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Call for Catholic schools to foster vocations

Fr Christopher Jamison OSB, - Thu, Jul 14th 2011


Call for Catholic schools to foster vocations

Vocation is an ambiguous word in a religious context, meaning both the universal call to holiness for all the baptised and also the call to the priesthood or religious life for some. This ambiguity is helpful because there is no universal vocation without the vocation to priesthood and religious life and vice versa. Each requires the other. So as we promote vocation in schools we will be promoting both and, as we will see, this means that fostering a culture of vocation lies at the heart of the Catholic school.

We will consider this in three sections. We begin by looking at the role of school leadership in fostering Catholic culture in general because a culture of vocation that is not part of the school's Catholic culture is simply a careers culture, with priesthood just another heading in the spreadsheet of possible careers generated by the latest online aptitude test. Vocation in a Catholic school refers to the call of Christ, not to a career option. Secondly, having thought about Catholic culture, we then need to look at the curriculum because the curriculum is the place where the core activity of the school takes place. A culture of vocation is not simply one more item in the list of events offered by the chaplaincy; it has the potential to be the heart of the curriculum. Finally, having examined both the Catholic culture and the curriculum, we can then see how a culture of vocation brings these two dimensions of school life into a creative dialogue. The fostering of this dialogue between faith and the curriculum is what it means to foster a culture of vocation.

1. Catholic culture

So we begin with our faith, which is the foundation of any vocation and let's consider the school as a community of explicit and living Catholic faith. All Catholic schools state their faith foundation explicitly. There is a great diversity in this area but certain features are frequently present in these descriptions. For example, one Catholic voluntary-aided secondary school says its mission is "to lead each pupil on a journey of true and complete self-discovery, based on the teachings and values of Jesus Christ." Notice the first principle is self-discovery.

Or another school: "We believe that in the twenty-first century all young people have an abundance of God-given gifts and talents ...We believe that we have a responsibility to develop every person's God-given gifts and talents." Here the emphasis is on developing gifts and talents, which is not that far removed from self-discovery. Schools founded by religious congregations have moved towards summarising the school's values by the use of the order's name: a Sacred Heart education believes in such and such values or the subtle "We are an Ignatian school".

Self-discovery, developing talents, being Ignatian etc. This has been a shift towards headlining the school's values, values which many others who are not Catholic can share. This has enabled non-Catholic parents and pupils to embrace the ethos wholeheartedly in a way that is harder for them to do if you insist on having Catholic faith as the headline. This strategy has also enabled a broad range of lay teachers to claim as their own the school's ethos, especially as religious and clergy retreated from Catholic schools. Many pupils and parents have likewise shown a real grasp of their school's aims. Catholic schools have shown the human face of Catholic faith in a way that has been a major contributor to the acceptance of the Church into the mainstream of society. These and other developments in the faith life of our schools have been fresh and lively innovations with a real sense of energy behind them.

I want to look forward, however, and as I look forward I think we need more than the current approach. The current approach was right for its time and is not wrong now but the Church is calling us to something more than this in the future. At the risk of caricature, the following is a common way of summarising the faith dimension of our schools at present. "St Monica's is a Catholic school with a special ethos that permeates the whole life of the school. Community is especially important to us and lies at the heart of this ethos. You feel it everywhere in the school but it's very hard to describe."

We've probably all said something like that in our time. But here is another way of saying that: the Catholic ethos is hard to describe but since it's something to do with community everybody can live it. So we imply that the Catholic ethos is hard to describe but simple to live out. That is, I believe, a widespread but unstated assumption about Catholic school ethos.

The more I've reflected on this, however, the more I've realised that this assumption is incorrect. I said earlier that the Church is calling us to something more and that call is very clear. The inadequacy of the "hard to describe but simple to live" approach is highlighted by the fact that the Congregation for Catholic Education (CfCE) in Rome has for the last 40 years been articulating Catholic school ethos with great clarity. The Congregation has published a stream of documents that do this in great detail.

In 1977, the Congregation published The Catholic School; in 1982, Lay Catholics in Schools; in 1988, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School; in 1997, The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium; and most recently in 2002, Consecrated Persons and Their Mission in Education. So it transpires that Catholic school ethos is not hard to describe; it's been done for us. The following observation by Peter Boylan sums up the fate of this by now comprehensive statement of Catholic ethos: "It is regrettable to say that these documents, though available, were not well known at the time nor used in significant ways in the majority of Catholic schools in England and Wales. This gap between high level statements of educational principles and their implementation has been a serious weakness in Catholic school systems."

We must overcome the gap between the Church's statement of Catholic ethos and the implementation of it in our schools. We must say to ourselves: Catholic school ethos is simple to describe and very hard to live out. Just how hard it is to live out becomes clear when we read these documents; they set a very high bar for us to reach. At the risk of oversimplification, let me highlight two very demanding principles that are emphasised regularly in all these statements. The first principle is that the Catholic school is a school of communion and the second is that all teachers are responsible for the faith formation of students.

