Friday, November 18, 2011

Myths about Faith schools - revisited

The Archdiocese of Southwark claims that the Coloma Convent's admissions criteria discriminate against immigrants and single mothers because these, apparently, are less able to give time to volunteering in their parish.

What we never see - and never saw with the Vaughan story - is any proof of this claim. The Diocese has done no survey, no RCT, no scientific or even quasi-scientific exploration of its theory. It is a "what if" claim". It is a myth perpetuated by diocesan education officials.

Our own experience as London parishioners is that for many immigrant communities and lone parents the Church is a lifeline. It is an instant village. It is supportive and also offers many chances to be a significant, useful person in the community - and lots of "immigrants" take this opportunity. So do lots of single mothers.

It is as likely to be the wealthier 2-income families who can't seem to find the time to volunteer, in my experience.

The diocese's assumption reeks of patronising, almost racist cant. It is saying in effect that immigrants and single parents are all helpless, lazy and incompetent. A poor thanks to all the immigrant communities who have provided the muscle and volunteer power for centuries for the Catholic Church in England and Wales; fed it with priests, servers, committee members, children's liturgy leaders, tea-makers, flower-arrangers, church cleaners; filled its pews while the more established locals faded away.

The other claim, that non-English speakers would not be able to explain themselves in written form, is an own goal. In a face to face interview it is easier for an admissions officer to make a judgement about the genuineness of an applicant who is not fluent in English. This was precisely the reason why face to face interviews were used at the Vaughan. The same face to face interviews which were STOPPED by the Archdiocese of Westminster, and replaced by written applications only....

Friday, July 13, 2007


Faith schools are the solution – not the problem
Sarah Johnson
July 2007

  • The desire to do the best for one's child is a powerful biological urge.
  • This natural parental ambition is treated by traditional socialist educationalists as a perverted tendency to be thwarted by measures which drive more parents into the private sector. Non-socialists have accepted the socialist model of state education: "You, the parents, give us, the Government, your children - and WE decide which school they go to." Most parents, who do not have money for private fees, feel humiliated and disempowered when it comes to helping their child into a better school.
  • One measure of a successful school is the degree of committment and voluntary involvement among the parents.
  • In oversubscribed faith schools, points are added to the child's application if the parent/parents and child are involved in voluntary parish activities.
  • The effect of this is to motivate parents into getting involved in their parish with often spectacularly beneficial results for the whole community: the elderly, the young, the homeless etc.
  • Giving time to voluntary activites is a choice which is genuinely open to all.
  • I notice that if families can "add value" to their school applications through parish involvement, it gives poorer families a chance to compete for places on equal terms with middle class families.
  • I conclude that it is much fairer than other forms of selection e.g. selection by postal address, aptitude or - surely the unfairest of all - by lottery.
  • The faith-school model could be translated to the secular school system, in the case of over-subscribed secondary schools, by allowing parents to add value to their applications for places by providing proof of voluntary work in the local community.
  • Appropriate checks and balances would enable this to be a system which allowed all parents to compete for places in a fair way, taking into account disabilities and other limiting factors. Checks and balances would also be required to prevent fraud. The framework for such checks and balances and the experience of dealing with a "value-added" admissions system fairly already exists within the faith school model.
  • Thus the energy of parental ambition would be channelled directly into benefiting the community. An ethos which values community involvement and the giving of time to others would be re-established or strengthened. Community cohesion would improve radically as more parents felt motivated to get involved. Children of all abilities and income brackets would have an equal chance.
  • At under-subscribed schools, the effect of the value-added admissions system at neighbouring oversubscribed schools would also be felt. Families who failed to win places at the oversubscribed school would bring their volunteering ethos into the undersubscribed school and, if adequately supported by staff, would set an example of being more committed and involved in school life.

Our recently retired primary school headteacher, Madeline Brading, is a fairly formidable person. When she wears her most headmistressy expression, generations of children have learned, you are in trouble. So when our chair of Governors invited her to the Christmas dinner at the local Conservative Association, she should have anticipated some trouble when it turned out that the guest of honour was a senior Tory education spokesman.

The real problem with education in the UK today, said this senior Tory, was not discipline, not spending, not the lack of individual power given to individual heads to do as they wish with their own schools (as private school heads are free to do), not any of these, but - faith schools. Faith schools were the real problem, and, she implied, should be abolished.

My chair of governors became aware of a kind of angry vibration going on in the region of her right hand side, where Mrs Brading was sitting. After the senior Tory had sat down, there was a smattering of dutiful but weak applause. Then Mrs Brading stood up.

“I am the head of a school which has the best results in the borough,” she said. “We have the best attendance records and are consistently praised for our teaching and organisation. More than half our pupils do not have English as their first language. We have our fair share of children receiving free school meals.

“I am rather taken aback,” she wound up frostily, “to be told that I am the problem.”

And with a face like a thundercloud she sat down - to an uproarious ovation.

The hostility of the present Conservative Party to our faith schools is dismaying. By failing to support faith schools when they are under attack , the Conservative Party seems to have been led into some ideological traps. In fact I have counted no fewer than five very twisty and dead-end garden paths, down which the Party appears to have been led. All at once.

The most obvious trap is that it is politically inept at the most basic level: as Mrs Brading found, faith schools, in particular, voluntary aided Christian schools, are well-loved in Tory heartlands and the party faithful do not like seeing them being attacked or bullied.

Secondly, this hostility is moral cowardice: faith schools have been the guardians of all that is good in the state system for decades. The very first schools for the poor were founded by the Church as a way of fulfilling Christ’s call to care for the poor and the young. Faith schools, and in particular Church schools of all denominations, deserve some protection at the very least as a thank-you for starting the whole idea of education for all.

