Mr Norman St John-Stevas has addressed me directly or indirectly in your columns several times in recent months, and 1 realise that my failure to respond to him may have seemed discourteous when we have known each other so long since our distant schooldays. I ought therefore to say a word about my reasons for not responding earlier, As he points out, when he writes on education rather than, for instance, on liturgy, he has another capacity: Opposition spokesman on education. I have always felt that political and ecclesiastical representatives should if possible avoid engaging in public controversy, and that if one started it the other should he wary of making the situation worse by replying.
.1 have no desire now to be contentious, but I think that perhaps I ought not to delay longer in making a few comments even if I cannot cover in a letter all the points he makes.
1. The issue of direct-grant schools and comprehensive reorganisation is not new and has been with us for 10 years. In this period a few direct-grant schools have become comprehensive, and plans have been prepared for more to do so.
Why has this been happening? Because in the areas in which they are located they have been either the only Catholic grammar schools or a substantial part of the grammar schools, This role as local Catholic grammar schools is reflected in the high proportion of their places taken up by local education authorities and made available to pupils as free places.
To create a satisfactory comprehensive system without the local grammar schools would be very difficult. But if the schools stayed out of a system, their free places could not he assured and, as Mr St JohnStevas points out, there would not be enough Catholic parents able to afford the fees.
He calls for a clear stand on principle. But it is not clear what the principle is. Is it that in areas where there are Catholic direct-grant schools there should be no cornprehensive reorganisation, irrespective of Government or local authority policy and that the schools should stay as they are?
So far as their status (direct-grant) is concerned as distinct from their role of grammar or comprehensive, the CEC has always taken the view that the status need not change while the role did. But if the Government proposes the replacement of direct-grant status by aided status this is not something which can be resisted on principle, when the great majority of Catholic schools have always been in the aided category.
He says that the financial problems are more complex than we have implied. "If the schools go into the State sector as maintained county grammar schools, then sites will have to be bought from religious orders." (Actually the prospect is that they would be maintained voluntary aided comprehensive schools).
But there seems to be a basic misapprehension here that a change to aided status requires either a change of ownership or ownership by local authorities. It does not. A voluntary-aided school remains in the ownership of its trustees and a school can become aided and remain in in the same ownership, as has happened with many Catholic independent schools which have become aided.
R. F. Cunningham Secretary, Catholic Education Council 41 Cromwell Road, London, SW7