By NORMAN ST JOHN-STEVAS
The stepping up of the attack on the direct grant and the voluntary aided schools, which decline to go comprehensive, by Government education ministers springs from weakness not from strength.
Mr Prentice has now stated that "phasing out" of the direct-grant schools will "probably start" in September 1976, and Mr Ernest Armstrong, his UnderSecretary, having admitted that some voluntary aided schools were causing difficulties, announced at the weekend that the Department of Education is "actively considering" the legislative action they might need to take "should there be authorities or governors whose proposals are obviously designed to perpetuate selection or who refuse to make proposals to reorganise."
These premature announcements have been made necessary by the very strong resistance now being put up to Government policy by directgrant schools and voluntary aided schools alike. The directgrant schools (in the main) have declared that they would rather go independent than see their high academic standards destroyed by being forced to accept a comprehensive intake: the voluntary aided schools are standing firmly on their rights under the Education Act of 1944.
Local Education authorities are also proving more obstinate than expected: they were exhorted by circular in March to submit plans for going comprehensive by the end of this year, but so far only 26 of the 97 authorities who maintain selection have done so.
The folly of Government policy in seeking to impose comprehensive schools everywhere without regard to educational considerations, local conditions or parental wishes is self evident. It is almost unbelievable that at a time when the country faces the gravest economic crisis in its history, when public expenditure on education is facing the probability of massive cuts, when dissatisfaction with the results of comprehensive schools is widespread, that the Government should demand total comprehensivisation of the schools system.
Botched up schemes
Since not a single penny is going to be granted by central government towards the costs of reorganisation, the inevitable result for those authorities who are coerced into responding is that they will put forward botched up schemes which will be comprehensive in name but in nothing else.
This has already happened in Birmingham, where schools on sites far separate from each other have been cobbled together, others with buildings and traditions which do not complement one another have been forced into shotgun unions, and chaos and confusion prevails in the local education system.
These developments are of particular concern to Catholics. Catholic parents who have had to struggle so long and with so much sacrifice for their schools are more conscious of the value of education than most. They are also especially anxious that in discipline and moral values, schools should work with the home rather than against it, and they want high academic standards for their children. They are, therefore, as I know from my correspondence, dismayed by what they see as a betrayal by the Church authorities, who in different parts of the country are caving in to Government pressure.
Wake Manchester as an example. A generation ago the State schools in Manchester went comprehensive: the church schools (virtually entirely Catholic and constituting a high proportion of the number) remained selective. At the time of the changeover in the State schools their academic results were well ahead of the Church schools: seven years later the Catholic schools had forged ahead and their academic achievements were higher than in the non-religious schools.
Yet despite this evidence, the strongest and clearest in the entire country, the Catholic authorities in Manchester are now proposing to force the Catholic schools to go comprehensive.
This piece of iconoclastic folly is strongly opposed by many thousands of Catholic parents. The parents' revolt is one of the most extraordinary features of the contemporary educational and political scene. I have recently been speaking in different parts of the country in support of particular schools and I have been astonished at the size of my audiences and their enthusiastic response.
In London, for example, last week, a meeting to support the continued existence of the St Marylebone Grammar School, a voluntary controlled school, attracted an audience of over 500 people.
At Sutton Coldfield, near Birmingham, where I went to speak in support of the Bishop Vesey grammar school, so many parents turned up that we had to have two consecutive meetings, one attended by nearly 400 parents and the other by over 300.
Elsewhere the story has been the same. People are not apathetic about political issues which they feel affect them directly, they are turned off only by vague political generalities and bromides which they conclude have no application to their lives.
Parents must continue to support their schools and they will win this battle. The voluntary aided schools, which constitute the vast majority of Catholic schools, have rights guaranteed by law so that they need not fear the bullying of the Department of Education nor that of the local authorities. Let them stand firm and defend academic freedom and high standards: the present Government is in no position to precipitate a major constitutional, political and religious crisis, by attempting to take away their rights and so upsetting the religious settlement of 1944.