The third garden path, or ideological trap, takes the form of an erroneous and misinformed image of the pupils who attend faith schools, and the families they belong to – typified by a classic Boris Johnson (Eton) remark that people whose children go to church schools are “pretending to be religious”. It is clearly beyond Boris’s imagination that there is a significant minority of parents in this country who actually are religious and who sincerely want a faith-based education for their children, and are devastated when they are unable to obtain one. It is also perhaps hard for Boris Johnson to comprehend that some of these devout people might not be rich enough to send their children to Eton or even to Ampleforth, and therefore have a need which is answered by state-aided faith schools.

Fourthly, the term “faith school” is being used by an influential and powerful secular lobby to lasso together schools and establishments of very disparate nature and of different creeds: the most inclusive, anyone-can-come-along type of Church of England school, the kind of highly over-subscribed Catholic schools my own children attend, and the kind of very ideological schools which a small minority of Muslim parents would like, but which are anathema to the British establishment and to the liberal British conscience. This is the garden path down which the former Education Secretary (and great centraliser) Lord Baker led the Conservative Party in his attempt to water down faith schools’ admissions policies on the spurious grounds that faith schools "increase divisiveness" in society when a close and unprejudiced inspection of them reveals that they do the opposite. It is as much a fallacy that all faith schools are equally divisive as that terrorism is as likely to be spawned at your local C of E primary school as in a secret Al Qaeda training camp.

The fifth garden path involves looking at the problem from the wrong end of the telescope. Instead of examining why and how the schools work, and how their structure has come to be so successful, the Conservative Party has, like the Labour Party, been listening only to the disgruntled voices of people who cannot get their children into them (i.e. the London chattering classes). Instead of looking at the whole range of social effects of the faith schools admissions system as they affect people who practice the faith concerned, we see the problem as purely a matter of making it easier for non-faith people to get into faith schools – a trend which, incidentally, makes it harder for families of faith to win places at the very schools which were founded for their benefit.

I want to focus on the third and fifth garden paths. Firstly, what kind of people really do succeed in getting their children into faith schools? Are they entirely composed of mendacious and cynical middle class parents “pretending to be religious”? And secondly – instead of regarding faith schools as anomalous and irrelevant, can society not learn something from the way the most over-subscribed faith schools choose their pupils? Are faith schools really the solution, not the problem?

Who really gets their child into a faith school?

The Labour government has removed the right to interview applicants for places at our schools because there was a “perception” (to use the modern usage of that word to mean precisely the opposite of what it originally meant) that this interview was abused. I wonder how many major changes are instituted in, say, health or defence policy because of a “perception”. No academic study was ever carried out to test this “perception”; no serious attempt has ever been made to interview and analyse the hundreds of school heads and governors who have been conducting these interviews and making these admissions decisions for years.

As a veteran of such interviews myself, on both sides of the interview desk, I very much doubt they were ever much used to weed out the imagined shiftless working class. Instead, I have seen them to be highly effective in unmasking the ingenious and mendacious middle-class applicant who is adept at stretching the truth when filling in forms. Now that schools have lost that additional tool of the face-to-face interview, these parents are finding it easier to elbow aside devout, but less educationally advantaged parents, with weaker English.

Much is made of the fact that faith schools have a lower than average proportion of children receiving free school meals. I would like to question: how does this particular indicator take account of the kind of proud, hard-working working-class or self-employed families, or families who are unable to rake in double incomes because of commitments or disability – families who, though poor or nearly poor, would rather die than sign up for free school meals?

For these are the families most likely to be found in voluntary aided faith schools – the proud and self-sufficient, or would-be self-sufficient. It is these families, the backbone of any society, who are attacked, whenever faith schools are attacked. It is these families who are always overlooked, undervalued and taken to the cleaners in the brutal rat-race which is our comprehensive system.

It is generally acknowledged that what makes a good school, ultimately, is the type of family which sends children there, and, almost as importantly, the kind of people who want to send their children there. In other words, admissions are everything. Change the admissions system and you change the school.

To win a place at a faith school you do not have to be clever, as you do to get into a grammar school. (My own third child "bombed" in his school’s academic banding test and would certainly have failed an 11-plus. Yet, because he is at a faith school with a strong yet flexible setting system, he has already begun working his way up through the school and is determined not to stop until he gets to first or second set. Only in a comprehensive school could he have that hope.)

You do not have to be rich to get into faith schools. Ten percent of children now go to private schools, pouring millions of pounds of post-tax earned income into a comfortably profitable industry which still, bafflingly, retains charitable status. Every time a motivated, ambitious parent chooses a private school for their child, then that is another driving force lost to the state sector, another person who could be bringing their energy and determination to a state school, asking awkward questions, running activities, raising funds or simply supporting the homework policy.

And, to get into a faith school, you do not have to occupy an address in the smartest suburb of town, as close to the school as possible. This is notoriously the case at the best-performing community comprehensive schools. Sometimes the inequity between the best and the worst comprehensives is described by the media as “postcode lottery”. Fiddlesticks. There is no lottery about it. You simply need to be able to afford a monster mortgage. One of the top comprehensives, Henrietta Barnett, is in the heart of Hampstead Garden Suburb. QED.

And to get into a faith school, there is a set of pre-agreed criteria that need to be met in order to qualify: a stark contrast with the insulting lottery system recently introduced in Bristol, reducing children's futures to the level of raffle prizes.

Let me describe what you have to do to get into the faith schools with which I am most familiar, the Catholic schools in my bit of London. Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, Sacred Heart Hammersmith, the London Oratory School, Gumley House or St Thomas More, Chelsea are all heavily over-subscribed schools. The first thing you need to do to get in is this: get up on Sunday mornings and go to church.

