The Catholic Church was arguably the first provider of schools and universities in England and Wales.
Following the Reformation in the 16th century, the Church’s role as a provider of public education went largely underground until the 1800s. In 1847 the Catholic Poor School Committee was established, which focused on the promotion of Catholic primary education. This was followed by the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales in 1850.
Because the Church has always viewed education as vital to the formation and development of the whole person, it put the setting up of Catholic schools for the Catholic community ahead of building Churches, often using its schools in those early days as the place for worship for the parish.
In 1905 the Catholic Education Council was established as the overarching organisation to promote Catholic Education in England and Wales on behalf of the Catholic Bishops (this later became the Catholic Education Service).
Catholic schools continued to be established throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, which, at a time when state involvement in education was still very limited, meant that Catholic parents from underprivileged backgrounds were nevertheless able to send their children to school.
Service to those who are among the most disadvantaged in our society has also always been central to the mission of Catholic education. Many Catholic schools were established in the 19th Century to meet the needs of poor Catholic immigrants from Ireland and that mission remains strong today, with Catholic schools continuing to receive the disadvantaged from the new immigrant populations from across the world.
Catholic dioceses today remain conscious of their responsibility to meet the needs of established local Catholic families, Catholic traveller children and Catholic immigrants from other parts of the world, including Eastern Europe and parts of Africa, Latin America and South East Asia.
Catholic schools today also provide 30% of their places to children and young people who are not Catholic but whose parents want them to have a Catholic education.
In 1944 the educational landscape across England and Wales changed forever with the passing of the Education Act 1944 (also known as the ‘Butler Act’). This act promised ‘secondary education for all’ and increased the school leaving age to 15, meaning that all children from the post-war generation received a minimum of 10 years of education.
Under the Butler Act, Catholic schools became ‘voluntary aided’ schools. This meant that they became part of the state system of education, whilst retaining their distinctively Catholic ethos through various legal protections which continue to apply to Catholic schools to this day. The agreement between Church and State meant that the funding of Catholic schools was shared by the Catholic foundations of the schools (in most cases the Dioceses or religious orders) and by the government. The first Catholic sponsored academies opened in 2005 and in 2011 some voluntary aided Catholic schools began to convert to academies.
The Church is also involved in higher education in England through its three university colleges (St Mary’s in Twickenham, Newman College in Birmingham and Leeds Trinity) and one joint Anglican-Catholic university (Liverpool Hope). This continues the long-established involvement of the Church in higher education in England, which dates back to at least the thirteenth century. Prior to the Reformation, the Church played a major role in the development of Oxford and Cambridge Universities.
Following the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy, the Bishops’ intention to establish schools meant that teacher training became a priority. With this in mind, a number of teacher training colleges were established (St Mary’s, established in 1850, is one of the oldest). Some of these teacher training colleges have now been subsumed into larger universities (e.g. Roehampton University), and others have expanded to become university colleges and universities in their own right. Thus, higher education in the Catholic tradition continues to flourish.
Through its involvement in primary, secondary and higher education, the Catholic Church currently educates over 800,000 pupils and students across England and Wales. As such the Church’s stake in education is not only deeply embedded in our country’s history, but through its continued collaboration with the state, is something that remains at the heart of the Church’s mission, serving the Catholic community and contributing to the common good.
The evidence of its success and its service to wider society may be seen clearly in the roles being played by Catholics in our nation today. Catholics contribute nationally in all strata of society, integrated and serving across all professions, in civic life, in charitable and voluntary endeavours and in sustaining and nurturing family life.
Historically Catholic education has flourished in England and Wales. It continues to do so today and will continue to act as a beacon and provider of good practice and authentic education.
Official website for the Bishops’ Conference agency for education – the Catholic Education Service.