Posted by: CESEW | 06/09/2010

A Brief History of Catholic Education in England and Wales

You may have seen that the copies of ‘Magnificat’ include a brief history of Catholic education in England and Wales. We’ve reproduced this in full below, as you may wish to share this with your school or with your wider local community.

A Brief History of Catholic Education in England and Wales

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 schools in those early days as the place for worship for the parish. In 1905 the Catholic Education Council was established as the overarching organisation to promote Catholic Education in England and Wales on behalf of the Catholic Bishops (this later become the Catholic Education Service for England and Wales).

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 school. Service to those who are amongst the most disadvantaged in our society has also always been central to the mission of Catholic education. Many 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 Catholic schools frequently receiving the disadvantaged from the new immigrant populations from across the world. Catholic dioceses today remain conscious of their responsibility to meet the needs of established local Catholic families, Catholic traveller children and Catholic immigrants from other parts of the world, especially Eastern Europe and parts of Africa, Latin America and South East Asia.

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 became “voluntary aided” schools. This meant that they became 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. Today, the Catholic Church contributes around £20 million every year towards the capital costs of its schools.

In 2010, there are over 2300 Catholic schools across England and Wales (Catholic schools make up approximately 10% of the total number of schools nationally). The universality of the Catholic Church means that these schools are the most ethnically diverse of all maintained schools in England and are on a par with other schools in terms of social inclusivity criteria. Ofsted data shows that Catholic schools excel academically and pastorally, and are consistently rated better than other maintained schools in terms of what Ofsted describe as the school’s “overall effectiveness”.

The Church is also involved in higher education in England through its three university colleges (St Mary’s in Twickenham, Newman College in Birmingham and Leeds Trinity) and one joint Anglican-Catholic university (Liverpool Hope). This continues the long-established involvement of the Church in higher education in England, which dates back to at least the thirteenth century. Prior to the Reformation, the Church played a major role in the development of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Following the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy, the Bishops’ intention to establish schools meant that teacher training became a priority. With this in mind, a number of teacher training colleges were established (St Mary’s, established in 1850, is one of the oldest). Some of these teacher training colleges have now been subsumed into larger universities, and others have expanded to become university colleges and universities in their own right. Thus, higher education in the Catholic tradition continues to flourish.

Through its involvement in primary and secondary education, the Catholic Church currently educates over 800,000 pupils across England and Wales, in addition to the thousands of students involved in Catholic higher education. As such its stake in education is not only deeply embedded in our country’s history, through its continued collaboration with the state via the dual system, but is something that the Church continues to place an enormously high priority on in 2010.



  1. My first real experience of Catholicism came when I met my now husband (of nearly 32 years) at 6th form college. Although from a Christian background my self, weekly attendance at Church had all but stopped by the time I left primary school. It was quite a new experience in my teens to start attending mass on a weekly basis.
    Although I married in a Catholic Church and made a conscious decision to bring up our children in the Catholic faith I had never really felt the need to convert until I began studying for my BEd and also the Catholic Teachers Cert. As a ‘trainee teacher’ the Headmistress (a Nun) granted permission for me to gain ‘hands on experience’ in the school our two young sons attended. Prior to this crossing the white line at the school gates was strictly forbidden, unless you had been granted an appointment! Whilst as parents we had always been very happy with the standard of education our sons were receiving I am saddened to say that the same could not be said on the teaching of the faith, when I had sat in on several school assemblies. This was the nudge I needed! Catholicism to me is about building communities. Living and sharing Gospel values. Welcoming all whatever, colour, creed or culture, building relationships and extending the hand of friendship.
    In my opinion the article says it all!

    • I feel immensely proud to be involved in Catholic education, not least because of the heritage of which our schools, teachers and pupils are part. As Sue said, the article says it all.

      I attended the Big Assembly at Twickenham with some colleagues and pupils – what an amazing experience! To see all those different schools with their variety of uniforms, from ‘posh preps’ in boaters to us in our School hoodies, all the different accents and flags; we will never forget that day or the cheer that went up when the top of the Pope-Mobile appeared over the top of the hedge.

      To me my faith is the most important thing I can hand on, not just to my own children but to all the Catholic pupils in my care.

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