There is no way round it, and the system is well guarded against deception. (Contrary to another popular myth, the schools are not interested in allowing people in just because they have a great-aunt who was a nun.)

You may be a baptised Catholic already, but if you are not practising, you are unlikely to get a place at these schools (unless of course, the child is in care, which, as is fair, gives you clear priority). These schools are heavily oversubscribed, and as Catholicism is a world religion, relatively few of the pupils are white, middle-class and English speaking.

So what is the immediate effect of this requirement, do you suppose? The first effect is to make parents take their Catholic obligation to attend Mass weekly with their children a bit more seriously.

And because the schools are so over-subscribed (if there had been real improvement in the other schools in London over the past ten years, then this over-subscription would surely be waning by know) the admissions committee has to choose between a lot of equally regularly practising candidates, so generally a points system is used, by which families add value to their application through volunteering in the parish. It can be anything from catechism classes to running the old people’s tea afternoon.

So our churches are full. When people go to church they get to meet each other and begin to build support networks with each other. And not only are our churches full, but we have parents who are willing to help with church activities which benefit others, because they want to add value to their child’s education chances.

“I would not be driving the old people’s minibus twice a month,” said one father of a ten year old to me recently, “if it weren’t for the fact that I have to think about what I do for the parish in order to get my son into That School. Otherwise, I just would not be bothered. But as it is, I have to bother - and I really rather enjoy it.”

By volunteering to help with activities, these parents, who probably otherwise would never have found time for any voluntary work, get to know each other even better, they form further networks and support groups on an informal, friendly basis. This is how strong communities are formed. If you had seen the support network for one young couple in our congregation who tragically lost their three year old son on holiday, you would know what I mean. Think, too, of how the McCann family have been shored up in their grief by their church community.

The perception that faith schools are dominated by the middle classes does a great disservice to the many supportive parents I know from non-middle class backgrounds at all but who are still perfectly capable of (a) getting up early on Sunday morning and getting their children to and (c) helping out at a parish toddler’s group or a school cake sale. There is something particularly repugnant about the notion that only middle class “yummy mummies” can cope with these duties. I have the anecdotal impression that this kind of admissions system - in practice - ever so slightly favours parents in lower-grade employment, with regular working hours (who can commit to a regular voluntary job) over jet-setting high-flyers.

I repeat: the beauty of the faith school is that you do not need to be clever, or rich, or live in a house at the expensive end of the most expensive street in town to get in. You simply need to be in agreement with the underlying philosophy of the school and be prepared to show your commitment to it. In most faith schools, that commitment is deemed to be shown by religious practice; but in the most oversubscribed ones the practice traditionally has to be accompanied by some act of voluntary parish involvement from which, in the long run, the whole community benefits, and which creates a parent body with a highly developed community spirit.

Can the faith school model, far from being the problem, in fact become the solution for secular state schools?

I always understood that one of the principles behind free-market theory was that it was possible, and morally right, to harness the powerful driving forces within individual human beings so that they work for the wider good. So, says any version of responsible free market theory, we encourage the entrepreneur’s powerful desire to take risks and enrich himself, because if he succeeds, his success will provide more jobs and prosperity for many others.

It is a fact universally acknowledged that parents will do anything, anything, ANYTHING to get their children in to a good school. We have all heard – especially in the capital - of the parents who tell lies that would turn a criminal defence lawyer pale, who rent flats near to the school for six months and then move back to their home on the other side of town the day after the school place is assured, who try to stuff brown envelopes of cash into the headteacher's handbag. We have all heard these stories, pursed our lips and shaken our heads like Victorian spinsters who would never, never dream of doing anything so shocking.

The desire of parents to win a good school place for their child is a powerful behavioural driver. It is part of our biology. We are wired up to do our best for our children and we just can’t seem to help ourselves.

For decades, the Conservative Party has weakly accepted the prim Victorian-spinster model of state education which the socialists have handed down to them. This model assumes that the purpose of schools is to be receptacles for children in which they learn. Parental ambition plays no part in this model – the parents get into trouble if they don’t send their children to school, and that’s an end of it.

And if parents dare be so naughty as to want to get their children into schools with a better reputation than the one allocated, then - under the neighbourhood comprehensive school system - they have their wrists slapped. Or they are told they are bad, bad middle-class parents because they've spent a bit of extra money on boosting their child's chances of a grammar school place. And many, annoyed, insulted and disheartened by the wrist-slapping, give the whole thing up, take out a second mortgage and start on the school fees treadmill instead.

The Labour Party’s attitude to that elemental force which we call parental ambition has always been to find ways of thwarting it, squashing it and punishing it, because it is seen as unfair to those children whose parents lack it. The hypocrisy of this standpoint, coming as it so often is from wealthy individuals who have carefully planned the purchase of expensive homes a few streets away from the best school in the area, is well known and too nauseating to go into.

But why not wire this power station of parental ambition up to the National Grid, so to speak, instead of being left to throb resentfully on its own? Why not use it for the public good, instead of, like the Victorian spinster whom Prime Minister Gordon Brown sometimes so arrestingly resembles, pretending it is an embarrassing native urge not to be talked about and to be suppressed? Is it not time to harness this powerful drive to work for society, instead of trying to suppress it?

Is it not time to look at how faith schools really work, and why they work, and see how that mechanism can be applied to work for non-faith schools and for the communities they serve?

When a family makes up its mind to try to get a place at an oversubscribed faith school, then the voluntary work they do, and the commitment they make to the school’s philosophy, work not only to the advantage of their child but benefit the community as a whole in the form of the time and skill given. Parental ambition is harnessed for the good of the many, as the remarks of the father quoted above indicate. I don’t know if anybody planned things this way, but it’s what happens, and it is a good thing. We need more of it, not less.

