virtually all autonomy from parents in the sphere of education. Because the Church, in the letters words, collaborates with the state, she collaborates in restricting parental autonomy. Restricting choice, as the current state-driven model does, undermines the dignity and authority of parents and inhibits the competition that would improve education for all.
Indeed, the English and Welsh Bishops can look to Catholic teaching for advice. Catholic teaching is pretty clear on these matters. As is stated in Gravissimum Educationis, there must be no kind of school monopoly and public subsidies must be paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose schools for their children. Application of this principle would revolutionise education in this country. Broadly speaking, all finance for education should be directed through parents and Catholic parents should, of course, be supported by the Church in providing an education for their children.
This may seem rather radical for our Bishops, but there are examples they can examine all over the world. Furthermore, many people are beavering away in this country examining how the adoption of the principle of directing finance for education through parents, rather than schools being provided by politicians, can help transform educational opportunities, especially for the poor.
For example, most western European countries, in one way or another, give much more autonomy to the family. In the Netherlands, parents of groups of one hundred children or more can set up private schools (including church schools) that receive a diversion of taxes from state schools. In Sweden a voucher system exists so that, if parents wish their children to go to private schools, 75% of the cost of state education is paid to the private school. The US has been a bastion of state-provision and control in education. But even many US states, spurred on by dreadful educational outcomes, are taking the control of education out of the hands of politicians and giving responsibility to the community and to families. Economists and social scientists are investigating various educational projects where, in a spirit of solidarity, the state provides finance but, in a spirit of subsidiarity, the state only assists parents and gets out of the driving seat. In the UK, proposals have been made to allow parents a right to redirect the funding spent on the childs education from a state school to the educator of the parents choice.
In the absence of political reform, parents have been taking the initiative. There have been new Catholic schools set up as trusts by parents that charge the lowest fees possible and that are first class models of Christian education. There remain, of course, many other small private Catholic schools today, often charging low fees, that were not drafted into the voluntary aided structure after the Second World War because of the obsession by politicians with scale and eliminating competition and variety. Parents should be funded to send their children to such schools.
Our Bishops should feel much more comfortable with these alternative models of education than with the status quo. They have one thing in common. Parents decide how their children are educated and the state merely aids parents.
The Bishops should not forget what happened to the Catholic adoption agencies that were working in collaboration with the state. Education will go the same way if the Church relies wholly on the Voluntary Aided model. If it were ever right that Catholic agencies and the institutions of the Church should work so closely with the state, that time has now past because, from a Catholic perspective, the state is no longer benign, culturally conservative and broadly Christian.
But the Bishops should not worry too much. In education, but also in other fields of welfare, models are being proposed that genuinely devolve autonomy to where it belongs. And the examples overseas are encouraging. Indeed, even the current government has opened the door to new faith schools. Will the Bishops respond