When Catholic Schools Don't Attract Catholics

Do we have too many schools? Can we sustain the schools that we have as thriving Catholic communities of learning?

Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890), "Let the Little Children Come Unto Me"
Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890), "Let the Little Children Come Unto Me" (photo: Register Files)

I was dismayed to read this week about a Catholic school in California which has removed religious statues from its buildings and grounds because of concerns that they were off putting to prospective parents who are non-Catholic. The San Domenico School in San Anselmo have upset a number of parents by this decision, who perceive the move as an erosion of the foundations proud traditions. The school, which for the last 167 years has had a Dominican foundation, felt that the statues could “alienate” potential students and parents.

I am a great advocate and believer in Catholic education for our children but I do believe that, in many schools, we could better. A Catholic education is a right, enshrined in canon law, and yet often we are failing our young people by offering a watered down and compromised form of the Catholic faith in our schools and educational institutions.

The situation is slightly different in England but we are still facing many of the same difficulties and challenges. Unlike the U.S., most Catholic schools in the U.K. are funded by the state, although the schools themselves and their property remain part of the Church. State-funded Catholic schools currently make up 1 in 10 of all school provision in England and Wales, with nearly 850,000 pupils educated in 2,245 schools and colleges. This is an incredible achievement, especially when considered that a higher proportion of Catholic schools are in deprived areas and that Catholic schools are often more diverse than average (34.5 percent of pupils in Church schools are from ethnic minority backgrounds compared with a national figure of 28.5 percent).

A disproportionate number of Catholic schools in England are oversubscribed. Even non-Catholics apply because of a record of good outstanding academic performance and also the moral emphasis that is not available in a normal secular state school. I am the chaplain of a local high school and every year parents appeal because their son or daughter was not allocated one of the much coveted places. This is not rare and each year school governors up and down the country sit on appeal panels as parents argue why their child should be admitted to the school. This in not uniform throughout the country as we too have schools that struggle to fill their rolls and seek to recruit more widely than amongst Catholic families.

Often there can seem to be a watering down of Catholic life and practice in many of our schools, which is of growing worry. I recently contacted by a very devout Catholic parent who had made the decision not to send her children to the local Church school. She was worried that a school with a weak Catholic identity would be more damaging to their ideals of bringing up their children in the faith. For her the Catholic school could not be a trusted partner in the sharing of the faith with her children. I found that I agreed with much of what she said during our meeting.

One of the challenges in schools today is finding strong Catholic leadership. In most dioceses in the U.K. there is still a requirement that the head teacher and deputy head teacher are practicing Catholics. The problem is that the pool of potential candidates is shrinking year on year. Recently an excellent school, well known to me, advertised for a head teacher but could not appoint anybody to the position, as the caliber of applicants was unsatisfactory. This school are now without a substantive leader. As we see a decline in Church attendance I do worry where our future school leadership will come from. In English Catholic schools in 2013, 69 percent of primary teachers and 44.2 percent of high school teachers were Catholic but this number is reducing as long-serving staff retire or leave the profession. If we cannot recruit good Catholic leaders for our schools, then what meaningful future is there?

Most Catholic schools in England have a local diocese as the trustees. The local bishop appoints foundation governors or academy board members to each school. These foundation governors, who are always in a majority of at least two on any board, have the responsibility to ensure that the school is operating according to the teaching of the Church and has a clear Catholic identity. Governors are essential in holding to account the senior leaders in a school and ensuring that all aspects of the school are in good health, including its Catholic identity and ethos. Again a challenge now is finding suitable, faithful and able candidates from within parishes. As Catholic schools in the U.K. are within the state system there is a great deal of statutory and legal responsibility for governors and the demands can be substantial. Each time my local school carries a vacancy it can take months to find someone who is willing and able to commit the time and energy to properly fulfilling the role.

One of the complaints from the parents at the San Domenico School in San Anselmo was that it had ceased to offer catechism and preparation for First Communion and Confirmation. But I am increasingly wondering whether schools are the best place for this to take place anyway. Someone recently said to me that they felt that having such preparation in the school was merely sacramentalizing the lapsed. This is perhaps a bit strong but we do not to question what we are doing, in terms of the sacraments, when families connected to our schools are so far from the Church. We are largely operating a system which worked well in the past but which may not be fit for purpose today in a society and church which is increasing secularized. We risk leaving children with a vague and superficial experience of genuine Catholic worship and faith when their only experience of Church life is during the hours that they spend in school. A number of clergy have already tackled this and have taken preparation for the sacraments away from schools and placed the task back in the hands of parish catechists.

The problems at San Domenico school seem be about the need to recruit more students and I am sure that this is not in isolation. If our schools are struggling to attract Catholic families and teachers then we may need to ask some difficult questions. Do we have too many schools? Can we sustain the schools that we have as thriving Catholic communities of learning? Perhaps, just as we see parishes being rationalized, we may also need to close some of our schools. Fewer but healthier schools with a clear Catholic identity might just be the answer. if we do not grasp the nettle, we risk having more and more schools (and many other Catholic institutions) where the expression of Catholicism is only skin deep.