Nobody would deny that many communities lack involvement by the people who live in them. The greater the number of people able and willing to help, the better things are for everyone, especially for those who need the help.

But you cannot force people to be willing to help; and the volunteer sector never finds it easy to attract recruits. The high cost of living, the dominance of the two-income family and the present Government’s drive to send mothers of young children into the workplace have combined to whittle away at the volunteer pool. Lots of people would like to volunteer, or say they would when asked – they just don’t have the time. Reading the voluntary sector’s own publications reveals a continual obsession with the problem of attracting volunteers.

Suppose the neighbourhood comprehensive schools in one area were to copy the faith school model, by allowing parents to accrue admissions points for community or voluntary service? So, a parent who did a year or two as a youth leader, volunteering in a day centre or even just helping out in a charity shop for a few hours a month, would have the satisfaction of knowing they had done something not only for the community but also have added value to their child’s school application.

The system would have checks and balances in place to ensure that looked-after children were not disadvantaged, nor the children of parents for whom mental/physical incapacity prevented them from volunteering. These checks and balances already exist in the admissions criteria of faith schools, where looked-after and special needs children are automatically at the head of the queue for places.

Imagine the difference this change would make in the community. Suddenly parents who had previously been too busy to offer their talents to local voluntary organisations would feel powerfully motivated to do so. Most would find this inner motivation turns out to be the “kick” they need to use and enjoy their talents in a new, satisfying way. They begin to enjoy themselves. Meanwhile, the community as a whole benefits from this injection of willing volunteers.

Of course, some parents would be looking for ways of getting round these criteria, faking references and so on. So: no change there then. Admissions committees and forums are already very familiar with these tactics and are well placed to think up ways of blocking them.

Because some parents have more time available than others, it would be probably fair to cap the number of school admissions points that could be accrued by voluntary service. Individual schools are best placed to determine exactly how their own value added admissions system would operate. Our local over-subscribed Catholic schools only regard volunteer activity at parish level as relevant; membership of national organisations and committees is disregarded. This limitation focusses the attention of parents on the needs of their local parish. The same local criteria could be adapted to the secular sphere.

It would also be necessary to draw up a list of approved local voluntary organisations. It would be up to the schools themselves to do this – some would make foolish judgements, others would make wise ones and there would need to be a regulatory body judging them. The ability to make foolish choices is surely the just price of a devolved education system.

What of under-subscribed schools? In every area there are one or two schools which everyone would like to get their kids into and several others not nearly so popular. It is these, the "bog-standard comprehensives", which, it might be objected, could suffer from the value-added admissions scheme which would cream off the more committed families.

My answer would be: firstly, it should be up to individual schools, possibly co-operating through their schools admissions forums, to use the value-added admissions scheme to the best advantage. If it applied to all schools across an area, it could have the effect of introducing a new ethos of voluntary involvement into under-subscribed schools.

Secondaly, families who failed to win places at the oversubscribed school would bring their new volunteering ethos into the undersubscribed school and, if adequately supported by staff, would set an example of being more committed and involved in school life.

In other words, once parents feel they have to work for a good school place, they are inclined to value it more. But if despite their best efforts they have failed to win places at the "favourite" school then I think it very probably that they will be more inclined to question vigorously what goes on in the less popular school; to question its ethos and standards; and most importantly, to offer their own energies towards improving it.

Most significantly, with the value-added admissions scheme, the desire to do something to help one’s child get into a good state school would no longer be seen as something akin to a criminal urge. This would not only be a major ideological break with the stultifying grip which old-fashioned top-down socialism still maintains on our state schools; it would also be a practical and positive change, benefiting the whole community far beyond the confines of the school gates.

As the benefits of this ethos begin to take root, schools would begin to improve in the only way which can really work - by parent-power. Only this time it is not the "parent power" of the 80s (which meant merely "parent choice" and nothing more) but a process of harnessing the powerful urge most parents have to do something which will help their child get a better education.

So I would like to ask the Conservatives to consider re-examining the faith school system from this different standpoint. Ask yourselves not how you can get rid of the faith schools, but how you can use their model for the whole comprehensive school system by imitating its admissions system and using value-added admissions as a way of boosting the voluntary sector on a local level. Parents have an overwhelming desire to get their children into the school of their choice. Use it.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Clap hands everybody

Catholic Herald 19/1/07

In his book “What is the point of Being a Christian?” Fr Timothy Radcliffe tells of how the “terrifying and irascible” Archbishop of Birmingham of the late 1960s, George Patrick O’Dwyer, brought Eucharist to a standstill in a parish he was visiting. The parish team had worked hard to prepare a feast of guitar harmonies and modern folk hymns, which, unfortunately, the Archbishop did not like at all.

Halfway through one hymn, the Archbishop slammed his hymnbook shut and shouted, “Enough of these trivial ditties. Let’s sing something decent.” He then directed the dismayed congregation to turn to a more traditional number in their books. The poor guitar group were left feeling utterly wretched.

At the end of the Mass, the parish priest thanked the parish team and then, to the renewed horror of an already slightly traumatised congregation, added, “I would like to apologise to the parish team for the extreme rudeness of the Archbishop.”

There was a ghastly silence, at the end of which the Archbishop said: “Now I have something to say. At least there is one courageous priest in this diocese.”

It is not particularly brave to ridicule other people for their musical taste. It is not clever to hurt people’s feelings when they have worked hard to prepare something for your pleasure.

So when I hear the Holy Father voicing his dislike for rock music, or when I hear that the brilliant Vatican composer Monsignor Marco Frisina is planning to characterise Hell in his forthcoming opera based on Dante’s Inferno by using punk, rock and trance type music (I’m not sure how much experience Mgr Frisina has in writing in these genres), I feel uncomfortable, because I can see that a lot of people in the church are misreading these messages as a hostility to popular taste and popular music in general.

