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A Brief History of Catholic Education in England

A Brief History of Catholic Education in England 

The Catholic Church was arguably the first provider of schools and universities in England.

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 school properties in those early days as the place for worship for the parish. This was certainly the case for St John Vianney’s Parish where even today the main lower hall is recognisable as our first church when our parish school was built in 1934.

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 our parish schools.

Service to those who are among the most disadvantaged in our society has also always been central to the mission of Catholic education. Many of our 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 our Catholic schools continuing to receive the disadvantaged from the new immigrant populations from across the world.

Catholic dioceses and parishes today remain conscious of rights as tax-paying citizens in these lands and also our responsibilities to meet the needs of 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 distinctly 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 also became ‘voluntary aided’ schools. This meant that they became a 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 matter is remains under discussion and discernment across the Diocese of Lancaster with a care also for preserving the important parish-school connections and honouring the fact that the individual parishes of the Diocese, in canon law, owns most of the school properties.