‘I hold on to my faith that learning can change lives’

29th April 2016 at 00:00
As he approaches retirement, the director of SCES reflects on the achievements of the past 13 years and what the future holds for Catholic education in Scotland

In May 2003, I was introduced to the media as the first director of a new support service for Scotland’s Catholic schools being set up by the Catholic Church. It was strange to read the reports dubbing me the new “czar” or “supremo” of Catholic schools, as if I were being asked to run an empire or a corporation. The reality was somewhat less grandiose.

Now, as I anticipate retiring this summer, I am preparing a transition process for whoever is appointed as my successor. Inevitably, my mind is drawn to thoughts of what has been achieved in 13 years and what kind of platform has been established on which a new director of SCES (Scottish Catholic Education Service) can build in the years ahead.

While it’s for others to comment on any successes or otherwise, I believe that a number of significant developments have affected Scotland’s Catholic schools in these years. None has emerged from the work of any single person. Each has been the product of close collaboration among teachers, headteachers, parents and others who contributed their time, expertise and enthusiasm to ensure that our work was focused on improving outcomes for children and young people.

Just as Curriculum for Excellence was emerging, we developed a national syllabus for religious education for pupils from P1 to S6, which has received the rare accolade of official endorsement from the Vatican and has attracted plaudits from Catholic school systems around the world. To the surprise of some, perhaps, we also took the time to develop extensive programmes of relationships, parenthood and sexual health education for primary and secondary schools. These complemented our religious education programmes in offering a vision of life that is inspired by God’s love for all people and by God’s call to relationship.

‘Serving the common good’

In February 2016, we offered advice on how Catholic schools should incorporate into their processes of evaluation and planning a clear focus on school mission, identity, values and ethos. This will lead to schools addressing particular themes – such as “serving the common good” or “promoting Gospel values” – when teachers, students and parents are discussing how their own Catholic school is “developing in faith”.

We have recently published Companions on the Journey, setting out a national strategy for promoting career-long professional learning for teachers in Catholic schools. The aim is to offer more accessible opportunities for teachers who wish to develop the knowledge and skills that will benefit their work in accompanying young people as they journey through key life stages, providing “witness” through their own lives of integrity, as Pope Francis has encouraged them to do. Some teachers may engage with those aspects of theology that are directly relevant to programmes of religious education. Others will explore issues affecting young people in a world beset by moral and ethical challenges. I anticipate that it will be a priority for my successor to ensure that all teachers are encouraged to engage in such ongoing professional learning.

One of the most significant initiatives of recent years has been the introduction of the Caritas Award, established following the UK visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, and the Faith Award, named in honour of Pope Francis.

Provided for pupils in secondary schools and primary schools respectively, both awards encourage young people to demonstrate how religious faith can have a positive impact on people – in their school, their local community and in the developing world. The outcomes have included wonderful testimonies from young people about their commitment to show love to their neighbours and to commit their talents to serving the needs of others. These acts of service are inspired by the Gospel and bear great hope for a world often characterised by self-interest and greed.

Of course, I recognise that Catholic education continues to face serious challenges in the years ahead. The national teacher recruitment crisis has particular implications for Catholic schools across the country.

We are working with partners to encourage young people to become teachers and school leaders. Teacher shortages haven’t reached the catastrophic levels of the mid 1970s when I entered the profession. But, without some concerted efforts to boost the profile of teaching as a rewarding and vital career, we could end up back there.

I am sanguine, but not complacent, about the likely continuation of attacks on Catholic schools from the “usual suspects”. While remaining silent about evidence showing that Catholic school communities are successful, inclusive and effective, these critics loudly proclaim their intolerance of parents who opt for Catholic education (where that choice is available to them). I am happy to compliment the secularist lobby for being well-organised and media savvy. I just wish that they would display a more mature and respectful demeanour that might lend itself to reasonable dialogue rather than insult and hyperbole.

I have enormously enjoyed the past 41 years working as a teacher, above all working with and for young people. I loved being a headteacher, which, despite all the challenges, is still the best job in the world.

I am fortunate to have met many former pupils who have grown into fine men and women, some teachers and many parents. I am grateful to colleagues who have worked with me and offered support and encouragement, particularly in this most recent post as SCES director. I wish everyone involved in Scottish education great success. I sense that we are at a significant point when the tectonic plates of policy and governance structures may be starting to shift. I doubt this will lead to the appointment of any more “czars” or “supremos”. I hope that it will produce teachers who are passionate about working with young people, helping to transform their lives through learning.

If I offer to pray for you all, I hope that no one will be offended.

Michael McGrath is director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service @sces_mmcgrath

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