Against the grain

18th April 1997 at 01:00
Nicholas Pyke finds an unlikely champion of the counter-culture.

It is an extraordinary thing when priests start promoting "counter-culture". But a counter-culture is just what the Catholic church feels it is providing in some of the most deprived areas of Britain.

Catholic schools are widely acknowledged to perform better than average. This is true according to the gospels of both the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the Office for Standards in Education, academic league tables and inspection reports. In a new document, A Struggle for Excellence - Catholic Secondary Schools in Urban Poverty Areas, the Catholic Bishops' Conference looks at some of the reasons why this might be so, even in the face of deprivation and inequity.

The report, compiled by the Bishops' Committee for Community Relations, says: "Many schools are achieving notable success, others are fighting against what seem like overwhelming odds; yet together they are determined to provide, as far as possible, a counter-cultural existence to the outside world.

"They are communities where pupils find meaning through relationships, where their sense of self-worth is proclaimed and their dignity nourished."

Putting aside the peculiarly Catholic vocabulary, these sentiments are widely shared: by parents and, in albeit more eviscerated terms, by the authors of many Ofsted reports.

The elements in the success of the 27 schools covered in the report are familiar. The report found: * Strong positive leadership by heads and senior staff.

* A welcoming, friendly, orderly atmosphere, despite problems with intruders and a lack of maintenance money.

* High and consistent expectations of pupils.

* A clear focus on teaching and learning.

* High levels of achievement.

* Good and orderly behaviour.

* Pupils encouraged to participate in the life of the school and take responsibility for their own learning.

* Schools working hard to involve parents constructively.

Their success has been impressive. The Conservative Party now claims the voluntary-aided model (which has given church schools slightly more freedom) is the one for all state-run schools. But more striking still is the scale of the task confronting the schools in this report - a task in which, the authors insist, they need help.

Much of the document is taken up with a detailed account of their difficulties. In one school, for example, three in four pupils have free school meals (compared with a national average of 18 per cent) and 90 per cent of the surrounding adult population is unemployed.

A headteacher says: "Outside the school are racial tension, a drug culture, a gangster culture and high unemployment. Children try to bring all that into the school and we don't allow it."

A recurring theme is the lack of a book culture at home, with parents mostly willing but unable to help. Not all are willing: one school speaks of parents taking children on holiday in the middle of GCSE exams, despite assurances that the pupils could have done well.

Some children are so neglected that one school provides baths. Another finds child protection issues abound. A survey by a third established that in one year group 70 per cent of pupils were no longer living with both natural parents.

Faced with this, the report pulls no punches. League tables and current funding levels, it concludes, are unfair. It criticises "unrestrained competition", saying the gap between rich and poor schools will probably grow.

This insistence on community values and consensual decision-making is the sort of thing that has led to criticism from right-wing commentators. The bishops' publication of The Common Good earlier this year was characterised by some as a Labour Party tract. But A Struggle for Excellence is unabashed. From its foreword on, it insists poverty is an important educational issue. "If schools in poorer areas are not able to offer pupils an education similar to that offered in more affluent areas, we will inevitably pass on the legacy of a divided society to the next generation," writes David Konstant, Catholic bishop of Leeds.

He adds: "The nature and scale of the problems many of these schools face are almost unknown in more affluent areas. Their struggle for excellence against this background is documented. It is imperative that as a society we do not leave them alone in that struggle."

Or, as OFSTED put it in a 1993 report on urban deprivation: "Most schools in these disadvantaged areas do not have within themselves the capacity for sustainable renewal. Education by itself can only do so much to enable individuals to reach beyond the limiting contours of their personal and social circumstances and succeed."

A Struggle for Excellence is published by the Catholic Education Service. 0171 828 7604.

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