Taking catholic point of view

28th February 2003 at 00:00
The Shadow Education Minister ends his journey in the footsteps of figures in education by visiting a Catholic primary school

I admit, without a shade of embarrassment, that I like Catholic schools. I make the qualification because at virtually every public meeting I undertake someone will raise the topic of Catholic education as if it were a vice that needed to be eradicated.

Those who raise it are not usually bigots. They believe profoundly in equality of opportunity and the elimination of sectarianism.

So do I. And I do not see how Catholic schools encourage sectarianism.

Indeed, given their Christian ethos, they tend to do the exact opposite.

Partly I like Catholic schools because they are usually good schools. This is not to say that they are always better than their non-denominational counterparts, nor that their staff are any more devoted to their young charges, though you do tend to hear in their staffrooms words that are not uttered often in the state sector.

It is one of those words that stops me in my conversational tracks when talking to Rosemary McMillan, the senior teacher at St David's Primary in Edinburgh. She has just dropped the word "love" into the debate about deprivation, school phobia and poverty.

"We need to show the children love," she says once more. "It is something that some of them don't get a lot of at home."

Ms McMillan's job description doesn't have that word in it. However, it does use the word "sacramental": part of her long list of duties is to undertake the post of sacramental co-ordinator. The school handbook explains that there will be mass in the school hall on feast days and class masses at other times. Ms McMillan co-ordinates what is needed to bring that about and also co-ordinates the other sacraments that are offered in the school, including confirmation.

She also does all the other things that senior teachers do, although she is a special type of senior teacher, freed of some class commitment in order to manage the school's recent move from its old site to its new campus, shared with Pirniehall Primary, hidden away down a lane in the depths of Edinburgh's Pilton.

I have tried for some weeks to spend time with Ms McMillan, but the move has always got in the way. Finally we agree on the day after the Education Minister declared the new buildings open and posed for a symbolic photograph, standing hand in hand with a non-denominational and denominational pupil, one on either side.

The reality of the new school is a little different. St David's and Pirniehall primaries have different entrances, different playgrounds and different staffrooms. The children even eat at different times, though there is a shared dining hall.

Ms McMillan and her headteacher, Cathy Clark, have overseen the move with resolute cheerfulness, though it has not been without its problems. The staff arrived at the start of term to discover that the movers had simply left a pyramid - not much smaller than the great pyramid at Giza - of boxes in the middle of the hall. Everything had to be located, moved and installed within a few days.

Most of the children made the journey more easily, though a few from the farthest reaches of the catchment area decided to go to nearer schools. The mix of the school is substantially the same: a big minority of non-Catholic children and high levels of poverty and lack of aspiration.

Class sizes are refreshingly small and the new ambiance is bright and positive but the inherent problems haven't changed. Which brings us back to love.

Pirniehall and St David's primaries jointly face the task of bringing education and achievement to a community which has shied away from both.

Years of unemployment, drug abuse and grinding poverty have built up a reservoir of need and lack of hope which places schools - particularly primary schools - in the front line of the social services. They identify children at risk, battle with profound and complex special educational needs and endeavour to give every child the equality of opportunity that their parents continue to be denied.

Ms McMillan is no soft touch. She exudes determination and efficiency in a no-nonsense style but she is also immensely, if briskly, approachable. The extra edge to her work is the edge provided by the ethos of a Catholic school, whose mission statement uses the words "welcome and encourage" but also "parish" and "distinctive".

The distinctive nature of the education provided by St David's Primary (and all other Catholic schools) is that which places the children in the context of a world in which there is not just suffering but also compassion and love. They are valued as individuals whose complete needs involve not just the physical and the mental but also the spiritual. They are enjoined to grow as human beings, related one to the other, through something that is bigger than they are, which cares for them and will support them no matter what they do or fail to do.

Nebulous as that sounds, it is in its practical working out in everyday lessons in everyday classrooms that the difference becomes apparent.

Perhaps it is merely that no one ever gives up on a child and that no child is ever beyond the hope that things can and will change for the better.

Out in the playground - still with areas of impenetrable fencing as the contractors demolish the old buildings in order to provide landscaping - the infants are playing. Ms McMillan admonishes one who looks as if he is about to commit mayhem and corrals another before trouble starts.

It is a scene played out in thousands of school yards across our country but here it is all undertaken within a larger framework, indeed an infinite one. Somehow it seems to work.

One of my friends in Argyll is passionately opposed to the very existence of Catholic schools. Her mother has said she could never vote for me because I have publicly defended them. To these people - whose roots are in Lanarkshire - Catholic education is divisive and harmful, keeping children separate when they should be together and breeding a knowledge of difference which inevitably leads to prejudice and even brutality later in life. I wish I could take them to St David's Primary and show them the reality.

Yes, it would be very hard to persuade the Church hierarchy to give up their educational system. Yes, it would be political suicide for any party to try it in a ham fisted, ideological way. And yes, if they exist they should be welcomed for their contribution, not always marginalised and criticised. But that is not why I still positively like Catholic schools.

I like them - and I am not a Catholic - because of the people in them and what they try to do. I like them because they know that there is something important about teaching the whole person, not just the mind. I like them because they work well for children.

And in places such as Pilton, what works well for children is not something to be meddled with, no matter the supposed greater good.

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