am applauding our Church leaders for finally persuading a Prime Minister who claims that his Presbyterian father remains his moral compass to concede grudgingly a free vote on the most contentious parts of the forthcoming Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. The next I am reading that this admirable victory for common sense is set to provoke a Whitehall backlash against faith schools.
Gordon Brown is a man famous for bearing grudges. Peter Mandelson, Jonathan Powell, Cherie Booth, Tony Blair, all have had to endure his sulks, silences and petty vindictiveness. It is his least attractive quality and may one day seal his fate with the electorate. Now, he is reported to be furious that he was forced to make concessions on an embryology Bill that, to this layman at least, appears to legitimise humankind’s ambition to play God by interfering not only with the beginnings of life, but with the distinction between us and animals. Unable to resist the demand for a free vote on some parts of the Bill – which until the advent of New Labour, with its control-freak tendencies, I suspect would have been granted as a matter of course – Brown and certain elements in his Government are now reported to be on the look-out for an opportunity to put the churches in their place. And what better arena than where Church and state meet most regularly, ie faith schools?
Once I would have put such a suggestion down to the endemic habit among our political class – MPs and Westminster correspondents alike – of fashioning elaborate theories to explain away otherwise routine decisions. But such has been the sour tone in the Government’s recent dealings with faith schools that I can’t help taking it at least half seriously. Only half, mind.
Perhaps it is the fact that we are on Easter holidays at the moment, and so I am not going back and forth every day to the gates of our local Catholic primary, St Peter’s, with my sons Bruno and Gabriel, that makes it all so hard to take seriously. How can transparently good institutions, doing, as far as I can judge by the evidence of my own offspring, a fine job of educating children to be considerate, thoughtful citizens, provoke such ire and intrigue? How can a Government committed for this past decade to raising standards in schools, to “education, education, education”, want to interfere with part of the system that delivers precisely what ministers want – good results?
The Government has – or at least this seems plausible to me as I write it – fallen prey to a rather nasty habit that is currently fashionable of denigrating anything to do with religion. This tendency ignores the very basic point that, as with all things, there is good religion and there is bad.
In such a mood as we are in at the moment, however, the siren voices get far too much attention. Lying in the bath one morning over the Easter weekend I heard on the radio news Steve Sinnott, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), telling listeners that he had come up with a “compromise” to end the “problem” of faith schools. Namely abolish them and then allow an ever-changing cast of religious ministers to pop in to secular schools once a week to talk about God. A bit like a mobile library dropping by. No real connection with the life of the school – and of the children.
I can almost forgive politicians for being ignorant of what goes on in classrooms. They are too busy plotting. But the general secretary of the NUT? Does he really see the faith part of faith schools as a bolt-on to the rest of the secular curriculum? Thankfully the delegates at the NUT annual conference, many of them teachers in faith schools, brought a touch of reality to proceedings and voted down his bizarre idea.
A foolish Prime Minister and a group of senior ministers apparently seduced by the zeitgeist that all religion is a dangerous delusion may be harder to cope with. For 60-plus years, faith schools have worked on the basis of a partnership between the churches and the Government. That some clerics now fear this is breaking down is a matter of grave concern.
Ihave written before of the proceedings of the Commons Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, currently investigating faith schools. My remarks prompted a letter from Edmund Adamus, director of the Department for Pastoral Affairs in the Diocese of Westminster. He evidently was there when Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster gave evidence to the MPs on behalf of the Catholic bishops. And was so horrified by the tone of proceedings that he took the trouble afterwards to write to Barry Sheerman, the Labour MP who chairs the committee.
He wished to draw Mr Sheerman’s attention in particular “to the fact that many if not most Catholic schools, primary and secondary, are providing a unique service to race relations and community cohesion across this nation not least in the welcome and hospitality we give to new migrants, children/families of refugee and asylumseeker status and detainees. You will find in Cardinal Cormac MurphyO’Connor’s special message for schools in Westminster diocese something of this duty incumbent upon our schools to provide the very environments of inclusion and welcome that ... your committee proceedings (in my view) did much to unjustly disparage for the reputation of Catholic education in this regard.” Well said.
Do keep your letters coming in. Either write to me at The Catholic Herald address, or e-mail, attention Hugh David, to [email protected]