A Catholic model of teaching

Most people do not know what a Catholic ethos is

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn’s recent tour of the teacher’s union conferences was, if nothing else, entertainingly silly.

His claim that the Catholic Church had provided no “clearly demonstrated examples” of “genuinely inclusive schools” vied for the title of ‘Most Absurd’ with his weird reference to teaching as a “highly feminised profession” – made in the context of discussing his plans to make higher maths compulsory for those hoping to be secondary teachers. But it took two further events to make me draw a connection between the two.

The first happened in the course of a conversation with a friend in which we were both engaged in eye-rolling at Quinn’s maths comments (for the record, 47% of students who took honours maths at Leaving Cert level last year were girls, as well as more than 50% at Junior Cert level).

At a certain point, my friend (who, unlike homeschooled me, has been through the Irish second-level education system) shrugged and said “the higher maths course is rubbish anyway”.

Then Michael Kelly, the editor of this newspaper (and an articulate and staunch advocate for Catholic schools) commented on Newstalk’s Moncrieff programme: “There’s no Catholic way,” he said, “to teach mathematics.”

Optional extra

That’s when it hit me. Those of us who believe in Catholic schools talk about protecting an ethos that, ideally, should permeate the school. When Ruairí Quinn talks about religious education as an optional extra, it rankles not because we think students shouldn’t be able to opt out of formal religious instruction (in many cases, they already can), but because there ought to be something distinctly Catholic about the whole school.

But is that aspiration a reality in Irish Catholic schools, both primary and secondary?

I’m not talking here about schools that are Catholic in name only, schools that have relegated their ethos to Latin mottoes and end-of-year speeches. I’m talking about the good schools – secondary schools where RE teachers do their very best to present the intellectual and spiritual depth of Catholic tradition, where effort and care are put into Masses and religious ceremonies. Primary schools where sacramental preparation tries to communicate reverence and awe instead of ‘be nice to each other’ banalities. The kind of school that we hope will be more common as the number of Catholic schools decreases.

But imagine turning Michael Kelly’s statement into a question and putting it to most people who have been through Catholic education. Were you taught maths – or English, or history, or languages – in a Catholic way? You’d be lucky to get a single yes.

I’ve been taught maths by two people – my father, and my current maths teacher, one Neil McCarthy. Both of them firmly believe that to be good at maths is to develop an affection for numbers. So they make sure their students know the whys of things, not merely the hows; they almost never encourage a student to memorise a formula that they don’t understand; they explain the mathematical ratios and relationships that are found all over our universe – the strange synchronicities that humans didn’t invent, but discovered.

In a spirit of friendly debate, I’d like to disagree with my boss – I think that there is a Catholic way to teach maths, and indeed to educate. In short, it’s about inspiring wonder at creation.

Now, you might say that this isn’t particularly Catholic; it’s just good teaching. And it is good teaching – but a very particular vision of it, and not by any means a universally shared one.


Go read a few of Ruairi Quinn’s speeches. For that matter, look at what Barack Obama, and indeed most other Western leaders, have to say about education. The same words and phrases keep cropping up: “competition”, “jobs”, “smart economy”. It’s education wholly as a means to an end. More people should do maths and science, not because they’re interesting, but because Ireland Inc. needs more STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) graduates.

But Catholic schools have almost entirely emulated the world’s model of exam-focused, results-oriented, conveyor-belt education.

As blogger Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry puts it: “Catholic parents killed Catholic education when they demanded that it become a carbon copy of secular education, except with slightly better odds of getting your kids into a good college, which, as far as I can tell, is what 99.9% of Catholic schools are (and when the Church let it happen).”

Catholic schools should absolutely steal the best educational ideas out there – but they should be radically challenging the culture about what constitutes “best”.

This won’t make them less inclusive. A truly Catholic model of education, one based on inspiring wonder at the world and helping children discern their vocation, will be a better system for everyone.

For the State’s part, giving schools more latitude to depart from the national curriculum would be a genuinely visionary reform.

Ruairí Quinn doesn’t really understand the meaning of ‘Catholic ethos’. But nor do most Catholic parents.