I worry about how forward-looking it is to close the Church’s ears to the tastes of an entire generation – and I am not talking about the younger generation, but the older generation as well. Anyone under 70 has grown up with rock music. Rock music is not a bad choice for the music of Hell, for all that, because it is so much about regret, and sadness, and memories of youth. Old rock “anthems” (see how the very language of the rock critic, though pompous beyond belief, continually turns churchwards) are our Proustian madeleines.

If I turn the car radio up when I hear Boston playing “More than a Feeling” or Martha and the Muffins’ “Echo Beach” for the umpteenth time, I am certainly not indicating any feeble attempt at solidarity with young people, for whom these songs mean nothing. I am celebrating my membership of the over-45s brigade – the generation most likely to be involved in organised worship. If our musical leaders forswear the musical memories of anyone under 70, then church music will become a very antique business indeed.

I am sure that nobody in the Vatican wants to close doors to any field from which talent might enter to enrich the church’s life. People who really love music generally enjoy the best of all genres. Some months ago, our Sunday Eucharist was electrified by the harmonising of a visiting group of African ladies; we felt cleansed by the purity of their voices.

Opening my “Celebration for Everyone” hymnbook I find, nestling together on the same page, one very traditional Catholic hymn, “Immaculate Mary”; the mystical “Immortal, invisible” which I remember from my Anglican youth; a popular modern hymn by Kevin Nichols, whose tune I have become fond of over the years, and whose lines bring a tear to the eye: “Take all that daily toil plants in our heart’s poor soil, take all we start and spoil, each hopeful dream, the chances we have missed, the graces we resist, Lord in thy Eucharist, take and redeem.”

And bundled in among this lot is the song my children used to sing when they were little: “If I were a fuzzy wuzzy bear, I’d thank you Lord, for my fuzzy wuzzy hair.”

I see no harm in having such a mixed bag. A Catholic friend of mine who is a part time jazz pianist, and hosts Sunday lunchtime gospel sessions in a Chelsea nightclub, believes that church music has to reach out to different forms if it is to develop at all.

There may be times when I do not particularly want to clap my hands and sway a bit while singing “Walk, walk in the light” but there are also plenty of times when I do, and it does the soul nothing but good. Let us have the courage to allow the music of the Catholic Church to be – well, catholic.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Christmas magic

“I wish I had magic powers,” said Aggie just before Christmas. I was sad, because she has always assured me she does have magic powers. But she is nine, and growing out of childhood.

Hoping to catch the child in her before it disappeared, I said: “But you do have magic powers. You can play the violin at Grade 1, you can jump up and down on a trampoline.”

“They aren’t proper magic powers,” she said.

OK, I said; think of this: if a shrimp, whose ancestors had colonised a dark underground lake millions of years ago, heard of your amazing ability to detect things by use of reflected light, he would say (if shrimps could articulate such ideas) that this was an astounding, nay, miraculous power.

“But seeing’s not magic,” she protested. “Everyone can do it.”

“Not a sightless cave-dwelling shrimp,” I insisted. The subject moved on – to animals with bad eyesight.

What I wish I had said was this: “Well, probably one day you will be able to have a baby, and if you described that to someone who didn’t know anything about it, they would say that it was a magic power.”

Think of how we imagine magic to be: as Aggie has begun to do, we think of it as something beyond the ordinary. We ignore the familiar, just because it is familiar. So we lose sight of the thing we are looking for: we cannot see the wood for the trees, nor the baby for the bathwater.

Here’s the thing about God’s love. It is not external to our daily experience. It is our experience.

Children are the only people who can bear the unbearable sweetness of the story of the star and the baby. Children, who can believe a dozen impossible things before breakfast, are almost the only people who understand that for a king to be born in a stable makes perfect sense.

Children effortlessly absorb the beauty of the birth, which seamlessly blends the spiritual and the animal: surrounded by the warm bodies of oxen and asses, Mary felt safe and secure enough to deliver her baby - a straightforward labour, for, young as she was, untroubled by the dismal stories with which women beset each other round, she simply, humbly saw birthing as a bit of hard work that needed doing.

At last, she sank back on the straw, utterly happy; tired, but inwardly drenched in oxytocin – the hormone which promotes childbearing, breastfeeding and – most magical of all - the complete adoration of a newly delivered mother for her baby.

Was this not magic? The magic of love, God’s love, working its unexpected, unplanned wonders?

We - the adults - are pantomime dames in our finery and rouge, who always turn around too slowly to spot the mysterious figure darting away when the children shout “it’s behind you”. Clumsily, we fret about being somewhere on time, or having enough money, or whether things will go according to plan: and the moment for love and magic slips away.

Christmas is when we have a chance to look more carefully for the love and magic; a chance to be humbled by their unbearable beauty, and to realise they were there all the time, but we were too busy ordering turkeys to see them.

I always cry when I see children on stage. Six pm - school nativity play starts; 6.15pm - Mrs Johnson starts blubbing, is the usual routine.

Incidentally, Aggie’s primary school has, in the past, treated us sobbing parents to “The Grumpy Sheep”, “The Hopeless Camel”, “The Hoity Toity Angel” and “The Lost Wise Man”. This year we had an Elvis-impersonating Herod in white lame. He was booted off the stage by the entire cast singing “There’s only one King, and his name is Jesus, Oh Yeah”, and we discovered that if you laugh while you are crying, you really do need an extra Kleenex Pocket Pack.

You want to know when the White Witch of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia will come to power on this planet, for real? When it really will be “always winter, and never Christmas”?

It will be when humans finally give up their magic powers to her. It will be when they willingly and compliantly hand over their ill-disciplined tendency to have children at inconvenient times and in awkward situations to the tidy, forward-planned, government-regulated fertility business as ordained by scientists and government quangos.

