Faith can bring our children together

13th February 2004 at 00:00
Shared campuses should not be used to knock Catholic schools, says Michael McGrath

The recent media furore surrounding proposals for shared campus schools in North Lanarkshire provided a perfect example of the ways in which the Roman Catholic Church can be portrayed in negative and destructive terms in Scotland today. The repeated inaccuracies in reports (even after correction), the obsessive focus on trivia and the contemptuous stances adopted by some media commentators all demonstrate the challenge facing the Church to obtain fair and accurate coverage of its activities. They should also cause concern to all fair-minded Scots who aspire to be citizens of a mature, tolerant and diverse democracy.

The public row over the design of shared campus buildings was not one about toilets, doorways or staffrooms. It was, essentially, about trust - as was understood in The TES Scotland's ironic leader (January 30) which challenged the Catholic Bishops of Scotland to "have a little more faith".

The Diocese of Motherwell sought assurances from the council that its building plans would not lead to a loss of identity, to an erosion of the distinctiveness of Catholic education and, ultimately, to a removal of Catholic education provision. The diocese saw that earlier assurances which had been given by the council had not borne fruit in the actual building designs which were then produced. Their discussions with potential contractors did not assure them that it would be possible to amend designs to bring about more satisfactory arrangements.

Fortunately, the diocese has now received assurances from North Lanarkshire of its "unequivocal commitment" to Catholic education. Hopefully, the ongoing discussions will lead to a satisfactory resolution of the outstanding issues and a renewed commitment to community partnership. The common aim of both parties should be to ensure that all sections of the community see their aspirations reflected in the development of the finest of learning environments.

In all the words used in recent days, there has been little recognition of the bravery shown by the diocese when agreeing in principle to the council's radical proposals to develop seven shared campus schools. (By contrast, neighbouring Glasgow has included no shared campus designs in its recent proposals to refurbish and rebuild primary schools.) The diocese had recognised that it is undoubtedly more difficult to provide a distinctive form of education in a shared campus context. Each school community will be expected to develop its own ethos, mission, values and identity in a context where they live together as neighbours, but not as one family. There will be a need for close co-operation between each school to ensure the effective use of shared facilities. There will be opportunities for common pupil activities. Each group of staff should be free to build their own community, with its distinctive values and culture, and their own teaching programmes, without any sense of pressure to integrate their ideas and purposes.

This week, the Catholic community has been celebrating Catholic Education Week in schools and parishes throughout Scotland. This year's theme - "Be like shining stars" - is taken from the Old Testament promise (Daniel 12:3): "Those who teach Virtue to others will shine like the stars of heaven forever."

The achievements of Catholic schools, their educational mission, their distinctive characteristics were rightly lauded and reaffirmed this week.

Pupils and staff were encouraged to "shine like stars", to fulfil their potential as learners and to make a difference in the world, given their informed awareness of Gospel values and their explicit spiritual formation.

The distinctiveness which was celebrated should be a source of shared pride in Scotland at large. The mission of the Catholic school is to develop as a community of faith and learning, providing the highest quality of education. It offers formation through the promotion of Gospel values, through celebration and worship, and through service to others.

The characteristics which are displayed in Catholic schools include: a commitment to the integrated education and formation of the whole person; an inclusive ethos which aims to affirm and respect human life and the dignity of each person; a commitment to the pursuit of excellence in all areas of achievement, through the development of each person's unique God-given talents; a commitment to promote social justice; and the promotion of respect for people of all beliefs. None of these is explicitly "religious" as such and many can be found in non-denominational schools.

Other characteristics which are more obviously Catholic are: a commitment to the spiritual formation of the school community, through the shared experience of prayer and liturgy; the provision of religious education programmes which enable young people to develop their understanding of the eternal virtues of love, forgiveness, truth, justice, solidarity and the common good; and a commitment to uphold the moral teaching, faith tradition and sacramental life of the Catholic Church.

And even with such explicit faith-based features, we find Catholic education being embraced by many non-Catholic parents who choose Catholic schools for their children. This can only be a healthy sign, of a tolerance of diversity, of a recognition of the need for the explicit teaching of moral values, and of the mature growth of many Scots away from old prejudices and intolerance.

The TES Scotland got it right in its leader two weeks ago. More faith is, indeed, needed - from those who are suspicious and intolerant of a faith-based education system which is highly effective, highly valued and contributes greatly to the welfare of Scotland today.

Michael McGrath is director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service.

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