Laurie Byrne

29th April 2011 at 01:00
The St Maurice's High head and outgoing president of the Catholic Headteachers' Association of Scotland believes it is important for young people to make the distinction between gratification and happiness. Photography by Tom Finnie

How secure is Catholic education now compared with 30 years ago?

There is probably more confidence in the faith dimension of schools now and a clearer sense of vision and values than there was 30 years ago. There has been a change in the past 10 years and the formation of the Scottish Catholic Education Service has been very helpful.

What impact do you think current economic conditions and local authority cuts are having on Catholic schools?

In one sense I don't think Catholic schools are any different from other schools; things are being cut to the bone. The issue of transport is just one example. Previously, the local authorities were very generous (in subsidising transport for pupils from home to school) but now they can't be. This also affects denominational and non-denominational schools in rural or semi-rural settings - there is a knock-on effect on the ability of pupils to take part in after-school activities.

A growing number of non-Catholic children attend denominational schools. What do you think that says about Catholic education?

It is encouraging at a time when we are more public and explicit about our value system that parents make a choice to send their children to Catholic schools.

What do you think Catholic schools should be doing to recruit quality leaders?

We have discussed with the Scottish Catholic Education Service possibilities for growing education from the roots. The McCrone agreement removed the stepping stones to leadership, but some people like to take smaller steps. All schools need to work together to do more to encourage them into leadership.

What should be done about the fact that fewer young people are practising the faith after leaving Catholic schools?

Nobody gets press-ganged into being a believer. We suggest a set of beliefs that offer a life-enhancing pathway for young people. It is not just about numbers, and we should remember that being a Christian is not a convenient or easy option in our culture in 2011.

The Bishops' Conference of Scotland's report, This Is Our Faith, said Catholic RE should `form young people who follow Jesus' while `respecting pupils' opinions and faith backgrounds'. Is there a contradiction in those aims?

"Forming young people" is about education. Pope Benedict has talked about the dangers of moral relativism, and the duty of Catholic schools should be to share that message. But our faith is big on free will and recognising that we have choice as human beings. We should always respect genuinely held beliefs and differences.

How many non-Catholics are teaching at St Maurice's?

Twenty out of a staff of 82. There are Christians here and some staff who don't have a faith belief system, but they all understand the school and faith values and they like working here.

Jim Conroy, former dean of education at Glasgow University, has said Catholicism is `unfashionable'. Do you agree?

We live in a society that is about consumerism and instant gratification. If that is what being fashionable is about, then a religious approach - any religious approach - isn't going to fit in. We need to look more broadly at what genuinely makes young people happy. One second-year boy at St Maurice's recently talked about the difference between enjoyment and happiness - that is a powerful and fascinating distinction.

What would you rate as being the most important quality for being a head?

To care about things enough to do the right thing. If you care, then you will work harder. You will move heaven and earth.

Have you ever wavered in your own faith?

I have never lost my faith. But it has been challenged. The time I felt most challenged was when I was in my teenage years; that is why I have sympathy with young people who are at the same stage. When he visited Scotland, Pope Benedict talked about the temptations of alcohol, drugs and sex. He said they brought gratification but not happiness. That is an important message but it is not an easy one for youngsters to hear. I'm not going to stand in front of them and say I'm an expert in what they are dealing with, but I think I can sympathise.

What do you like doing outside school time?

I like spending time with my family, though my wife would laugh at me saying that! My son and daughter-in-law brought us our first grandchild and a second is on its way. I'm a Celtic supporter, but I also watch Motherwell. I'm by trade a Spanish teacher, so love all things Spanish - particularly the food. And I still give five-a-side football a go every week.

What is the best part of being a head?

It is a privilege to work with young people. They always surprise me in the way they think - and what they can find laughter in.

And the worst?

Dealing with young people in families at times of bereavement. Trying to find the right thing to say when there is no right thing to say.

Do you think Catholic schools would feel more secure under a Labour or SNP administration?

Aspects of both parties' policies cause me optimism and concern. Whichever party ends up governing is going to have a difficult time. It is much easier to lead a government or a school at times of plenty.


Born: 1957

Education: St Eunan's Primary, Clydebank; St Patrick's High, Dumbarton

Career: Modern languages teacher, St Margaret's High, Airdrie, 1980; then principal teacher of guidance, St Andrews High, Wishaw; assistant head, Cardinal Newman High, Belshill; deputy head, St Ninian's High, East Renfrewshire; headteacher, St Maurice's High, North Lanarkshire since April 2004.

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