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Faithful research

Valerie Hill thought Catholic girls were stuck with old-fashioned ideas about job choices - then she started asking questions

This summer's headlines announcing that girls' achievement at GCSE and A-level was at an all-time high will surprise few teachers working in the Catholic sector. There it has been demonstrated for some time that girls can more than hold their own.

Women educated in institutions where the rattle of rosary beads is deafening have always been led to believe that we've had extra special help. After all, the Blessed Virgin Mary was rooting for us, wasn't she? And I have never wavered in my devotion to the Church, even when I was slapped for asking "Sister, do nuns wear black pyjamas in bed?" But it was as a teacher that I began to have doubts about the system when I noticed that at 16-plus most academic girls chose to go to secular colleges, leaving their more middle-of-the-road (and possibly more "devout") peers to stay in the smaller, parochial Catholic schools.

And then I sensed that, whatever the ability of the girl, in a Catholic institution she seemed to be encouraged to opt for teacher training rather than a non-vocational BA or BSc degree, to choose nursing rather than medical school, or become a social worker rather than an NHS manager - in other words, to pick a life of selflessness and service in a traditionally female, caring profession.

Was this due to the influence of the Church, particularly the pronouncements of the Pope, revealing an attitude to women which can only politely be described as "unreconstructed?" How far were the schools to blame for not cultivating wider ambitions? Or was there indeed an inherent contradiction in the narrow roles prescribed for Catholic women by the Vatican and the general aim of schools in helping students to fulfil their potential?

It has been argued that although historically the Catholic Church did a very good job in educating girls, they were not trained in the same way as boys to think independently.

A distinct type of female morality was encouraged, with the emphasis on compliance and obedience. The desire to please, it is claimed, was inculcated into the minds of girls, with such pliancy emanating from the Virgin Mary.

was all too well aware, though, that a Catholic school has to confront the prevailing secular culture with permanent Christian values - not an easy task. The phrase "community of faith" is often used to describe how such ethics are fostered - a combination of the liturgy, social and community work and the hidden curriculum of relationships and structures.

I felt an MEd dissertation coming on. I selected a number of comprehensives and sixth-form colleges in the north-west (an area with a high Catholic population giving a more representative sample across socio-economic groups) and set about asking several hundred girls the crucial questions: what importance did they place on attending a Catholic school and what influence had it had on their choice of job, higher education course or HE institution?

Much to my surprise (and relief - I am no traitor to my tribe), the results of my research yielded some extremely encouraging findings. The attitudes and aspirations of the students showed them to be highly motivated young women who, by and large, were not willing to be led into gender-stereotypical subject or career choices.

The most popular A-level subjects among them after (predictably) English were maths and business studies. Most came from families with no tradition of higher education, yet most intended to apply to university, many to Oxbridge.

Eventual jobs included barrister, doctor, leader of a research team, footballer, even weapons engineer - oh dear, is that progress?

They had chosen to remain under the Catholic umbrella for laudable reasons - "it really is a community here", said one - and even had positive comments about the compulsory RE:"I thoroughly enjoy it. It's really conversations about your life!" It was quite obvious from my research that girls were not being indoctrinated; while Catholic doctrine and values were being imparted, ideas concerning the importance of personal autonomy, independence and responsibility were clearly in evidence.

As one student wrote: "I've learnt not to be afraid, to show my talents and not hide them." Isn't that what we are all striving for?

Valerie Hill teaches part-time at St Edmund Arrowsmith RC high school, Ashton-in-Makerfield, Wigan

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