Wanted: spiritual school leaders

10th March 2000 at 00:00
WHEN Pope Paul VI wrote in his Apostolic Exhortation of 1975 that "modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are also witnesses" he reinforced a powerful concept in Catholic educational culture - that of "the teacher as witness". It is this concept which is at the base of the recruitment problems for Roman Catholic headship described in "Wanted: RC heads" and in the statistics presented by John Howson (TES, February 11).

If Catholic educational culture has these expectations, it has even stronger expectations for Catholic headteachers as "leaders in witness". In contemporary society what may be seen as a source of strength, in helping to preserve the integrity of the Catholic mission, is also a source of difficulty.

The questions which have to be faced are: why is it relatively difficult to find enough "leaders in witness" for Catholic headship and what can be done about it?

There are two main reasons why recruiting headteachers for Catholic schools may be more difficult than for other schools. The first is that all Catholic schools are expected to have as headteachers practising members of the faith. In contrast, Church of England schools may accept a range of Christian believers extending beyond the Anglican community and county schools draw upon all aspirant headteachers.

The Catholic Church has always insisted that a Catholic school leadership is essential to a distinctive Catholic ethos and set of values. While it has not been possible to hold to such a policy for classroom teachers, at the level of school leadership it has been regarded as critical.

Holding to such a strongly-defined position on faith witness at a time of changing patterns of practice is going to result in a longer search for the right candidate. It is also possible that a significant number of potential candidates de-select themselves as not being "regular Catholics" of the conventional type.

A second, and perhaps more important reason, relates to the expectations for faith leadership. Headteachers in Catholic schools are not only expected to provide acadmic and professional leadership with good, measurable results; they are also expected to provide strong spiritual, moral and social leadership. As Catholic schools have increasingly achieved league-table successes, the emphasis of many appointing-committees has swung back to the ability to articulate and enhance the distinctive spiritual and moral purposes of a Catholic school.

In a society increasingly marked by secularism, consumerism and market forces, the need for strong spiritual leadership in Catholic schools is very clear.

But it is a daunting challenge. The Vatican document of 1982, Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to Faith, presented some high aspirations when it said that "the Catholic educator must be a source of spiritual inspiration".

Being a personal faith witness is one thing but being a source of spiritual inspiration is quite another. Many professional and highly competent teachers may feel less confident of leading in this area and articulating persuasively the fundamental spiritual purposes.

The irony is that many potential applicants may be able to demonstrate and talk about achievements in test scores and examination results, business-planning and public relations but still be relatively inarticulate about the spiritual and moral culture of a Catholic school.

The difficulty has been that not enough action has been taken to remedy this situation. Recruitment problems for Catholic headship will continue until enough professional development and leadership programmes are in place to deal seriously with these spiritual, moral and ethical dimensions.

Some attempts have been made in this direction. Catholic agencies such as St Mary's College, Strawberry Hill, have launched an MA in Catholic school leadership. However, NPQH courses for aspiring heads do nothing to help Catholic applicants.

If Catholic appointment committees are looking for inspirational spiritual leadership in their schools then it may take them some time to find it.

Professor Grace is director of the

Centre for Research and Development in Catholic Education at the London Institute of Education.

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