Patrick Sweeney says that critics of Catholic schools ignore their popularity. Just over a year ago, Scotland on Sunday carried the stark headline on its front page "Huge no to Catholic schools". The nation, including the Catholic population, had allegedly declared its judgment that there was no future for the Catholic school in modern Scottish education. It was just a matter of time before the doors would finally close on the last denominational school.
Reality has confounded these gloomy predictions. Holy Rood High in Edinburgh, my own school, has a projected first-year intake of 211 for the coming session, a rise of about 60 on last year. My colleagues in the other Edinburgh Catholic secondaries are reporting similar rates of growth. It is clear that parents see Catholic schools as having a distinctive identity, and while their reasons may vary widely from one family to another, large numbers make a positive decision, whether on principled or pragmatic grounds, in favour of the Catholic school.
Parents, Catholic and non-Catholic, frequently mention the ethos of the school, religious education and a strong sense of community. However, it would be anachronistic and presumptuous in the extreme to suppose that the entire population of the Catholic school subscribes to a common creed, or unanimously espouses any single set of religious beliefs.
The make-up of a Catholic school is likely to encompass staff and pupils of a wide spectrum of religious backgrounds, and a fair smattering of those who have no religious connection. Holy Rood has an official catchment area of six Catholic associated primary schools. In reality, the 1995 intake included children from 28 primary schools. We do hope, however, and expect that pupils, parents and staff, in joining the Catholic school community, are prepared to endorse the shared values of the school community. This does not appear to pose a problem in my own school, where a number of non-Catholic staff make an outstanding contribution to the Christian and Catholic ethos of the school.
Holy Rood and its associated primary schools recently organised a Faith Formation Day, which involved every teacher. They came together, without distinction of religious affiliation, to consider the role of the Catholic school in developing the spiritual and moral consciousness of young people who will live their adult lives in the 21st century.
There was by no means unanimity on the answers to the fundamental questions posed by church and school representatives, but the event raised awareness of our shared role in this important area of work. The event was far from being an evangelical rally. The only miracle that took place was getting the entire staffs of our seven schools together at the same time.
Recommendations emerging from the discussion groups were mainly concerned with articulating a realistic and relevant vision of the role of the Catholic school in Edinburgh in 1996 and developing a plan to ensure that this vision is translated into action. The Catholic school should embody the virtues of peace, justice, freedom and love, the central Gospel values of Christianity. This has to be given expression in the day-to-day running of the school if it is to be any more than a mantra of pious platitudes. The school seeks to ensure that each individual is equally valued, regardless of academic ability or family background.
The geographically widespread and socially diverse nature of our school catchment areas enable us to attract a population that is more truly comprehensive than that of many non-denominational schools. The curriculum conforms to national guidelines, and the acquisition of knowledge and skills is highly valued and eagerly pursued. Holy Rood had the highest "value-added" statistic of any Lothian school in the 1995 examinations. This cannot be attributed to some subliminal hot line to the Almighty, but is undoubtedly assisted by the commitment of staff, parents and pupils to the central ethos of the school.
Holy Rood has a proud record in providing for children with special educational needs, and "goes the extra mile" in supporting young people in difficulty. The school seeks to reach out to those who are unable to see any sense in their daily existence, helping them to find meaning in their lives. To achieve this, a secure environment free of violence and the threat of violence has to be provided. Our determination to pursue a policy of eliminating such behaviour has the support of the entire school community.
While the values described above could be indistinguishable from those of many other schools, the religious education offered may differ significantly from that of the non-denominational school. Children are encouraged to know and appreciate their own faith and that of others, and to live out the principles of their faith in their daily lives. Religious education in the Catholic school is more than just another academic subject. It is the articulation of the very essence of the school and the justification for its existence. Religious education provides an essential link between the school and local parishes through the work of school chaplains. Pupils learn to see and understand the connection between the school and the values expressed by the local Catholic community.
This coherence between the school and its community is fundamental to the life of the Catholic school. The level of co-operation between Holy Rood and its associated primary schools is exceptional, and this is at least partly a function of our shared identity as Catholic schools. Local priests and other representatives of parish life are frequently visible in school and share in the life of the school community. Every year the school's senior management team makes itself available to speak in local churches, giving the school a visible expression in the life of the parish. The parishes in turn contribute to and participate in the services, concerts and other activities which take place in school.
The Catholic school has a responsibility to familiarise pupils with the language and symbolism of worship, in relation to both Christianity and to other faiths. The 5-14 guidelines on religious education developed by the Catholic Education Commission spell this out in some detail. The culmination of the year's events in many Catholic schools is the annual feast day mass. This service, in Holy Rood's case at the end of the spring term, involves the entire school community, and celebrates our achievements in the preceding year.
We also welcome the diversity provided by the parents and children who are not Catholics. In Holy Rood, we try to be as inclusive as possible, without ever encroaching on the rights of individual parents to withdraw their children from particular classes, services or events. This seems to work remarkably well, and often the non-Catholic children's curiosity makes them more attentive than some of their Catholic companions.
It remains to be seen whether the new unitary authorities will give the same level of support to Catholic schools as has been enjoyed under the regional councils. The issue of free transport for pupils may prove to be an acid test of their intentions, with the location of many Catholic schools requiring the transport of Catholic pupils across boundaries. However, the surge of interest in Catholic schools clearly demonstrates the support which they enjoy in parental esteem, and politicians will be acutely aware of the increasingly insistent voice of the consumer. While the future, both political and educational, remains uncertain, the Catholic school currently has at least as much popular appeal as Scotland on Sunday.
Patrick Sweeney is headteacher Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh.