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Welsh government accused of seeing Catholic schools as a ‘problem’

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The Welsh government appears to see Catholic schools as a “problem,” a Church education adviser said Monday as officials press ahead with plans for a radical shake-up of religious education.  

Angela Keller, Wales Adviser of the Catholic Education Service (CES), made the comment in an Oct. 19 press statement after giving evidence against the changes to a Welsh parliamentary committee.  

She said: “It’s hurtful that the Welsh government appears to see Catholic schools as the problem because we teach Catholic RE. The Welsh government needs to start trusting Catholic schools and the professionals who work extremely hard in them.” 

The authorities are moving forward with plans to rename Religious Education as “Religion, Values and Ethics” in a new curriculum, despite widespread opposition.

Catholic educators argue that the new proposals would place additional legal burdens on Catholic schools, obliging them to teach an additional secular RE curriculum. 

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They say that under the new plans, a non-Catholic parent could demand secular RE for their child in a Catholic school, but a Catholic parent could not ask for Catholic RE to be provided in a secular school.

Appearing before the children, young people, and education committee via video link Oct. 15, Keller said that the Welsh government risked “losing the trust of the Catholic community” if it insisted on changes to RE to Catholic schools. 

Speaking after the evidence session, she said: “Everyone giving evidence represented either a state partner or a member of the RE profession, and each one of us said the Welsh government was going in the wrong direction.”

Ahead of Keller’s appearance, the CES sent a hard-hitting written submission to the committee, which is scrutinizing the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Bill.

The CES criticized the government for failing to adjust the timetable for the bill despite the pressures on schools resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

It said: “Trust in the legislative process has certainly been damaged by the lack of engagement and involvement so far of the state’s partners in delivering education to the nation.” 

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“Repeated assurances over a number of years that Catholic schools’ ability to continue to teach Catholic RE would not be threatened have been undermined by the contents of the bill.”

The CES also accused the government of ignoring an “unprecedented letter of concern” signed in June by all 84 headteachers of Catholic schools in Wales.

The letter, addressed to Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, said: “In seeking to enforce so-called ‘neutral values’ curriculum, which we would argue is impractical and undesirable for today’s Welsh society, the risk is that the government is moving towards a homogeneous education system which will no longer recognize the importance of allowing children to pursue a deep knowledge and spiritual understanding of faith.” 

It added: “We would seek your reassurance that it is not the government’s intention to damage the distinctive Catholic nature of our schools.” 

The CES submission also warned the government that it risked undermining the role of parents as primary educators of their children if it removed parents’ right to withdraw their children from both RE and Relationship and Sex Education.

It said: “The removal the right of withdrawal is an erosion of parental rights and represents a regressive step in the trust and relationship between parents and the state, and parents and schools.”

The CES also expressed concern that the proposal could pave the way for future infringements of religious freedom.

It said that a clause in the new bill “means that the Welsh government could specify content and teaching of Catholic RE for pupils above the age of 14. The Welsh government could require pupils in Catholic schools to engage in courses of study which do not meet the requirements of the denominational religious authority (in our case the diocesan bishop).”

“The Welsh government will be able to introduce these requirements by regulation, which means that the changes would be made without the opportunity for appropriate scrutiny and opportunity for challenge.”

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