Does Catholic education matter?

The nation’s children have now settled back into the new school year, with Covid seemingly conquered for now. The challenge now on everyone’s lips in the Munster region is one of ‘catch up’. Numeracy and literacy standards are not what they should be, and our schools are expected to respond. This pressure is particularly experienced in rural areas where broadband facilities limited access to zoom classes.

This emphasis on ‘catch up’ is reflective of the instrumental way we instinctively view schooling – as an opportunity of acquiring skills to aid future functionality. Yet a glance at the world’s news headlines – the Afghanistan crisis, vaccine hesitancy, the source of the Covid virus and much else – suggests that literacy and numeracy are not actually what the real world is about. It’s not that curriculum content is unimportant. In fact, it is vital, but so also are teaching and learning techniques, character education, social and moral development, and the development of a rounded worldview.

Catholic schools will face their own additional challenges this year, for they have a much wider vision of their role. The great aim of Catholic education is to help people realise the meaning and purpose of their existence. It thus seeks to educate all aspects of the person. It seeks to develop virtue and to transmit a Christian way of life, especially that of service. It promotes truth as a forming power in education and in life. It bears witness to the truth of things, to the eternal value of the here and now, and to a moral way of life drawing on reason and nature. It helps young people establish a correct balance between emotions and reason in decision making.

Many of these strengths are under threat from a draft Framework for primary schools currently under consideration, which is directly at odds with the idea of a holistic Catholic education. Additionally, all schools, primary and secondary, will be confronted with a NCCA-proposed, morality-free, World Health Organisation approach to sex-education.

Pragmatic types may argue that such things don’t much matter. Yet the problems facing our world say otherwise. And Catholic education has an enormous amount to offer in response.

Catholic education maintains high standards because it has a firm view on what human excellence is, by looking at the person of Christ. It has rational ways of evaluating excellence, so teachers assess it on the basis of competencies, not seeing these as standards perpetuated by unjust hierarchies in society.

It equally promotes high moral standards, aware that our world needs leaders who are wedded to justice and peace. This moral underpinning is of even greater import than simply teaching right and wrong.  It also anchors the education system including its structures, curriculum and pedagogical methods, especially when these are under threat from wider ideologies – critical theory and woke thinking being modern examples of such challenges now on our doorsteps.

It is not only Catholic parents who want Catholic schools. The principles of freedom that underpin democracy are now existentially threatened by new brands of secularism – Catholic education is a vital antidote to stem that threat to democracy.

Catholic schools and parents need to fully appreciate the value of what they hold when facing the political challenges in the coming year. That may require that they do their own ‘catch up’ on understanding the treasures of Catholic education to be better placed to defend it.