It’s not often that you get strike action outside a Catholic school, but this morning some 40 members of the National Education Union and supporters were lined up outside the John Fisher School in Croydon, forming an official picket amidst calls to reinstate recently sacked school governors.
For those who’ve missed the controversy, there’s an ongoing media flurry over the interactions between the school, its governing body and the Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark, over the planned visit to the school of Simon James Green, a well-known, published children’s author, to “talk about his career and the publication process”.
According to the wording on his own website, Simon’s young adult novels include: “Noah Can’t Even (long listed for the Branford Boase and picked by WHSmith as one of the most important LGBT books of the last 50 years); Noah Could Never; Alex in Wonderland (nominated for the Carnegie medal and selected as one of the top 20 LGBT books of 2019 by Attitude); Heartbreak Boys, You’re the One That I Want (winner of the Bristol Teen Book Award), and Gay Club! (‘One to Watch’ in The Bookseller).”
I’ve never seen any of these titles so I’m really not qualified to comment, but reviews on Amazon and other book sites vary from ‘heartfelt’, ‘hilarious’, ‘moving’ and ‘must read’ through to ‘dreadful’, ‘tedious in the extreme’, ‘blisteringly awkward’ and ‘a waste of paper’.
Within the Catholic community reaction to the books is equally divided, with some praising the contemporaneousness of the topics, whilst others have been outraged at their strong sexual language and gay themes.
I have no idea whether or not the school and its governors saw any difficulty in their decision to invite Simon to speak on his publishing career to date – there may well have been perfectly logical reasons for doing so, but somewhere along the way pure common sense ought to have flagged that this decision was not going to be without consequences.
The visit was a planned part of the curriculum, and certainly met some aspects of the requirements, but it also very clearly contravened other critical aspects of the school’s Catholic remit. It seems hard to accept that the school chose to emphasise simply that this was an obviously well-known and talented new writer, without giving any thought to the material he represented.
Having edited Catholic publications, including a popular national Catholic tabloid newspaper, for more than 30 years I’d be the first to put my hands up and say that it’s very easy to endorse an apparently appropriate subject for a Catholic audience, only to discover almost immediately after you’ve committed that there was some glaring impediment. This was particularly common in the Catholic tabloid world, where celebrities often waved their ‘Catholic’ credentials long before their ‘irregular’ circumstances came to light!
Given that Simon James Green is probably the UK’s most well-known author of young adult LGBTQ+ novels, it seems hard to forgive the school on the grounds of mistaken authenticity. As Simon himself says on his website of his latest novel Gay Club!: “There was no such thing as a “gay club” when I was at school. Section 28 made sure of that.
“So one of the best things about doing author visits in schools today is seeing how much has changed, and how there are now loads of LGBTQ+ societies, full of the most fabulous, kind, wonderful teenagers you could ever hope to meet.
“In a world of social media outrage, vile opinion pieces in national newspapers, and with so many people out there who wish the LGBTQ+ community harm, these kids are a beacon of hope. They understand the importance of community. They get why we need to stand united. This book is a love letter to them.”
Pitch-perfect for the modern secular market, and you can’t even blame Simon for trying to get such messages into a Catholic school, but where on earth was the school at?
Needless to say, the mainstream media – which loves anything detrimental to Catholicism – is trying to play this out as an appalling act of antediluvian discrimination and prejudice. The various reports about this controversy in the national press over the past few days have put me in mind of the words of Bishop Patrick McKinney of Nottingham, who last week said that some parts of our government have only a ‘surface-level’ understanding of religious affairs.
Sadly, it’s much the same in the national media, where the very mention of the word ‘Catholic’ fires up an excitement and red mist that obscures the fact that many reporters often don’t know the first sound fact about Catholic affairs.
The various reports about this morning’s strike have centred on a letter written on Monday from OFSTED Inspector Sarah Murphy to the schools’ Head, Philip McCullagh. OFSTED parachuted into the school to make a snap inspection after concerns were voiced to them about the handling of the sacking of the governors.
The four-page letter gives a detailed account of the visit’s findings, and actually the whole tone of the letter is very complimentary about the school. Whilst it notes that: “These events, including the media attention that has come with them, have unnerved and upset many in the school community,” it goes straight on to say that: “You and your team are steering the school well through this difficult time,” and praises the school’s handling of the row, both in terms of its formal actions, and the pastoral support it is providing to all concerned, especially the pupils.
Needless to say, it was the phrase “unnerved and upset” that made most of the headlines this morning.
For its part the Archdiocese of Southwark issued a statement saying that it: “deemed that this visit fell outside the scope of what is permissible in a Catholic school and recommended that leaders cancel it.
“The governing body voted, by a majority, in favour of leaders’ decision not to cancel the author’s visit. Two governors subsequently resigned, and the archdiocese informed the remaining governors that they had been removed from their posts.”
This has been portrayed as the Catholic Church acting in an outdated, authoritarian and highly discriminatory manner, so it’s worth quoting in full the Formal Position statement issued by Dr Simon Hughes, the Director of Education and Diocesan Schools Commissioner for Southwark.
