‘Ethos matters’ in a changing sector

NI Catholic schools await sweeping changes

What issues face Catholic education in the Republic this year are surely compounded in the North by the fact that the region currently finds itself in a form of ‘interrupted transition’ thanks to  political delays around a planned transformation of the entire schools sector.

The long-anticipated but frequently delayed Education and Skills Authority (ESA), the single and centralised body set to replace Northern Ireland’s five Education and Library Boards (and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools – CCMS) was once again delayed as 2013 closed, meaning a further period of uncertainty as issues are ironed out within the Assembly.

Having previously accepted assurances as to ethos and control of teaching appointments (together with reserved places for four Catholic and four Protestant representatives on the ESA board), those in the Catholic sector now find themselves at an impasse in terms of their own planning as the wait for ESA drags on.

“Our concern now is that something is put in place,” Bishop Donal McKeown said, adding that “even a revitalising of the CCMS and library boards” would serve to offer a measure of certainty. On this, Bishop McKeown said that the CCMS had been “hollowed out” during the anticipated move towards its ESA replacement.

Until then, it should be pointed out, the CCMS continues to work hard on behalf of Catholic schools and, in response to queries from The Irish Catholic, identified “the maintenance and improvement in standards, academic selection, and area planning” as just some of the issues it continues to focus on for the best of its schools.

“We remain committed to ensuring the continuance of a strong, viable, sustainable and high quality network of Catholic schools across the country,” a spokesman for the body said.

In light of this, it comes as no surprise when Bishop McKeown states that one of the most pressing challenges of 2014 “is to get politicians to let us know what the legal structures are so we can, in response, put our own in place towards promoting our ethos”.

This concern, the bishop continues, stems directly from the recognition – despite some opposing voices – that “ethos matters” and goes in large part towards providing the “high quality of education” identified with Catholic schools. In this, Bishop McKeown points to a number of schools in Belfast which are currently over-subscribed, and not just by Catholic applicants.

This latter element points to a further, ‘internal’ challenge for 2014 and beyond.

As Catholic schools continue to be truly inclusive in reflection of modern times and demographics, there is the issue, Bishop McKeown says of “how to keep Catholic schools Catholic” amid societal changes.

This, he explains, is a recognition that those emerging as future leaders of Catholic schools may not “intuitively know” the Catholic ethos as deeply as past generations, placing an impetus on all in the sector to find ways to “develop leadership” for the next generation.

“Renewal of the Faith,” he says, “will not just come from structures.”