Can We Help Our Schools to Be More Catholic?
by Joanna Bogle
In the early years of our Catholic women’s group we spent quite a lot of time bewailing the state of religious education in Britain’s Catholic schools. Our group, the Association of Catholic Women, formed initially to counter extreme feminists within the Church, had expanded its activities to tackle a range of issues. But were we doing anything practical about this particular situation?
It is something of a myth that a lot can be achieved by arguing and lobbying on such issues. Letters to bishops about unsatisfactory school textbooks meet with entrenched attitudes by diocesan education staff whom the bishop feels obliged to support. Criticism of content becomes associated with criticism of method, and hence of individuals. The critics themselves become angry, cynical, detached.
Opting out of the whole debate and telling families to teach their own children privately at home was never going to be a satisfactory stance either. Our Catholic schools were founded precisely because not all families can do this. Some children at our Catholic schools perhaps come from families that are either not practicing, or are semi-practicing they may have a sense of general association with the Church but little concrete understanding of basic Catholic teachings. Some children are living with just one parent, following divorce, and that parent has to go out to work. Others have a happy and united home, but not one where books and literacy are part of the scene. Schools are necessary and important we cannot abandon children who need them.
In opting for a Catholic school these schools are very popular in Britain, government-funded, and heavily over-subscribed the reasons may have a lot to do with the fact that such schools are seen as having good academic standards, a special atmosphere, and a sense of community. For particularly popular schools, entrance criteria do create their own structures encouraging Catholic practice: parents need to show not only that the child has been baptized but that they are regular Mass-goers. This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that the home is suddenly a distinctly Catholic one.
And then what about the children from poor homes? For some children, school is a major source of stability, a place where they learn things that previous generations learned at home a structure to the day, a meal eaten with others around a table, prayers together, rules about politeness and the small rituals of life. Teachers, indeed, often complain that “we are expected to be child-rearers, when what we want to do is teach”. The breakdown of family life, the dominance of television in the culture and the subsequent transmission of “soap-opera values” into everyday life, the pressures of consumerism, all mean that a Catholic school of five to eleven year-olds is a place where simply passing on the Faith is no easy matter.
Catholic schools may also be faced with poor religious education materials that evidence confusion over the idea of Jesus as truly divine, and emphasize a multi-faith approach (“Let’s look at how Springtime is celebrated in all the world’s major religions”).
So: what to do? Rather than publish lengthy analyses of unsatisfactory textbooks, or repeat the arguments, now rather well-worn, with educational “experts” about the all-too-evident failure of too many of the much-heralded schemes for religious education in schools, we settled on a different approach. Starting eight years ago, we launched a Religious Education Award for schools.
We wanted to help, in particular, junior schools (ages five to eleven), believing that the early years of a child’s life are crucial. Our project focuses on set topics, chosen annually, on which children write essays.
One year it was “What I see in Church”, and children could choose from a list of half a dozen different things in a Catholic church (for example, the tabernacle, a statue of Our Lady, the confessional box) and explain their meaning. Another year the topic was: “Imagine you were present at one of Our Lord’s miracles”, and a choice of specific incidents was given.
The essay project is divided into age groups, and we present an engraved cup for older children (ages eight to eleven) and a shield for younger ones (five to eight). There are lots of runner-up prizes and certificates.
We started on a small scale: teams of volunteers addressing envelopes to schools, and sending brochures about the project. We learned from our mistakes one year, the project was just too “wordy” and complicated. We started to get some real successes numbers of entries expanding, schools very happy to take part. The presentation of the prizes and trophies became an opportunity to meet and engage: we had a delightful ceremony one year at the Catholic Library in London, and then the following year we even had a bishop making the presentations at our own annual meeting.
The big breakthrough came last year (2008), when we teamed up with a major publishing group, the Catholic Truth Society. They mail regularly to schools and are the official publishers of the new Compendium of the Catholic Catechism which we had for some years been buying for our prize-winners.
A joint meeting with the publishing house produced some brilliant ideas a much bigger project, cash prizes for schools, and a more attractive illustrated brochure. The whole thing really took off hundreds of essays poured in, a team of judges working hard to get each one read.
For the main winners we arranged prize-giving ceremonies at the various schools. This involves time and travel but how worthwhile! Addressing a school at morning assembly and presenting copies of the Catechism is an opportunity to show the children that they are part of a worldwide Church, with glorious teachings and a direct link going back to the Apostles.
There have been touching moments: a school hall with a lighted candle in front of a crucifix, children’s voices chorusing the Morning Offering. There have also been hilarious ones, with “howlers” in the children’s essays (Pontius the Pilot, Jesus walking on the water “for a few minuets”). There have been good discussions with teachers, and renewed understanding of the pressures they face, the realities of school life, its tensions and satisfactions.
We have come to have a renewed understanding of the value of our Catholic schools, and a great appreciation for the work of the teachers in them. And we have come to realize that there are practical ways to show support and help. “Better to light a candle than sit and grumble at the dark.”
Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on the radio and television.
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