OPINION: ‘Catholic schools deliver for all communities’ - CCMS chief

The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) believes that it is essential that parents have the right to choose faith-based education in line with their philosophical beliefs.

By Gerry Campbell CCMS
Friday, 31st December 2021, 4:01 pm

Catholic Schools throughout Northern Ireland are getting ready to play their part in Catholic Schools Week, an annual international event which highlights the outstanding contribution made by Catholic Schools, not just to their pupils and school community, but also to society in general Catholic Schools Week will see the launch of a new ethos paper, ‘Catholic Schools, Delivering for Communities’ which articulates the values and future vision of Catholic Education within Northern Ireland. In this context it is wholly appropriate, at this time, that the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) should reinforce the position that parents should continue to have the right to access a faith based education for their child in line with Protocol 1, Article 2 of the Human Rights Act.

However, there is much debate currently about the future of education in Northern Ireland.

Most of which revolves around whether there is any role for faith-based education in our society with a number of assertions and assumptions widely declared.

Nursery School.

Catholic education is a relic of a divided past.

A perception of faith-based education here is that of a stand-alone unfamiliar entity with no other examples of diverse education provision offered in any other setting around the globe. Catholic education is not unique to Northern Ireland. In fact, Catholic and other faith-based schools exist across the world because parents have the right to choose education provision in line with their religious and philosophical convictions. Our Catholic schools are part of a global network of Catholic education where 60 million pupils of all faiths and none are welcomed, cherished, and supported to realise their potential and to contribute positively to the Common Good.

We need one unified education system.

We have heard repeated calls for ‘a one size fits all’ single system of education. The assumption is that this move will provide the cure for all that is wrong with society here, however to date there has been little elaboration of what that means, nor recognition given to the undeniable truth that a society is reflective of more than its education system. It is contradictory to argue that our education system does not reflect a maturing and diverse society by suggesting that diversity can only be achieved and appreciated if we remove the diversity of choice that currently exists within it. To do so excludes those who have legitimate interests in the future of faith-based schooling here. It seems that some political conversations are held without reference to the voice of the wider family of Catholic education providers which includes Catholic maintained schools, Catholic voluntary grammar schools and St Mary’s University College.

Gerry Campbell, Chief Executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS).

In many ways I agree. But it is a fundamentally flawed position to assert that only schools which call themselves ‘Integrated’ can offer education to people from different faith backgrounds and none. There are many examples of Catholic and other schools which welcome a diverse range of pupils.

Catholic schools are and always have been inclusive in the true sense of the word. 44% of primary and 29% of post-primary schools in Northern Ireland are Catholic Maintained schools - when added to Catholic Managed Voluntary Grammar figures, the total enrolment of pupils attending Catholic Schools equates to 44.7% of the school age population. Places within Catholic Schools remain in demand. 53% of all newcomer children attend Catholic schools, arguably making Catholic schools amongst the most diverse schools in the country. In a diverse culture, Catholic schools are very much valued.

Catholic education is just narrow education for Catholics

Catholic schools contribute to the wellbeing of the education system as a whole through the pursuit of genuine excellence whilst remaining faithful to their distinctive culture, vision and approach. This enables learners not only to realise their own personal gifts but also to value the contribution made by others. Catholic schools are open to pupils of all faiths and none; all abilities; and all socio-economic backgrounds, therefore Catholic education is naturally inclusive. Our inclusive centres of learning listen, encourage constructive dialogue and support the development of mutual understanding; in so doing they enhance communities and provide the opportunity for a young person’s holistic growth. Catholic Schools continue to increase their capacity for diversity, academic excellence and achievement for all.

School & Support Services.

The Catholic/Christian worldview is outdated in a modern society

The underlying philosophy and characteristics of Catholic education underpin Catholic schools in how they support all learners, regardless of ability, to realise and achieve their full potential. Catholic education encompasses all aspects of the education of children. It promotes the dignity and worth of every human person; the purpose and value of education; the relationship between education, family and the local community; and the purpose and meaning of life itself. Catholic education is inclusive and promotes listening, mutual understanding, trust, reconciliation, healing, and peace.

Catholic schools are firmly rooted in their local communities where all children, young people, and their families, irrespective of their background, culture, or creed, are welcomed and supported. The links between the family, parish, community, and the school remain important and strong. Indeed, this wider sense of community helps to develop and enhance the core message of respect for diversity and inclusion across our wider society.

Catholic schools continue to play a leading role in breaking down barriers through innovative shared education programmes and in partnership working with other schools, regardless of which sector the school is connected to. In a growing secular and pluralist society, Catholic schools retain the full support from their local communities where parents continue to have confidence in the quality of education delivered, the outstanding pastoral care provided and the high levels of commitment to excellence demonstrated by school leaders. Catholic schools and their distinct contribution to the education system are essential to sustaining a modern and diverse society. The degree to which Catholic schools continue to attract such a significant percentage of the school age population is testament to the quality of the educational provision in those schools.

Catholic maintained schools and the teachers and other staff employed in them, enthusiastically seek to improve the educational outcomes of all children. Over the past 5 years of examination data, the performance of pupils in CCMS schools at GCSE level has improved year-on-year by almost 10 percentage points. At post-16, there is a similar improvement trend with the percentage of pupils in CCMS schools achieving 3 or more A- Levels (or equivalents) at grades A*-C increasing year-on-year from just over 50% to 61%. These outcomes remain well above the Northern Ireland average for all non-selective schools.

We are all too aware of the challenges we face in Northern Ireland; our divided past and the scourge of sectarianism continue to be blights on our society.

We all aspire to live in a society that is fully inclusive and where everyone is respected, regardless of background or belief.

It is vital that all schools in Northern Ireland continue to lead the way in breaking down barriers.

Catholic schools are central to healing these divisions and to building a better future for everyone.

They have always played a positive role in helping to heal divisions in our society and building bridges between different communities. Catholic schools have led the way in meeting these challenges and are very much part of the collective educational fabric now and into the future, as we all work towards supporting our young people to succeed in a changing world.

They will always continue to do this and work alongside schools from other sectors to achieve this.

In the past decades, the education system within Northern Ireland has undergone numerous changes. The current independent Review of Education provides an opportunity to review our system and to come forward with proposals that will enable and empower the design and delivery of the highest quality education system for our future generations of learners. It is important that post-review, we have a system of education which affords respect for diversity and parental preference – whether that be for a Catholic, controlled, integrated, voluntary grammar or Irish-Medium school or indeed any future school type that might support our changing society. A diverse society is enriched by diversity in its educational provision.

CCMS recognises, accepts, and respects the rights of all the different sectors in education in Northern Ireland. This diversity should be viewed positively in terms of the contribution that it brings to building a cohesive society alongside ensuring that parental preferences are respected within an education system which meets the needs of all children.

We believe that no sector should be set above any other in terms of recognition and support. CCMS recognises the need to be forward looking to ensure that every child, irrespective of religious, ethnic, cultural or socio-economic background has equal access to high quality education so that all can reach their full potential and contribute to building a strong economy. Catholic schools continue to look forward and to play a positive role in raising standards and in building respect not only in the classroom, but throughout the community and wider society. In a modern, pluralist society, Catholic education contributes to the creation of strong communities, a strong economy and community cohesion.

In this context, are Catholic Schools a relic of our divided past or more accurately a fundamental part of our shared and diverse future?

*Gerry Campbell, Chief Executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) which is the managing authority for 447 schools in Northern Ireland, employing approximately 6,500 teachers.