People will do this because, like Aladdin’s foolish wife, they do not recognise the magic object in their own hands, but give it away to a cunning pedlar.

And it will make such good sense. The White Witch does not take over suddenly, in a coup d’etat. She creeps across the land, spreading frost and snow with her nice, common-sensical suggestions, until one day we will look up and realise she is at the castle gates, and turning all to stone.

At first the White Witch said, “It is not reasonable to ask a woman to carry a child against her will.” That sounded sensible enough. Then she said, “It is not reasonable to ask a woman to carry a child she may not be able to look after.” We bought that, too.

Then she said: “It is not reasonable to carry a child who has Down’s Syndrome.” Now she says: “It is not reasonable to carry a child who might develop a disease…who is the wrong sex for the balance of the family, for surely a balanced family must be a happier family?”

And eventually, she will hold sway among the rich and powerful, and only very poor children will be born in their own time, sent by God and nature. We won’t know it, until suddenly we will realise that Christmas comes no more.

Oh, the shops will still put up November tinsel, the magazines will still offer shopping advice: “Ideal gift for your best friend: a Prada handbag, £900” assuming that the spending habits of an overpaid fashion editor with a hedge fund executive boyfriend are a useful model for the rest of us.

The TV diet of violent films and public humiliation will continue to be watched by the sad and the lonely – an ever increasing number of them – unvisited, unremembered (for there will be no one to remember them) in old people’s homes.

And there will still be children: solitary little things tucked away out of view, protected from the cold by virtual entertainments, elbowed from the TV schedules, and so showered with gifts all year round that the arrival of Christmas morning hardly makes a blip on their radar.

It will look like Christmas and sound a bit like Christmas, so we will call it Christmas. But it will not be Christmas, because we – aiding and abetting the White Witch by our own greed and stupidity – will have forgotten that the unexpected and glorious arrival of a child in the most inauspicious circumstances is the heart of Christmas.

So while the White Witch is still not quite at the gate, my prayer this year to stop worrying about what cannot be planned or provided for; and to open my eyes to the love and magic; the love and magic which are there to be found within that imperfect but blessed institution (for what family can be “perfect”? What child, what parent?) of the family Christmas.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006


When I gave up work to have babies, I often, then as now, had to fill in forms. Very often the form demanded to know my “employment status”. In order to exist in the eyes of the official world, I had to choose between employed, self-employed, unemployed or retired.

Since I did not feel in the slightest bit “unemployed”, usually I would heave a sigh and tick “self-employed”, forcing my occasional pin money from journalism to stretch my status up to the same giddy heights as Madonna and Bill Gates.

Most people do not realise this, but a parent who stops earning in order to bring their own children up has no official status at all – she simply disappears off the public radar. She gets child benefit – but she has no clear status at all.

This loss of a place in the world has never been properly measured. And the at-home-parent slips not only off the official radar, but the social one too. It may be that slight hint of contempt from garage mechanics or estate agents…suddenly you are “just the wife”. It may be the questioning looks later on when you try to find a job: “So what exactly have you been doing all this time?” Or it may simply be the snooty disregard of career women looking past your shoulder at parties.

The near-mythical existence of a tiny number of greatly envied “yummy mummies” - women lucky enough to be married to rich men, sensible enough to know that their children will only be small once, and also young and pretty enough to make the most of the experience – has simply whipped up resentment which is sometimes also directed at much less well-off parents who are stretching one income to do the job of two, simply so that one of them can be at the school gate at 3.30pm every day.

The Conservative Party is right (gosh, that was tough to type): family breakdown IS behind most of our social problems. But their policy review on the issue, chaired by Iain Duncan-Smith (who tried to get the Tories interested in social justice while he was their leader, and got kicked out for his pains), only begins to delve into the reasons for family breakdown.

My theory is this: the job of keeping families together has been downgraded and at the same time parents have lost sight of long-term goals.

The one thing which would change the family breakdown rate instantly would be to allow a stay-at-home parent – mum or dad – to transfer their personal tax allowance to their spouse – not to a cohabitee, but to a spouse.

This would transform the status of both marriage and the job of parenting at one blow. It would acknowledge the contribution to society of parents who raise their own children AND acknowledge that marriage is a totally different kettle of fish from the drifting, twilight existence of cohabitation.

It would take a very brave political leader to introduce transferable tax allowances – there would be howls of protest. But a far-sighted political leader would just do it.
It would not cost the Exchequer a huge amount, because only families for whom it made a significant difference would take the option up.

It would benefit poorer families more dramatically than the rich, taking many right out of paying tax at a stroke.

And the dividends reaped in the long run – better literacy, happier families, fewer ASBOs – would be noticeable within twenty years – less than the lifespan of a nuclear power station. Best of all, it would – for once – allow mothers to feel that the system values them in whatever they do.


We still haven’t sent any Christmas cards, so Mr J. went to buy some yesterday. It was one of those shops which sells ONLY greetings cards, with the occasional miniature teddy bear thrown in. To reduce misunderstanding even further, it was called, I think, “Cards Galore”. Ever the optimist, Mr J imagined this would be just the place.
“Do you have any religious Christmas cards?” he began hopefully.
A worried look.
“You know,” he explained. “Christmas cards with a CHRISTIAN theme?”
A blank look.
“OK,” persisted my nearest and dearest, calling on all his academic skills, “How can I put this…cards for Christmas which have a baby on them. And a mummy.”
The shop assistant’s face brightened slightly, and she pointed silently to the display: “Best wishes for the birth of your new baby”.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

What seems to be the matter

Catholic Herald 8 December 2006

I have an irrational prejudice against doctors. The trouble is, I spend a lot of time with women in labour and childbirth, and the doctor is the very last person we want to see in a birth room.

