The contribution of Catholic schools is essential to a diverse society

Opinion: They are places where everyone, of all faiths and none, is accepted and welcomed

The Catholic school community - north and south - will celebrate our annual Catholic Schools Week from January 23rd-30th. It is a wonderful faith inspired opportunity to acknowledge the contribution made by the stakeholders in the Catholic school community - students, parents, grandparents, teachers, special need assistants; classroom assistants, all school employees - to the good of society.

So, in schools from Derry to Kerry, what goes on during this special week? The theme for this year’s week is “Catholic schools: living life to the full”. The theme was chosen to reflect the gradual opening of society after the pandemic and the increased opportunities to engage again in all the activities that are integral to the full development of pupils in schools.

The full suite of #CSW2022 resources for primary and post-primary are available online (catholicschools.ie). Each resource explores the five daily themes of Catholic Schools Week: Living life to the full with God (Monday); Living life to the full together (Tuesday); Grandparents' day - Celebrating being together again (Wednesday); Living life in wonder and awe (Thursday); Living life and facing the future (Friday).

Kind

While every Catholic school fosters the holistic development of its students, promotes their wellbeing and encourages them to nurture their talent and skills and “learn to be the best we can be, being kind to ourselves, each other and the world around us”, our schools also want to be excellent places of art, music, sports and good neighbourliness.

Conscious of the ever- evolving needs of parents and students, the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association, the Catholic Education Partnership, and the Association of Management of Catholic Secondary Schools, commissioned the consulting firm Genesis to measure public attitudes towards how schools of a Catholic ethos are perceived in our pluralist educational system.

The survey was carried out in 2019 and the results underpin the necessity for choice and a diverse educational landscape in the interest of our young people.

This research aimed to get an up-to-date and comprehensive picture of public perceptions of the Catholic school “brand” and factors determining choice of Catholic schools.

A key element of the project was a national representative survey of 500 parents of school-going children, both primary and secondary, conducted in April 2019. This was followed by qualitative research which consisted of 12 interviews with principals and 14 interviews with chairs and four focus groups of parents of children in primary and second level.

The survey returns highlight that Irish parents prize highly the holistic development of their children, citing a focus on respect, community and faith formation as the three leading advantages of Catholic schools.

As one parent said in the report: “I feel what this generation are in danger of missing out on is that building of resilience … something bigger than themselves, their phones! Something that they can return to in dark times. That’s when the Church really comes into its own”.

Joy

This issue will be addressed on Wednesday as primary schools are asked to think about communities of love, with a particular focus on grandparents. My own favourite memory of this day is of the comment by a grandfather who was asked about the benefits of being older. He said that it was “the opportunity and joy of getting to know” his granddaughter.

Also, on Tuesday, in post- primary schools, there will be a reflection on “how inclusive our Catholic school is”. It is recognised that the new Junior Cycle specification underpins every aspect of learning in secondary schools with a call to question, explore, enquire and reflect.

These four verbs are critical to creating an environment of inclusion in Catholic schools: a place where everyone, of all faiths and none, is accepted and welcomed. And there’s lots more happening during the week, with songs, liturgies and engagement with the wider community.

Many people might ask why we need such a week. Critics of denominational education might say that we have too many Catholic schools and we don’t need to have a focus for such a week. At a national level, Catholic bishops recognise that there is a need to divest some primary schools to the State and, as patrons, bishops are engaged in a process with the Department of Education to do so.

However, what is not well known is that parents in local communities are often loath to change the patronage of their school. The Genesis research found that only 4 per cent felt they did not get their first preference for the school of their choice; while 72 per cent of parents felt they had a choice of schools to pick from and that they sent their child to the school of their choice; and, 24 per cent felt that they sent their child to the only school that was available in the area.

Patronage

Because parents may not want a change of school patronage, there is a need for much local consultation and dialogue in the days ahead. As in all areas of Irish life today, engagement and dialogue are intrinsic to the work of the modern Church.

Indeed, from the Church perspective, the recently initiated Synodal Pathway will be a “process of conversation, engagement and dialogue” for all according to Bishop Fintan Gavin of Cork & Ross.

Overall, the Genesis survey shows a high level of satisfaction among parents of primary school-going children with the quality of education being delivered. The data found that 78 per cent of parents were either “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the school their child was attending. Only 18 per cent of parents felt “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with no major difference in satisfaction across regional or socio-economic lines.

The research project also sought to identify what “Catholic” might mean in a modern and pluralist Irish education system. It found that there is overwhelming support among parents (78 per cent) for the Catholic Church to have a role in continuing to shape and influence the ethos. A total of 9 per cent of parents reported that the Church should have a “much more active role” and 33 per cent thought the Church should have “some role” in the ethos of their local school “equal to that of other community members, such as parents, principals and teachers”. Just 22 per cent of parents indicated that the Church should have no role in the ethos of their local school.

A key characteristic of a modern and diverse democratic society is including the worldview of both faith, and non-faith, representatives. The availability of choice of education provider is essential in this regard. No system of education is value free or neutral so, while we might look forward to a more diverse school type offering at primary level, and work towards that goal, Catholic schools will continue to be centres of faith, excellence, joy and hope. Of course, any opportunity for celebration in our schools is welcome!

One of my favourite Irish Times columns is Patsy McGarry’s “In a Word” in which Patsy steps back to look at different ways of interpreting words and their meaning. Maybe, as a society, it is timely that we review the word “catholic” so as to include its broader meaning: “involving all”.

Dr Marie Griffin is chairperson of the Catholic Education Partnership