“In keeping with our Catholic faith, schools in the trusteeship or purview of the Archdiocese of Southwark, are required to welcome, safeguard and care for all pupils. As the Diocese with the most diverse pupil population in England and Wales we are proud of our schools’ efforts to include pupils whatever their particular or individual characteristics, circumstances or needs.
“Our schools are encouraged to tackle bullying of any sort robustly, including any form of conduct or behaviour based on disrespectful or prejudiced approaches to protected characteristics under UK civil law. Moreover, our schools are required to deliver a programme of relationships and sex education that is compliant with the Equalities Act 2010 and the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. While we do not endorse any particular programme of study or textbook, we encourage schools to use materials to support pupils’ learning in this crucial aspect of human development that have been tried and tested against these two important frameworks.
“From time-to-time materials or events emerge for consideration that fall outside the scope of what is permissible in a Catholic school, because they do not comply with all aspects of the tests cited above – for example the protected characteristic ‘religion’ (Part 2 of the Equalities Act 2010) and all that that encompasses in our context. In such circumstances, we have no alternative but to affirm our unequivocal and well-known theological and moral precepts and to act in accordance with them. The book-signing event scheduled for 7 March 2022 at The John Fisher School, Purley is one such event and we have recommended that the school’s leaders cancel it.”
As Dr Hughes makes clear, it is perfectly in order for a Catholic school to decide what is appropriate or even permissible in a Catholic school, and in fact it has not only a legal obligation to do so but also a deeper moral obligation to act as pastors to the teachers, pupils and families who have associated themselves to the school precisely because of its avowed Catholic ethos.
Given that Catholic schools have a perfect right to sustain their ethos, there can be little complaint about refusing a platform to a high profile LBGTQ+ rights author. So the procedural and legal aspects of the sackings are the main focus of today’s strike action, though undoubtedly this will re-ignite far wider debates about the future of Catholic schools, and religious education across the UK generally.
Back in 2013-14 the Trojan Horse affair – an alleged but unproven plot to implement a strict Islamic ethos in some schools in Birmingham – demonstrated vividly how a toxic combination media-misinformation, tabloid hysteria and religious intolerance threatened the very existence of faith schools.
The entire episode exploded from an anonymous letter received by Birmingham City Council that warned of Muslim fundamentalists plotting to take over and impose a strict Muslim ethos in state-funded schools in Muslim areas of the city.
No evidence was ever found for this, but just the fear of Muslim infiltration into schools was enough to jerk the government into implementing the anti-terrorism Prevent strategy in schools, which rather bizarrely also includes a specific requirement for schools to promote “fundamental British values”. Not only did this intervention pour fuel on an already incendiary debate about religious education, but it left educators – and Catholic educators in particular – utterly confused about how to deliver RE classes that required all faiths and all life perspectives to be presented in an equal and balanced way, but with due emphasis and respect for the particular faith ethos of the school.
To misquote George Orwell’s Animal Farm, “all faiths and views are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
In some respects, the Southwark controversy is a mere footnote in the great history of UK Catholic education. An openly LGBTQ+ supporting editor with a range of gay-themed books is quite obviously inappropriate for a Catholic school audience, and had that been emphasised at the outset no-one involved would be in the uncomfortable position they are now, including the young author himself.
Moving beyond the John Fisher School, and looking at the wider Catholic school community, I know of many teachers who are equally concerned and distressed about the unclear and ambiguous requirements being heaped on Catholic educators, and especially in the delivery of RE classes.
Prior to the 1944 Education Act Catholic schools were pretty much free to act and to teach as they saw fit. The great danger of ‘rendering unto Caesar’ was always going to be that the benefits of allowing government funding to seep into Catholic schools was that the government would inevitably – and quite justifiably – start imposing its secular values on Catholic principles.
In more recent times we’ve seen this relationship extended with the advent of academies, established by The Labour Government under Tony Blair through the Learning and Skills Act 2000, which many warned would bind Catholic schools even further to potential government interference. Sadly, we’ve come a long way from the heady days when we could call on parishioners to buy bricks and fund the running of Catholic schools, so it’s understandable that uncomfortable compromises have emerged.
Having spent a number of years as a foundation governor of a large Catholic comprehensive, I do also understand how hard it can be to sustain a Catholic ethos, especially when many schools have a large proportion of teachers and staff, and an even larger proportion of pupils, who are non-Catholic or even antagonistic to faith matters.
Thankfully I’m also not an employed head or working teacher, so it’s very easy for me to say that a Catholic school should be uncompromisingly Catholic and just take the consequences. It seems to me that if we can’t be fully Catholic, then we really should just call it a day. Trying to muddle through and juggle conflicting agendas just isn’t practical or achievable. That’s not a religious or evangelical position, it’s just a pragmatic one. If you’re going to put a sign on the gate saying what’s inside, then it has to be that.
Joseph Kelly is a writer and publisher, and is founder of www.thecatholicnetwork.co.uk