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Catholic, and this is what we do

One of the common misconceptions that critics have about faith-based schools is that they brainwash children. I sometimes wonder if they have ever tried brainwashing a modern teenager. Was it ever possible? I think some people are looking back with more than the usual dollop of hindsight.

So how, and what, do we actually teach our young people about the Catholic faith at the Catholic secondary school of which I am chair of governors?

First, we look at religious education rather differently from the way secular schools do. To use some educational jargon, community and foundation schools teach RE in a phenomenological way: this is how those who believe in Islam pray; this is what Jews do in a synagogue; this is what a sanctuary in a Catholic church looks like; this is what Baptists believe the Bible says to them.

In our Catholic school, RE challenges pupils' view of their faith, and deepens their understanding of what the Church asks them to believe and what it means to them. This can be a painful process. It is also a risky one from the Church's point of view. God gave them free will. That means they can reject as well as accept what they hear and experience.

On any topic we simply say: "The Church says this, others say that, I believe this." We want our children to make an informed opinion.

We want young people who are thinking about what they believe. If they choose to reject Church teaching, then that is their right. But it is from a position of knowledge, not uninformed ignorance.

This analytical technique is useful in other contexts. One of our ex-pupils had an interview last week for a coveted barrister pupillage. She told her RE teacher: "They asked me whether cannabis should be legalised. So I said: 'The Government view is this, others say that, and my view is this'."

But RE is only part of what makes us distinctive. We try to live out what we believe. It is not sufficient just to start each staff meeting with a rote prayer or to put a cross on the school notepaper.

I was proud that, during a previous inspection, one of our senior staff spent a long time proving to the inspector that we were not fiddling the figures on exclusions. We have far too few for a school of our size. Our alternative to brainwashing comes with a healthy dose of Christian forgiveness.

Dr Martin Price is chair of governors at Richard Gwyn Roman Catholic high school, Barry, in the Vale of Glamorgan

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