Let's examine each in turn. The differences between a school community and a school of communion are enormous. Let me explain: firstly, the word "community" no longer has a shared meaning in British culture. It means everything from those who live in the same postcode but never speak to each other (usually referred to as the local community) through people who have the same ethnic background (the Hispanic community) to people living together for life in religious vows (a monastic community.)

In this community free-for-all, our distinctive Catholic understanding of community needs to become clearer in our schools: we believe in community as communion. The most recent statement of the CfCE Educating Together in Catholic Schools: A Shared Mission Between Consecrated Persons and the Lay Faithful 2007 explains community as communion: "this community binding force and its potential for relationships derive from a set of values and a communion of life rooted in our common belonging to Christ."

The statement then describes communion as the key to achieving the living out of the Catholic school's aims. Education in a Catholic school "is not given for the purpose of gaining power but as an aid towards fuller understanding of and communion with people, with events and with things." It then goes on to describe how the outcome of such a process is that the young person begins to have a sense of their place in the world and God's vocation for them in this world. In other words, communion in the Catholic school leads to deeper communion with God and with the world. "It will make the student understand how necessary it is to know how to listen, to interiorise values, to learn to assume commitments and to make life choices." In this way, "the Catholic school constitutes an impressive barrier against the influence of a widespread mentality that leads the young to consider themselves as a series of sensations to be experienced rather than as a work to be accomplished." Such an understanding is clearly vital to any culture of vocation.

This leads into the second aspect of the simple to state but hard to live Catholic ethos: the school as communion requires special formation of staff to understand and to undertake this task. The Church recognises the need for continuous professional development and says this applies to both formation for subject teaching and to formation for carrying out the whole project of the Catholic school. There is a world of difference between teachers who are happy to work in a Catholic school and teachers who see themselves as forming the faith of the students. But the CfCE is always realistic and it adds: "Certainly the degree of participation can differ in relation to one's personal history."

Both these aspects of Catholic ethos are summed up in the following quotation from The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (CfCE, 1988) "From the first moment that a student sets foot in a Catholic school, he or she ought to have the impression of entering a new environment, one illumined by the light of faith, and having its own unique characteristics ... The Gospel spirit should be evident in a Christian way of thought and life which permeates all aspects of the educational climate ... Prime responsibility for creating this unique Christian school climate rests with the teachers, as individuals and as a community ... Through this daily witness, the students will come to appreciate the uniqueness of the environment to which their youth has been entrusted. If it is not present, then there is little left which can make the school Catholic."

These two features of school as communion and teachers as faith formers are so difficult to achieve but I believe we make them harder to achieve if we see them as items to be bolted on. We have to take them into the heart of the school's life, into the curriculum.

2. The curriculum

In his excellent book Catholic Schools: Mission, Markets and Morality, Prof Gerald Grace describes the dominant British curriculum as the "market curriculum", the transformation of knowledge, teaching and learning into units that enable students to gain a particular place in the economic market place. Thus Shakespeare or the wonders of science are used to help students gain a good A-level grade and hence get into a good university. Alongside this, good teachers present Shakespeare or natural science as part of the human development of their students. So we have a curriculum driven by both utility and human development, with utility usually coming out on top whenever there is a conflict of interest.

At both primary and secondary levels, this curriculum is centrally controlled and the outcomes of the assessment are centrally codified in league tables. In turn, the school then has to survive in the league table market place. This market-driven curriculum makes it hard to keep open a space for a Catholic heart and mind; the sheer instrumentalism of getting on and getting a career overwhelms the efforts of good Catholic teachers to nurture an educated faith, even in the RE curriculum.

Contrast this with the US system, where entry to higher education is determined by SATs while the High School Certificate curriculum is determined by the school. In the US, the Catholic school curriculum is designed by each Catholic school locally. As one Catholic educator in America commented when I explained the British system to him, why would anybody in Britain bother running a Catholic school if the government determines the curriculum? It is a powerful question that Catholic schools should be asking more vigorously.

The Centre for Research and Development in Catholic Education at London University recently produced an excellent paper entitled Can there a Catholic school curriculum? and it helpfully focuses the issues but we need more independent minded answers. My own approach to the curriculum was changed by the introduction of Curriculum 2000, the government initiative that introduced AS and A2. As a member of the Independent Schools Joint Academic Policy Committee at the time, I was involved in the consultation process. During that process, it became clear that the government's curriculum agenda was overwhelmingly utilitarian. The space for personal development was narrowed by this initiative and so the space for Catholic approaches also narrowed. While a Catholic curriculum will have a utilitarian effect, it is in the personal development space that the Catholic dimension of the curriculum flourishes. That space was reduced so I set about investigating the International Baccalaureate and in 2002 Worth offered the IB Diploma as an option alongside Curriculum 2000.

While the IB is not perfect from our perspective it does at least have a vision of humanity and of knowledge at its core. All six subject areas must be studied, community service must be undertaken and creative arts performed. The Theory of Knowledge is its central feature, from which all other subject areas radiate out. All subject areas have to relate to the core question: how do we know anything? So, for example, science courses must examine "What is science?" and economics must ask "What is wealth?"

