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Seeking the ‘More’ in Catholic Schools

Updated: May 14, 2019

Catholic Schools are Scottish Schools

It is not just admirable, it is truly astonishing how teachers and staff are so effective in schools across the country. Often, they are on the frontline in providing services of all sorts: education, encouraging routine and structure, before and after school events, access to health and nurturing services – and not just for the children in their care. Teachers are often among the first to notice important changes in children’s family circumstances and to act. It has been part of the policy of the current Scottish Government to see school buildings as providing community hubs, and it is head teachers and staff in our schools who often lead these community campuses.

While it can be said that teachers throughout the years have always been more than just educators in the narrower sense of imparting information or helping young people to develop certain skills, it is more evident than ever that teachers are expected to be educationalists, counsellors, nurses, social workers- and mind readers! Thankfully, most parents and families appreciate this but the pressure on teaching staff should never be underestimated.

I am talking here, of course, about all schools. We rightly ask what is distinctive about Catholic schools in the education sector, forgetting that they have much in common with all other schools in Scotland: they educate, they care for, they foster. Charity and moral values are not the sole preserve of Catholic schools. All schools are increasingly involved in tackling the fall-out from societal and familial problems, as well as celebrating individual achievement and community growth.

Another Front

However, Catholic schools are often on another frontline: the nurturing of faith. We used to talk a lot about the partnership between home, parish and school. The fact is that not only do Catholic children see less of the inside of a church these days, and probably do not pray with their families as much as they did in the past, Catholic schools are increasingly educating children from families of all faiths and none. Indeed, in some Catholic schools most children are not Catholic. This reflects an open policy. We acknowledge and give thanks for the decision on the part of parents in sending their children to Catholic schools because they share our values and outlook: what is often referred to as the ‘Catholic ethos’.

Catholic Ethos?

What is the Catholic ethos? Is it a sort of nurturing couthiness? A kind, genteel atmosphere offering shelter from the harsh realities of the world? Certainly, in many towns and villages the Catholic school tends to be smaller and has a more intimate atmosphere. Again, this is the case with other small non-denominational schools, and friendliness and a welcoming atmosphere are not only found in Catholic schools. There is, to be sure, some evidence to suggest that some children from disadvantaged backgrounds fare better in a Catholic setting than in others. Given that the roots of Catholic education lie in a community which was once disadvantaged, perhaps we are more aware of those who are on the margins. Is that it, then, our love for the poor? Is that what is distinctive of our Catholic schools?


It is not just love for the poor though, or a willingness to work with the marginalised. Again, other institutions can claim to do this. It is the motivation and outlook that are different.

To borrow a phrase from the Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor, most of us are ‘cross-pressured’. Believer and non-believer alike, we are caught in the winds of debate and change. Believers are often riddled with doubt, and non-believers often wonder, “what if…?” Only the fundamentalists on both sides of the faith debate are ‘certain’ of everything. Faced with this, we understandably cling to what we have in common, and we hesitate to give definitive answers to anything on which we might differ, especially when every word we say might be picked apart and presented as causing offence to someone, somewhere.

We are very tempted to accept a way of thinking and doing which just ’muddles along’. ‘Let’s not ask too many questions of ourselves and just be kind’, important though that is in today’s world. History is not kind to ‘muddlers’. Catholic schools were not established by muddlers nor will they thrive if we adopt that approach. Cross-pressured we may be but in Christ and his Spirit we find not just the anchor but the helm, the wind and navigation chart. This is what Catholic schools have to offer: life in God; Father, Son and Spirit; a community of love. Mirroring that community of love is the motivation and focus for our Catholic schools. It is the reason they exist.


Seeing the presence of Christ in the poor, the disadvantaged, the lost, is what we do. Compassion for those who have less is not the monopoly of any religious community but in witnessing to Christ, ‘calling him out’, as it were, we offer more than solace and community support; we offer real freedom; we reveal grace. For sure, many of those who send their children to Catholic schools do not share our explicit faith in the Trinity.

However, most realise that there is something more on offer, a different vision of humanity; the possibilities of life being about more than just one thing after another; or success measured in material gain or fame. We are not just about triumph in a person’s life; we are not afraid of failure either.

The Church’s Mission

Since the 1918 Education (Scotland) Act, and as ratified in further legislation, the Catholic Church has had two main rights: the right to approve staff in a Catholic School as to their religious belief and character, and to set the religious education syllabus taught in Catholic schools. No member of the teaching staff in a Catholic school can be appointed without approval, given in writing, and the Bishops’ conference of Scotland has provided a syllabus called ‘This is Our Faith’ for all pupils from Primary 1 to Secondary 6. Everything else is largely regulated by the state.

If we are to witness to the presence of God and further his Kingdom in our schools, then it is vital that the personnel, as closely as is humanly possible, share in and support the mission of the Church. Faith is ‘caught’ from people more than it is from a curriculum or information, though these are indispensable, and teachers need a programme and structure from which to work. However, God works through the lives and events of those around us, and if we do not meet Christ in other people, chances are we will never meet him. If we expect the Catholic school to at least point to the spiritual dimension of human existence, then those involved in teaching our children must themselves at least be open to this in their own lives. Further, those charged with teaching the Catholic faith must at least profess it themselves.

The Next Hundred Years

The Catholic community has benefited greatly from the provisions of the 1918 Act. We have now seen several generations of Catholics rise from poverty and come in from the margins to play a full role in society. The Catholic school has achieved what our forbearers intended, a better life for our children. What is it now that we want from our Catholic schools? Whatever the answer to that question, it will have to come from the whole community. We cannot continue with a consumerist approach or live off the legacy of the past.

As society asks itself how we are going to equip our young people for the tasks they will face in the years to come, surely Catholics should be asking the same question from a faith perspective: where are the next generation of Christian witnesses coming from? Teachers do not pop up from nowhere; Catholic teachers do not magically appear. Support for our present Catholic staff and the provision of future teachers in our schools is a concern for us all.

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