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Faith-based Schools and the State
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Oxford Studies in Comparative Education

Faith-based Schools and the State

Catholics in America, France and England


2002 paperback 278 pages, £30.00, ISBN 978-1-873927-39-7

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About the book

The questions raised by government support for faith-based schools are now proving to be increasingly relevant and contentious. In one form or another they have a long history and are embedded in classical disagreements about the proper relationship between State and Church, or between secular power and religious freedom. They have been given a sharper edge by recent events, and by the emphasis laid by some governments on the importance of increasing public support for schools attached to different denominations and religions. Is it appropriate in a pluralist society to support some forms of religious expression and not others? What are the basic reasons for mingling (or indeed refusing to mingle) political and religious issues? What are the larger social effects of encouraging separate schooling for distinct sectors of society? These are among the questions raised and illuminated by this case study – historical and comparative in character – of the developing relationship between the State and the Catholic communities in three very different societies.



The Tapestry

Three Contemporaries

John Ireland

Emile Combes

Robert Morant

Three Antecedents

Horace Mann

François Guizot

William Ullathorne

Three Arenas

The Courts

The Streets

The Corridors

Three Countries

Catholic Schools in America Today

Catholic Schools in France Today

Catholic Schools in England Today

Contrasts and Cautions



This volume is peculiar in at least two ways. Since most books sensibly enough begin at the beginning and go through the middle to the end, the design of this volume needs some initial justification. In terms of both time and place, its argument moves about in unconventional directions. There are good reasons for this apparent aberration.

This first brief chapter is the introduction to a case study in one of the classic problems of politics and theology – the relationship of Church and State. It takes as its focus the educational policies of successive governments with regard to Roman Catholic schools in three countries. It must, therefore, seek to be comparative, and not simply expository. At the same time, it needs to be historical as well as comparative, for the good reason that without the history (or rather histories), contemporary problems are unintelligible. A conventional method of interpreting the factual material would therefore explain the situation in each of the countries, taking each of them separately and in turn, and in each case starting at the beginning of the story and building towards the present. Only when that task had been completed three times could a comparative or contrastive style be attempted. The weakness of proceeding in this superficially attractive way is that the single case study quickly dissolves into three quite separate narratives. The reader and the writer ignore or forget, during each phase, the importance of what is happening at precisely the same time in the other two countries. The synchronic is sacrificed to the diachronic.[1] In this book, however, the reader is deliberately encouraged to hold all three countries concurrently and continuously in focus and to remain aware of the multiple similarities and contrasts which they reveal. Therefore, in each of its three principal sections, the book rotates around all three societies: at no point is it in danger of becoming a one-country study.

The second peculiarity of the book relates not to place, but to chronology. Most studies of this kind would start at the earliest point and work to the contemporary. Some might begin with the present and then attempt, with some difficulty, to move backwards. This book does neither. The argument underlying the method adopted is that in all three countries a critical point was reached, and some key issues resolved, at about the year 1900. Thus, the year 1900 becomes a natural pivot for the presentation which follows. For that reason the presentation begins, in chronological terms, neither at the beginning nor at the end, but in the middle. So, the book opens with a case study within a case study, by exploring the lives, work and prejudices of three contemporaries at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Archbishop John Ireland opens a window into the American case, and Emile Combes and Robert Morant into the French and English respectively.

Each of these biographical studies can, however, make sense only in terms of its antecedents. These antecedents further illuminate both what is common and what is distinctive in the three national cases. The antecedents are explored in the second section of the book through three parallel biographical case studies from an earlier time: Horace Mann for America, François Guizot for France, and Archbishop Ullathorne for England. Running through these six biographical studies, as through the section which immediately follows, are the threads tracing the relationship of Church and State. The shape of this book is better compared with the design of a tapestry, rather than with the logical precisions of a map or an architectural drawing.

