Catholic Education Week (26th January to 2nd February 2008)
As we enter Catholic Education Week 2008, we celebrate what is distinctive and excellent about Catholic Education in Scotland. We look forward to the continuing development of Catholic schools, to the flourishing of parish catechesis and to the healthy growth of our young people in faith and in learning.
This week is also a time to look back and to consider that 2008 marks the 90th anniversary of the 1918 Education Act which brought about the transfer of Catholic schools into the management of local education authorities. Prior to 1918, Catholic schools had been established by the Church – by individual parishes, by priests and by some religious congregations, such as the Marist brothers, the Franciscans, the sisters of Notre Dame, the Sisters of Mercy, and others.
Conditions in most parish schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were very poor, indeed. Often teachers had to work with classes with over 100 children, ranging in age from 5 to 13. If they were fortunate, they had the benefit of a Pupil Teacher – a 14 year-old who had received some education in the basics which he or she could pass on to younger children.
Conditions were cramped and resources were scarce. Teachers were paid a lower rate of salary than those in public schools and parish school managers could not afford to contribute to teachers’ pensions. Some grants were available from Government, but these were insufficient to provide even a ‘basic’ education to many Catholic children. As a result, more than half of the Catholic population of school age did not receive any education. Those who did struggled to receive an education which met the standard of the public schools which were, of course, fully funded by Government. Absenteeism was high; standards of achievement were low. By the start of the 20th century, it was apparent to Church leaders, to communities and to politicians that things had to change.
Recently I spent a fascinating time in the office of the Scottish Catholic Archives in Edinburgh, reading some of the historical documents of that time. I was able to trace some of the correspondence which tells the story of the discussions within the Church and the negotiations with Government officials and politicians over the possibility of providing more support for Catholic schools. Eventually, after many years of debate, the Church agreed to a scheme which would allow for the transfer of Catholic schools into the public system of schools which eventually came to be managed by new local education authorities.
The Church was given particular guarantees – enshrined in statute – that were intended to protect the distinctive identity, mission, ethos, values and religious teaching of Catholic schools. Not everyone in the Catholic community was convinced that these guarantees would be sufficient. Some voices predicted the demise of Catholic education in Scotland. Others – including the Vatican’s Apostolic Delegate at the time – believed that the new arrangement offered the best hope for guaranteeing the survival and, indeed, the flourishing of Catholic education in Scotland.
Today – ninety years later – we see Catholic schools being proclaimed in HMI reports for excellence in leadership, learning and teaching, support for pupils, ethos, partnership working etc. To close this Catholic Education Week, on Saturday 2nd February, First Minister Alex Salmond will give the Cardinal Winning Education Lecture at the University of Glasgow on the theme: ‘Celebrating Catholic Education’. This significant occasion should provide a mature rejoinder to those strident and intolerant voices which regularly attack Catholic schools, failing always to cite any evidence to support their views.
It is time for such critics to accept that Catholic schools are here to stay, that they not only continue to honour an historical agreement with the Catholic community, but that they meet the needs of many parents who wish to have their children educated in the distinctive values, ethos and teachings which emerge from this faith tradition.
Of course, in our world which is far removed from the early 20th century in its ideals, values and religious practice, the challenge is all the greater to ensure that Catholic schools do provide a distinctive form of education. Today our teachers need to strive to help young people to experience a living encounter with Christ when some pupils have learned little about Jesus in their homes.
Parents and teachers need to be courageous in holding up the values which Christ teaches, in the face of apathy and ignorance of values such as wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity. This year’s theme for Catholic Education Week – ‘Teaching Values for Life’ – encourages all of us to learn more about the values which are embedded in the Gospel and expressed in the Beatitudes. We also need to re-discover the wisdom of Church teaching on virtues – those vital personal habits such as faith, hope, love, prudence, temperance and fortitude. Such learning can and should lead to action – in our family lives, in our workplaces and in our schools.
Ironically, in a society which is supposed to celebrate diversity, we need to fight to be allowed to uphold Christian teaching, without fear of being accused of excluding other views. In relation to this, the Vatican recently reminded us that all who have been baptised have a duty to preach the Gospel and that we can do so while being respectful of other people’s views and beliefs. However, we must be careful not to dilute our own faith and not to hesitate from proclaiming the Word of God, out of fear of offending others who do not share our faith.
This reminder is timely at the start of Catholic Education Week. It invites all of us involved in Catholic education – parents, teachers, priests and religious, parish catechists – to consider exactly what we can do to ‘Go out into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature’ (Mk 16:15).
It also serves to remind us to give thanks for all those who have attempted to do precisely that in their own time. We thank God for the pioneers of Catholic education in Scotland, for those who established and taught in parish schools, for the generations of parents who sacrificed so that their children could learn, for the parish catechists who helped children to know, love and serve God. We thank God for His goodness in continuing to provide the means for Catholic education to flourish, for our Bishops and our priests who support efforts to teach faith in schools and parishes, for politicians and education officials who wish to work in partnership with the Church, for teachers who dedicate their lives to the lives of young people, and for parents who recognise the importance of Teaching Values for Life.
Director, Scottish Catholic Education Service