Carmel Fitzsimons listens to all sides in the debate over the Oratorians' St Philip's Sixth Form College in Birmingham
THE CURRENT ROW over the future of St Philip's Sixth Form College in Birmingham goes to the heart of the question of what constitutes "Catholic education".
In the last week accusation and counter accusation have fuelled the row, which hinges on whether the school's governors, the Oratory Fathers, should close a thriving college on the grounds that the majority of the students are not Catholic.
The issue has become a phenomenon in a multi-cultural, multi-denominational city, which has been rocked by the Oratory Fathers' apparent decision to opt ' out of the trend towards integration of faiths and stake its claim for a completely Catholic educational institution.
The Fathers are prepared for St. Philip's to become the first Sixth Form College to change denominations by passing it over to the Church of England, thus leaving them free to mould an as yet undefined Catholic educational institution.
The row, which has been rumbling for a year, is now at fever pitch with Birmingham MP Clare Short calling for the appointment of independent governors. Last week she described the Oratory Fathers as "bigoted" and "racist" in their decision to no longer allow Moslem worship in the classrooms.
The staff of St Philip's then ensured the heat did not go out of the debate by producing a public statement: "The staff of St Philip's deplore the continuing state of uncertainty in the college and the distressing effects this is having on the welfare of students and staff. As a result of this the staff of St Philip's took a unanimous vote of no confidence in the Chair of Governors, Fr Guy Nicholls and the Governing Body".
The staff gave eight reasons for their lack of confidence including the lack of consultation over closure and transfer plans.
In response to media fascination with the story, the Oratory Fathers have begun to speak more openly about their plans and the nature of the "Catholic school" debate.
They have admitted that with less than a third of the 900 pupils Catholic they do not feel the school can be regarded as a Catholic school under their Trust Deed and that they intend to transfer the college to the Church of England diocesan board of education.
. The Fathers' press secretary Peter Jennings told the Catholic Herald this week that they would be issuing a statement to staff about their intentions and informing the media after the staff had had time to digest its meaning.
"In planning this transfer the Oratory Fathers have stated that they wish to make positive provision for the future life of the college for both staff and students without the restraint of a Catholic Trust Deed."
It is understood that this means that the Church of England trustees will take the pupils and most of the current staff when they accept the trusteeship of the school and re-site it in September 1995 at St George's Church of England school, which is in another part of the city and which is due to close under council plans to eliminate surplus places.
The Oratory Fathers are said to be concerned that their school does not perform as they believe a Catholic school should and that under Church of England trustee
ship it will be easier for a more inter-denominational ethos to prevail.
The Fathers allow it to be known that they feel they are Liberating the majority of students from the strictures of a Catholic environment which are enshrined in their Trust Deed.
But what then happens to us, say the Catholic teachers and parents of the 300 pupils who are Catholic and chose to attend a Catholic school, not a Church of England school?
Peter Jennings, speaking for the Oratory Fathers, answers: "The number of Catholic pupils attending St Philip's continues to fall.Only one third of the 900 pupils are Catholic and only a handful of those have ever attended the weekly Mass celebrated by the school chaplain Fr Anthony Wadsworth."
But what of that handful? Peter Jennings concedes that there is no other Catholic sixth form provision in Birmingham so that handful of Mass attenders are going to be distressed. He also concedes that sixth formers are often the least consistent Mass attenders, but this may not mean that they would not benefit from a Catholic education.
"But" he says, "the Oratory Fathers feel very upset at being described as racist... They may not have been communicating as effectively as they could, but they are motivated by integrity which convinces them that they are not running the Catholic school they are required to run to under their trust deeds and which they feel a debt of honour to provide."
The local paper, the Birmingham Post, does not portray the debate in this light. Its education correspondent writes: "The row emphasises the deepening rift between a progressive laity and an increasingly right-wing clergy. It will do little to enhance the image of Catholicism."
The Birmingham Post goes on to discuss the possibility of The Fathers opening a new Catholic boys' school: "Should Catholic youth be taught alongside their peers of other faiths and cultures? Or should they learn in isolation, in a single-sex, almost exclusively white environment?"
Tacitly supporting the Birminghanz Post line is Martin Stapleford, one of the Friends of St Philip's, a group supporting parents and teachers against closure. Many of the teachers have put equally well argued points but are forced into anonymity because they fear for their jobs.
Mr Stapleford says: "I trained as a priest so I know the clerical mind. The Oratorians are not conspiracists they are just not used to dealing with the secular world and tend to solve problems among themselves privately.
"But they are facing the big issue of how do we educate young Catholics in the Nineties? It is clear that the falling number of Catholics applying for Catholic schools will be a problem that will stay with us and it may be that Catholics as a minority will become the norm in inner city schools.
"It is unfortunate in Birmingham that the archdiocese will not come out with any statement at all because the issue has to be tackled at that level.
"The problem is that while it is legitimate to want to educate children of a faith separately many faiths want their own schools the Oratorians have gone about it badly. Young people who joined the school are having their education destabilised.
"Surely we do not want a situation where young Catholics are being transported around the country in order to create a few all Catholic schools? Is it not better to encourage tolerance by providing a school with a Catholic ethos, which allows other worship, but which may remain in the pupils memories as a fine example of the good effects of Catholicism.
"Perhaps then they may understand our beliefs. Some may even one day decide to find out more about the faith which sustained their happy schools days."
The Catholic Herald welcomes your contribution to this debate.
Proud history of St Philip's
St Philip's RC Grammar school was founded in 1887 with only 25 pupils by Cardinal John Henry Newman, theologian and founder of the Oratory.
• In 1947 Z-50,000 was raised to guarantee the school's religious independence.
oTen years later a huge four storey teaching block worth more than £60,00 opened,with laboratories, classrooms and a lecture theatre which almost doubled the amount of tecahing space.
• In 1968 pupils were split up into four different sites and in 1972 proposals to turn it into a Catholic comprehensive were overturned.
• It became a sixth form college in 1976, after years of uncertainty about its future.
• In 1984 Government inspectors condemned the new college as "isolated and lacking in direction"...
• More recently it became only the second sixth -form college in the country to recieve a National Curriculum Award for excellence.