Future of Catholic Schools

Whilst Ofsted prepares to roll out its new inspection framework, Diocesan inspectorates are still in the early stages of reacting to these changes; they will no doubt roll out their own adaptations, but very much in the slow lane. As things stand, their remit covers the teaching and assessment of RE, the quality of worship at the school and an analysis of its ‘Catholic life’. Past experience suggests much time spent looking at data, planning and assessment, in addition to the observation of lessons, mirroring the current Ofsted framework which tries to root all findings in clear evidence. The process will be thorough and consistent, and will seek to assist the school with its future development in RE.

All well and good?

Maybe, but I have become increasingly convinced over many months that Catholic schools, and maybe all faith schools, need a new direction in responding to a ‘perfect storm’ of challenges facing state education in England.

Let us briefly analyse these challenges. The first, and quite possibly the most daunting, is responding to a ‘productivity’ model of education countenanced by successive governments, both Labour and Tory, which has taken root in England particularly. In this model, success is measured largely by examination performance, and, when too many pupils pass these exams, we then make them harder. Target-setting and performance management drive forward progress. The position of England in the PISA tables becomes the measurable outcome as a country. Fair enough, one might say. Is not education all about passing exams and aspiring to more challenging targets? To an extent, yes, but there is little compelling evidence that the current system is providing employers with young people who have the relevant skills, knowledge or character required for the modern workplace.

More incontrovertible are some of the consequences of this system, which sets schools against each other in competition. We have teachers leaving in droves, fewer candidates for leadership positions (this is especially true in faith schools), a funding crisis, a reduction in social mobility, a huge increase of pupils with mental health problems, and uncertainty regarding the way schools are governed. Research by the Centre for High Performance, published in the Harvard Business highlighted the rewards offered to secondary school leaders who make short-term significant improvements in examination results. They also found the same leaders excluded a quarter of final-year students, fired staff and largely ignored their communities.  Results came above all else. At the same time, individual schools and multi-academy chains were condoning huge pay increases to these same leaders at considerable cost to the taxpayer.

In this admittedly rather perplexing climate, the Catholic Church appears to be a little like the rabbit caught in the headlight. With the rekindling of the debate about the actual existence of faith schools, its caution in offering an alternative is understandable.

But should it be nervous about the future of its schools? On the contrary, I believe it has an exciting narrative to tell. There are three key themes that Catholic schools can promote, themes which should resonate noisily in such tempestuous times: an inclusive ethos, service of the whole community, and an ethical curriculum.

Firstly, ethos. This mythical Catholic ‘ethos’ is one of the main reasons so many parents choose a Catholic education for their children. But what does it actually mean?  My view is that this ethos is well defined by Professor John Sullivan, a leading Catholic writer on education: both ‘distinctive and inclusive’. It offers a strong identity to pupils within a familial hierarchy, but also is overtly inclusive, to all faiths, colours and educational needs. Discipline is good, teachers are generous with their time and commitment (they view their job more as a vocation) and there is an unwritten contract to engage benevolently with the community.  A high proportion of Catholic schools already serve communities in areas of socio-economic deprivation.

Central to the Catholic ethos is the notion of inclusion. Here, faith schools can play a role in assisting the state with the rising number of children with special educational needs, and an equally worrying number of pupils (and families) with mental health problems. This inclusive ethos, set within England’s system of academy trusts, can permeate across groups of schools where a long-term structure is in place for inclusion. This has to be better than the current situation where, with the downfall of local authority services, vulnerable children are passed around from school to school leading to almost certain exclusion and a future astronomical cost to the taxpayer. Working alongside St Vincent’s School for the Blind in Liverpool, I have also seen how ‘reverse inclusion’ can provide a simple yet effective way forward: the special and mainstream sectors uniting to bring mainstream pupils into special schools where the curriculum goals are mutually beneficial.

This is not to say that faith schools have a monopoly on inclusive excellence, more that they make it their ‘raison d’etre’, their core value. However, leaders of faith schools will need to be brave when facing the inevitable drop in league table position as more pupils with multiple problems populate the school.

This embracing of inclusion leads to my next point – a more contentious one. This is  that a faith school serves not simply its own faith community but the entire community in which the school sits. It does not just ‘look after the Catholics’, just as the Islamic school should not just ‘look after the Muslims’. This gives practical voice to the concept of the ‘common good’. Dating back to Aristotle and Plato, the idea of the ‘common good’ in Catholic terms knits together social responsibility with individual fulfilment. A primary school pupil might characterise it as, ‘I become happier when I help other people.’ With current communities fragmented and fearful, faith schools may need to serve all constituents, not simply those of similar religious belief. I might stress that there is no wish to proselytise or evangelise here, simply a values-driven approach to promoting the common good.

