Builders of bridges
Beth Webb examines the special attractions of the Catholic college today.
WHEN St Benedict sat down almost 1500 years ago to write his thoughts on education for even the poorest of boys in his monasteries, he could scarcely have known what he was starting.
In Pre-Reformation England, clerics, religious and secular, were solely responsible for education. For their pupils, the words "Catholic" and "Christian" were synonymous.
But the Reformation changed all that. From the Elizabethan Religious Settlement of 1558-63 until the first Relief Act of 1778, "Catholic education", as it had become, was taught clandestinely.
Then hundreds of religious from various teaching orders in Western Europe gladly took the opportunity to follow their vocation in England. For the first time for hundreds of years, Catholic education for the laity of all classes flourished — as did the training of teachers to supply the schools.
But the days of the sixpenny schools are long past, and all except the most well to do of schools can only survive in financial co-operation with the education authorities, as can the teacher training institutions.
With the sharp decline in birth rate during the past two decades, the number of pupils in school has dropped sharply. and as a result. the Government has closed down a great many training colleges, both secular and denominational. Out of the 16 teacher colleges extant in the early 1970s, only 8 still operate, and they have had to broaden and diversify into colleges of higher education, offering a aide range of degree and diploma subjects.
"Catholic education" as such has diminished. but Catholic teacher training colleges (now called colleges of education) do still exist. Is it 'just an old fashioned pigheadedness and an irrational tenacity to the concept of "a good Catholic education" that keeps them going? Sr Dorothy Bell, principal of the Digby Stuart College of Education in Roehampton, thinks not.
"There is still a very important place for the Catholic school. Many parents are glad to know that the level of commitment and Christian education their children will receive in a Catholic school is still available. Catholic schools are very much a family affair," she explained. "they are a part of the parish, with the priest taking a lively part in affairs. and a Catholic atmosphere especially the availability of Mass — providing a sense of identity and security to for both the child and the parents.
"Although the number of teachers required for specifically Catholic schools has dropped, and many Catholics feel that they ought to fulfil their vocation in secular schools, the need for the catholic colleges of education is still important.
"One of the primary functions of the Catholic college is to provide an environment for students who have been happy in a Catholic school, and who would like to continue their studies sur rounded by people NA, ith the same sort of values."
"It is a place where students who wish to deepen their faith., at. the same time as receive a good academic foundation for their work, can do so. In a place like Digby Stuart where we have a federation of four colleges of different foundations, students have a broader outlook than might otherwise be gained.
"We still need Catholic teachers in non-Catholic schools, of course. As the paper 'Education as ministry' puts it: 'The Impact of the educator is not only on the one who strives to educate. but also on every human being whose life his student will touch, It is a superb opportunity to communicate the Christian vision, to help build the most important of all bridges, the one between God and man. It is second only to the direct ministry of the sacraments, because in a deep and true sense, it is the ministry of the word.'
"The Catholic atmosphere in a college of education also promotes mutual respect. Students in ordinary colleges often find their ideas put firmly out of court, whereas mutual respect for the individuals' ideas and beliefs is something we purposefully cultivate.
"Then of course on a spiritual level. Catholic colleges are about the development of the individual as a whole person, as St Irenaeus put it: 'The glory of God is man fully alive.'
"It is absolutely no good for a student to go away from here up to his ears in academic knowledge about his subject, if he hasn't learned anything about himself in relation to God and others.
"Students have got to realise the capacity for development that God has given them, and hopefully be able to communicate the same insight and capacity for learning to their own students in the future.
"But I firmly believe that colleges of education have got to look outwards. With the Financial cutbacks these days, our only hope for survival and for perpetuating these benefits, is by considering other uses for our facilities; such as the federation of colleges we have here at the Roehampton Institute.
"Students can take a degree or a diploma, and academics can branch into teaching and vice versa. Every student can benefit from the staff and facilities and. range of subjects offered by the other three colleges. They can only benefit from it, and the standard of London University degrees our students have gained is exemplary.
"It is not just a matter of being 'trendy'. Colleges like Trinity and AP Saints in Leeds do an extremely good communications and media course. which is very relevant to modern society. It says a lot for the success of these Catholic colleges of education that they have been able to move with the times, and are capable of adapting in a way that makes so many students of all denominations and types want to study with