Challenges for Catholic education in 2014
“Catholic schools, which always strive to join their work of education with the explicit proclamation of the Gospel, are a most valuable resource for the evangelisation of culture, even in those countries and cities where hostile situations challenge us to great creativity in our search for suitable methods.”
Pope Francis, in addressing education in his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, did not name specific countries in his nod to ‘hostile countries’ wherein Catholic schools strive to operate fully and freely, but the phraseology must surely have struck a chord with Catholic stakeholders in Ireland who have seen the educational landscape shift in a few short years.
While demographic challenges continue to be met on a daily basis by schools accepting children from various migrant populations, Catholic schools also continue to fend off attempts from various quarters for radical shifts, for example in terms of ethos and patronage.
Faith and reason
These latter challenges are the stuff of regular media headlines over stories on education in Ireland in recent years and, as Catholic Schools week got underway on January 26, were of primary concern for Fr Michael Drumm, chair of the Catholic Schools Partnership (CSP), who, in his introduction to the week of celebration noted: “There is a temptation in contemporary Irish discourse to dismiss religious belief as inherently irrational, divisive and anti-intellectual. This runs completely contrary to the Catholic education tradition which is built which is built on a respect for faith and reason.”
Rather than giving way to any negativity as the week of celebration began, however, Fr Drumm added that, despite all, Catholic schools remain “popular and respected throughout the world”.
Cutting past ongoing challenges – while not ignoring them – there is every reason to view Fr Drumm’s comments on worldwide Catholic education as incisive and correct at the local level.
In his own address as he launched Catholic Schools Week in Dublin on January 2, Bishop Denis Nulty of the Diocese of Kildare & Leighlin stressed that, rather than witnessing an overriding desire for a change in patronage, there is what he called “a tremendous hunger” for Catholic education in Ireland.
“The one thing that we have found in consultation with parents is that the vast majority have still a tremendous hunger for Catholic education and Catholic schools,” he said.
Indeed, since launching the consultation on patronage in 2011, the Department of Education must surely feel underwhelmed by the low response levels from parents thus far recorded.
(This may well bear out the CSP finding of 2011, arising from its own detailed research, that “patronage is not a word widely known by parents; ethos and the teaching of religious education are identified as the defining elements of the Church’s involvement in primary education. This must also be set against the consensus across all those surveyed that “the Catholic school has unique identifiable characteristics and is considered valid and valued in modern Ireland”.)
Reason indeed to celebrate Catholic schooling but at the same time as we move further into 2014, no cause to rest on laurels.
Msgr Jim Cassin, executive secretary of the Irish bishops’ Education Commission identifies a number of challenges facing Catholic education this year and beyond.
Acknowledging that “the whole secular agenda makes Catholic education more difficult”, Msgr Cassin nevertheless insists that “being negative about the ‘outside world’ is not the answer”.
“Where there is an acknowledgement of the situation, that’s good,” he says, “because it allows us to focus on what it means to be a Catholic school. We must be more reflective on that.”
In this, he leads toward one enduring challenge, that of the apparent disconnect between pupils departing secondary level with its Catholic ethos, and entering third level, where there is a less appreciable emphasis. “We must find ways of supporting catechesis after secondary,” he insists, arguing for a ‘continuum’ of the “great things” being done in Catholic education towards that vision of the well-rounded individual, and he cites “immersion projects and justice projects, involving students going overseas to new communities for invaluable experiences”.
Ferdia Kelly, general secretary of the Association of Management of Catholic Secondary Schools concurs with the call to reflection, stating that if the Catholic education sector seeks challenges for 2014, it should “look within”.
“We should take time to consider what we stand for,” he says. “What is unique about Catholic education?”
In prompting such questions, Mr Kelly is mindful of that warned about by Fr Drumm, of the misconceptions around the ‘Catholic school’.
“It’s not about being elite,” he says, “but recognising what is special for us in Catholic education. And we must not be afraid to articulate that to the broader community. If we don’t do that, we are Catholic schools in name only and we allow others to ‘brand’ us.”
One does not have to look far for such ‘branding’ in recent years, with accusations ranging from ‘indoctrination’ to ‘education apartheid’ levelled at Catholic schooling.
Mr Kelly is undaunted by the evaluations of others, stating that “we have to remember we have a lot to celebrate. That’s the value of Catholic Schools Week, providing an opportunity to celebrate that.”
If he could pose his own challenge for 2014, he says it would be to “make Catholic Schools Week every week of the year towards that engagement with what we stand for”.
In place of that, Mr Kelly is happy to turn again to the words of Pope Francis, pointing out that the Pontiff “talks of living life to the full of human existence. Hopefully that’s what we’ll do all through 2014.”
Also engaging heavily with Evangelii Gaudium is Sean Goan, faith development officer with the Le Chéile post-primary schools trust who insists that the document is itself “one of the challenges for 2014 as Pope Francis is saying so much of relevance to schools – how we approach teaching and learning, and not just in Religious Education”. Mr Goan admits to being “energised by Evangelii Gaudium”.
Other challenges for Le Chéile appear more clear-cut as the body has just completed a series of regional meetings with groups and individuals with links to the post-primary Catholic school sector.
Numerous concerns were vocalised and noted, Mr Goan explains, such as funding issues and schools working to remain true to their founding vision as Catholic institutions. Such was the value of the exercise in identifying issues that there is hope that the series will grow and ultimately encompass all Catholic secondary schools.
Acknowledging that “we are living with a lot of change”, Mr Goan points out that this reality is the basis for Le Chéile’s theme of its annual conference this in Athlone this February 7: ‘To Live is to Change’.
At the same time, in keeping with the long tradition earlier expounded by Msgr Cassin, Mr Goan fully recognises the balance between challenges to be met and the ethos to be maintained.
“We’re clear in the values we work from,” he states. “A Catholic school operates from a vision of the human person, so the whole person is of importance.”
Further into 2014, there is little doubt that fresh debates around this perspective, and indeed to other areas of Catholic education will be thrown up. Mr Goan, however, remains confident the sector will rise to the challenges.
“We can take our lead from Evangelii Gaudium and be positive.”