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Convent Schools (Great Britain)

Education within Convents

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Convent Schools (GREAT BRITAIN). Convent education is treated here not historically but as it is at the present day, and, by way of introduction, it may be briefly stated that the idea of including the education of the young amongst the occupations of a religious community is practically as old as that of the religious life for women itself. From the earliest times it was customary in England for children to be educated in convents, and we know that the nuns who went forth from Wimborne in the eighth century to help St. Boniface in his work of evangelizing Saxony, established convent schools wherever they went, in which a very high standard of scholarship was attained. Stray remarks in Chaucer and other medieval writers likewise reveal the fact that the English convent schools of the Middle Ages compared favorably with schools for the other sex. But all this came to an end at the Reformation, so far as England was concerned; and, save for one notable exception, English convent education had practically to start afresh in the nineteenth century. The exception referred to was the Bar Convent at York, belonging to the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose foundress, Mary Ward, was the pioneer of religious congregations devoted to the education of English girls. The Bar Convent was established in 1686, and in spite of penal laws, Protestant persecution, no-popery riots, and even, on more than one occasion, the imprisonment of the nuns for their faith, the work of the convent has continued from that day to this, and with its hundred and eighty houses in different parts of the English-speaking world, the Institute of the B. V. M. has long held a foremost place amongst the teaching orders of the Church.

The opening of numerous convents in England during the latter half of the nineteenth century has produced correspondingly numerous convent schools, in many of which, be it noted, Protestant as well as Catholic girls (especially in day and elementary schools) have been and are still being educated. The foundation of training colleges for Catholic teachers, the demand for teachers with academic qualifications, the move in favor of Government inspection with the consequent official recognition of convent schools, and the more recent advance in the way of higher education for Catholic women, have all combined to raise the standard of convent education; and the leading teaching orders have proved equal to the demand made upon their capabilities and energy. The convents stand foremost in the work they have done for religion and education, and they have turned out hundreds of girls, not only educated in the highest sense of the word but also truly religious.

Although in its widest sense the term “Convent Schools” may be taken to include all those, of what-ever kind, in which the work of education is undertaken by female religious—such as primary or elementary schools (whether mixed or for girls only), reformatory and industrial schools—it is only proposed in this article to deal with secondary schools, i.e. day or boarding schools for the upper and middle classes, training colleges for Catholic schoolmistresses, and colleges for the higher education of women, these being more closely connected with convent life itself.

SECONDARY EDUCATION.—Almost all convent secondary schools are under Government inspection. This gives them the status of being “recognized” by the Board of Education, regulates their course of studies, and ensures unity of method and efficiency. Some are also in receipt of a State aid-grant, which places certain restrictions upon their methods of management. Where no grant is accepted the nuns are more independent as regards the admission and refusal of pupils. The aim of all religious orders engaged in secondary education for girls is, whilst making every effort to keep abreast of modern requirements with regard to scholastic efficiency, to give also the additional advantage of a thorough religious training, so that parents may have no reason to fear that by securing the latter for their children they are sacrificing the greater temporal advantages that might be obtained at a Protestant school. The system of Government inspection and recognition by the Board of Education, with or without the State aid-grant, secures the necessary degree of efficiency, whilst the general character and reputation of the various communities by which the schools are conducted sufficiently guarantees the religious side of their educational work. Government inspectors and public examiners have frequently testified to the excellent moral tone and atmosphere of convent schools and to the cordial relations existing between teachers and pupils, no less than to the high teaching ability of the nuns themselves. The fact that education in its truest sense means something more than mere book-learning is nowhere more fully realized than in the convent school, and results all tend to prove that the religious and moral training imparted in such establishments has in no way acted as a hindrance to the more technical side of educational work. It has sometimes been said that the standard of scholarship attained is not so high in Catholic as in non-Catholic schools of the same class, but however true this may have been in the past, the general levelling up that has taken place during the last ten or twenty years has rendered the reproach an idle one now. The public examination lists of recent years afford ample proof that the leading convent schools are equal in efficiency to all others.

The range of studies pursued in convent secondary schools is a wide one. It includes religious knowledge, English in all its branches, French, Latin, mathematics, science, drawing, needlework, class-singing, and drilling, while such subjects as music, singing, dancing, Greek, German, Italian, elocution, short-hand, book-keeping, dressmaking, cooking, etc., are generally taught as optional extras. Pupils are entered for the Oxford and Cambridge Local Examinations, the Higher Locals, the Higher and Lower Certificates of the Oxford and Cambridge Joint Examination Board, the Matriculation Examinations of the London and Liverpool Universities, as well as for those of the College of Preceptors, the Incorporated Society of Musicians, the Royal Academy of Music, and the South Kensington School of Art. School buildings and accommodations are of the most up-to-date pattern—one of the necessary conditions for Government recognition. Physical development is provided for by means of hockey, croquet, tennis, cycling, swimming, and gymnastics, according to the particular circumstances of each school.

