Long read: Can heads of one religion lead schools of another faith?

One headteacher describes himself as ‘religiously bilingual’. Another talks about a shared journey. But the Catholic church insists that only practising Catholics can lead its schools
19th January 2018, 3:05pm


Long read: Can heads of one religion lead schools of another faith?


Patrick Moriarty considers himself religiously bilingual. “Often, often, I think that I’d quite like to be Jewish,” the ordained Church of England minister and faith-school headteacher says. “I’ve often said that I’m more comfortable with some Jews than in some Christian communities.”

Moriarty is definitely not Jewish. Following his ordination last year, he works as an associate curate at a Hertfordshire church. He is also headteacher at JCoSS, the Jewish Community Secondary School, in New Barnet, London.

“I even entertain the glorious thought that, once you’re ordained as a priest, you can’t be unordained,” he says. “So, if I converted to Judaism, I could be an ordained priest who’s Jewish. That thought tickled me quite a lot.”

Diversity in faith schools

Moriarty is not unique in his dual identity: there are a number of headteachers of faith schools who come from a different religious background themselves. At the end of last year, the Church of England was given government accreditation for its national programme to develop school leaders. This is open to headteachers from all faiths and none.

But not all religious organisations feel the same way: the Catholic church insists that headteachers and deputies of its schools must come from a Catholic background. 

There was no question in Moriarty’s mind that he would be qualified to head a Jewish school. He had previously been chair of governors for a church school that was jointly sponsored by an evangelical church and a liberal Catholic church. He is therefore experienced at acting as interpreter between two differing faith communities.

He also grew up in North London and attended Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Boys, renowned for its large numbers of Jewish pupils. He smiles sardonically. “Some of my best friends are Jewish.”

Deborah Walters, headteacher of Avanti Court Primary, a Hindu-faith school in Barkingside, Essex, feels similarly. Her own background is as a Pentecostal Christian, but this did not stop her feeling at home the first time she visited Avanti Court.

“As quite a spiritual person myself, I was just instantly taken back by the harmony, the ethos within the school,” she says. “There was a feeling of openness there.” In particular, she liked the fact that philosophy, yoga and meditation were all on the school’s curriculum.

“It’s about a journey and understanding,” she says. “It’s about getting a closeness with the divine. Whether that’s through nature or Jesus, it doesn’t matter.”

‘Talking the same language’

Moriarty agrees that similarities can be found across religious boundaries. “They’re much more similar than you’d think - the versions of Judiasm and Christianity where I spend most of my time,” he says. “When I talk to Jews, I feel we’re talking the same language.

“Yes, I’ve got these irritating things about Jesus and forgiveness and the Eucharist. But the purpose of human life, human relationships, sexuality - I often feel I’ve got much more in common with some of my Jewish friends, parents, colleagues, than I would if I were having that conversation in some church settings.”

Nigel Genders, the Church of England’s chief education officer, says that this sense of speaking a common language is precisely what his schools look for in a headteacher.

The Church of England’s vision for its schools is, he says, “unashamedly, unreservedly Christian. It’s like the writing through a stick of rock: wherever you cut the school, you should sense, understand and experience that Christian character.

“So what sort of leaders do we need? Leaders who share and understand that vision for education. That’s not simply about the personal faith of the headteacher - it’s all about their ability to lead that vision and that Christian character of the school.”

For Moriarty, leading a Jewish character has involved acquiring an understanding of the school’s Jewish vision for education. But it has also required an appreciation of some of the more abstruse nuances of Jewish practice.

JCoSS is unaffiliated to a particular branch of Judaism: it is cross-communal, rather than specifically orthodox, reform or conservative. Moriarty therefore assumed that it would be acceptable for his school to run extracurricular activities on the Jewish Sabbath: those pupils who did not want to break the Sabbath could simply choose not to come. However, he swiftly learned that this would not be well-received within the Jewish community.

“It’s learning the nuances,” he says. “That pluralist doesn’t mean progressive - and progressive doesn’t mean that anything goes.”

Genders talks about religion as a journey. It is the course that this journey takes for an individual headteacher, he believes, that is more important than the specifics of religious belief. “Everyone is on a particular journey, in terms of their particular faith,” he says. “Leading a Church of England school can often be transformational, in terms of people’s own personal understanding of their faith.”

Walters, too, uses the metaphor of a journey to describe her time at Avanti Court. “When you’re surrounded by people who are like-minded and understand that life is a journey, then you see the world differently,” she says.

“The role of a headteacher can be very pressurising at times. But the job has given me the tools to step back a little bit, whether because I’m praying - because, as a Christian, I pray - or because I’m meditating.”

