For a Catholic head faith is the only path

12th May 2000 at 01:00
There's nothing wrong with wanting a spiritual dimension to the qualification for headship, says Michael McGrath

NEWS OF plans for a qualification for the headship of Catholic schools ("Catholic 'path' faces a rebuff", TESS, April 28) may well have led to a sharp intake of breath by some readers. Is this another example of Catholics looking for preferential treatment when they already have separate state-funded schools? Is there no end to this empire-building?

As someone who is trying to play a part in providing leadership in a Catholic secondary school, perhaps I can offer some explanation of our Church's thinking on the importance of effective leadership in our school communities.

The Scottish Qualification for Headship has been introduced by the Executive as a major initiative which is intended to contribute to the raising of standards in all schools. The SQH framework derives from the Management Charter Initiative which initially focused on generic management competencies and was adapted to analyse the work of school managers. At the heart of SQH is the "Standard for Headship" setting out the key aspects of "professionalism and expertise which the Scottish education system requires of those who are entrusted with the leadership and management of its schools".

Critics of the framework have questioned its reliance on a management competence model of training. They say it confuses management and leadership functions. Moreover, they cite gurus of leadership schools who have rejected such a limited functional approach, preferring to place an emphasis on people, not rules and systems, and on the culture of an organisation and the relationships within it.

Indeed, some management analysts have for decades been highlighting the importance of "spirituality" in the leadership of effective organisations. Terence Deal, the American analyst of organisational behaviour, says: "In every organised activity it is important that people believe in what they are doing, share a common heritage and faith - and dream together."

This is language that strikes a chord with Catholic headteachers, for they are also the chief catechist in a community of faith which openly espouses a set of values. This can be seen as a form of ministry which depends fundamentally upon personal spirituality and morality. The head's lived faith experience and moral outlook are expected to be played out in visible action through leadership of the school and its wider community.

This leadership role is shared with teacher colleagues who also offer their faith witness to young people. For the leaders of a Catholic community, the "model professional" is Jesus Christ who offers faithful service to his community: "For the Son of man himself came not to be served but to serve" (Mark 10:45). To understand this avowedly vocational aspect of the Catholic leader's role, it is necessary to appreciate the distinctiveness of Catholic education itslf. The Church has published many documents which explain the purpose of Catholic education within a theological and anthropological framework. Renowned scholars have provided various analyses of the distinctive features of Catholic education throughout the world. In essence, Catholic education is about education for life - that is, eternal life.

Academic achievement is seen not as an end in itself but as an enterprise serving a larger purpose. Our main aim is to provide young people with a sense of God's presence in the everyday things of life and with an insight into their own spiritual natures. We nurture the formation of the "whole being" of students: their heads, hearts and lifestyles. In all of this, Catholic education is provided in an integrated manner where faith and culture are united, where time for learning and time for formation are not separated.

It should therefore be clear why the Catholic Education Commission has expressed concerns that in failing to consider the importance of spirituality, the Standard for Headship falls well short of recognising the very essence of what a head is about in that community of faith and learning.

"Spirituality" refers not just to an aspect of life which is religious, but to the search for God's presence in every dimension of life and the integration of the whole of life in terms of ultimate values. We wish our Catholic headteachers to be able to articulate a vision of Catholic education which is explicitly religious in purpose but is still grounded in the reality of the political, economic and social priorities of our time.

We wish them to have the skill and the confidence to express this vision with their colleagues in their daily practice. We have no wish to establish a separate SQH for Catholic teachers, but we do wish to see our particular needs acknowledged by those authorities which have a duty to provide appropriate support to our Catholic teachers. Given the rich heritage of philosophy and theology, we believe that we have much to offer to the development of SQH and other training programmes and "standards". We look forward to continuing fruitful discussions with the Scottish Executive.

In the meantime, colleagues at the faculty of education at Glasgow University have developed a diploma in school leadership and management which offers a Catholic "pathway" through the SQH programme. It covers all the component parts of the SQH framework, but does so from a Catholic perspective, particularly in terms of international research and Church documents.

The first cohort of candidates for the diploma has already enrolled and we look forward to them becoming the next generation of Catholic school leaders.

Michael McGrath is headteacher of Our Lady's High School, Cumbernauld, and vice-chairman of the Catholic Education Commission, the principal advisory body to the Catholic bishops of Scotland. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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