All the leading educational communities make a special point of having their teachers properly trained and fully qualified. This again is a sine qua non for official recognition, and the Order in Council of 1902, concerning the registration of secondary teachers, gave fresh impetus to the work of training teachers for convent schools. The principal teaching orders send their subjects usually to one or other of the two Catholic training colleges for secondary teachers (St. Mary’s Hall, Liverpool, and Cavendish Square, London), or else have them qualify by obtaining one or more of the following: the teaching diploma of the Cambridge Teachers’ Training Syndicate, the Oxford diploma for teachers, Women’s Honors in Modern Languages (Oxford), the Women’s diploma for the Oxford B. A. degree, the LL.A. diploma of St. Andrew’s University, the Licentiateship of the College of Preceptors, the Higher Certificate of the Oxford and Cambridge Joint Board, the Higher Local Certificate of Oxford or Cambridge, or a degree at one of the universities that grant degrees to women, e.g. London, Liverpool, or Dublin. Foreign languages are in most cases taught by natives, and in the teaching of many of the special subjects the religious are assisted by extern professors holding the highest qualifications. From these few facts it will be evident that the convent schools of England are adequately keeping pace with the times and that in point of efficiency they are in no way behind non-Catholic schools of the same class, while the facilities that have been recently brought into existence for the advanced education of Catholic women, religious as well as secular, at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge point to a still higher degree of efficiency for the future.

There are at the present over two hundred Catholic secondary schools in England under the care of representatives of about sixty different religious orders. Chief among these may be mentioned the English Institute of the B. V. M., with six such schools, the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus (eight schools), the Faithful Companions of Jesus (fourteen), the Sisters of Notre Dame of Namur (eighteen), the Religious of St. Andrew (one), the Religious of the Sacred Heart (eight), the Sisters of Mercy (eleven), the Servites (three), and the Ursulines of different congregations (twenty-three). Some of the best known and most successful of these schools are those at York and Cambridge (Inst. of B. V. M.); Mayfield, St. Leonard’s, Preston, Harrogate, and Cavendish Square, London (Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus); Isleworth, Liverpool, Birkenhead, and Clarendon Square, London (Faithful Companions); Liverpool (Mount Pleasant), Northampton, and Norwich (Notre Dame); Streatham (St. Andrew’s); Stamford Hill (Servites); and St. Ursula’s, Oxford. Many of these secondary schools have attached to them pupil teachers’ centers, where valuable preliminary work in the training of elementary schoolmistresses is done, and many of them serve also as “practising schools” in which the students of Catholic and other training colleges givt., their model lessons in the presence of their instructors and the Government inspectors. The pass and honors lists of the various public examinations in recent years show a very high percentage of candidates from the convent schools and prove conclusively that as far as results go they are fully equal to the best secondary schools under non-Catholic management.

TRAINING COLLEGES.—The training colleges are of two kinds—those for the training of primary or elementary schoolmistresses, and those for teachers in secondary schools. Both kinds are under the care of the religious orders. All the Catholic training colleges are recognized by Government, and in those for primary teachers the students whose expenses are assisted by a Government grant are known as “King’s Scholars”, their selection as such being dependent upon a competitive examination under Government auspices. There are six recognized training colleges for primary teachers, Mount Pleasant, Liverpool (under the Sisters of Notre Dame); St. Charles’ Square, London, and Newcastle-on-Tyne (Religious of the Sacred Heart); Southampton (Nuns of La Sainte Union); Salford (Faithful Companions); and Hull (Sisters of Mercy). In all of these the Government syllabus is followed and the Board of Education certificate is granted after two years’ successful teaching in one school, subsequent to the completion of the course at the college. An important part of the training consists in the “criticism lessons”, which are given by the students in some secondary school connected with the training college under the direction of the “Mistress of Method”, and which are criticized then and there by her as well as by the other students in turn. The best known and largest of these training colleges, which was also the first to be established, is that of Mount Pleasant, Liverpool, under the Sisters of Notre Dame of Namur. It was opened in 1856 with twenty-one students and now numbers one hundred and sixty King’s Scholars. It has been (1905) officially affiliated to the Liverpool University and a limited number of its students are allowed to follow the arts or science degree course of the university after the usual two years’ Government course has been completed. The whole of the preliminary and certain subjects of the intermediate course can be done at Mount Pleasant under the sisters, which reduces the time of residence required for obtaining the degree. Although this is quite an innovation, it speaks well for the college that five out of the first six sent in obtained the B. A. degree in the minimum period of time.

