Securing a Catholic education

Taken from the Catholic Universe – 8 September 2013

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The row over faith schools has been reignited this week following the British Humanist Association’s successful challenge to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator with regards to the entry criteria for the London Oratory in Fulham, one of the UK’s leading Catholic Schools.

Under its current admissions policies, one of the criteria under which children are prioritised is that of ‘service’ by a child or their parent within a Catholic church or community over at least three years, which could include singing in the choir, being on the flower-arranging rota or some kind of church based voluntary work. The Oratory had argued that this is a religious activity in accordance with canon law, however the adjudicator disagreed, stating that the criterion meant parents who wanted a place for their children would need to start planning three or four years in advance of their child’s admission. This apparently would favour those who were sufficiently well-organised and that it therefore excluded more chaotic and presumably more disadvantaged families.  It is apparently unfair that parents should be need to be thinking about school admissions four years ahead of actually requiring a place.

Firstly, one has to question what right the British Humanist Association has to challenge and interfere with the admissions criteria of Catholic schools, to whom they are vehemently opposed. This was little more than a thinly veiled and intolerant attack upon the rights of parents to be able to give their children an education of their choosing.

What the British Humanist Association and other secular lobby groups fail to grasp, is that though all faith schools enjoy state funding, they are also funded by the Church itself, which currently contributes around £20 million a year towards the capital costs of her schools in England and Wales. It is therefore only right and proper that schools should be able to maintain a Catholic ethos, part of which must include reserving the majority of its places for children from the Catholic community, for whom they were established to serve.

In most Catholic schools, the proportion of non-Catholic students is actually much higher than the government’s stipulated 15%, the proportion of Catholic students is around 75% in England, 65% in Wales, meaning that the non-Catholic students number around a third of the total intake, more than double the official requirements, but obviously there are also some schools, such as the Oratory, who are hugely over-subscribed, which is where difficulty arises.

The Catholic Education Service is opposed to admissions criteria such as those of the Oratory, because as the schools’ adjudicator says, it can disadvantage those of a lower social status or those families where both parents work, making it difficult for them to be involved in parish work, meaning that the Catholic Church falls short in her duty to provide education for the entire Catholic population.

I confess to having very mixed feelings on the topic, speaking in the position of someone who will shortly be applying to our over-subscribed local Catholic primary for a place for our daughter next year. The demands of 4 young children, 2 of whom are little more than babies, does admittedly make it extremely difficult to get involved in various parish activities, reading at Mass for example, would be impossible. Were my husband working long hours as a layman, as he did in the period between being an Anglican clergyman and attending seminary, it would be a Herculean task. But that said, despite working long and irregular shift patterns, he still did what he could. Not because we had an eye on school admissions, (our local school doesn’t require any service element) but because as Catholics we felt obligated to contribute to our community in some way.

The thinking on school admissions seems to emanate from cynicism. Most people do not get involved in parish work due to some ulterior motive, but because they generously want to give of their time and energy and be involved in the work of the Kingdom.

We have to remember that Catholic schools are not solely about imparting a first-class academic education, but also raising our children in the habits of the faith, teaching them first and foremost about their vocation as Christians. Therefore it should be hoped that most Catholic parents are already somehow involved in their local community, even if their commitment can only extend to baking cakes for the parish fair, or occasionally helping out on an ad-hoc basis as required.

Catholic schools are rightly disbarred from probing into the Catholicity of parents, but we all know of cases where parents have turned up solely for the required period of time to enable the priest to sign the school form in good conscience, never to be seen again once the child has started school. It therefore feels innately unfair that parents who have been local parish stalwarts for a period of time, could well miss out as a result of such opportunism. The requirement for service certainly overcomes this particular issue.

Ultimately however, whilst we continue to have over-subscribed Catholic schools, there can be no perfect system, frequent Mass attendance or parish service being imperfect ways of selecting pupils, as they both rule out recent converts or those who may have only just moved to a particular area.

The great injustice of the British education system is that effectively it is only those with the cash to pay for private schools or to move into the right catchment area, or those with faith who are able to access a good education. Catholic schools are regularly applauded as being excellent models of education by the education watchdogs. What we need is more of them, so that places are available, not only for every baptised Catholic to receive the education that is their right, but also for anyone else of whatever religion who feels that a Catholic formation could be of benefit to their child.