Hugh David senses a hidden agenda behind the fuss over 'late' baptisms
4 y ear Five epiphany." Not a phrase I'd heard before reading the front page of last Saturday's Times. Evidently, a research group has discovered that, while back in 1958 the number of people being baptised as Catholics over the age of one was 5.4 per cent of the total baptisms, in 2005 it had risen to 30.3 per cent.
Cue another round of faith school bashing because, the paper suggested, many of these "late" baptisms are of children in Year Five — ie aged 10 — and are carried out because their middleclass agnostic and atheist parents want to get them into high-performing Catholic secondaries. The Times even conjured up a few VIPs who swallowed this charge hook, line and sinker and, as a result, demanded that faith schools should be curtailed.
I have rarely read a bigger load of nonsense. First off there is, yet again, this insulting idea that, if there is a system to be played in this country (NHS, benefits, schools and so on), the working classes are too stupid to do it, while the middle classes are so amoral that they will leap at the slightest opportunity to profit at the expense of their fellow citizens.
But the biggest fraud of this malicious piece of front-page journalism was contained in the suggestion that "Year Five epiphanies" will get any child into a popular Catholic school. I'm a parent governor at St Peter's, a Catholic primary judged overstanding by Ofsted three years ago. We have around three applicants for every place, which means (a) we only take Catholics and (b) we only take committed Catholics — le children who have been baptised within the first year of their life. Some other popular Catholic primaries set the bar even higher. One local Catholic comprehensive requires baptism within nine months. There were reports in another paper of a west London girls' Catholic secondary insisting on three months.
I have to admit to feeling uncomfortable with our policy. There may well be good reasons why parents delay baptism. It can take new mothers many months to recover their physical and emotional well-being after giving birth, especially if they suffer post-natal depression. But the idea that all these conniving middle-class parents are rushing children to the baptismal font and being rewarded the next day with a place at a top-performing Catholic school is rubbish.
Call me ngve, but might there just be other, more obvious, reasons for the increase in late baptisms? Like today's parents no longer feeling the need to rush to get their child christened in the same way as our parents did. I was done within weeks, but when Gabriel, nine, and Bruno, six, came along, we couldn't quite see the need to hurry. It was not the speed with which you do it that should be measured, we figured, but the degree of our commitment.
And the Times — and the various critics it assembled — all seemed to take as read that the new "late" baptisms must be Year Five children. Yet we are constantly reading of well-known names "coming over" to Catholicism. Those from other Christian denominations (like Tony Blair) don't need to undergo baptism, I know, but at least part of the increased numbers may just be people from other faiths joining the Catholic Church. Instead, we were given the assumption that the only reason anyone could want to be baptised a Catholic, once they are no longer a babe in arms, is to grab some educational advantage.
What makes their mischief-making so damaging is that it came at the end of a week when Ed Balls, the cherubic and slightly patronising Secretary of State for Children, Schools, Nappies and Playpens, had told a House of Commons Select Committee: "It is not the policy of this Government nor my department to expand the number of faith schools."
Could this be the same Mr Balls, I wonder, who on September 10 last year, at the well-publicised launch at the British Library in London of a joint declaration by different faith groups and his department, was extolling the virtues of faith schools and saying he would be pleased to see more than the current 7,000 in the state system? Why yes, this is indeed the very same Mr Balls who is now, as the Independent reported his remarks, "losing faith in religious schools". There may be two Milibands in the Cabinet but just one Balls. And clearly as many sets of principles as are expedient. Which makes me very gloomy about the long-standing partnership between State and Church on the matter of schooling.
Balls's Commons appearance was before the Education Select Committee, chaired by Labour MP Barry Sheennan. In the course of questioning the Secretary of State, Sheerrnan claimed that some Catholic schools were "taking a more fundamentalist approach to teaching about religion". The evidence he quoted for this assertion was the suggestion, made by Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue of Lancaster, that Catholic schools should have a crucifix on the classroom walls. Profoundly fundamentalist, that!
The fact that Sheerman's words weren't laughed all the way out of the Commons is an illustration of the daily battle faith schools are now facing, caught between intolerant bigots. untrustworthy Ministers, and public opinion that seems unable or unwilling to distinguish between those madrassas in Pakistan that have shown support for the Taliban and al-Qaeda (and I stress that they are very few in number) and their local Catholic, Jewish, Sikh, Moslem or Anglican primaries. Do please keep your letters and e-mails coming in about the issues covered in the column or your own experience of faith schools. I'd love to hear from more teachers. E-mail me at [email protected] catholicherald.co.uk, marking your messages "Attention Hugh David", or write to me at the paper.