The future of direct-grant schools has been much in the news of recent months, and since about one-third of all direct-grant schools are Catholic this is obviously a matter of much interest to Catholics.
What part have they played in the Catholic educational system? What is direct-grant status? This is not always fully understood and is sometimes confused with aided status.
Catholic schools in England and Wales are of three types of legal status (as distinct from educational type such as primary, secondary modern or grammar) (i) aided (or special agreement — I will bracket the two together because of their great similarities in practice); (ii) direct-grant, and (iii) independent.
The following table shows the number of schools and pupils in Catholic schools of each status in January, 1974: Schools Pupils Aided 2,639 813,411 Direct-Grant 56 39.151 Independent 347 86,593 An independent school receives no grant from public funds and charges fees which may be and sometimes are paid either wholly or partly for pupils by local education authorities.
In an aided school there are no fees, the running costs (cg, teachers' salaries, heating. light, etc) arc paid by the local authority which also pays for internal repairs. and there is a grant from the Government raised from 80 per cent to 85 per cent during the last year for building costs and external repairs.
Direct-grant status is more complicated. The direct-grant is a capitation grant, ie per head of pupils, with a higher rate for sixth-formers. In most schools this currently amounts to a little under 30 per cent of operating costs, and the rest of the expenditure has to be covered from fees: 25 per cent of places must he given free by the school or made available to local education authorities who may require more (up to 50 per cent) to be put at their disposal,
By agreement with a school they may take more up to the total • number. (Where an authority takes places. it pays the fees. Where parents pay fees there is fee remission on a means test. the cost of the remissions being met by the Government.) The direct-grant arrangements therefore permit very different situations to arise — at one end a school which is predominantly fee-paying (by parents who provide the majority of the income) and at the other end a school which is predominantly free (where local authorities pay for many places) and the bulk of the income conies from public funds.
What has been the usual situation of the Catholic directgrant schools?
The Public Schools Commission Report (the Donnison Report) showed that in the late 1960s, 86 per cent of all places in the Catholic Direct-grant schools were taken by local education authorities and that in half the schools 90 per cent or more of the places were taken by authorities. They were taken because without them there would not have been enough free Catholic grammar school education.
In some areas the directgrant schools were the only Catholic urammar schools. and where they were not the only ones in their areas they represented at least a substantial part of the total of Catholic grammar schools. They were not spread evenly over the country, being found predominantly (75 per cent) in the North, and particularly in the North-West. In the North indeed they represented nearly two-thirds of all Catholic grammar schools.
In the South, by contrast. there were few direct-grant grammar schools and grammar schools were usually aided. (In 1966 in the dioceses in and around London -Westminster, Southwark and Brentwood there were 28 aided grammar schools and four direct-grant.) But in the areas in which they .have been found, the importance and value of the part they have played in providing education for Catholic children is very CV ident.
The direct-grant schools now face change as a result of Government policy, but. before going on to look at this in detail, I will look at the general context in which this belongs, namely the trend towards com prehensive secondary education, and the policy of dioceses towards this trend.
This has been with us for a decade now, and as long ago as 1965 the policy was stated as being "to co-operate with local authorities in the implementation of national policy". The basis of this policy is that Catholic aided (or special agreement) schools supported from public funds are part of the national system and should be ready to change with it in a matter where there was no religious or moral principle at issue, namely how secondary education should be organised, with grammar and secondary modern schools or alternatively with comprehensive schools.
Readers of the Catholic Herald hardly need reminding that the Matter is controversial nationally, and it is a question on which there is a difference of opinion among Catholics. To quote front a recent pastoral letter from Archbishop
Beck: "There is no common Catholic view on the merits. or demerits of comprehensive secondary education. Some Catholics are in favour of the system. Some are opposed to it. The Catholic bishops have taken the view that in any given area the pattern of Catholic secondary education should follow, broadly, the pattern adopted by the local education authority.
"It would be unfortunate, and would lead to tension and strain if, for example, the local authority's pattern of secondary schools were comprehensive while the Catholics' pattern was selective. The two systems would seem to be in competition and this could well lead to a clash of loyalties, particularly for Catholic parents whose children may have failed to obtain admission to a grammar school."
The trend towards comprehensive education has had implications for Catholic directgrant schools as well as for aided schools. The reason for this can be seen in the facts already quoted about the part they have played in Catholic education, supplementing or substituting for aided schools.
If the free places taken by local authorities were to continue, it would be difficult to introduce .adequate Catholic comprehensive schools in the area since sonic or all of the pupils of grammar school ability would still be going to grammar schools.
On the other hand, the ending or substantial reduction of the present high number of local authority free places would leave the schools in a very difficult position since they would then need a considerable number of fee-paying pupils in excess of any number the schools had had in the past. Whether they would be forthcoming would be open to doubt.
Over the last decade Catholic direct-grant schools have had to consider the desirability of joining in schemes of comprehensive reorganisation in their areas. A small number have already become fully comprehensive and plans have been in train for some time for more to do so. Virtually all the others have engaged in discussions or reorganisation schemes. The issue therefore of Catholic direct-grant schools becoming comprehensive is by no means new.
The new clement of recent months is the Government's proposal to phase out direct
grant status and regulations to this effect have now been laid before Parliament. Effectively schools will then have the alternatives of:
(a) becoming independent or (b) applying for aided status. not as grammar schools but as part of a comprehensive scheme. (The phasing out of the direct-grant arrangements will take the form of the capitation grant — and fee remission where parents are paying the fees
— ceasing for pupils admitted after this year unless
schools express an intention
to become aided and cornprehensive, in which case
arrangements will be continued in their case until
this intention can be implemented subject to an annual review of progress in that direction).
There has been a preference on the Catholic side that the
schools should continue to be
direct-grant in status though they became comprehensive, and the Catholic Education Council expressed this view in evidence to the Public Schools (Donnison) Commission in the late 1960s.
But the substitution of another status, aided, which is
that of the majority of Catholic schools (the change being mainly in the way in which they
receive help from public funds) hardly raises an issue of principle on which it would be right for a stand to be taken in the name of the Church.
Any change of this kind requires detailed arrangements, and there is one aspect of these
which merits a brief comment, mainly because it has provided
a starting point for some bizarre allegations. This relates to the building debts of direct-grant schools.
In direct-grant schools there is no grant for capital expen diture, ie, building (the grant is a capitation grant, not a capital grant. for running expenses) but
schools have been able to meet
part of capital expenditure by borrowing and paying loan charges out of their income from fees. In aided schools, although there are no fees, there is grant for capital expenditure.
If schools change from one status to another it is clearly just that when they forgo the kind of help available under one status for capital expenditure they should get the kind of help available under the other status
and that if fees cease to be available a grant should be
available instead, and this is what is to be found in the Government's proposals. The point is, I hope, a fairly simple one.
Change is often disturbing, hut this does not prevent it coming. The Church in the world has to adjust to many changes. I have sought in this article to give the background to just one proposed change of which individual Catholics will take different views, but my hope is that this need not lead to acrimony within the Church.