Many doctors are perfectly respectful and considerate towards the labouring woman in their care, but you still get the odd throwback who marches in unannounced with bad news and an even worse attitude, an invasive presence threatening invasive procedures.

You can rely on this type of doctor for confidence-shattering, bossy remarks like “We will give you one hour to have this baby then we will proceed to an instrumental delivery”.

If you have a phobia of a particular profession, then finding yourself in a room full of them is supposed to cure you, so it was a good thing that I spent last Saturday afternoon at an outstanding and inspiring conference of Catholic doctors organised by the Westminster Diocese and hosted by Opus Dei in an elegantly modernist conference hall in Hampstead.

My job was sorting out written questions from the audience to a distinguished panel of experts in medical ethics led by the Cardinal himself, and including Dr Philip Howard, of St George’s Hospital, who started the day with a brilliant and illuminating commentary on Evangelium Vitae.

I was privately amazed by how many medical students and keen sixth formers had given up a precious Saturday in front of the telly to think about medical ethics, so the written questions which rained down on my desk over lunch were a wonderfully mixed bunch. There were abstruse philosophical questions from the senior medics mixed up with blatant attempts from sixth formers to get the panel to do the questioner’s weekend homework for free – and once we had weeded out the thinly disguised essay titles, the questions written in a more youthful hand turned out to be an intriguing selection.

For example: “Have you ever experienced prejudice in your medical career because you are a Catholic?”

Two of our panel members, Dr Charles O’Donnell and Dr Anne Carus, the NaPro Fertility expert, said that no, they had not experienced any overt prejudice. But I would not really expect them to: Dr O’Donnell is a totally upfront Catholic doctor who works extensively with student and junior doctors on medical ethics. And Dr Carus, being a natural fertility expert, is also in area of work in which, by its very nature, she is not likely to encounter prejudice, because the more prejudiced people in society are not likely to cross her path.

Both travel, as it were, with warning lights on and probably most anti-Catholic or anti-Christian elements simply move out of their way as they approach.

But our keynote speaker, Dr Philip Howard, told a chilling story about how an Oxford college turned him down after he gave a pro-life answer to an interview question.

Logic dictates that if there were one career in which you should expect to find Christians aplenty, then surely the medical profession must be it. Learning to heal the sick and tend to the dying has to be the simplest, most obvious way of answering Christ’s call.

So is extraordinary that the concept of prejudice against any Christian within the caring professions should be a worry for Catholic medical students. Yet it is clearly what most worries them. Another student asked, “Have you ever been tempted to do something which went against your faith and ethics but which you knew would further your career?”

The assumption was that being a Christian, in particular a Catholic, is in some way going against the grain of medical life. Either you are going to encounter prejudice at the best, or find your faith at odds with what your superiors expect you to do. And that is a terrible indictment of the way in which we regard doctors.

I realised that my own particular totally irrational bias against obstetricians is probably an offshoot of this: we no longer think of doctors as experts who trust and respect the human body, rather as interfering busybodies who want to “play God”. It seems we need more doctors who are Catholics, and more Catholic doctors such as Dr Howard, with the confidence to speak up for their convictions.

As for Dr Howard’s story: well, he was accepted by another college – and he discovered years later that his rejection “on grounds of his faith” had become common knowledge – not to his shame, but, it turned out, to the eternal shame of the college which rejected him.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Give the Secularists something constructive to do

We won. It was a peculiar feeling. We heard on the news that the Education Secretary had suddenly changed his mind about forcing faith schools to close a quarter of their school places to the children from their own faith families, and felt quite dizzy. The Catholic Church had actually won a political victory.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols was magnificent. He was serene, articulate, and kept to his points. He dealt with Jeremy Paxman’s bizarre lines of questioning in an honest, forthright manner.
My favourite moment was when Mr Paxman arched his brows so far they nearly disappeared and asked the Archbishop possibly the silliest question he had ever asked: “So are you happy that Government money should be spent on funding schools which teach that Jesus Christ is not the Son of God?”

The Archbishop could not have looked more puzzled if the great interrogator had asked when His Grace had stopped beating his wife; he voiced the thoughts of all of us when he answered, very civilly, that he wasn’t sure he had quite understood the question. Paxman blustered and backtracked onto another tack.

I imagine some wretched producer had been yelling in Paxman’s earpiece, “OK so these Catholics, they’re like, fundamentalists, yah? So if you get him to say that he wants Government funding for like, you know, schools that aren’t Christian, yah, he’ll be totally embarrassed cos all these you know, moral majority types will be watching and they’ll be like, Hey, we don’t wanna go there, yah?”

We are moving this new taste – victory – around our mouths and wondering how long it will last. It almost looks as though when enough people get together with a good case to make, and a well-led campaign, and a clear message to put across, then they can make things happen. Shortly before the Church’s victory, a petition from 4 million people succeeded in slowing down the closure of rural post offices.

The rage and hatred of the secularists is unbounded. Lord Baker called the Archbishop a liar for regarding his amendment, which laid down quotas for new faith schools, as the thin end of the wedge; which is odd, because I remember the Education Secretary being reported quite distinctly as saying that established schools would be next for the quota treatment, which sounded to me very like a wedge being tapped home.

I pick up The Times and find it brimful with anti-Christian propaganda: another huge puff for Professor Richard Dawkins’ embarrassingly bigoted book, “The God Delusion”, a news feature about the film of Philip Pullman’s atheist trilogy “His Dark Materials”, and on the paper’s main comment section – once graced by the likes of Bernard Levin – there is a spittle-flecked pub rant against Catholics by a fat man with a beard who used to write about sport. All in one issue.