To become an IB school, all teachers must participate in an international training programme overseas, to ensure that they catch the vision, a vision about which the IB Organisation is unashamedly evangelical.

3. A culture of vocation

The key insight that the IB programmes offer Catholic educators is that a modern curriculum in use in Britain can have a vision of humanity at its heart and not just be purely instrumentalist. The current English curriculum has no central vision at all, just curriculum areas, most of which clearly have only instrumental purposes. As Catholic educators, we work hard to create a central vision for our curriculum from Key Stage One to A-level but my fear is that in a government-controlled system that has no heart, we are simply bolting on a life support machine rather than giving it a heart. We need instead to consider how we can create a curriculum with a Catholic heart, a pedagogy shot through with the person of Christ and His Church. The Catholic curriculum question cannot be dealt with in detail here but what can be done is to highlight the possibility that Catholic schools could be braver in addressing the Catholic curriculum question at a fundamental level.

Over the last 40 years we have fought hard to maintain our independence as Catholic schools. We could now use our hard-won position to take the lead in the development of a distinctive Catholic curriculum. So I offer a simple but demanding way to bring together Catholic culture and the curriculum: let's create a Catholic curriculum that has one simple vision as its core aim: a Catholic curriculum enables all students to respond to the call of Christ throughout their lives. With such a vision at its heart, this would be a vocational curriculum in the profoundest meaning of the word vocation. Taking the IB hexagon as our model, we could insist that every subject showed how it enabled people to respond to the call of Christ. It would not be necessary to offer the IB curriculum to do this. All Key Stages could be adapted to have this vision at their heart, with Religious Studies rather than Theory of Knowledge as the core of this curriculum, linking together all the subjects, theology once again the queen of the sciences. To do this well, teachers need proper training, as with the IB and as recommended by the CfCE documents.

You will rightly be asking if this vision of a Catholic curriculum has any chance of being implemented in practice when there are so many other pressures on schools. That question was at the back of my mind when I made a similar presentation to the heads of the Birmingham Archdiocese exactly 12 months ago. To my delight, 8 of them asked for a follow-up meeting and at the end of that, we arranged two one day workshops for their heads of science and heads of humanities. The outcomes of those workshops were remarkable.

At the start of the day, the scientists described their fear of this area and the teachers of humanities were struggling to understand what we were talking about. By the end of the day, all were speaking enthusiastically about how this approach would add salt to all subjects, motivate the weaker students and help the teachers themselves to rediscover why they entered teaching. Like me you might still wonder whether the away-day enthusiasm would wither under the corrosive effect of the daily grind. Last week, we had this year's conference for Birmingham heads and two of them described experiments that they had followed the workshops. A secondary head described framing work on astrophysics with a meditation on Psalm 8: "When I see the heavens the work of your hands, the moon and the stars which you have arranged, what is man that you keep him in mind?"

The science teachers themselves found the psalm and set the unit within the context of God calling us into existence. A primary head described her school with 10 per cent Catholics and a majority of Muslim pupils. She is re-framing the curriculum within the question, "Who has God called me to be?" A project on the seaside, for example, includes Grace Darling, an ordinary young woman called to extraordinary heroism by rowing into a storm to save shipwrecked passengers.

Both of these experiments illustrate how teachers and students alike can grasp the belief that God calls people in concrete ways and that they have a choice as to whether they will acknowledge that call. It's not just Catholics that are called into existence for some definite service; it is all human beings. The educational task of the Church is to make sure that everybody knows how the love of God has created them for a purpose. This is the heart not only of the school's pastoral care, ethos and RE, it is also a core task of every area of the taught curriculum. With such an approach, our schools become places imbued with a culture of vocation. Such a culture is not only the essential seedbed for every kind of vocation in the Church, lay and religious, it is also a source of hope for a generation that will face a tougher economic future than any for decades.

Pope Benedict invited the school pupils of Britain to consider the question: "What kind of a person do you really want to be?" This is the human face of the vocational challenge and shows how it can be expressed in an inviting way that embraces all people. Our duty as educators is to help young people answer that question.

With the present Government's promise of greater flexibility in the curriculum, this is an opportune moment to consider such a development. Birmingham schools have picked up the challenge remarkably quickly and the Archdiocese is now making this into a full scale project entitled "Hearts and Minds: A Curriculum for Catholic Education." The schools of the Westminster Archdiocese could now consider how to express this vision in a way appropriate to your situation. At this time of significant change in our education system, now is the time to develop a curriculum with the call of Christ at its heart.

The above speech was presented to a conference organised by the Archdiocese of Westminster on 5 July 2011. Fr Christopher is Director of the National Office for Vocation of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. He was Headmaster of Worth School from 1994 to 2002 and Abbot of Worth from 2002 to 2010. He has been President of the International Commission on Benedictine Education since 2002. 

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