There is an example in my work that I think exemplifies this well. A series of cuts have led to the closure of a large majority of Sure Start Children’s Centres up and down the county. To Liverpool’s credit, most still remain but the majority have been merged and/or their remit reduced. Rather than see the Anfield Children’s Centre closed, my forward-thinking governors have worked alongside the Archdiocese in coming to an agreement. The school will take on some of the financial liabilities for the Children’s Centre in an effort to maintain its full staffing levels, thus preserving the full range of services it provides. This is a perfect example of how a faith school can lead and govern a non-denominational educational setting for the benefit of its whole community.

Crucially, the Catholic ethos is indistinguishable across the settings, even though there is no overt faith teaching or spiritual guidance within the centre. Staff in the centre are respectful about some of the church’s teachings e.g. on contraception and this advisory support is signposted elsewhere. In talking to the staff at the Centre, they are unanimously attracted to the idea of sharing the school’s ethos and values despite the fact that they are not Catholics themselves. Distinctive yet inclusive.

Why stop there? The traditional parish organisation built around the church is still successful in a handful of churches, but has almost shuddered to a halt in many others, especially those in more challenging and transitory communities. In more halcyon days, parishes were places for more than churchgoing; they were the focus of your social life, where people assisted each other with social problems, where you met your future spouse, and where your children were to gain their values and outlook on life. A range of socially motivated groups thrived, assisting the old, the poor, the homeless, the addicted, the vulnerable. Some still do now, for example the work done in many parishes to assist Syrian refugees and other immigrant groups.

But with a dramatic fall in church attendance over the past twenty years, parishes (like Children’s Centres ironically) will also have to merge and as they do, they will lose their individual identity. Surely, the faith school is best placed now to take on some of these responsibilities, working alongside the church and other community groups. This need not compromise either the specific faith teaching in school, or the focus on national examinations. Nevertheless, working in tandem with state organisations such as Children’s Centres and with the charitable sector, the idea of the parish for all can be revived.

This is not an easy option. For school staff to become surrogate social workers and community leaders is asking a lot, but ask any headteacher of a Catholic school in an area of socio-economic deprivation and they will say that, unofficially, they’re doing this already.

The journey for the future of a faith school doesn’t end there and brings me to my third point.

What about the curriculum itself? What kind of young people do we want for our society when they leave school?

I believe we should be championing the synergy of Catholic social teaching with the government’s perennial worries – radicalisation, child sexual exploitation, social mobility and the ubiquitous ‘British Values’. Here, a renewed focus on the ‘common good’ can sit hand in hand with government policy.

This ethical curriculum can cover far more than the current tepid fare offered by some faith syllabuses. It should go deeper into our relationship with our community through service learning projects. For example, we now run a ‘Learning to Serve’ element to our curriculum, where pupils and residents learn alongside each other for the wider benefit of the community. It seeks to provide a bulwark against the growing individualism of the age.

This curriculum should also include more on how we task our pupils to look after their environment, and how science and technology can assist this. It should extend laudable efforts to modernise sex education, and take a lead on the perils of social media, the dangers of exploitation and the growing obsession with body image. With a busy Children’s Centre or parish centre thriving alongside the school, much of this work should be done as a family with early trusting relationships dispelling that awkward paternalism which has at times dogged the church’s social leadership. An ethical curriculum should actively ensure children have the chance to experience the beauty of music-making, the power of art and the thrill of live performance – secular spiritualism if you like. It should also promote a global perspective. Wherever you stand on Brexit, both remainers and leavers believe strongly in the need to connect to a wider world which can assist our future well-being.

The current Archbishop of Liverpool, Malcolm McMahon, who is also the Chairman of the Catholic Education Service, was asked back in 2016 – in a Guardian interview – about the future for Catholic schools. The subsequent article framed the debate around admissions quotas, grammar schools and sex education. These issues, as well as the whole scale academisation of schools in England, appear to dominate thinking for Catholic policymakers, and the politicians who hold them to account.

Instead, it is a time for a fresh and bold change in emphasis. Catholic schools have been an understated success for this country’s state education system for over a century. They can now pioneer an optimistic future for communities where hope is neutered by the bewildering changes closing in on them. David Marquand, writing in the New Statesman in July this year, talks of ‘a demeaned civic culture’ amongst other maladies, and this is certainly how it feels to me in inner-city Liverpool. What better future for faith schools than one which promotes not just the interests of Catholic families but extends its influence to knit together a revived civic culture.


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