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Choice and the common good;Opinion

The Catholic bishops' latest publication, The Common Good, is a striking document; Nicholas Pyke did a service to the educational community in highlighting it in The TES on May 9. The document's passion for justice, community, human dignity and the common good contrasts dramatically with the mechanistic discourse of inputs and outcomes, curriculum "delivery," teacher "training" and league table "performance indicators" which has dominated education in Britain for more than a decade.

In four major sections, the bishops lay down a challenge for all educational institutions to examine their existing practices in the light of fundamental and humane principles.

The first of these is "the dignity of the human person". The bishops criticise the dehumanising tendencies of recent education policies which, they suggest, threaten to transform the recipients of education into economic units of different value. They assert that "every member of a school or college community possesses a basic dignity that comes from God and is therefore worthy of respect...That is why the poor and the disadvantaged - in financial, social, academic or spiritual terms - must be our primary concern."

In two inter-related sections: "Morality in the market place," and "Option against the poor," the bishops make some of their most challenging statements. While not denying that market forces have brought benefits to some educational institutions, they see their long term effects as threatening the integrity of educational values and practice. "Market forces, the desire to 'succeed' at all costs, have encouraged some schools and colleges to discriminate in their selection procedures against pupils with special educational needs or from disadvantaged families in order to achieve high rankings in the league tables. Others are permanently excluding pupils with emotional or psychological problems for the same reasons," they say.

The effect of market forces and league tables that ignore social and cultural context, they conclude, is to undermine the morale, the self-respect and the sense of achievement of teachers and pupils in poor urban and inner-city schools. Quoting from their recently published report A Struggle for Excellence, the bishops argue that success achieved against the odds counts for very little in an absolute scale of measurement. What crude league tables have in fact established is an option against the poor. For a Church committed to the principle of "the preferential option for the poor," such educational procedures are "contrary to the Gospel and to any rational idea of what a human being really is".

Their call for more solidarity among schools and colleges, and more sharing of resources by popular and successful schools, in order to help those facing major challenges in deprived areas, runs in the opposite direction to the ideology of self-managing and self-surviving schools which the previous Government encouraged. Say the bishops: "Sacrifices sometimes have to be made by individual institutions for the common good".

The Common Good, as well as articulating a new vision for education, is a practical agenda for action which institutions could begin to implement. What will now be interesting to see is how far Catholic schools and colleges can demonstrate in their practice what they claim in their mission statements.

The bishops are remarkably uncompromising in their commitment to common values. Even the new sacred icon of education policy - parental rights and parental choice - does not go unquestioned. Catholic educational tradition has long understood that schools and colleges serve communities, not simply parents - especially when the parents have been reconstructed as "consumers".

As the bishops put it: "When expressing a preference for a school, parents need to examine carefully the criteria they use...While properly seeking a good school for their children, they should also be aware of the impact on neighbourhood schools if able children are sent to popular, successful schools outside their catchment area. Parents, too are responsible for the common good in education."

Here is something for Tony Blair, Harriet Harman and other new Labour leaders to reflect upon as they proclaim their belief in the importance of community values in education.

Professor Gerald Grace is director of the newly-established centre for research and development in Catholic education at the Institute of Education in London

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