Prophets of the Future 2: Poverty and Catholic schools in the post-Covid era

In this series, 4th year primary Catholic Teaching Certificate students share the findings of their studies on an elective course entitled Prophets of a Future not our Own: Catholic Schools and Contemporary Issues.

Sophie MacInnes, MEduc4 student

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

The Gospel of Luke (Luke 6:20-21) states that Jesus said to his disciples, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.”  Examining Jesus’ roots, Patrick Hogan notes that ‘the story of Jesus begins with the birth of a child in degrading circumstances and it is striking that the Saviour of the world should be born in less-than ideal conditions, wrapped in swaddling in a manger of temporary accommodation.’ Angie Miller (2014) further elaborates that ‘Jesus was born into a society with a distinctive hierarchy where he was firmly placed at the bottom.’ Furthermore, throughout scripture, Jesus repeatedly aided those within minorities. He proclaimed, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:13-14)

When engaging with the children in our classrooms, we must recognise the contemporary challenges that individuals are faced with and apply our Catholic values when evaluating the needs of the children facing us, a critical issue being poverty. 1-in-4 children in Scotland are living in relative poverty (Health Scotland, 2019) and this number is generally spatially concentrated in urban and industrial areas. A highly affected area is within Glasgow and areas throughout the West of Scotland, meaning that the challenges that our pupils are facing are often ones we must also challenge as our own.  Jesus went beyond merely alleviating financial poverty, as addressed in multiple scenarios particularly in Luke’s gospel, and in living a life mirroring Jesus we as Catholics must uphold his commitment to promoting social justice.  We should aim to achieve this by providing opportunity for all through a Christocentric ethos, echoed throughout all aspects of our school ‘to promote and manifest a common outlook with a common Christian vision centred around the teaching and life of Jesus Christ.’ (Keiran and Hession, 2005; cf. Charter for Catholic Schools in Scotland).

The challenge of COVID

A critical challenge that every school is currently facing is the repercussions of COVID 19. Stephen McKinney (2020) observes the disruption of education alongside the long-term effects on children’s health and wellbeing as parents and carers have had to recalibrate their familial role into one of a part time educator.  Although COVID 19 undeniably has affected all children, those living in poverty have been arguably impacted detrimentally more than those with a secure home life. It is evident when assessing the children in our classrooms that they have extremely varied experiences of engagement with online learning and home education. What McKinney labels the ‘digital divide’ is a problem that schools worldwide are currently tackling and as Catholic teachers, we must make provisions for those living in poverty who have limited or no access to technology and therefore have not engaged with a substantial amount, if any, educational resources over the lockdown period. It is our unequivocal duty within Catholic social teaching principles to attempt to bridge the consequential COVID gap which has undoubtedly left children in poverty far behind their peers and forced even more children and families into poverty. (Kharas, 2020). When applying social teaching principles, several values overlap when applying them whilst teaching children living in poverty, but we must always answer to the preferential option for the poor when evaluating whether we are achieving our goals as Catholic teachers successfully. We must constantly reiterate that, ‘Jesus does not side with oppressors, but loves the humble.’ (CAFOD, 2020)

Responding to the challenges

As Catholic teachers, what provisions can we implement to aid the multitude of children who have been affected by this problem? In Scotland, schools residing in areas with high levels of deprivation have been awarded additional COVID 19 related Pupil Equity Funding (Education Scotland, 2021) and this is dedicated to those most in need. Although it is at the head teacher’s discretion how it is to be spent, there are already many educational initiatives from the Scottish Government targeting children advancing in learning that they have missed prior due to the pandemic. Therefore, I would urge schools to review the gaps in faith that have appeared as a result of the pandemic amongst children. Parallel to the lack of access to education, we must recognise the children’s lack of access to the church, their faith-related learning experiences and the barrier to pastoral care. As a Catholic community, it is our duty to ensure our learners are supported and these gaps in faith are bridged by the school and church simultaneously.

Alongside achieving educational goals, our role should prioritise ensuring children are engaging with our local church through re-strengthening the community bond between the school, church and home (cf. Reilly, 2020). Allowing children to watch Masses online in classrooms whilst better than nothing, is certainly not substantial enough to allow children to fully emerge themselves in their faith. Consequently, it is our duty to bridge the gap between the school and church and converse with our parish priest to adapt to contemporary COVID issues to find solutions that will allow children to return to church in person. Whether this is through a system which alternates students to attend weekly, or exclusive full school Masses and other services in school, it is crucial to students’ spiritual development to make provisions that allow pupils to engage with their faith face-to-face.

I believe it is imperative in our mission to live a life mirroring Jesus, that we must take steps to alleviate the burden of the poverty related faith-gap that is an apparent consequence of COVID amongst children in schools today.

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