After these six biographical studies, the reader should be left with a clear picture of the roots and realities of the situation in all three countries at the very beginning of the twentieth century. The ways in which those conditions have since been, sometimes dramatically, modified are then to be explored in the third section. This is now attempted not through biographies, but by a discussion of the distinctive ways in which each of the three countries addressed the unsolved problems. These distinctive ways of tackling common issues are the 'arenas' of the third part of the book: the Courts become the dominant site for American developments, the Streets and political revolution for France, and the Corridors of Westminster and Whitehall for England.

The fourth section again embraces three countries, this time by describing the present (early twenty-first century) relationship of government and State to the Catholic schools in all three countries. These Catholic schools are not, however, to be viewed in isolation, as they have been chosen as a particular and serviceable example within the larger category of religiously affiliated schools in all three countries. They were chosen to serve as exemplars for an obvious reason: as members of an international grouping of schools, they might be assumed to share at least some characteristics across national boundaries, and are in any case the only group of denominational schools present in all three countries in sufficient numbers to make a comparative approach practicable.

The final chapter of the book aims to identify the most significant comparative threads running through the tapestry of the book, and closes with policy recommendations that might usefully be derived from them. The reader who finds this order of presentation unhelpful can, of course, plot a different path across the book.[2]

The book is based upon an extended study of the sources and commentaries identified in the bibliography. That work was, moreover, supplemented over some four years by scores of interviews and visits to schools in each of the three countries. It must be emphasised that these valuable encounters were not designed systematically to assemble an empirical base for the analysis and conclusions offered here. They were properly described to those agreeing to take part as constituting a reality check. It was necessary to acquire as accurate a sense as possible of the character of the schools, and to satisfy myself of the degree to which practice and policy at school or local levels accurately reflected official policy pronouncements. For that reason, a guarantee of confidentiality was given and I am grateful to all those who gave freely of their time and experience: heads of establishments, administrators, teachers, pupils, government officials, representatives of associations, bishops and politicians. I regret not being able to thank them here by name and accept full responsibility for the conclusions drawn from private discussions with them and of which full records have been preserved.

A few more technical points must be clarified. I have tried, wherever this proved practicable, to group notes and references at the end of chapters and to keep the text itself as uncluttered as possible. Citations have been directly identified in the notes. The study deals only with England rather than the United Kingdom as a whole, although there must obviously be references to both Scotland and Ireland. Wales, for most of the period under review, was politically and administratively assimilated with England.[3] Although the term 'public school' is notoriously ambiguous in England, it is hoped that the context always makes clear which meaning is intended: used as a synonym for one of the well-known independent schools when the reference is purely domestic, it resumes its plain and obvious sense whenever direct comparisons are made with publicly funded and controlled schools in America or in France. There are, similarly, a few occasions when 'Catholic' in England needs to be specified as including at least some Anglicans as well as all Roman Catholics. Normally, however, Catholic and Roman Catholic are employed interchangeably. The author has failed to achieve any consistency in the use of capitals for the two frequently linked terms, Church and State. Taste and context have again been determinant.

The lives of the three contemporaries which now follow – Ireland, Combes and Morant – illuminate the extent to which relations between Catholic schools and the State differed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Their three antecedents – Mann, Guizot and Ullathorne – expose the roots of those differences and similarities. The three arenas – Courts, Streets and Corridors – illustrate three different ways of resolving conflict.


[1] For the important issues underlying this distinction, see P. Burke (1990).

[2] For one who prefers to reflect on each country consecutively (rather than all three concurrently), and to follow a strictly chronological thread, an obvious possibility is: chapters 5, 2, 8, 11 (for America); 6, 3, 9, 12 (for France); 7, 4, 10, 13 (for England). In any case, chapters 1 and 14 keep their natural place.

[3] A fuller and recent account of developments in Northern Ireland and Scotland is to be found in the special number of Oxford Review of Education, vol. 27, no. 4, December 2001.


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