In part 1 I argued that what is wrong with Catholic education is no different from what is wrong with the church as a whole.
In this part I am going to outline the strengths and challenges for Catholic education today. It might be worth outlining my credentials such as they are. I have taught in four different Catholic schools in and been a senior leader in three of them. My children have attended three different primary schools and two different secondary schools. I often visit other secondary schools (catholic and others) and Catholic primary schools and meet secondary heads from a range of different schools as well as Catholic primary heads. I have a large number of brothers and sisters who have children who attend Catholic schools and they tell me about their experiences too. Of course my sample is small, but, I would argue significant.
The greatest strength that Catholic schools have at the moment is that they are valued. They are valued by parents; for some sending their children to a Catholic school is almost the only ways they acknowledge their Catholic identities but they still do it, often sending their offspring on long journeys past local good schools. (This is the “glass half full” view of this matter. I will look at the “glass half empty” implications later on.) Our schools are also valued by the teachers and others who work there. Almost all staff acknowledge that Catholic schools “feel” different. The majority of them (including the majority of those who are not Catholic) take their responsibility to uphold the Catholic nature of the school seriously. They don’t all measure up to one Head of Sixth form I witnessed gently admonishing his charges for the way they had come in to the hall for Mass, accurately and succinctly explaining about the Real Presence of the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle, something he, himself, did not believe in at all. Nevertheless they do acknowledge this as part of their role. I don’t want to overstate things; there is widespread ignorance about Catholicism among parents, teachers and in some cases, I am afraid, senior leaders but the goodwill is there and it is something that can be built on.
The second strength I would point to is that the vision for what Catholic schools should be like is there. It’s firmly based in Catholic teaching, drawing on Church documents on education and quotations from popes. There is no excuse for individual headteachers doing things their own way. Interested readers should look at these documents as examples:
Readers might also want to look at the Section 48 evaluation schedule for their individual dioceses.
If you have ever been dismayed by what is happening in a particular Catholic school you will almost certainly see that it is going against what is written in these documents. The first and the last are required reading for all Catholic heads (I mean required by their dioceses). The middle one has less status but I have included it because it is read by many heads and senior leaders. I like it; it’s more inspiring and challenging than “Christ at the Centre” and has a greater range of concrete requirements too.
Thirdly there is good practice in our schools. For each of the challenges I list below, there are schools which are doing a good job in addressing them.
So whilst there is lots of goodwill, clear direction (for those who take it seriously) and good practice there are tough challenges too. The most significant is that many of our Catholic children are “unchurched”. In the Catholic Herald Kevin Meagher argues that Catholic schools should be in the business of “turning out committed young Catholics” and Joseph Shaw in his blog applauds but they’re not quite right. Catholic schools must assist parents in bringing their children up in the Faith. How much can you assist someone if they are not playing their part? Then there is the impact of these children (often a large majority) on the school as a whole.
The second problem is fracture: fracture between phases meaning secondary and primary schools are often working independently and therefore incoherently. More seriously there is a fracture between schools and parishes. This is especially the case with secondary schools.
Thirdly there is a lack of challenge from dioceses. Where schools get things wrong, diocese too often turn a blind eye. One example of this is schools which do not follow a “Catholic Christianity” module for GCSE RE. Such schools cannot possibly be following the Curriculum Directory but this is rarely picked up by Section 48 inspections.
Fourthly there are demographic problems. In London there are not enough schools for all Catholics to get a place. In other places unwise local decisions mean that Catholic children are turned away from their nearest Catholic schools even if there are places in neighbouring schools. Elsewhere the number of Catholics is falling. Here the church is faced with either closing a school or having it continue with a large minority or perhaps even a majority of students coming from families of other faiths and none.
Finally there is a lot of negativity about Catholic schools. A Catholic school getting things badly wrong is much more interesting than one quietly getting it more or less right. Reading about one school that is not fulfilling its function leads us to believe that many or all schools are like this. Add to this the fact that the Church as a whole is not in a good way in this country and the expectation from some that our schools can and should fix this on their own and we end up with a situation where it is perfectly reasonable for a national Catholic paper to run a feature on “What is wrong with Catholic education”. This undermines parents’ faith in Catholic schools and makes those who work in them defensive. Mistrust and defensiveness are not good foundations on which to build.
However I am optimistic. In Part 3, I will take a look at what I think schools and others need to do to meet these challenges and build up the Church.