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Struggles in Britain, U.S.; Boom in Australia

LONDON, JAN. 29, 2006 (Zenit) - The role of religion in education is under challenge once more in England. A study published by the Sutton Trust, a group that funds educational opportunities for needy students, called for barring faith schools from using religious belief as a criterion for selecting pupils, the Times newspaper reported Monday.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the group, was quoted by the Times as saying: "The criteria that your parents are not good Catholics should not be allowed." He justified this by arguing that the top 200 schools admit fewer needy students than they should. To remedy this deficiency, Lampl wants faith schools to admit more underprivileged students, irrespective of their family's religion.

The intervention comes at a moment when the British government is debating how to improve educational results. Among the proposals is giving schools more autonomy from local authorities, including in the area of selecting students.

According to the Web site of the bishops' conference in England and Wales, Catholic schools and colleges serve the needs of about 720,000 students, just under 10% of the total school population.

There are 1,815 primary schools, 379 secondary schools and 16 Sixth Form Colleges receiving state funding, along with 159 Catholic independent schools covering the needs of pupils of all ages.

Hostility to faith-based schools is not new in Britain. Last Oct. 1 the Times published a commentary by Rabbi Jonathan Romain under the headline, "Faith Schools Are a Recipe for Social Disaster." Romain argued that faith schools lead to "religious ghettos" which in turn "can destabilize the social health of the country at large."

He contended that separating students by faith amounts to "an educational apartheid system," and maintained that students need to mix with pupils of other faiths.

A positive element

Debate also came up last year over whether it is a good idea to allow the establishment of more Islamic-inspired schools. Some observers expressed concern over the possible danger of the influence of Muslim extremists.

The archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, intervened in the subject in a program broadcast by the BBC2 television channel. In his remarks, distributed by his public affairs office, the cardinal affirmed that Christian schools "are not only beneficial for the Christians of this country but also enhance the country as a whole."

And far from being ghettos, Catholic schools accept a number of Muslim and Jewish children, he noted.

On the question of Muslim schools, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor said that it would be hard to refuse the Islamic community the right to have its own schools. Yet, he added that the government is justified in ensuring that such institutions inculcate the civic and social values taught in other schools.

Economic pressures

Catholic schools in the United States are also under pressure, of an economic nature. At their June meeting the U.S. bishops approved a document titled "Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium." The text affirms the need to offer "the future leaders of our Church" a Catholic education, but admitted there are many challenges in carrying out this goal.

The document cited the National Catholic Educational Association's annual statistical report. The report counted 7,799 Catholic elementary and secondary schools in the United States, with an enrollment of about 2.4 million students. These facilities account for almost 30% of all private and religious schools in the country, and enroll 48% of the students in these institutions.

Since 1990, the Church in the United States has opened more than 400 new schools, but closed many others, resulting in a net decline of about 850 Catholic institutions. Almost all of this loss has been in urban, inner-city and rural areas. Student numbers are also down. Catholic schools grew in the 1990s, but since 2000 they have lost 170,000 students.

The document pointed out the valuable role played by Catholic schools, particularly for students from poorer families and minority groups. Catholic schools have a lower dropout rate (3.4%) than both public (14.4%) and other private schools (1.9%). And 99% of Catholic high school students graduate, with 97% going on to some form of post-secondary education. Catholic school students also score well on standardized tests, surpassing standards established by federal and state agencies.

These claims were backed up in a report released last December by a federal government agency, the National Center for Education Statistics. The report, "Student Achievement in Private Schools: Results From NAEP 2000-2005," found that students at grades 4, 8 and 12 in all categories of private schools had higher average scores in reading, mathematics, science and writing than their counterparts in public schools.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago recently spoke out, criticizing the lack of public funds for Catholic schools. Speaking to the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune newspaper, the cardinal noted that a third of the students in the city's Catholic schools are not from Catholic families.

The archbishop said that helping these schools with public funds makes good sense, the Tribune reported Jan. 12. If the Catholic schools close, Cardinal George contended, public schools in some of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods would be overwhelmed. In 2002 the archdiocese was forced to close 14 schools, and another 18 last year. It still has 258 elementary and high schools in operation.

Catholic schools in Boston are also facing challenges. In the last four years, the Church there has been forced to close 21 schools, leaving 153, according to a Nov. 18 report by the Associated Press.

Part of the problem lies in a population shift. Two-thirds of the archdiocese's schools are located in the center of the city, but just one-third of Catholics live there, after having gradually shifted to the suburbs in recent decades.

Up, Down Under

In Australia, by contrast, private and Catholic schools continue to experience strong growth. In the most populous state, New South Wales, projections estimate that by 2010, independent schools will educate 17.5% of the state's 1.1 million students, close to the projected Catholic share of 18.8%. These data appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald last Sept. 27. Catholic schools in the state now educate 18.1% of all students. More than 80 private schools have opened in New South Wales since 1996.

Overall, Catholic schools in Australia have in the past 30 years held their enrollment share at about 19% to 21%. This was in the face of greater competition for private education from Anglican and non-religious private schools. Islamic schools are also growing, with student numbers up by 11% a year in the period 1996-2003.

Catholic schools also play a vital role in many developing nations. Anna Tibaijuka, the executive director of the U.N. Human Settlements Program, commended Catholic commitment for education in Africa, the Fides news agency reported Oct. 12.

Her remarks came during a graduation ceremony Oct. 7 at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, in Kenya. Many of Africa's political and private-sector leaders were educated at Catholic schools, she noted.

According to Fides, the numbers of Catholic schools in Africa are as follows: 11,538 kindergartens with 1 million children; 31,586 primary schools with 11.6 million students; 8,229 middle and high schools with 2.6 million pupils; and an unspecified number of Catholic universities with 52,797 students. Encouraging numbers for a continent in need of help.

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