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Book review: Educating in Faith: A history of the English Catholic public school by Mark Cleary

by
24 May 2024

Lavinia Byrne ponders the RC public schools

WITHIN the general educational system in England, seven per cent of schools are public or private. Of these, two per cent are Roman Catholic. These developed as the effects of emancipation took hold in the 19th century: a new Catholic upper-middle class sought parity with their Protestant counterparts, and a parallel education system could best secure this. The English hierarchy gave its full support, and the religious orders were there to supply a stream of monks and priests to teach in the institutions that sprang up.

Their names read like a litany: Downside, Ampleforth, Worth, Beaumont, Stonyhurst, and their diocesan equivalents, such as Oscott, Cotton College, Upholland, and Prior Park. These schools assured the presence of a Catholic elite in the corridors of power, thereby “raising the social standing, authority and influence of Catholicism in the wider world”. They were also self-perpetuating, as old boys regularly joined the communities — the Benedictines and Jesuits, for example — as well as the minor seminaries, where vocations to the secular priesthood were first nurtured.

Fast-forward to the 1960s and the Second Vatican Council. Vocations began to dry up as young men realised that the concept of vocation widened beyond a call to the celibate priesthood. And then came the undoing: the stories of clerical abuse, of distinctly un-celibate behaviour that began to unravel and destroy the very institutions that had formed them. By the advent of the millennium, something had gone so wrong that the schools had to reinvent themselves and look for a new identity.

What this book does admirably is chart the story of the early and middle years by identifying the aspirations that led to the flourishing of these schools. Mark Cleary is a professor of geography by background, and his approach is meticulus. His four main chapters trace the missionary endeavours of the first founders; the early expansion and development of “facilities and academic range”; the glory years when Catholics “were numerous, well connected and well represented in the professions”; and then the advent of salaried lay teachers and school governors, day boys, co-education, and eventually “non-Catholics”.

His method is analytical. He quotes statistics showing how Irish immigrants and High Church converts grew the numbers in the 19th-century; he analyses fees, timetables, and the world of examinations and external assessment; and, of course, fagging, corporal punishment, cold dormitories, and atrocious food.

AlamyStonyhurst College — Cheering the Flag, a late-19th-century coloured etching by W. J. Allingham (dates unknown), after F.P.

Roman Catholic schools — state and private — offered a distinctive spirituality. This entailed spending a great deal of time in church or chapel. Daily mass, the rosary, and Benediction were all mandatory at the public schools, even though this undermined any sense of belonging to a home parish.

Presiding over all these structures were the priests and monks who kept the whole show on the road. In the latter years of the 20th century, changing “social attitudes towards religion and authority” began to erode the sense of purpose which had directed their efforts. By 2005, the Catholic population held at four million, but baptisms and marriages were in freefall. Then came the stories of clerical abuse and the beginning of the end.

Only, the end has been avoided, and the Catholic public schools continue to educate an elite. This study avoids sentiment of any kind and also, for that matter, judgement on the merits or demerits of the eccentric British public-school system, taken as a whole.

By way of a footnote: the author does not acknowledge that any recognition of the Catholic contribution to public life also came at a cost. Yet the visitor to any of these schools will be shockingly aware of the war memorials to be found at all of them. When it came to World Wars, the young gentleman who attended them faced the same slaughter as the Protestant boys, and apparently with the same generosity.


Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.



Educating in Faith: A history of the English Catholic public school
Mark Cleary
Sacristy Press £19.99
(978-1-78959-337-2)
Church Times Bookshop £17.99

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