Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt was this week accused of “breathtaking ignorance and bigotry” after he appeared to suggest that nuns were second-rate teachers without qualifications.
The gaffe came during an appearance on BBC One’s Question Time, during a spat with the Catholic writer Cristina Odone over teaching qualifications.
Ms Odone said some of the most inspiring teachers she had ever known were not out of teacher training colleges, after which Hunt retorted: “These were nuns … these were all nuns, weren’t they?”
The following day, on Twitter, Mr Hunt said he meant “no offence to nuns”.
Mr Hunt’s remarks have been criticised by religious sisters, including Sr Jane Livesey, the leader of the Congregation of Jesus, an order with a teaching mission, founded by Mary Ward. She is also the sister of Tim Livesey, Labour leader Ed Miliband’s “chief of staff”.
Sr Jane said she was “disappointed” at the lack of understanding of a Labour frontbencher, and that what Hunt said was an insult not only to nuns but to many generations of Labour voters, particularly in the north of England.
“They were ‘enfranchised’ in the widest sense of the word by the education given to them by generations of intelligent, dedicated teachers who also happened to be nuns,” she said.
Sisters also gave “added value” in the sense of the “caught not taught” part of the curriculum which, in Sr Jane’s experience of teacher training, is not given enough time and attention at that stage.
Another nun, Sr Maureen Tinkler, a Daughter of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, tweeted a message to Mr Hunt that said: “Shame on you and your lack of awareness of the great teaching sisters past and present”.
Meanwhile Sr Gemma Simmonds, a member of the Congregation of Jesus – also known as the Mary Ward sisters – who is a trained teacher and lectures at Heythrop College in London, said Mr Hunt had shown “breathtaking ignorance and bigotry”.
Many Catholic state schools in this country, she said, are former convent schools, and they are consistently oversubscribed “because parents have confidence in the long tradition of highly-acclaimed, intellectually-broad and culturally-critical education that they provide”.
Sr Gemma, a Labour voter since the age of 18, said her education by nuns was “challenging, broad and enormous fun. All my teachers were highly trained and totally dedicated.”
Maureen Glackin of St Mary’s University in Twickenham, a former Catholic teacher training college and the alma mater of many hundreds of teaching nuns through its 165-year history, said nuns had made an enormous contribution to the lives of millions of young people by giving them an excellent education.
The Catholic Education Service pointed out that nuns and religious orders played, and continued to play, a central role in the continuing success of Catholic education, saying in a statement: “They founded over a thousand state schools and were pioneers in the establishment of teacher training colleges. Today they act as qualified teachers, school chaplains, governors and trustees throughout Catholic education.”