This fight is not just about faith schools. It is about faith. The likes of Lord Baker, a classic Heathite Tory who is best known for making the National Curriculum into a vast prescriptive straitjacket - when all his Prime Minister had wanted him to do was make sure pupils were learning the 3Rs - do not want faith schools to exist at all and if possible would like religion to stop existing, too.Tell them that their quotas will mean that teachers will have to stop saying the Angelus at my son’s school, or displaying crucifixes at my daughter’s, then they smile, nod and say, “Good-ee.”

So where do we go next? Simple: we turn the fight round and campaign not just for Catholics but for all parents, our enemies included.

Seventy percent of schools in liberal, cool, hip, tolerant Holland are either faith schools or schools founded according to a specific philosophy, Steiner schools being among the best known. We should be lobbying politicians, the Tories in particular, to give anyone who wants to run a school on their religious or philosophical beliefs – including atheists, humanists and secularists – to do so with Government funding, as long as they can prove support from the local community.

Let the National Secular Society get the money together (Philip Pullman should be good for a bob or two) and run their own secularist voluntary aided schools. It might be tough at first (running the National Secular Society must be a bit like the National Can’t Be Bothered Society) but they ought to be allowed to have a go. It would give them something constructive to do.

We know we can win a fight for our own schools. Now we should look to fight for the voluntary aided school model - perhaps the most successful school funding pattern ever - for everyone, to bring diversity and passion back to state education.

A dangerous cult

Home Front - A Brief Introduction to Ecenics
Sarah Johnson

I hope readers will forgive me for brnging to the attention of parents a worldwide cult, under whose influence all young people are at risk of falling.

The Ecenics movement has grown to become perhaps the most extensive, most lavishly funded, massively publicized and yet the least understood religion on our earth. It is familiar to us all, thanks to its sophisticated global information network administered by a rigidly hierarchical priesthood; yet we rarely acknowledge that as a destructive force, Ecenics has an outstanding record.

Christianity’s wars against heretics and heathens, the Muslim war against infidels - these look amateurish compared with the millions of deaths which the undoubted genius of Ecenics preachers has caused.

The Ecenics church gives its priests complete freedom to wreak havoc or to produce the means of destruction under its core doctrine of NDMA - non departmentia mea, amice, (loosely translated as “not my department, mate”). The NDMA doctrine allows an Ecenics priest to work entirely without reference to the long-term consequences of his labour or the uses to which his discoveries might be put.

Freed by this dubious doctrine, Ecenics has brought massive prosperity and health to rich Western nations, but can also count among its achievements every ingenious form of mass destruction known, from mustard gas to nuclear missiles. Without Ecenicists to advise, Saddam Hussain would have had nothing to test on the Kurds; and the arms race of the 20th century would never have got off the starting blocks.

Even without the help of war, Ecenics missionaries have poisoned and transformed our planet beyond recognition. The “Global Warming” phenomenon has its roots in classic Ecenics-inspired zeal - specifically, the urge to make as much money as possible from any Ecenicist development (internal combustion engine, air travel, gas heating, electrical power etc, etc) before considering any harm it might cause. Thus, Ecenics theologians claim that global warming is everyone’s fault but theirs, even though they started the process.

Ecenics surpasses rival religions in the manipulation of public emotion (though its clergy consider “emotion” and “emotive language” to be sinful concepts). For everyday worship, the priests wear a traditional “white coat” – the colour possibly signifying the wearer‘s moral purity. For public appearances, the traditional corduroy trousers and tweed jacket indicate social superiority. The effect of this ceremonial wardrobe is to create in the mind of the laity a cringing dread of the Ecenics priest’s scantly-understood power.

Not all Ecenicist priests are male, but some of its early saints were somewhat misogynistic, and it took a long time for women to be accepted as priests. Recruitment of women priests still seems to be affected by distrust lingering from the days when early Ecenics preachers persecuted – even to death - non-Ecenics women for using un-ecenically-tested herbal remedies. Many of these remedies and practices have now been shown to be efficient, but the Ecenics hierarchy is forbidden to apologise for anything - unlike all other religious leaders, who are expected to apologise for crimes committed before they themselves were born.

Ecenics never looks back. It is a one-way religion. Only the history of Ecenics itself is allowed to be studied, the study of other histories being banned under NDMA. And by invoking the same doctrine, Ecenics priests rake in massive tithes from the laity in return for statements of the blindingly obvious, such as that “teenagers don’t function well in the morning” or “if you squirt bleach in rabbits‘ eyes, they go blind”.

Ecenics clerics are particularly famous for practicing bigotry while criticising it in older religions. In particular, because of perceived Christian snubs towards prominent Ecenics preachers which, according to Ecenics oral tradition, happened about 500 years ago, major Ecenicists spend a disproportionate amount of time attacking Christianity. Fundamentalist Ecenicists maintain that Ecenics and Christianity cannot be followed at the same time, and in America, a country which, incidentally, has probably spent more money on grand Ecenics projects - such as flying to the moon - than would be needed to save all Africa’s children from death, there are a few oddball Christians who hold the same view.

Yet most of the world’s billions of Christians admire and respect Ecenicists; and some gentler Ecenics pastors quietly admit in private that they have no difficulty combining Ecenicist observance with Christian beliefs.

The fundamentalist Ecenics response to other religions is to call for them to be banned. History shows that whenever this policy has been put into practice, only misery has resulted; but Ecenicists don’t do history.

Fortunately, Ecenics, though disturbing, is not a hidden cult. From its intimidating initiation ceremonies led by black-robed prelates in curious headgear all the way to the glamour of its Hollywood image, Ecenics is familiar to us all – not least thanks to charismatic celebrity Ecenics leaders such as Professor Richard Dawkins – so if we are blind to its dangers, we have only ourselves to blame.