Arguing with the Almighty

Moriarty, too, found - in a slightly circuitous way - that leading a Jewish school changed his own religious beliefs. “I remember some of the early meetings,” he says of his first days at JCoSS. “I remember how different those meetings seemed to be from the church primary where I was a governor. Those meetings were very nice, very polite.

“The JCoSS meetings were very different: full of disagreement, full of frankness, robustness. It was a breath of fresh air - the passion, the intensity. ‘This is very important, and we’re not going to let niceness stand in the way of getting outcomes.’ It’s a very different energy.”

He soon discovered that Jews take these kinds of disagreement into the religious, as well as the administrative, sphere. “The Jewish tradition of arguing with the Almighty - I just think that’s so honest and healthy,” he says. “I think that’s very much informed my view of God and what it is to be in a relationship with God.

“Also the fact that it’s entirely acceptable to say, ‘I don’t believe in God, but I absolutely love my Judaism’. No Christian would ever say that. You’d never say, ‘I love my Christianity’. That would just be weird.”

Now, he often brings insights he has learned from Judaism into his church sermons. Speaking at Midnight Mass last month, he talked about how shocking the idea of God coming to earth in human form must have been to Jesus’s contemporaries.

“The word of God made flesh,” he says. “That’s such a non-Jewish thing to say - and that’s how people would have understood it at the time.”

Witness to the faith

But, while Genders, Walters and Moriarty may see headteachers’ outlook as more important than their specific religion, Paul Barber believes that the two are inextricably connected. Barber is the head of the Catholic Education Service (CES), which oversees all the Catholic schools in England. The CES stipulates that all headteachers and deputy heads of Catholic schools must be practising Catholics themselves.

“Our schools are part of the church,” he says. “The headteacher of a Catholic school doesn’t just run an institution - they also lead a faith community. In order to lead a faith community, you have to be part of that community.

“It’s about being a witness to the Catholic faith. The person who’s leading is a witness to the Catholic faith in everything they do: their whole life, not just their professional life. It’s a vocation.”

Deborah Walters accepts that a particular cultural or religious background does affect the way that a school functions. “Yoga and meditation - it’s part of Hindu culture,” she says. “There’s a deep understanding of the benefits: why you do yoga, why our children meditate.

“That’s important, because you’re not just picking something off the shelf: ‘Let’s do meditation because we’ve read a book about it.’ We have the background. We have the specialists to teach it in our school.”

But, she insists, adhering to a religious ethos does not require adherence to that specific religion. “Our yoga teacher is actually a primary-school teacher who’s a trained yoga instructor,” she says.

“We have training, which is delivered here, in order to develop staff’s knowledge of the faith of this school. That’s important because we need to be able to answer children’s questions - or find someone who can.

“But we’re looking for the best yoga teacher, or the best Sanskrit teacher, irrespective of their background - and irrespective of their faith.”

The added benefit of this approach, of course, is that it increases the pool of potential applicants for any given job.

‘Keep on looking’

Barber acknowledges that, by only considering Catholic applicants for headteacher posts in his schools, he immediately limits his pool of potential candidates. And, in a climate where many schools are struggling to recruit heads - of any faith - this can create problems.

“Certainly, the fact that we ask more of applications for leadership posts in our schools inevitably means that the recruitment pool is smaller,” he says. “Whatever the prevailing situation out there generally for leadership, it tends to be a little bit more so for us. So, at the moment, it’s quite hard out there. And it’s a little bit harder for us.

“But we believe the success of our schools is linked fundamentally to the distinctiveness of our schools.”

Occasionally, this may necessitate a contingency plan: asking the deputy to act as interim head, or bringing in a temporary headteacher from another school. “Temporary solutions can come in all shapes and sizes,” Barber says. “All schools have these problems, and we do what all schools do: we keep going until we find the right candidate.

“It sometimes takes us a bit longer than others, because of the particular demographic. But we manage eventually. We find leaders.”

Genders, too, says that his schools’ desire to find a headteacher who can support and enhance the Christian ethos can make recruitment more difficult. “It’s particularly a problem in smaller, rural schools,” he says. “It can be difficult to attract a headteacher to that school. But governors will always say, ‘Let’s readvertise, until we find the right person’.

“Schools won’t compromise, and rightly so. It’s not a question of compromising. It’s about ensuring that you can keep on looking for the right person.”

And, he points out, this is precisely why the Church of England has developed its programme for developing school leaders. “It’s about ensuring that we’re developing that pipeline of leaders and headteachers who can take on that role in the future,” he says. “If we just wait for someone else to do it, it’s not going to happen.”

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