By Khaled Diab
‘Catholic' education thrives in Belgium, but the decision between principle and pragmatism is not easy when choosing a school.
20 October 2010
Putting off until tomorrow what I can do today has been an effective guiding principle in much of what I do. However, our crash course in parenthood is quickly teaching us that certain things need to be planned well in advance. When our son was little more than a twinkle on the ultrasound screen, we were advised that we needed to start finding and registering for a crèche, given the length of the waiting lists here in Ghent.
At 10 months of age, Iskander is quite literally still finding his feet, and is some two years away from ‘graduating' his creche. Yet, after friends alerted us that registration for preschool would soon begin, and given the waiting lists at many schools in inner-city areas, we've been forced to start thinking about his schooling.
We are fortunate enough to live just around the corner from one of the best schools in Ghent. Although Iskander reacted to his potential future school with cool detachment and studied indifference, it left a good impression on me. According to a formal evaluation, it has a good academic track record, encourages independent thought and creativity among its pupils, works closely with parents and organises lots of extra-curricular activities.
Although the school insists that it is not elitist and is striving to attract children from all backgrounds, its former pupils include two Nobel prize winners, a number of prominent actors, poets and writers, ministers and prime ministers, as well as the current head of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge.
Despite the fact that the school seems to offer both convenience and excellence, there is one issue that troubles me: this Jesuit school identifies itself as ‘Catholic'. Of course, with the sex abuse scandals rocking the church – including cover-up allegations in Belgium – ‘Catholic' and ‘children' are not words many people would comfortably place in close proximity. “Almost every [Catholic] institution, every school, particularly boarding schools, at one time harboured abuse,” said Peter Adriaenssens, the head of a church commission monitoring complaints.
But this isn't what bothers me, since the church and clergy have nothing to do with the day-to-day running of Catholic schools anymore, and their staff are paid for, screened and supervised by the state. As a non-believer and dedicated secularist, what troubles me is the idea of sending my child to a school that associates itself, no matter how loosely, with a particular faith. It's not that I have anything against Catholics or the Christian faith, I just entertain a general scepticism towards organised religion.
Luckily, these establishments are a lot less Catholic than the pope. My wife – who went to Catholic school, just like most Belgians she knows, including quite a few Muslims – assures me that they are Catholic mostly in name only.
And what the school informed me bears this out. Young children receive only informal religious education, such as the nativity story. Older children start getting a couple of periods a week on Christianity, then, in secondary school, they start learning about other religions and ethical systems, too.
Besides, Catholic schools in Belgium regularly outperform secular state schools and, a recent study concluded, university students from Catholic schools are more likely to succeed in higher education – though not everyone agrees with the findings.
But why are Belgian Catholic schools so far ahead of their more secular alternatives?
The prevalence and dominance of the Catholic school system is an accident of Belgian history and reflects the once-dominant hold of the church on society. It is also a product of the long and bitter conflict between freethinkers and Catholics, the so-called ‘school wars', in which liberals and socialists have traditionally supported the idea of secular, ideologically neutral schools, while the Christian Democrats and church establishment have put their collective weight behind an independent, yet state-subsidised, Catholic school network.
The highly organised nature of the Catholic establishment and the long political dominance of the Christian Democrats has created the current situation in which neutral state schools are the poor cousins of Catholic schools.
However, the increasing post-war secularisation of Belgian society and the efforts of freethinkers to take as much of the Catholic out of Catholic schools as they can, has resulted in a classic ‘Belgian compromise' in which there is little practical ideological difference between the two streams of the Belgian state-funded schooling system, despite their labels.
And, for an egalitarian like me, I'm pleased that hardly anyone in Belgium goes to private schools and everyone, in theory, has an equal shot at entering any school, with priority going to locals and disadvantaged groups.
So, the question is, should principle or pragmatism prevail?
My wife is of the opinion that the proximity and apparent quality of the school, and the fact that all the good schools within an acceptable distance from the house are also Catholic, means that pragmatism should prevail.
Besides, religious education was part and parcel of our own schooling and it certainly did not make us religious. I still remember many of the Christian hymns we were taught during assembly when I was a child, I spent a short period in the school choir despite my poor singing skills, and my brother played one of the three wise men in the nativity. At my first secondary school, religious studies were obligatory and, at my second, I could sit through the lessons and do my own thing, while ‘Chopper' Harris often droned on about the war, instead of teaching religion.
Even in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, many of the best modern schools were set up by European missionaries and Muslims have usually outnumbered Christians there. “The teaching was good at the time I was there, now these schools are not top of the line anymore after the new international schools,” recalls Sherif, an Egyptian friend who studied at the College de la Salle.
For Katleen – and I have to agree – the most important thing is that we find a school for Iskander where he will be happy and comfortable and one that will bring out the best in him. And if, in future, Iskander receives anything in his religious education class which we find objectionable, we can provide him with alternative visions and outlooks at home. Besides, by the time he is old enough, perhaps the school will introduced an opt-out from religion lessons.
This is the extended version of a column which appeared in the Guardian newspaper's Comment is Free section on 8 October 2010. Read the full discussion here.