Education Eric Hester
The Government is in a mess about education. It constantly says that things are getting better but people do not believe the "spin" and believe that things are getting worse. This week, the Secretary of State, Estelle Morris, gave a speech stating that there were to be changes to the secondary comprehensive system, but the changes are not fundamental and amount to little more than "spin". She says, in a vague way that she wants schools to "specialise" and to "develop their own ethos". I have news for Miss Morris: the best schools already have their own ethos and are already specialising, specialising in teaching the eternal truths of the Catholic faith.
For while Britain's schools are widely perceived as failing, there are two areas of admitted and acknowledged success — the independent schools and the church schools (known in Blair-speak as "faith schools"). Miss Morris, in her speech about how to improve comprehensives, did not mention either of these sectors. What independent schools and church schools demonstrate very clearly is that the less the government and local education authority intervene, the better schools will be. The inde pendent schools of Britain are strong. Every one is a relative success: if they were not, then parents would not be foolish enough to pay the fees out of their hard-earned money. Do not think that all independent schools are rich. Some are, but many are comparatively poor with facilities considerably less lavish than the neighbouring state school and with some not even paying teachers the full national rate.
Church schools, particularly Catholic schools, are usually among the best schools in the maintained sector. As a whole, they have better discipline, achieve better examination results, offer more extra-cunicular activities and, not surprisingly, offer a far better moral and religious education.
Miss Morris, though, does not want the local comp to imitate these successful schools. She cannot bring herself to admit the failure of the "bog standard comprehensive", (the expression is that of the government's chief spinner Alistair Campbell). However, she said that she wants to end the "one size fits all" or "off the shelf" comprehensive and, to the fury of the bureaucrats of the teachers unions, she said that there are some schools that as a teacher "I would not touch with a bargepole".
Catholics should rejoice that there is no such thing as the "bog standard" Catholic school. Our Catholic comprehensives are different precisely because of their Catholicity. They are, I suggest, good in exact ratio to the extent that they put their Catholicity first — "Seek ye first the kingdom of God". Remember how Our Blessed Lord continues? "And all these thing will be added unto you."
The best schools, like the London Oratory School good enough for the Prime Minister's sons — are very Catholic with strong headteachers. The weakest Catholic schools are those that, embarrassed by their Catholicity, regard the local education authority as their master. We know that this is the wrong master and we have it on the best of authority than no one can serve two masters.
Yet Miss Morris will not give Catholic schools freedom to determine their own curricula, or to choose their own pupils. All independent schools have these two freedoms. Catholic schools used to have these freedoms, too, but they have been surrendered. A Catholic school can choose its own pupils only with the agreement of the local authority. No Catholic maintained school can determine its own curriculum. Now is the time for those who lead Catholic education to ask our schools to be given back their freedom. Yet, the Liberal Democrats and a number of Labour MPs earlier this year voted to restrict Catholic schools still more and allow them to choose only 75 per cent of their pupils. We must be on guard. So let us thank God for our schools and let us pray for our teachers, especially to Our Blessed Lady and to St Joseph.