Friday, March 25, 2011

Crying over spilt milk?

I have to admit that when I went looking for a university degree in theology to do my first port of call was a non catholic institution. I'd discovered some time earlier that most Catholic institutes of theology were really not worth the trouble. They either dissented from teaching quite blatantly or the academic standards were appalling. Actually both problems applied in 99% of the places I looked at. In the end I settled for a place which actually had a strong connection with the Protestant Revolution, several of it's deceased dons being counted in Mr Foxes' book of hopeful heretics. At least I knew where I stood. There was no pretence about what was being taught. They didn't teach a lot of rubbish and then pretend it was Catholic. Actually they were much more open to the validity of patristic evidence than the Catholic seminary where I had done philosophy.

Given this I can't get very excited about the pros and  cons of Religious Education in the higher levels of secondary education. The syllabus, in Britain, is solid and not without academic merit. It is certainly not a 'soft' option for the differently abled student. It's continued existence and content, however, would be unlikely to reverse the anecdotal statistic that has 90% of students in Catholic schools lapsing before they've even managed to flee the nest of dear Alma Mater. I wonder if the resources being squandered on academic RE programmed in the Catholic schools might be better put into the hands of chaplains for spiritual programmes.

It's quite obvious that the passing-on of religious faith (as distnct from academic knowledge about the faith) is better achieved from parent to child rather than in the class room. It would probably be a worthy notion for the bishops' conference to use some saved education funds in the production of catechetical materials to be used at home. This will not happen of course. The union connections would be calling in favours on the behalf of the atheistic religious education teachers collective before you could whistle a stanza of the Internationale.

But is the possibility that there may not be Religious Education in some sort of Baccalaureate really a tragedy worthy of a lot of angst?

For readers outside of Britain: Religious Education is a compulsory curriculum element in British Schools up until late secondary schooling.  In the last fortnight two things have 'made the news' concerning religious education in schools in Britain. (1) The proposal not to have RE as an option in the final year of secondary education and (2) the announcement that the amount of trainee places for RE teachers is to be roughly halved. For readers in Britain: Those reading outside these isles are probably pretty amazed that we are allowed to have religious education within the state system at all!


  1. I'm American myself, and would be amazed except that I had already learned (through other British blogs) that Catholic schools are actually state-supported -- which at the time was thoroughly amazing to me.

    When you refer to "secondary" education, do you mean what we would call high school -- 9th through 12th grades (approximately age 15-18) -- or do you mean college?

    Here in the U.S. you are allowed to be taught *about* religion, but not "taught religion", in state-supported schools. In other words, you can talk about what people believe, but you can't be taught that what anyone believes is more true than what anyone else believes.

  2. Thanks Agellius,

    By 'secondary' I meant roughly 13-18. In the current system some form of Religious studies is 'core' that is compulsory curriculum. The public examination papers are multi optioned enough to allow for the different religious groups to be able to answer questions pertaining to their own faith background. Schools frequentlt have multiple professional religion teachers on their staff to cover the teaching load across the school.

  3. Are Catholic colleges in Britain also state-run for the most part?

  4. Agellius,
    Sorry about the slow reply but I had to check some facts. There is no real equivalent in Britain to the liberal arts colleges you find in the United States. Some of us are looking at ways of rectifying this absence. What does exist are Catholic institutes of training (say in teaching or nursing) that have received accreditation or have become constituent 'colleges' within a secular University. All receive some Government funding directly or indirectly. By the way there is only one completely 'private' university in the whole country that I know of; The University of Buckingham which is completely 'secular'.

  5. Wow, that is truly amazing! Based on my experience in the U.S., I mean. Assuming I understand you correctly.

    When you say "completely private", do you mean "not owned by the government", or do you mean "not receiving any government funding"?

    In other words, are you saying (as I understand you to say) that there is only one college or university in the whole country that is not owned by the government?

    Sorry to get off the topic of the post, but this is interesting to me.

  6. The universities aren't exactly 'owned' by the government - at least, not in the way that most of our schools are (or were - but let's not get into that). The schools - that's education up to the age of 18 - are not only funded by our taxes but must follow the syllabuses laid down by government and, indeed, submit to all the new 'initiatives' which succeed each other hourly (or so it seems to this cynical teacher). The universities, on the other hand, are largely (not entirely) government funded, but on the whole can teach and research in the areas they wish...though it sure helps if what you're researching is climate change.

    There's a big row brewing, though, at the moment, because the government are determined to get more students from the lower echelons of society into top universities - and since the schools that these pupils go to are appalling (not mostly the schools' fault: family breakdown and teen culture mean that any student who aspires to more than his peers has to keep his head firmly down if he's not to be beaten up), they don't generally get the grades at A-level (= AP & SAT II) to get into these institutions. The government want to set quotas before allowing universities to charge students maximum fees, and there's a possibility that Oxford and/or Cambridge might just tell them to stuff it, and go independent. Interesting times!

  7. Thanks, Susan!

    The way your describe "the schools" sounds exactly like our public school system, although we also have schools that are independent of the government.

    Colleges and universities are sometimes privately owned and sometimes publicly owned, but the vast majority receive significant government funding, whether public or private. A few private colleges -- including some good Catholic ones -- refuse all government funding because they want to maintain their freedom and independence, since strings are usually attached to government funding.

    I agree with you, that it doesn't help to push people into top schools who are not prepared for it. Either they fail, or else standards are lowered to ensure that they don’t, neither of which does anyone much good in my opinion. And I agree that the primary problem with low-income students is lack of guidance and role models in their lives. It's tragic, but it's an issue of culture and family breakdown, not prejudice or discrimination.

    I hope Oxford and Cambridge stand their ground. I assume they already do what they can to assist low-income students, right?


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