The idea of ethos can sometimes be a thorny issue. In a world which often prides a utilitarian approach to education over a holistic vision of the human person, ethos can get reduced to 15 or 20 minutes of religious education every now and then. When one speaks of ethos to politicians, they will often see that merely as the freedom to teach about religion.
What is often lost in the conversation is the fact that when an institution or organisation is run according to a particular ethos, that ethos – or guiding philosophy – should inform everything.
A Catholic school, for example, should not only be a place where young people are introduced to friendship with Jesus or places of prayer, they should also be places of mercy, justice and forgiveness. The Gospel should inform every aspect of the life of the school community from visible symbols of faith to the way that staff and students are treated to fairness around employment and recruitment.
In reality, many people who work in Catholic schools struggle to articulate what exactly is distinctive about that ethos. What, for example, sets the school apart from other schools?
It’s not something that non-faith patrons such as Educate Together have any reticence about. They will readily articulate the ethical framework according to which their schools are run. At least in the Republic, we’ve been cosseted in the Catholic sector. In a culture that was predominately Catholic, we didn’t have to reflect very much on what it meant to be Catholic. But, now those shared cultural assumptions cannot be taken for granted.
One part of this island where this has been true for a very long time is the North, where Catholic schools have had to fight their corner for decades. This has resulted in a lively discussion within the Catholic educational community about ethos. One such important contribution has been the journal Le Chéile published by St Mary’s University College, Belfast (see pages 16 and 17).
Now in its 30th edition, the journal grapples with practical issues around ethos and offers a lifeline to teachers, school managers and others who are concerned about the issue.
While the journal predominately circulates North of the border at the moment, the entire Church and faith-based schools’ community in Ireland would benefit from a wider ventilation of the ideas in the journal. It is a thoughtful and proactive approach to the challenges and opportunities around maintaining and strengthening ethos.
There is an enormous well of resources in back issues of the journal available online at https://www.stmarys-belfast.ac.uk/mission/lecheile.asp – I think Le Chéile has a vital contribution to make in the conversation around education on this island and farther afield.
Michael Kelly is co-author of a new book with Austen Ivereigh How to Defend the Faith – Without Raising Your Voice – it is available from Columba Books.