The Church versus the state

7th November 1997 at 00:00
SHIFTING ALLIANCES. By Priscilla Chadwick. Cassell Pounds 15.99

To move, as I have done, from being head of a C of E school to being chair of governors of a multi-ethnic local authority school is to have many long-held assumptions challenged. Neither am I alone in my doubts.

There are those, even in the mainstream churches, who question whether Church schools - partners in a "dual system" which dates back to the debate leading to the 1870 Education Act - are any longer either necessary or desirable. This is well illustrated by the attitude, quite commonly found, of the young curate who cannot see why his or her support should go entirely to the church school in the parish and not be more equally distributed among the others. Then, too, many C of E schools are largely populated by children who practise other faiths, and their heads have to justify themselves on grounds which are not always convincing. Claims made by C of E schools of a "special, more caring atmosphere" are, frankly, offensive to neighbouring non-church schools.

For Catholics, the position has always been more clear-cut - a Catholic school, essentially, is designed to educate the children of Catholic families within the traditions of the Catholic faith. Priscilla Chadwick, in this absorbing account of Church education and its relationship with the state, quotes a Catholic bishop, in the run up to the 1944 Education Act: "We shall have our Catholic schools where our Catholic children shall be educated in a Catholic atmosphere by a Catholic authority."

The struggle of the Catholic Church to maintain an acceptable balance between receiving state funding and maintaining its control over Catholic schools is a particularly fascinating one, which, for example, taxed to the full the diplomatic skills of R A Butler, remembered as the main architect of the 1944 Act. Many students of the Act, like me, know little of this corner of its history, and Dr Chadwick brings great clarity to bear on its complexities.

She steps meticulously, too, through the morass of controversy - much of it unedifying and occasionally un-Christian - which surrounded the government reforms of recent years. The battle to establish Christianity as the main component of religious education teaching; the meaning of "spiritual and moral" in the curriculum; the role of the Office for Standards in Education; the insistence on collective worship; the protests by the heads and teachers who would actually have to put the proposals into practice - all are carefully documented and described. How dated the words of even a very few years ago now seem. Did John Patten really say that the Department for Education and Employment Circular 194 on religious education and collective worship was a "turning point in the spiritual life of this country"? And if so, did he believe it?

The author is excellent, too, at documenting some of the ways in which the last government misunderstood what church schools were about. That Whitehall should be surprised when Church school governors did not take up the "fast track" to grant-maintained status offered in 1995 is just one indication of just how out of touch the lawmakers were. As Dr Chadwick puts it: "The Church argued that the diocesan family of schools should resist government pressure for increased competition and co-operate in partnership with their Christian community." Many Church school heads and governors actually still believed, in the words of Archbishop Temple, that "competition is simply organised selfishness". It is this kind of stand by Church schools which, in the end, may encourage those who have begun to believe that the future lies with secularisation.

Priscilla Chadwick's book achieves the difficult feat of being absorbing and scholarly. It puts on record a strand of our social history that has had far-reaching effects on the education, careers and everyday lives of a large section of the population. Importantly, too, it is shot through with the conviction and understanding of a writer who has seen the issues from the inside.

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