We should rejoice that non-Catholic children are flocking to our schools, says Nicolas Kennedy Bishop Michael Campbell should be congratulated on his initiative to consult on whether it is appropriate for Catholic schools in Lancaster diocese to continue to exist if they do not have a sufficient number of Catholics to educate. Regrettably, other dioceses appear to have made that decision already, without consultation, and are taking steps to shed themselves of the “embarrassment” of Catholic schools with not enough Catholics to educate.
There are issues here that affect society as a whole, as well as whether the view of Catholic education that we grew up with is still appropriate for the Church in today’s fast-changing world. As Bishop Campbell has recognised, this deserves at least a wider debate, and it is in this context that I am writing. I have chaired the governing body of a Catholic school for over 10 years. During that time the percentage of non-Catholic children of South Asian heritage at the school has increased from 20 per cent to 99 per cent.
Schools run by Catholic dioceses in Britain operate under a trust deed which requires that the trustees provide education for Catholic children. This is in contrast to the Catholic educational establishments run by religious orders, which in some cases have a more open and missionary approach, and to the Church of England, whose schools are provided for the benefit of the community as a whole. In situations where this is an issue in a school the diocesan trust deed virtually requires that foundation governors regard the education of Catholics as of greater importance than that of non-Catholics.
Today, some areas that were populated by Irish immigrants a century ago are now home to immigrants from South Asia. As a result, some Catholic schools have seen a change in their catchment areas over a relatively short period. Towns and cities that have large immigrant populations have experienced a polarisation in their schools, with most having an overwhelming majority of either indigenous or immigrant children. “White flight” is a significant contributor to this, and Catholic schools are not immune to it.
There are communities across Britain, including some in Bishop Campbell’s diocese, that are striving to ensure that all their citizens live contentedly and constructively together. The Institute of Community Cohesion has recommended that faith schools rethink admission policies that exclude those of different faiths, a recommendation the Church has rejected, pointing out that those of other faiths are admitted, as they are required to be by law.
If the Church opts to close schools which have too many non-Catholics it would send out a message to policy makers and local communities that it is not happy to educate those of other faiths. This might increase tensions surrounding the lack of co-operation with community cohesion initiatives to a new level.
Whether we like it or not, there is a racial factor here. Of course, the Church would not intend this and the public statements that it puts out would never be in any way racist. But it remains true that any announcement that the Church was giving up schools which do not have enough Catholic children would surely be seen as supportive by those who campaign to “keep England white”. If a school loses its Catholics because of demographic change and non-Catholic children want to come and be educated in the Catholic ethos of the school, why can we not rejoice in this? All over the world we have missionaries working to tell nonbelievers about the glory of God. Why is it not acceptable to do this here in England, where we have admirers of our educational system clamouring to partake in it? What is more, why can diocesan Catholic schools not accept the model presented by some Catholic schools outside the diocesan system, which seem to be prepared to accept that a missionary aim for a Catholic school in Britain is acceptable?
Uncertainty as to whether a school will remain a Catholic school gives rise to difficulties. It becomes more difficult to recruit Catholic head teachers, of whom there is a shortage currently, and other staff, and it gives an excuse to parents to remove their children, and thus to accelerate the increase of non-Catholics. For as long as the Church has an undecided position on whether a school is still a Catholic school when it has few Catholics the future of some of its schools will be uncertain, and their success will be at risk.
This issue is currently to being debated, or decided, diocese by diocese. One of the effects of this is that schools with increasing percentages of non-Catholic children are in some cases being discouraged from sharing their experiences with schools with similar issues in other dioceses.
If after the consultation Lancaster diocese decides that it is no longer appropriate for some schools to remain as Catholic schools, it would be helpful, although perhaps politically difficult, if it set out the reasons for its decision so that the increasing number of schools that will be involved in this process in the future are able to plan ahead. It would also be helpful if the diocese made clear its support for schools with small percentages of non-Catholics to deter polarisation into ethnic groups.
Another factor which must be addressed in this debate is managing the convoluted process which the Government has laid down for schools that wish to change their religious affiliation, or even to cease to have one and become a community school. A school wishing to do this is required to go out to a public competition, to be administrated by its local authority, which, including consultation periods, could last for more than a year. This must be a time of uncertainty and disruption for staff and children. If there are any legally “woolly” issues this period of the process (and therefore the uncertainty) will be extended. These periods of disruption pose a major risk to schools. If an otherwise good school fails to manage these risks and deteriorates children’s futures may be put at risk at a key time in their education. Dioceses putting schools through this process need to have prepared thoroughly to avoid these damaging delays.
Christ at the Centre, a summary of why the Church provides Catholic schools published by the Diocesan Schools Commission of Birmingham archdiocese, says: “As the 21st century progresses envisioning what Catholic schools will look like requires openness and imagination.” I maintain that this time has come.