Providing Muslim prayer rooms is a step too far, says Hugh David
One effect of constant criticism can be that those under such negative scrutiny feel the need to be seen to do something, to respond, to change the narrative, as the PR industry puts it. Standing your ground is just not an option. Even if you continue to believe that the position you have taken is right, you have to make a show of refining it.
I can only think that it was the need to be seen to be responding to the recent onslaught on church schools that persuaded our bishops, through their Department for Education and Formation, to issue the guidance, Catholic Schools: Children of Other Faiths and Community Cohesion. Because it is, of course, the alleged social divisiveness of church schools that is quoted most often as a rod to beat them. Rather than rebut such charges. the bishops have given the impression of accepting them by laying out a whole new set of measures to be taken in Catholic schools to promote community cohesion.
You get a flavour of the sheer muddle-headedness of this no doubt well-intentioned document by the different ways it was reported last week. For some it was suggesting a prayer room for Muslims in every Catholic school. For others it was simply a case of introducing "new rules on how to treat nonCatholic pupils".
Perhaps my children's Catholic primary is unique. Our intake at St Peter's is 100 per cent Catholic. We could, indeed, fill the places twice over with Catholic children. So, as a governor, I will not be supporting any bishopinspired suggestion of a Muslim prayer mom because it would be an appalling waste of scarce resources when there is literally no one to use it.
To be fair, the bishops' report, released under the auspices of Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham, widely predicted to be our next leader, appears to be concerned not with schools like St Peter's, but instead with those Catholic schools that have significant proportions of pupils from other faith backgrounds. It might have been good for them to state that in plain language throughout their leaflet because, addressed as it is to all Catholic schools, the bishops' words create the impression that all our schools are somehow falling down on our responsibilities to community cohesion. And that is, from my experience, a slur that takes the ill-informed accusations of our critics and effectively gives them the bishops' imprimatur.
Those of us who know what really happens in the majority of Catholic schools because our children attend them might have liked to hear the bishops trumpeting the achievement of such establishments. namely the tolerance and respect that they promote and live out in every aspect of their curriculum. working to teach the Gospel imperative that we must value every other citizen in our neighbourhood, town, country and planet as we value ourselves.
That said, there are, undeniably, issues that arise in those Catholic schools with significant minorities of non-Catholic pupils. These, I believe, are currently being addressed with common sense. Where that minority is small under 10 per cent, say we have to start by acknowledging that the parents of these children of other faiths and none chose that Catholic school knowing full well its ethos and routine. They did not apply for a place on the condition that it dilutes this ethos to make the place more accepting of their son or daughter.
Now, no one would suggest that their child should should be forcibly indoctrinated in the teachings of the Church, nor that their own faith background shouldn't be respected when lessons and the life of the school touches on it. That is, after all, what the Gospel tells us. But to start providing prayer rooms and separate washing facilities for these children of other faiths, as the bishops suggest "if practicable", seems to me to be going beyond sensible respect and tolerance and potentially diluting the core Catholic ethos of die school which, it is worth reminding ourselves, is why Catholic parents sent their children there and contribute to the capital costs of the building, and why the Government gives the Church authorities taxpayers' money to run schools in the first place.
In the few Catholic schools with a large minority of non-Catholics, or even a majority, surely the bishops are asking the wrong questions. We shouldn't be spending the Church's resources on reordering these buildings to serve better the faith needs of other creeds. We clearly have no viable role left there and should be handing over the running of the places to someone better qualified either the local education authority or the particular faith community that is in the majority.
A few years back I heard a talk by the headteacher of a Catholic secondary in Preston, which now had 90 per cent Muslim pupils. He spoke of the Church's work there with great passion. But surely this is misplaced idealism? The Government does not give the Catholic Church funds to run schools that are 90 per cent Muslim. It undermines the whole basis of the voluntary aided school system, established in 1944.
So why do we cling on to these schools there was another in Glasgow, which made headlines earlier this year which no longer attract the constituency they were set up for? It may be misplaced sentiment, not wanting to ,give up on a place built with the blood. sweat and tears of previous generations of Catholic fundraisers. It may be inefficiency a failure to ask the tough questions about the application of our mission in the modem education system. It may simply be reluctance to give up control. Or most likely if that Preston headteacher is to be believed it may be the belief that the Catholic Church can do better by Muslim, Hindu or Sikh children than a local education authority-controlled school.
It is, 1 fear. a flawed premise. Rebranding the Catholic school as a kind of multifaith catch-all environment will damage something precious and will do nothing to buy off secular critics. Let us instead be proud of what goes on in our schools and the profound tolerance they teach. We do not need to make empty or misguided gestures to prove that tolerance.
Do keep your letters coming in to me, at [email protected] or by post.