When you really must have faith

10th June 2005 at 01:00
Patrick McDermott answers your leadership questions

I have been teaching religious education in Catholic schools for more than 20 years now. Is it time to abandon RE and replace it with Evangelisation, as both the number of committed and practising Catholic children and parents are dwindling, along with vocations to the priesthood and religious life? Catholic schools have failed, haven't they?

It is ironic that, as the state recognises and applauds the success of Catholic schools in terms of examination success, and the quality of their discipline and pastoral care, the very same schools are being branded, from within their own church, as failing in terms of producing committed and practising young Catholics. This criticism of Catholic schools from the Catholic church is reinforced when the argument about limited financial resources is added. Why is the Catholic church still pouring in millions to its schools without getting the required spiritual and vocational "return" on its investment?

Over the years the responsibility for delivering the goods in this area for Catholic schools rested primarily, though not exclusively, with the RE department (aka "the God squad"). You, I take it, have been one such member during your teaching career. It would be interesting to know whether you describe your time in Catholic schools as a career or do you see it more as a vocation to teach RE? Presumably you have lived through those days of being told that what you are really doing is indoctrinating young people.

We haven't been very successful, have we, if this were the name of the game?

Next to come along was the charge that, OK, you were not indoctrinating those impressionable young people, but you were subjecting them to Religious Instruction. Again, if your analysis of the present demise of practice and commitment is correct, then this has been an almighty failure, too. In response to this state of affairs, what you spent your time on in school was redefined as Religious Education. Almost overnight the pedagogy went experiential and world religions were added to the menu.

It seemed more important for young people in Catholic schools to understand the religions of others rather than their own. As a background to this, two of the three wheels of the tricycle fell off as far as the faith development was concerned. The mantra was that for spiritual formation to be most effective, the partnership of homeschoolparish had to be firing on all cylinders. As we know, parents are no longer the first educators of their children in faith, and young people are voting with their feet as far as parishes are concerned. Thus Catholic schools are left to fight the good fight - alone.

Thank God it's not quite as bad as you imply but it is getting there. If this situation is to be reversed, then Catholic schools, along with parishes and Catholic parents, have to get their acts together fairly rapidly to stop the rot.

You put forward the interesting idea of replacing RE with evangelisation.

So presumably, instead of having the required 10 per cent of curriculum time given over to the teaching of RE, we should use this timetabled time for telling young people about Jesus and inviting them to make a personal response. How would you feel about moving from the more objective study of religion to the sharing of personal faith which evangelisation will lead on to? Your role will change before long from teacher to Catechist. Are you ready for this? Is your school ready for it? What will the parents and governors think? This is radical stuff.

If this did happen, then prayer, worship and liturgies cannot just remain bolted-on, added extras at assemblies and form times. These have to become intrinsic parts of the rhyme and rhythm of each day and grow out of the lived experiences of the young people.

Maybe the Catholic school is past its sell-by date and no longer fit for purpose but what you are suggesting is far more radical. Let the debate begin. Close all Catholic schools and replace them with what? Reconfigure them; make them fit for purpose - and then staff them with whom? Catechists apply here; RE teachers need not apply!

Patrick McDermott is head of St Joseph's Catholic college, an 11-18 girls'

school in Bradford. This is his third headship: he has been a head for 12 years and a teacher for 27. He is a facilitator for the National College for School Leadership and mentored Catholic heads for 10 years.Do you have a leadership question?Email susan.young@tes.co.uk

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