Tribute to education's Catholic heritage

9th October 1998 at 01:00
As my father's remains were recently carried by his sons and grandsons from the church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Glasgow, I recalled a long and difficult life, which had now reached its peaceful conclusion. I also reflected on the passing of a generation of Irish immigrants, among whom he was proud to be numbered and on the impact of Catholic education on the descendants of those pioneering people.

Like the Jews before them and the Indians and Pakistanis later, they encountered discrimination and prejudice in their adopted home. They sought security in numbers, settling in the Gorbals of Glasgow and in towns such as Coatbridge and Bellshill. They coalesced around centres of employment and industry and gravitated towards existing concentrations of earlier immigrants.

Wherever they put down roots, Catholic schools were established, and these sprang up across the country in parallel to the growth of the Irish diaspora. The Irish and their fellow Catholic people from Italy, Poland and Lithuania saw in education the means by which they would propagate the faith which they had brought with them and offer their children access to a standard of living which they themselves would never be able to enjoy.

The influence of the Franciscan Order of priests on the people of the Gorbals was enormous. They could frequently be seen, distinctive in their flowing brown habits and open sandals, striding through the corridors of the bulging schools of their densely populated parish. They were school chaplains, social workers, marriage guidance counsellors and occasionally basic subsistence providers to the deprived Catholic people.

This powerful influence of the Church in education was replicated across Glasgow by the Marist Brothers in St Mungo's in Townhead, the Sisters of Notre Dame in Dowanhill, and by other clergy and religious orders in the central belt. St Patrick's High School in Coatbridge became a beacon of Catholic education in industrial Lanarkshire and has produced many outstanding figures in Scotland's political and professional life including two current government ministers, John Reid and Helen Liddell.

Catholic schools have retained a strong sense of community, based on the well-established partnership of school, parish and family. There is a firm commitment to pastoral care and to improving the life chances of young people. Many Catholic teachers are the progeny of working class Catholic parents and share the aspirations of the communities they serve. Surveys repeatedly show Catholic schools performing well in national examinations and devoting comparatively more time and attention to religious education.

Catholic schools have changed a great deal since they were assimilated into the state sector in 1918. The Parents' Charter has meant that many families of other religious affiliations and of none, have chosen to send their children to the Catholic school. Strong interest from the ethnic minority communities is an intriguing and welcome trend.

As the intake of Catholic schools grows and changes, they have had to review their role and broaden their objectives. In Holy Rood, around 25 per cent of our annual first year intake is non-Catholic, and we receive pupils from over 30 primary schools each year. We try to provide an education which is relevant to all creeds and cultures, but remains true to the principles and traditions of Christian and Catholic education.

"Tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis'' - times change and we change with them. From being an oppressed immigrant minority, Catholic people now walk with confidence in Scotland's corridors of power. Catholic schools may be less monolithically Catholic than in earlier days. However, the descendants of these early immigrants are the heirs to a precious legacy of worship and teaching.

As they face the ecumenical superhighway to the 21st century, it is incumbent on them to cherish the heritage they have received and to remember with gratitude and pride those who toiled to create it.

r = Pat Sweeney is head teacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh 20H Scotland School Management TESJOctober 9 J1998 "A huge ghostly army of supply staff has sprung up, which flits in and out of schools, barely noticed" "If Mrs Liddell seeks to take on teachers on the issue of Higher Still, she will find that chutzpah is not enough"

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