Catholic ethos is ‘caught as much as it is taught’

Ethos cannot be measured like academic standards

While it used to be a defining characteristic of life, there is now often a void where faith would once have been. Having a religious faith can increasingly result in an individual being subjected to critical comment or even ridicule. In some circumstances, those who provide a faith based education are portrayed as having a divisive influence upon society. It could be suggested that within the wider society, Catholic schools are becoming appreciated more for the high standards their pupils achieve and less for the ethos that underpins their work. Perhaps this is because the school’s ethos can never be measured in the same way as academic standards. How can we apply conventional methods of assessment to measure something that is by nature immeasurable and unique?

School leaders can face very significant challenges trying to preserve and develop the school’s Catholic ethos in the midst of a raft of competing priorities. At times, it can seem that their efforts are being undermined by the pressures arising from an ever burgeoning workload, much of which can appear to be superfluous in terms of improving educational outcomes for the children.

A concern can develop that the school is being continually blown offcourse by one thing or another and thus is prevented from fully achieving its key objective – the holistic development of the pupils.

Core values

It is at these times that commitment to the core values of Catholic education is of greatest importance. One of the central themes in Gospel teaching is to recognise God in everyone we meet and in each situation in which we find ourselves.

Principals in Catholic schools have a clear and obvious commitment to these core values and, even though it may never be discussed openly, each is trying to guide his or her school towards the fulfilment of these. Through their own personal commitment to Catholic education, school leaders can exert their greatest influence on the community they serve.

Each leader can bring much more to the school than he/she may ever understand. The words of Henry Adams often spring to mind when reflecting on my own primary school days: “a teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops”. On thinking back over those days I also have an indelible image of our principal surrounded by children on the playground all of whom were very happy to be in his presence.

Furthermore, the same principal was still in post when I spent an extremely fulfilling teaching practice back at my old school. He was probably as unaware then as he is now of the influence he was exerting upon a young child and a fledgling teacher. It was his clear and unequivocal commitment to the Gospel values he espoused that had the most lasting impact upon me. Despite the many challenges of his role, each person he met was treated with respect and he showed a genuine interest in their continuing development. This was the key strength of his leadership and it ensured the school’s Catholic ethos was very much alive, a tangible component of the school’s work.


It is often said that the Catholic ethos is ‘caught as much as it is taught’ and, whilst I remember stating this at various interviews, it took years of service for me to come to a full understanding of what the phrase actually means. In essence, you cannot give what you haven’t got. If a personal commitment to the core values of Catholic education is missing, then the diminution of a school’s Catholic ethos may well follow.

Principals will work extremely hard to ensure they give good leadership and that their school is successful. Sometimes, despite their best endeavours to ensure everything runs smoothly, situations arise where it can be difficult to cling on to the core values. Perhaps when having to deal with unreasonable demands or unrealistic expectations which are beyond the school’s capacity to deliver. It can be challenging to recognise God in these situations or in that person. However, it is precisely in these situations that the school leader’s actions most need to reflect the guiding principles of Catholic education – for it is from these that they draw the strength to carry out their role with integrity ensuring all parties are treated equally and with respect. While there may not always be agreement on the outcomes reached, it is imperative that all involved feel the situation was dealt with fairly and without prejudice. This is critical because with the passage of time, children, staffand parents may well forget much of what you have said to them, but they will never forget how you treated them.

Light of faith

During times of challenge principals can often wonder why they took on the role in the first place. The response to that is simple. No-one was forced to take on the role of school leader. Those who did, took it on because they were responding to something deep within themselves – a call, a vocation. In responding to this call, those who chose to accept must never lose sight of the core values that led them to it in the first place.

So what strengthens a school’s Catholic ethos? Is it prayer throughout the day or meeting the parish priest frequently in the corridors of the school? Is it statues of saints in the entrance hall or the vibrant displays created through the Alive-O programme? Of course, but these are just the external signs of something more.

The distinctive ethos of our schools emanates from an engagement with and commitment to the very values that make us Catholic. All of us involved in Catholic education will know we have succeeded if the light of faith is passed on to each child. It is our enduring hope that as the children grow into adulthood, they will use this light as a beacon to illuminate all of the other aspects of their lives. This will be the greatest measure of success for a Catholic school and the ethos which underpins its work.

Dominic Donnelly is principal of St Joseph’s Primary and Nursery School, Carryduff, Belfast.

*This article was first published in Le Chéile – a Catholic school ethos journal.