Catholic education chiefs write to headteachers to warn them of a possible clash with Whitehall over money for religious education in sixth forms
BY CHRISTINA FARRELL
THE CATHOLIC Church is continuing to step up its campaign against Government educational reforms with a threat that it will petition MPs over the issue of sixth-form religious education.
It emerged this week that Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham wrote to Education Secretary Alan Johnson in December to ask for continued funding for religious education in sixth forms.
Details of the request were revealed in a letter sent last week by Fr Joseph Quigley, National Religious Adviser for England and Wales, to all secondary headteachers and sixth-form principals. Fr Quigley states that funding for continued religious education is a priority for the Catholic Education Service (CES) which has warned the Government of the "potential disenfranchisement of many students" if the money for courses and teaching cannot be secured. But Fr Quigley makes it clear that the Church is prepared to take a stand on the issue.
"We may come back to you to ask for your help in representing this case to your elected members of Parliament, if necessary," he writes. "Either way I hope to write to you again by the end of this month."
The Government has pulled funding for religious education in schools by changing its criteria for the statutory funding of sixth-form courses. Under the Learning and Skills Act 2000 to attract funding all courses must fall within the National Qualifications Framework.
Fr Quigley denied that the move was designed to reduce the Catholicity of courses. "What's happened is that many schools design their own RE courses to meet the specific needs of their students," he said. "These may be excellent but they aren't properly accredited and won't necessarily attract funding. We are asking the Government to find a way to sustain funding for the breadth of provision." Policy reforms have already led to swingeing attacks on the rights of Catholic schools to administer their own admissions policies and teachers fear that the ethos of their schools may be threatened further.
Archbishop Nichols wrote to the Secretary of State in his capacity as chairman of the CES. However, through his pastoral and interfaith work in Birmingham he has spoken many times of the need for continued dialogue between the faith communities. Sixth-form religious studies is seen as vital to building an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect in the next generation.
Speaking in October last year he referred to a recent Church of England study that had lamented the fact that the role of Christianity and Church schools was being overlooked in the debate about social cohesion.
He said: "Abroad Christian ethic is the cement of our society. It is not so frequently expressed as such, but the fact is that notions of compassion for the underdog, respect for the stranger, great charity for those in need, tolerance of the eccentric or the unusual are all based on the fundamental message of the Christian Gospel. Removed from these roots, it is highly unlikely that these crucial values will survive."
In addition the CES insists that the Government's lack of response on the issue is playing havoc with school planning. It argues that an early resolution is essential if schools are to plan ahead with the curriculum for the next academic year.
Many diocesan education departments have had to resort to offering contingency advice, but even this is fraught with difficulties. The Diocese of Westminster's education webpage states: "Unfortunately, the options seem to be either unclear or fail to provide a course appropriate for Sixth-Form General Religious Education as set out in the 14-19 Curriculum Guidance document."
The issue was raised in a meeting between David Bell, permanent secretary to the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), and Oona Stannard, the CES chief executive, last Tuesday. That meeting came on the back of a December meeting between Catholic headteachers, sixth-form principals and officials from both the DfES and the Learning and Skills Council.
As the Herald went to press the Church was still awaiting a response from Mr Johnson.
Fr Quigley said Catholic education chiefs were "looking for a way through" but they would fight for their rights. "We have said we will encourage teachers to petition MPs," he explained. "At present we have given everyone space to think about it."