MRS SHIRLEY WILLIAMS, Secretary of State for Education and Science, said in her address to the Catholic Herald Education Conference last week that the dual system of maintained and denominational schools had been a success. and she praised the Catholic schools authorities for their co operation in comprehensive reorganisation.
She said that one of the calmest areas of education had been the relationship between central government and the local authorities on one side and denominational schools — Catholic and other Churches — on the other.
"The dual system was not only fully established and accepted and enshrined in the 1944 Education Act, but since then without any marked difference depending on which party was in office, the relationship has always been harmonious.
"It is quite a triumph the way the relationship has been conducted, and although I shall not pretend that there are not problems to cope with all the time, we do well to compare it with the very troubled history of parochial education, as it is called, in the United States.
"It is like a running sore, still unresolved by recent Education Bills in Congress attempting to get some kind of federal support for parochial schools."
Mrs Williams explained that when increases in government support for Church schools in this country were put forward to the DES in 1967 and 1975, when the Government's share rose to 85 per cent, • the number of objections raised was negligible.
"I think we should be grateful for what has been a successful establishment of the dual system and one in which there is a great deal of tolerance, and acceptance of the contribution that denominational schools can make.
"Providing that the Government does not involve itself in trying to interfere in the religious elements of the curriculum or in the relative autonomy that our schools enjoy and the firmly established law with regard to aided schools.
"The Church has always been willing to go along with major educational policy and to try to make it work. I am particularly grateful for the way in which the authorities have lent themselves to trying to make a success of comprehensive reorganisation.
"Comprehensive reorganisation now includes 83 per cent of our children, and to my mind has always been the right thing to do in terms of the value of the individual child.
"But 1 appreciate that there are differences of opinion and that those differences are still being argued about today after 20 years.
"It is true that Catholic authorities have very often themselves put forward proposals for going comprehensive --sometimes in advance of their own local authority. It is also true that they have consistently been willing to try to make the best possible arrangements for their children in this respect.
"Not least, in respect of direct grant schools; of 51 direct grant schools which came. into the maintained system, no less than 48 were Catholic direct grant schools, who accepted their new responsibilities towards a wider range in terms of academic ability of children. They have taken on both bravely and with a new heart, the challenges to their teaching that arc necessarily involved."
When the Direct Grant Grammar Schools (Cessation of Grant) Regulations, 1975, were introduced, there were 174 direct grant schools and of these 54 were Catholic.
Six more schools are expected to become voluntary aided comprehensive schools from grammar school status next year, and another nine will change in 1981, according to a statement this week by the Department of Education and Science.
Discussing proposed legislation which would include measures about governing bodies of schools, following the recommendations of the Taylor Report, Mrs Williams said the Catholic Education Council had been involved in discussions with the DES about following up the report.
"The forthcoming Education Bill will effect Catholic schools in two ways," she said, "First because of the changes being made in governing bodies. The primary legislation will enshrine the continuation of the majority of foundation governors on the governing bodies of aided schools.
"We are pleased that aided schools — both
Catholic and Anglican have accepted the concept of parent and teacher governors. There will be community governors on the secondary schools and the phrase 'community governors' encapsulates the concept that we need to work more closely with industry, with employers and with trade unions, in the relationship between the school-leaver and the world outside."
The Department of Education will be issuing a consultative document on the regulations regarding governors of voluntary aided schools at the time of
the Second Reading of the Education Bill in the House of Commons.
The other area which concerned Catholic schools in the provisions of the new Bill was on admissions policy, Mrs Williams said. There would need to be a new balance between the wishes of parents and the problems arising from falling numbers of pupils.
"We will have to move towards giving local authorities more power to control admissions, because otherwise we cannot phase old and outdated school buildings out of the system.
"But such a power must be balanced by greater power for parents. The Bill will be laying down a requirement that all local education authorities must give parents the opportunity to express their wishes about the schools they want their children to attend.
"It will lay down requirements for a local appeal system as well as the existing national appeal, in which sadly so often parents can only gain their way by the educationally destructive device of keeping their children out of school — sometimes for months at a time.
"The new Bill will also lay down a requirement that parents be given information about schools, including detailed information about the courses run and the facilities available," she said.
Turning to religious education, Mrs Williams emphasised that the Government had no plans to amend the religious education provisions of the 1944 Act.
"You are often asked to give a moral lead to an uncertain society that for all its goodwill and tolerance is not very clear where it is going.
"The great case for denominational schools is the evidence that they can give by spelling out the Christian doctrine on the concept of the caring, compassionate community.
"In the field of religious education we have to explore more and more how we make a reality of religious education for those of our children who no longer attend church and whose parents have at most a general air of vague goodwill towards the Christian Gospel and doctrine.
"There is such goodwill when the people of this country are asked, if they want their children to attend religious education in the county schools as well as in aided schools. If they are asked what this means they are not quite clear.
"They want RE to give their children a concept of moral standards and the centrality of the human being which for Christians is embodied in the concept of the Fatherhood of God,. and the brotherhood of men and women.
"We are now a multicultural country. Catholics have benefited from that ever since Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Catholics, like Jews, were among the minorities which suffered grave disadvantages from the State itself. Sc we are the last people in the kingdom to do anything but attack any attempt to create new scapegoat majorities."
"Today that danger is directed to our coloured fellow-citizens. I believe that Catholics and all Christians have a very clear duty in this respect, to reiterate the value of the human being, whatever sex, national origin or colour.
"The Catholic Church has a special duty to show how the school can support the concept of the family — a concept which is under considerable attack. The schools have a job to bring the parents as much as they can within the school's walls.
"The hardest frontier of all is how you reach the parent who does not care or does not know that he should care. Parents co-operating with school invariably produces the best results for their children."
Mrs Williams suggested that one of the ways that parental co-operation could be increased was for parents to be able to make comments on the progress of their children, as well as receiving the school's report.
The Secretary of State went on to say that there were 15 schools with more than 2,000 pupils each, seven of which were approved by Labour and seven by Conservative Governments. The latest was approved in 1973, and Mrs Williams gave an assurance that no more schools of this size would be approved in the future.
In reply to questions, she referred to the DES surveys of schools which are summarised in the publication of the list of "Ten Good Schools". She put forward a suggestion that there might be a parallel publication of "Ten Good Catholic Schools" by the diocesan authorities.
This would be an appropriate way of making known elements of good practice in Catholic schools and bringing it to the attention of others.
In the latest DES list there is one Catholic school, but Mrs Williams declined to name it during last week's conference.