The training colleges for secondary teachers are St. Mary’s Hall, Liverpool, attached to Notre Dame, Mount Pleasant, and established in 1898; and Cavendish Square, London, under the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, opened in 1895. Both of these are recognized by the Board of Education as well as by the Teachers Syndicate of the Cambridge University; and the teachers’ diploma of that university, necessary for “registration”, is granted to successful students at the end of the course. Many of the other teaching orders send their subjects to these colleges, where while following the usual course with other students, special arrangements are made for them to carry out the duties of their religious life and to follow their own rule as far as possible. The theoretical studies include history and methods of education, logic, psychology, ethics, school management, and hygiene, tested by a written examination; and the practical work, taken in the secondary schools attached to the two colleges, is awarded the diploma after one year’s practice and a test lesson given before a Government inspector. The syllabus of the Cambridge Syndicate is followed in all subjects except philosophy, for which a course of Catholic philosophy is allowed to be substituted.

Hitherto only Catholic students have been admitted to these colleges, but regulations issued by the Board of Education (which came into force September, 1908) require that no qualified student applying for admission may be rejected, if there is room, on the score of religion. The Catholic hierarchy have protested against this and memorialized the prime minis-ter, but the authorities adhere to their decision and rule that no training college failing to comply with these regulations will in future be recognized. The Catholic training colleges had therefore to face the alternative of the introduction of non-Catholic students to the exclusion of Catholics, where numbers are limited, or serious monetary loss through the withdrawal of the State-aided King’s Scholars.

HIGHER EDUCATION FOR WOMEN.—The higher education of women, in connection with convents, is hardly out of the experimental stage. The university class in the Notre Dame Training College and its affiliation to the Liverpool University have already been mentioned. Up to 1895 Catholics were prohibited (by ecclesiastical authority) from entering the older residential universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and the removal in that year of the prohibition favored men only. Women had to wait still longer; but this restriction was taken away in June 1907, by a decree from Rome, which sanctions under certain conditions the opening of houses for women, both secular and religious, at Oxford and Cambridge, to enable them to secure the advantages of a university education. The Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus were the first community to avail themselves of this concession. They have opened a convent at Oxford, recognized and licensed by the University authorities, where twenty secular students and an unlimited number of religious may reside whilst following the university course. St. Ursula’s Convent, also at Oxford, likewise receives ladies and religious desirous of reading for honors in modern languages or for the B. A. degree examination, which they may do either by attending the university lectures, or by means of private tuition in the convent itself. Women are not eligible for degrees, either at Oxford or at Cambridge, but they are allowed to attend almost all the university lectures and to sit for the degree examinations, receiving if successful a diploma instead of the degree itself. It is proposed to establish at Cambridge a college for Catholic women, similar to those of Newnham and Girton, which will probably, in accordance with the desires of Propaganda, be placed under the charge of one of the principal teaching orders. A committee to carry out the project has the Archbishop of Westminster at its head.

SECONDARY EDUCATION IN IRELAND AND SCOTLAND.—The convent schools of Ireland and Scotland compare favorably with those of England, and their general character, scope, and conditions being practically similar, they need no further description here. There are in Scotland about ten different orders engaged in secondary education, with upwards of twenty schools under their care, besides two training colleges one at Glasgow for primary teachers, under the Sisters of Notre Dame, and the other at Edinburgh for secondary teachers, conducted by the Sisters of Mercy. In Ireland the chief teaching orders are the Institute of the B. V. M. (with thirteen convent schools), the Faithful Companions of Jesus (with three schools), the Dominicans, Ursulines, and the St. Louis Nuns, each with several prominent secondary schools. The equivalent in Ireland of recognition and inspection by the Board of Education is the “Intermediate System”, introduced in 1878, which produces practically the same results and has been adopted by most of the religious institutes engaged in secondary education. This system arranges examinations and awards medals, money prizes, and exhibitions. Catholic girls wishing to pursue a higher course after completing that of the Intermediate System, have had to take the examinations and degrees of the “Royal University of Ireland.” To meet the demand several orders have colleges under their care in Dublin, the most prominent and successful being Loreto College, belonging to the Institute of the B. V. M., and the Dominican College. The Irish educational authorities do not insist on the formal training of secondary teachers; consequently each religious institute is responsible for the training of its own members. The results, however, of their work prove that this is no less thorough and efficient than that obtainable at one of the recognized English training colleges.


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