In this series, 4th year primary Catholic Teaching Certificate students share the findings of their studies on a new elective course entitled Prophets of a Future not our Own: Catholic Schools and Contemporary Issues.
Hannah Castle, MEduc4 student
The growing attainment gap in Scotland represents a crucial issue which Catholic schools need to face in the 21st Century. What is the attainment gap? It is the growing divide in academic performance between children from low-income areas versus their more affluent peers. Currently in Scotland, the goal is to close this poverty-related attainment gap as almost one in four (230,000) of Scotland’s children are officially recognised as living in poverty, and this figure is expected to rise over the next few years, which the Child Poverty Action Group projects to reach a rate of 38% by 2030/31. A 2014 report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation discovered that by the age of 5, the gap between these two demographics of children sits at 10-30 months of difference. They also discovered that this gap widens as they progress further to secondary school leading to significantly different educational outcomes when they reach the end of their school career.
These are very alarming figures and need to be a clear priority for all schools in Scotland. The Scottish Government has already provided several policies which are to aid schools in closing the poverty-related attainment gap, such as the Scottish Attainment Challenge, the National Improvement Framework (NIF) and Pupil Equity Funding (PEF) to support this effort to close the gap. These policies, however, have been criticised about how effective they actually are with NIF deemed to have biased results due to them not using any independent studies and PEF funding not able to go far enough as poverty is a wider societal problem and more of a focus needs to be on involving multi-agency support to aid the most affected families outside of school. With these policies already in place to help Scottish schools close the poverty-related attainment gap, what exactly can Catholic schools bring to the table to aid in this goal?
Looking at contemporary Catholic schools in the UK from a historical perspective, it is worth remembering that were originally established in the nineteenth century with the mission to educate the poor, and to help an economically disadvantaged community progress and become more socially mobile. Indeed this historical background impacts on the oft-aired debate over whether state-funded Catholic schools are outdated: in fact they have a historical track record in closing the attainment gap, and so may be needed more than ever. Catholic schools have a lot to offer to society and provide a unique and enriching education for children. Through RE lessons, children are able to make connections between other curricular areas and this also allows them to become religiously literate and make informed decisions on all kinds of knowledge. For example, by attending a Catholic school, children are exposed to rich religious traditions such as music, art and drama, curricular areas that are often overlooked nowadays in Scottish schools due to the focus on literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing as they are seen as the “responsibility of all staff”.
Our guide can be Catholic Social Teaching and its focus on the preferential option for the poor which is deeply rooted in the gospels, especially Luke’s Gospel. CST’s richness allows Catholic schools to both highlight the social injustices of poverty and hunger as part of the curriculum in the classroom, and also give them the tools and mindsets to lift themselves out of poverty. One small example of this logic in action is breakfast clubs. Before the national lockdown was announced in Scotland in response to the global Covid 19 pandemic, children were coming to school in the morning hungry. They were arriving having little or nothing to eat which is not ideal for optimal learning for a child. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs explains this as, the first level encompasses all of the basic necessities that a human being needs to function such as breathing, food, water, sleep etc. Pollard states in his book Reflective Teaching in Schools, regarding the first level of Maslow’s hierarchy, that “if a pupil is hungry or distressed, teaching and learning is unlikely to be effective” (p. 21). Many Catholic schools responded to this issue by setting up breakfast clubs which can be described as the practical work of feeding the hungry that is called for in Matthew 25:31–46. In times like these, the parish often teams up with schools to provide the best care and advice possible.
As mentioned earlier however, poverty unfortunately is not something which can be wholly solved by schools but are instead a wider societal problem which must see the families being supported as well by multi-agencies. Catholic schools however are an essential aspect in closing the poverty-related attainment gap due to their historical resources, their commitment to helping the poor and their teaching of the scriptures and Catholic Social Teaching.