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Catholic schools and education – Redux

As I have blogged previously, the Bishop of Lancaster recently set feral cats amongst flailing pigeons by questioning the role and status of Catholic schools, nominally within the Diocese of Lancaster. The questions were bold and challenging – partly, one suspects, they were instigated by financial concern (the Diocese not being in the best of financial health), but significantly they were about questioning what role our institutions play and are playing in that which ought to be, according to the Bishop, foremost in the minds and hearts of the faithful – salvation.

It is not my intention here to explore the question of whether or not our Catholic schools are living up to that vision. That has been debated long and loud and the conclusions appear largely uncontested. Indeed, many defences against the CINO charge usually rely on the restructuring of the traditional view of what a Catholic education should be, often with appeals to changing social contexts, rather than outright rebuttal of the accusation. In its way this is an admission of failure according to the old terms of reference, a failure turned into success precisely by trying to recast anew those old frames of reference. In the contexts in which many schools find themselves, there is certainly legitimacy to this view. The question becomes, however, whether the faithful, nor indeed Bishops, ought to accept a position where such a vision of Catholic education can legitimately be presented as a success.

As such, I want here to widen things out a little and question the responsibilities (and potential failures) of those outwith the teaching establishments currently attracting the lion’s share of blame. After all, schools come under heavy fire from all quarters, sometimes deservedly so, but sometimes for being the victims of a process that they effectively had little control over. For this reason, it is worth asking what external pressures lead schools to this point, before focussing in on the internal dynamics that may (or may not) have capitulated to it.

The first important detail to note is that Catholic schools operate within a regulated national system, the natural consequence of which will be that their primary focus will generally be that which the system deems to be the primary focus. In this case, it is simply and solely exam results. Which is important, not least because there has always been the tacit (and sometimes explicit) acceptance that the holistic approach of Catholic education means that the pursuit of academic excellence is one criterion of success amongst others, and not the sole goal of any Catholic education. This is certainly not to downplay the academic aspect of a Catholic education, which could and should be highly rigorous – rather, it is a strand in a wider weave that intertwines matters of the soul alongside matters of the intellect.

Needless to say, in a system so heavily focussed on exam results, so intent on DATA and PROGRESS, so terrified of sliding in the league tables and thus jeopardising its very existence as a school (‘bums on seats’ being another crucial factor here), focus will tend to slip away from that hard-to-measure salvation thing and sit rather more squarely on the production of pleasing exam grades above all else. This is not to suggest any natural conflict between the two – but it is suggest that, should ever any conflict arise, then it will always be the pursuit of test results that gains the upper hand. In the Great Hierarchy of Things, Messrs Gove and Wilshaw will tend to sit in a more prominent spot than the local Bishop.

In this respect, then, the schools are in thrall to the system in which they necessarily operate. It is worth casting the net wider still, however, and pointing out that there exists the lack of a coherent vision regarding the characteristics of a specifically Catholic education even within the highest levels of the Church hierarchy, and that this hinders those seeking to deliver the formation expected in Catholic schooling. Whilst Bishops’ Conferences might quietly append signatures to quietly ignored Vatican documents, there yet exists a noticeable lack of confidence in defending the uniqueness of Catholic education, in both vision and mission, in the public forum. When, occasionally, an individual does step forth to elucidate, as did Bishop Emeritus Patrick O’Donoghue, the silence from those who ought to loudly support is instructive. To pursue this further, the controversies that recently engulfed Catholic schools such as Cardinal Vaughan School and the Coloma Convent Girls’ School, whilst ultimately turning on technical detail, demonstrate that the question of how a Catholic school should offer itself to the community remains unresolved at even the highest levels, with each of these schools facing opposition from their own Archdiocese for pursuing entrance requirements they believe to be consistent with upholding and propagating the Catholic life and ethos of the school.

As such, if schools are failing in their mission of formation and evangelisation, then schools have also been failed by those who ought to most forcefully and most clearly be outlining what that mission looks like, how it can be cultivated, what is pernicious to it, and what freedom schools have to act in adherence to it. Indeed, honest questions also need to be asked about how political changes, and especially how co-operation with such changes over an extended period of time by those agencies and individuals specifically tasked with defending the integrity and authenticity of Catholic education, have made the development of such an atmosphere increasingly difficult.

This fundamental lack of confidence necessarily trickles down and shapes the way in which Catholic schools organise and constitute themselves. With regards the development of future Catholic teachers for Catholic schools, for example, it would be the exception rather than the norm for those coming through teacher training to be given any sort of depth discussion on what a Catholic education entails, or what extra commitments, or expectations, or demands come with teaching in a Catholic school. The process is, after all, delivered solely through the state, which has no concern in training teachers for Catholic schools, only in training teachers – the Catholicism bit is functionally irrelevant, perhaps something addressed in a one-hour presentation during induction should one evr get a job in a Catholic school, but in reality no more than a distraction to a process that always was solely about creating a teacher for the system, an individual who could work in any school, whether it be Catholic or community.

Even for those who develop a personal interest in answering the questions outlined above, and who seek to incorporate this into their role within the Catholic school system, it soon becomes obvious there is a dispiriting lack of sustained and coherent articulation regarding the nature of a Catholic education, save, perhaps, for certain impressive voices all too often hidden away within the halls of academia or at the bottom of little circulated publications.This relative lack of a public and rigorous debate on what a Catholic education entails, and the formation of staff in light of the conclusions such determinations bring, hinders those who instinctively feel the call to deliver an authentic Catholic education.

And there are many other questions to be asked, too: on the role of school chaplains, for example, or the (virtual) diocesan monopoly on Catholic schools, on the role of governors and trustees, and on the capacity of Catholic schools to fulfill its vision in light of legislative demand. Most importantly, however, the principal questions needing resolved are these: can the kind of Catholic school that Bishop Michael seems to be pointing toward really be (re-)conceived and delivered through present structures? Can it exist comfortably within the current system? And if not (and I suspect not) how else might it come to be?

For all that, it would be a shame if, as some suggest, any future response includes the retreat from school provision and contentment with the delivery of catechetical instruction at a parish level as an alternative. In a time when we are increasingly forced to segregate the public and the private with regards our faith, it would seem something of a collaboratorial surrender to meekly segregate formation from education in such a way. We are called to live, learn and love as children of Christ – the three belong together, and this should be articulated unashamedly. Indeed, to maintain otherwise is concede the point to those who argue that there is nothing particularly distinctive about a Catholic education, it being essentially a ‘normal’ education with a few rituals thrown in on special occasions, things that could be harmlessly jettisoned or perhaps delivered privately for those who so wish.

One would like to think that there yet exists the intellectual, spiritual and evidential resources to counter this junk narrative, if only there existed the appetite to do so. If some would lead, I suspect yet more would follow.

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