Sarah Johnson Home Front
One hundred and ten people with an interest in the welfare of children sent a letter to the Daily Telegraph this week complaining that children were being poisoned by junk food and computer games. They included popular children's writers such as Michael Morpurgo, Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson, as well as psychologists, scientists and child care gurus.
Not one church or religious leader was included in the list. Perhaps Philip Pullman, who is a particularly militant atheist, would have refused to sign anything contaminated by the touch of someone who believed in God. More likely, the organisers of the letter simply never thought of asking any religious leaders.
Children need, the letter argued, "first-hand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives".
Someone needs to point out to the signatories of the letter that children who are taken to church regularly get all this.
In church, they get a completely different sensory experience from any provided by
the market-driven entertainment industry. They meet people of all ages, including the elderly, with whom children otherwise have increasingly little contact. They meet people from different social classes and people who have travelled from a different part of town. State school kids meet private school kids, and vice versa.
They also, if their parish is well-run, have access to a range of "real" activities: clubs, prayer groups, carol singing outings: not to mention links with the wonderful, wickedly under-supported Scout movement, which has a healthy cross-denominational presence.
At the same time. children who are taken to church regularly get a taste of the side of human life that is not dictated by money, celebrity and sex. They become aware of how lucky they are and how much they can do to help those less fortunate. They become aware, of course, of the unseen and spiritual. They also get to sing a bit.
In other words, going to church is a "real" experience like no other. It may not quite have the bracing outdoor quality of a hike over the moors, but it is one of
the most consistent, easily experienced, family-strengthening and completely free activities open to parents and children. If not the most.
So how much encouragement is there to parents to take their children to church? Or to any other place of worship?
Well, let's take a look at some new guidelines just out from the Department of Education on school admissions and in particular on admissions to faith schools. Ever since the war on terror began, the word "faith school" has become a term of abuse. Labour party ipparatchiks and hangers-on like to pretend when they use it that they are referring to small, privately funded fundamentalist Islamic schools.
But in fact they are using the general alarm about these alleged "schools for suicide bombers" to beat all faith schools, including state-funded, profoundly regulated C of E and Catholic schools set up under the terms of the 1944 Education Act. It's a very convenient little trick: to use public alarm about terrorism as a cover under which you can exact your revenge on the schools which turned down your child.
The latest guidelines propose that when a school is oversubscribed (and let's face it, most voluntary-aided Catholic schools are), children who attend church regularly should not get preferential treatment. Instead, the old methods of measuring distance from the child's home to the school should be favoured.
The most generally obnoxious aspect of the ruling is the way in which the Government is taking it upon itself to re-define the terms of what makes a person a practising Catholic. The most seriously damaging aspect, however, is that genuinely devout parents who want a strong Catholic element in their school are to be shoved aside by parents who just remembered last month that they were Catholics, and had the money to move close to the school. And moving within the area really does need money when the school is a good one.
Like many a Labour Party educationalist before, it looks as though Tony Blair is pulling up the ladder behind him.
Meanwhile, the little incentive of attending Mass regularly because of "that school application form" and that longed-for priest's reference is greatly diluted. I know it's a bad reason to attend Mass. But I suspect that it's one which has saved many a soul, and brought many a oncecynical lapsed Catholic back into the Church, to their own surprise and joy.
I hope this nasty, unfair little piece of bossiness is roundly ignored by all Catholic schools sufficiently over-subscribed to do so. I also hope that in the next General Election someone on the opposition side might speak up for faith schools... but that might be expecting a bit too much.