BY THEIR statement last month, the Bishops of England and Wales have made a national issue out of the threatened closure of De La Salle College, Hopwood Hall. The Bishops Conference rejected the decision of the Education Secretary to discontinue teacher training at the college, and instructed its education executive to challenge the decision and work to have it withdrawn. And with good reason.
Hopwood Hall is a perfectly healthy college fulfilling well its tasks of supplying Catholic teachers and providing an opportunity for higher education to degree standards within a Christian community setting. There are no educational or pastoral grounds for closing it, as the governors have stated eloquently this week.
The central issue in the latest ruts lies in the way the decisions were arrived at. It marks a departure from accepted and established practice of full consultation and negotiation before the decision, not after, as has happened this year.
Herein lies also the threat to the whole principle of the dual system, unique to Britain, where Catholic voluntary education co-exists with a State education system. The 1944 Education Act not only guaranteed the statutory rights of the Catholic community in this country to its own schools and laid the legal basis for the dual system; it also imposed on the Secretary of State the duty of ensuring adequate facilities for the supply of teachers to schools, including voluntary schools.
It was because of the Catholic bishops' concern about this "adequate supply" that they took the initiative to establish a men's Catholic teacher training college in the north of England to supplement the supply of teachers from St Mary's Strawberry Hill in the south. So Hopwood Hall opened in 1947, as a national Catholic college supported by three nationwide church collections which effectively meant that all Catholic families subscribed to its foundation and upkeep.
In recent years there have been consultations about its future, but always in terms of expansion, diversification and expenditure. Quite recently £250,000 was allocated to build a new technology complex to expand Hopwood Hall's major speciality, design and technology education.
The case for De La Salle, Hopwood Hall, rests on the need for an adequate supply of teachers for Catholic schools, and on an adequate distribution of places for training those teachers. It has long been recognised that the Catholic church authorities have been the best judges in the distribution of students, given an equitable proportion of the overall targets set by the DES. This is no longer to be the case, according to the minister Speaking in the House of Commons last week, Mr William Waldegrave touched on the real significance of the decision. He said the Catholic hierarchy has not and never had a right to allocate places in its colleges. Technically and legally that is correct. But successive governments have allowed the hierarchy that function in practice if not as of right. This change in approach is the real threat to the whole dual system.
No government is likely to do away with the dual system by means of law to remove the effect of the 1944 Act. But any government of any colour is free to administer the dual system out of existence by resort to regulations and ministerial decree.
The whole spirit of the 1944 Act is being undermined and nullified by an administrative manoeuvre, as the Hopwood Hall governors say in their latest statement. It is only a matter of time before further Catholic Colleges are closed in favour of developing teacher training at polytechnics.
The security of the Catholic teacher training system is thus being removed, and the supply of teachers to the Catholic schools is threatened. Eventually the voluntary aided schools themselves will be under attack.
Bishop Holland of Salford made a forceful and eloquent plea for action from the whole Catholic community in his diocese to save Hopwood Hall and the dual system of education in this country. The college itself has launched an appeal for support in the form of protests and letters to MPs and the Education Secretary in particular.
But the issues are too great to be left only to the friends of the college and the Salford diocese. The bishops are giving their backing to mobilising clergy and laity to join in the action, not just to save one college, but to safeguard the whole principle of Catholic voluntary education.