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A Catholic Curriculum

A version of this article appeared in the Catholic Herald – you can read the article here


In 1905, one Miss Agnew sat at her desk in Carlisle and sketched out the ‘scheme of instruction’ for the poor Catholic boys and girls of St. Cuthbert’s school. Amongst her entries was the History ‘object lessons’, and it contained a glimpse of the recipients for whom it was intended – here a lesson on Caedmon and Bede, there Joan of Arc, another on Wolsey, next ‘the Revolution’ (nothing ‘Glorious’ about it). It was history, but it was also more than that – it was a statement of ourselves.

The State We’re In

One could be forgiven for thinking that what is taught in our schools is a settled affair. We have had long enough to come to consensus, after all, and one might imagine there is key knowledge that one would expect to make the list of every school that bears the name Catholic.

In truth, curricula vary widely. Whilst those under local authority control follow the national curriculum (though with some variation alongside the centrally mandated), academies are free to set their own content.

In some ways, this level of freedom can serve schools well. It allows the teacher-scholar to shape a curriculum unencumbered by a system that, they might decide, leaves the best bits out. More, it allows flexibility, so that each school can respond to the needs of the parish and communities it serves.

But there are corresponding challenges, chief amongst them being to ensure consistency and quality in response to that freedom. The task of creating a curriculum is left to individual schools so what children learn is, to a great extent, determined by the individual who happens to be head of department at any particular time. Diocesan support is available for R.E., but beyond that the curriculum is fair game for any who might wish to impose their preferences, or in some cases their prejudices, upon it.

In other words, for the majority of our schools, forming the curriculum is a cottage industry – what is included, and what is not, is determined not by a commonly agreed account of the essential, but instead by the strengths and, sometimes, the limitations, of the leaders and middle-leaders tasked with creating them.

If we wish all children in our schools to experience the wholeness of the Faith, in all its creative and intellectual glory, then here the seeds are sown for us to fall short of that ambition.

Yet it would be unreasonable to expect each school to develop schemes of work imbued with the supernatural gaze, weaving different subjects into a coherent statement of the whole, each filled with the treasures of the Church. After all, simply holding a degree, or a teaching certificate, is not sufficient; degree courses do not always include the content one might need, and necessarily take on the character of the institution or training course through which they were formed. When so many of our teachers and leaders do not come through our Catholic schools, or universities, or training courses, thus do links go unseen, knowledge go undelivered, our intellectual and artistic heritage left to neglect.

In short, curriculum design is a specialist job. And for a Catholic curriculum, even more so.

Catholicity and Cultural Literacy

The concept of ‘cultural literacy’ has become a key part of the curriculum revolution currently taking place, under the supportive eye of the schools’ inspectorate. It is the idea that a good education provides awareness and understanding of the key references, the key signifiers, of the culture in which our children are being formed. By this account, there is a canon of knowledge that constitutes being educated, being culturally literate, that children ought to have as part of a good education.

Nonetheless, contemporary efforts to define the canon fall short: cultural literacy, and indeed the canon, is too often viewed through the secular mores of those who now write it, delivering a body of knowledge cleansed of the faith-filled lens within which so much of the content which comprises it was originally developed. This elevates the secular humanist paradigm to normative, subverting the very notion of cultural literacy, since, as I have written elsewhere, ‘if one starts from a position of neglecting the religious and theological backdrop of the culture in which so much of our cultural inheritance was formed, what is offered is but a shadow of artefacts, and ultimately historical and cultural illiteracy, a secular humanist wish-projection of what our shared history and identity should have been, rather than what it practically and really is.’

In contrast, a Catholic curriculum can unlock the treasures of our cultural inheritance, serving wider society by detailing then delivering a truly coherent canon, one best able to give an accurate account of who we are and how we got here. As such, if there is to be any lucid account of ‘cultural literacy’ then it must include a kind of ‘faith literacy’, and certainly scriptural literacy, as the key to unlock it. Only here do we find the intellectual infrastructure for an true understanding of Our Island Story, cognisant of its cadences and nuance, its motivations and myopias.

Secular Division

We have long ceased to imagine what a Catholic curriculum might look like. The introduction of the National Curriculum rendered doing so less necessary than it might previously have been, whilst appeal to ‘Gospel values’ and ‘Catholic ethos’ seemed enough to uphold the Catholicity of our schools without reference to the nuts and bolts of what children were taught. And so, oftentimes, the ‘Catholic bit’ is what you do in R.E., sometimes in an assembly, occasionally in Mass. The Catholic vision of education, indeed of formation, is all-encompassing, able to speak to all of what Eliot called the languages of human inquiry  – in practice we tacitly reject that vision, treating subjects as secular domains independent of the Catholic imperative: so long as they are careful not to contradict the Faith, or explicitly criticise it, so it passes.

In so doing, we present the Faith in an emaciated form, rather than the comprehensive human drama and experience it really is.

Must we accept these secularised accounts of knowledge, of learning, of ourselves? A Catholic philosophy of education cares what happens in the history classroom, the art classroom, the English classroom, every bit as much as the R.E. classroom. If we are to recover in our schools not only a sense of the Faith, but of ourselves, one suspects a newly emboldened Catholic curriculum will be the first steps toward it.

Forming the Canon

Over 1000 years ago a certain King Alfred decided that, for the good of his Kingdom and the good of souls, there were certain works it was “most necessary for men to know.” So he translated them; the intention was formation, not just generic development of a thing called ‘knowledge.’ It was believed that these texts, knowing these principles, would be to the benefit of all and singular. Alfred effectively created a canon, not to place limits on what people could know, but to ensure that what they knew at the very least included this.

Perhaps we are again in need of just such a canon. If we desire to preserve and bequeath the treasures of the Faith, perhaps we need first to collectively define what they are. Do we want all our children to know the Pietà? Byrd? Lepanto? And if not, why not?

This is not just a project for R.E. One hundred and sixty-five years after Newman sought to define a curriculum appropriate for a university, the time may have come for us to do the same for our schools. Should we succeed, we stake out Catholicity as at home in the totality of learning, indeed of wider culture and experience.

Thus the time is ripe for a revived Catholic curriculum – sequential, across the key stages, to deliver excellence not only in the detail of doctrine, but in the cultural, artistic, musical, liturgical and historical heritage of the Church. Nor is it merely a curriculum of the baptised – in the true spirit of the catholic, it would cherish the good, the true and the beautiful, wherever it is found. It need not be so restrictive as to exclude local innovation, but ought to enable all children, regardless of geographic or social context, to receive a minimum entitlement in their learning.

Such an ambitious endeavour is beyond the resource and capacity of most schools, and could only succeed as a collegial endeavour across sectors, with specialists, particularly in our universities, coming together and writing it. And it could integrate wider accountability demands, including exam specifications, in its creation. In so doing, we would keep pace with the curriculum revolution, and recover our own spot at its forefront, no longer passively accepting wider assumptions and trends but reclaiming our own.

It is said that knowledge is power, but it is a lot more than that. It is a gateway to a vision of who we are, as individuals and as a collective, the first steps of coming to know God and His creation. So we are compelled to take an interest in shaping what our children learn. As Miss Agnew knew at the turn of the twentieth century, what we teach is who we are – in the same spirit, we need to make sure that who we are defines what we teach.


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