In the first of three articles on the future of Catholic schools, Oxford academic James Arthur questions whether such establishments live up to their claims of a 'special ethos'
THE thought of the home and school in a mutually supportive relationship is a very attractive idea to parents. It is, perhaps, why many Catholic schools remain popular with those who maintain only a nominal connection with the Church. For such parents the distinguishing and characteristic marks of Catholic schools are often seen as their emphasis on strong pastoral care and traditional teaching methods. However, this view is limited since ,se cannot assume that all parents will understand or share the basis and vision of what a Catholic eduction entails. The danger being, that we may well provide a secular education with a little Christianity added here and there which must inevitably lead to superficiality. It is necessary, therefore, to make quite clear what the Catholic school sets out to do in a constructive and sustained fashion.
It is no easy matter to discover the existence of a well-articulated and specifically Christian approach to education. Moreover, many contemporary educationalists of considerable influence implicitly exclude Christianity from any general consideration of the aims and purpose of education. This can be seen in modern expositions of educational thou ht which are
explicitly anti-religious. Set against these claims the Catholic Church, from its inception, accepted the world as a proper field for spiritual growth and included within this a necessary concern for education.
Consequently, the Church has become committed in principle as well as in practice to a variety of educational efforts, and Catholic schools are still an important part of the Church's life.
In brief, the traditional and first aim of Catholic education concerns man's desire for eternal life while the second the essentials or means employed to bring about this salvation.
It could be argued that no one can form any idea of education until they first form an idea of the meaning and purpose of life. Since education is so permeated with values, the Church must have its own unique and distinctive contribution to make. Therefore, the provision of Catholic schools should assist the Church in giving emphasis to things of the spirit and in these schools it follows that Christian values should be fostered and strengthened. This does not entail a closed community, anxious about its identity and self-preservation; for the Church also engages in education for the betterment of man — the promotion of human values and the improvement of the quality of life are all part of the Christian message. Catholic schools have a duty to encourage excellence, the pursuit of learning and the care of individuals.
The educated Catholic must be one who has made a free and reflective commitment to Christ in the Church. Yet to secular educationalists, beliefs and values are subjective since their "truth" cannot be established. While the Church claims the right to operate schools she does so within a secular culture which is, more often than not, antagonistic to these claims. The Church does acknowledge that she promotes one particular kind of religious faith but she does so because Christian education has its foundation in Christ. Consequently, it must provide for the harmonious development of all the powers of the child while at the same time enabling him or her to freely make a Christian commitment.
It really is lamentable that the Church has such an insignificant influence upon the really important educational issues which occupy our attention at the present time. Christianity, in general, has a peripheral and hesitant place in educational thought with its contribution being hard to detect. Few educational journals consider the Christian perspective in education. Nevertheless, two fundamentals points emerge from the Christian teaching on education which could guide us in producing an education which is thoroughly Christian.
Firstly, the school is supplementary to the family since it exists to be a help and adjunct to what the family itself is required to do. Any school which attempts to assume full responsibility for the training of children will compete with the family. In addition, it follows that the schools' goals and curriculum will be determined by what is needed to supplement parental teaching. There must therefore be some form of unity of attitudes and values between the school and home. This is why the late ACF Beales said that Catholic education only has meaning in the context of the believing parent sending the believing child to be taught by the believing teacher. Ultimately, Christian education can only have justification in faith which is an enterprise of the Church and her members.
Of course, there arc enormous and complex problems with this argument and it is clear that Catholic schools cannot assume ideal starting conditions. However, if we are to have Catholic schools we should try to ensure that they are Christian in all aspects. Consequently, the second point which flows from Catholic teaching on education is that the school must provide the experience in which the religious and spiritual dimensions of education can be applied to every circumstance of the child's life.
This precludes any divorce between formal religious education and the rest of the curriculum. It is not sufficient for the Catholic school simply to provide separate activities in the form of Masses, assemblies, and retreats. Whilst these activities are important their separation treats the idea of a distinctive Christian curriculum as a secondary consideration when it is the primary issue within a Catholic school.
Among the most pressing concerns faced by many Christian teachers is the lack of a specificially Christian educational theory and practice. There is a need to supply a Christian critique of modern educational approaches
otherwise we will continue to accept the often vague and unformulated thoughts of, society at large. Often, a fair standard of academic attainment is accepted as a substitute for the continuing search for genuine Christian education. Many of our schools duplicate the structures and methods found elsewhere and feel that any radical Christian alternative would be too different from that which is fashionable in contemporary education circles.
In any event the provisions of the 1988 Education Reform Act make it much more difficult for Catholic schools to develop a Christian approach to the curriculum. Removing items which are objectionable from what is taught does not make what is left necessarily suitable for a Christian education. It is important that the Catholic school does not merely copy whatever is in vogue or being taught elsewhere — it needs positive Christian educational reasons for what it chooses to teach.
Today, much of what educational theory has to offer ignores the role of parents whilst the State continues to increase its control over an ever increasing
number of aspects of school life. Church schools could be in danger of being administered out of existence by legislation which reduces their ability to concentrate on providing a Christian education.
The task of the Church must be to develop its own distincitive contribution to education. That requires that we subject currently accepted educational practice to the test. Education can occur within a community of faith and so Christian education is about personal growth in which the individual also develops his or her potential. It includes reason and the promotion of independence of mind, it is little else than the unfolding of the human personality in accordance with God's plan for man's life in the world and for man's ultimate destiny with God.
Nevertheless, whilst the Church may be clear about the role of Christian education it has not thought it obligatory to develop detailed educational principles. The lack of such development could cost her dear in the long-term. Indeed, Catholic schools have reached a critical point in their history. What they offer is often valued at large, but how it this education? different from secular education. Quite clearly many parents and teachers fail to make a Christian assessment of the type of education they wish to be part of. How far the national system has become incompatible with Christian educational principles is an urgent question for policymakers. Expectations of parents, pupil intakes, and the formal structures within schools ie their policies, procedures, curriculum and staffing, are vital areas of concern within the Catholic ideal of education.
Recent statements from Rome on Catholic education have repeated the call to integrate secular and revealed knowledge into a coordinated programme. Unfortunately, it is difficult to see clear and succinct policy objectives emerging and one reason could be that the laity has changed.
No longer do they appear to hold specific and recognisably similar beliefs and values. The Catholic community contains the full range of views on educational provision and there are even some major differences in the aims between Catholic schools. If our first priority is to maintain the Catholicity of our schools we also have to ask ourselves whether we are agreed on the nature of this "Catholicity",