ON THE FACE OF IT, there 1S nothing threatening to Catholic schools in the Government's new Education Bill. There is no specific mention of Catholic schools. There is even possible good news in the Bill. The Government is proposing to allow "good schools" more freedom: to opt out of the national curriculum; to have different hours or term lengths; even to pay its teachers more.
The Bill needs the scrutiny that the Catholic Education Service will give it, but many Catholic schools might apply to have these "freedoms" that are on offer. After all, until recently, all Catholic schools decided their own curriculum, appointed their own staff (without labyrinthine employment legislation) and made all their own decisions about the admission, and expulsion, of pupils. These vital powers have been lost over the last few years and, if some of them can be regained for some Catholic schools, then there would be benefits and, in the longer term, a chance for all Catholic schools to regain all their lost rights The Bill seems not to threaten Catholic schools, but, as we have found with this government, all things must be watched: it is often in the statutory instruments and the guide lines that the real danger lies. The same week that she introduced the new Bill, the Secretary of State for Education, Ms Estelle Morris, in a parliamentary answer admitted that the Government policy now was that: "Under the new rules, new faith schools must show that they are inclusive; they could do so through admission arrangements, which I welcome, but, if not, they must show school organisation committees ways in which they will be inclusive." This " inclusiveness" is not in the new education Bill nor is it anywhere defined. It could mean what the Government decides it should mean.
THERE is A REAL DANGER here and, as far as we know, there has been no consultation with Catholic authorities about any "new rules". It is true, that in the same debate, Mr Paul Goodman, MP for Wycombe, asked: "Does the Secretary of State have any plans that could reduce the percentage of Catholic pupils at Catholic schools?" and received the answer: "No." But this could simply mean that Catholic schools have to become "inclusive" in other ways to be decided at the whim of the Government. In the same debate, by the way, people of Rochdale will be interested to know, their MP, Mrs Lorna Fitzimmons, wished that "we had secular education", and the MP for Harro gate and Knaresborough, Mr Phil Willis, wanted assurance from the Secretary of State (not given) that " no Church school in receipt of state funds should be able to discriminate in its admissions policy against children of other faiths and those with no faiths at all". The very term "faith-based schools" should be resisted by Catholic schools. Our schools are "church schools" and should remain so: let others call themselves "faith-based" if they wish.
MORE VIGILANCE is needed, too, over a matter that could damage our schools even more than a government attack the inability to appoint sufficient numbers of practising Catholic teachers, something we have mentioned before. The case of Good Shepherd Primary School, New Addington, Croydon, shows a new threat. The governors have been unable to appoint a Catholic head teacher and are accepting, for one year, a non-Catholic lady. She seems an excellent teacher, but Catholic schools obviously need Catholic heads and, for a primary school where all teachers are likely to teach RE, an entirely Catholic staff. The problem of finding good Catholic teachers will grow worse as the numbers of practising Catholics diminishes. Some governing bodies, pragmatically, take the view: "Better to appoint a good, honest non-Catholic teacher than a lapsed Catholic." However, current employment legislation makes it difficult to find out whether a teacher is practising or not. The whole Catholic community needs to address the problem of Catholic teacher supply.
The kind of vigilance and fight necessary has been demonstrated by his Grace the Archbishop of Birmingham in the Oxford area. As we have reported, there, an unsatisfactory system of "joint-faith" schools is being replaced by a thoroughly Catholic secondary system. The archbishop had the local educational authority to contend with as well as the Church of England authorities. He stuck to his guns. The governors of the new St Gregory the Great Secondary school have nailed up an uncompromisingly Catholic vision statement which among other good things, promises that this will be a school which "upholds a clear, lifeenhancing vision of Catholic moral and social teaching, centred on prayer, worship and the Gospel, where the importance of the family and the crucial role of parents are whole-heartedly supported".
Let us hope and pray that this confident new school will attract the good head teacher and staff that it deserves.