Defending and nurturing Catholic education

Defending and nurturing Catholic education
Your Faith in Our Schools
Chai Brady learns about the unique approach of true Catholic schooling

The power of Cat-holic education is the person-centred approach of teachers who “nurture” pupils and truly get to know them over time, according to the incoming chair of the Catholic Principals Association (CPA) at their conference in Belfast at the beginning of this month.

Principal Kieran O’Neill of St Brigid’s Primary School in Ballymoney, Co. Antrim said he is still in contact with the first teacher he met in the Catholic school he attended, and the profound affect it had on his growth.

“We’re investing in people year on year and caring enough to make a difference over time,” he told a room filled with 170 Catholic principals, “in terms of Catholic education I’ve been involved in it in terms of being a pupil, a teacher – I’m still a teacher – and a leader within Catholic education for 44 years now.”

“Going forward despite all the difficulties and all the pressures, I feel that is our great responsibility as leaders to protect everything that’s precious about Catholic education.”

Despite the fact many parents of children attending Catholic schools are not practicing, they’re still choosing Catholic education, he continued, saying: “Our Catholic schools must be, and have to be, a way for those families and those parents to discover and rediscover that faith element within their family lives and that’s what we’re working on day in day out.”

It can be easy to become distracted and stressed by the “incessant demands of school and society”, he added, listing finance, budget, bureaucracy, human resources, enrolment, time, health and safety, countless initiatives, systemic uncertainty and political instability as being key factors, but for this reason “the CPA must remain strong”.

“We can’t be silent, we can’t be restricted, we must continue to force our arguments forward for Catholic education.”


Prof. Francis Campbell, a diplomat and academic who is the Vice-Chancellor of St Mary’s University in Twickenham, London, gave the afternoon address and focused on the need for leaders in Catholic schools not to be afraid to be different, or go against the grain despite outside pressures.

He challenged principals: “Do not be complacent” about maintaining a Catholic ethos, as it can lead to it being overshadowed by other ideologies or philosophies.

St Mary’s University is a place that lives its Catholic identity despite the challenges it has faced, he said, challenging the principals that their schools were “at risk of complacency” and that invariably he has heard a description of Catholic schools as if they were a problem – something he does not recognise.

If you banish religion to the margins often you are going to create a vacuum…”

During a Q&A session, Prof. Campbell was asked how schools in the North can continue delivering this ethos in an increasingly secular society. He said: “There is a myth that somehow in order to accommodate everyone you have to go to the lowest common denominator, which means that faith is one of those things you have to leave outside of the public square.

“It’s the biggest myth around because it actually says you must leave religion out but you actually take secularism in, which is as creedal and religious as any branch of Christianity. So in essence you go back to an established form of religious belief.”

Prof. Campbell argued that pluralism is what a democratic society should ask for as it doesn’t banish difference, as once religion is taken out of the equation in society, other differences can be struck out just as easily.

“I think you have to be alive to those that will try to put forward a view of society that will say that the only viable platform or foundation is one in which religion needs to be banished to the margins. That needs to be called out,” he said.

“Because if you banish religion to the margins often you are going to create a vacuum and into that vacuum steps something else which in the basis of historic analysis is not always good.

“So it’s how the religions work together, how ecumenism works, how interfaith dialogue works, but for me and what I’ve seen both as a diplomat and as a student, I’ve seen religion work more as a powerful force of integration than as a barrier.”

Another principal enquired about parents who have no faith or do not practice sending their children to Catholic schools and how not to be complacent.

“Some of the people I have at the university that are supporters of the Catholic ethos are actually atheist,” he answered.


“They see us as counter-cultural, see us doing what we say we do on the tin, and they see us trying to be distinctive and we’re not motivated by profit. We can create pathways which, in a sense we’re ambassadorial for our own culture, we’re ambassadorial for people of different faiths.”

He continued saying that nobody should be excluded and they strive in his university to build a group of people that have a shared concept “and people can tap in on various levels”.

“The most base level it’s the community, but when I ask people then, why do you think we do this? Our starting point for this is Faith,” Prof Campbell said.

“When you start pulling things away you’re pulling away support walls and then you end up being just like anyone else.”

He also issued a warning that, from his time on Downing Street: “If you were too accepting, you were taken for granted.”

Everybody in this room has been blessed, wonderful things have happened to you”

Religious communities and religious groups that sometimes were a little bit too polite, he said, didn’t get the attention that the others got – the ones who were prepared to be a little more challenging, who were prepared to take people on with a stronger intellectual argument.

“I think if I had a recommendation for a forum like this would be active rebuttal, the moment somebody is calling something out about Catholic education that’s completely untrue, rebut it,” he said.

Although maintaining ethos was an important theme of the CPA’s conference, there was also a huge chunk of the morning dedicated to the topic of mental health for principals.

Psychologist Shane Martin of Moodwatchers discussed health and well-being in a humorous address in two separate slots in the morning. He walked principals through several steps to living well, and focusing on celebrating the positives and the need to “bask in the glory” of the good things.

Mr Martin said: “Everybody in this room has been blessed, wonderful things have happened to you, we’re just much better at remembering the bad things that happen, they happen as well.”

“There’s things right about your team, things right about your school and its building, there are things right about the staff member that’s annoying you – there are some things right about parents,” he quipped.

“Sometimes you might think the more you do, the more you’re asked to do, maybe it is a bit of that, you wouldn’t want to be waiting for thanks in your job? You’d burn out very quickly if you were waiting to be thanked, it’s lovely when it comes. But sometimes you have to dig deep.”

He recommended that when principals are in “bad form” they make a list of all the things that went well. Mr Martin listed several health and wellbeing tips and referred to his Moodwatchers website for more resources.

The CPA, which has existed for almost a decade, represents the views of over 200 schools throughout the North of Ireland and is made up of serving principals. It continues to work to promote and develop the Catholic ethos in all of their schools and to foster interdependence and solidarity between them.

I think it’s very important to be recognised as principals which can be a very lonely position”

It campaigns on issues around social and educational inequality and seeks to forge links with fellow educationalists from all parts of the community in supporting our work.

The community building aspect was touched on by CPA committee member and principal of Mercy College Belfast Martin Moreland, who said there is a “huge recognition of the importance of mental health and wellbeing, not just in the young people that we’re there to serve.

“But I think it’s very important to be recognised as principals which can be a very lonely position. It’s very important we all do things together even if it’s only once a year,” Mr Moreland said.

“We create those relationships, those networks where we can chat, talk and trust each other, to share whatever challenges we may be facing and celebrate the good going on in Catholic education.”