The National Discussion (Part 1)

A response for Scottish Education, steeped in the wisdom and tradition of the Catholic faith.

Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on


Recently, the Scottish Government launched the ‘listening phase’ of the National Discussion on Education and invited children and young people, parents and carers, and educators to give their views about what the education system should look like for the next 20 years.

What follows is the contribution to the National Discussion from members of the St Andrew’s Foundation for Catholic Teacher Education at the University of Glasgow. It is important to note that this contribution was not written for the denominational school sector but rather for education in Scotland in general and reflects a philosophy of education that has positively shaped, influenced and impacted education globally for centuries. We propose that this contribution presents a vision of education that is as relevant today as ever before.

The premise of this paper is to suggest that consideration should be given to the philosophy of education that this country and its leaders will espouse. Without guiding principles and an underpinning rationale rooted in solid foundations, progress can be significantly impeded in terms of achieving tangible impact in the shaping of the future direction of education in Scotland. 

The National Discussion is an invitation to reflect a priori on the foundations of education. We address these from the resources, wisdom, and traditions of Catholic Education, for the advance and advantage of all. An integral feature of the discussion for Catholic educators is, we argue, the core concept of contribution to the common good.  Inseparable from the sharing of the living inheritance of the Catholic faith across the generations in Catholic schools lies the key principle that in a diverse, plural and rapidly changing society, Catholic Education brings the richness of its humanism and its historic Christian anthropology to bear on the questions and challenges confronting the whole of society. This it does in our own time as it has in all previous times since the emergence of Catholic schooling.  The principle of the common good is manifest today across the distinctive spectrum of values, learning and teaching, curriculum and pedagogy to be found in our schools––which centre upon the fundamental Christian perception of the child and young person in our society and our culture––and which speak to many of the experiences of Scotland’s young people as they progress through their education in the 2020s and beyond. 

The National Discussion is, as we know, taking place against the backdrop of unprecedented change and turbulence in our nation and in our world. From the global challenges of climate change and pandemic recovery to more localised concerns around mental health, emotional wellbeing, technological innovation and economic precarity, all our schools are asked to navigate volatile and uncertain forces, the impact of which remains incompletely understood as well as exacting for democratic societies to govern and predict. The deep well of educational memory in Catholic education––sustained by the Christian Gospel, the teachings of the Church and two millennia of educational practice––supplies, we believe, a comprehensive heritage that is of enduring value and significance for Scotland today.

The St Andrew’s Foundation in the University of Glasgow is the home of Catholic Teacher Education in Scotland and is an international hub of knowledge exchange and research in the field of Catholic Education. It is located in the School of Education at the University of Glasgow and its Director and members work in partnership with the Scottish Government and the Bishops’ Conference to ensure a high-quality education for prospective teachers in Scotland. Its members are University of Glasgow academics and associate faculty who are committed to scholarship, research and learning and teaching in the field of Education and Catholic Education, including six professors of Education who are globally renowned and eminent in their fields.  

The philosophy of education presented in this paper is one which is consciously promoted by members of the St Andrew’s Foundation. We invite readers to give it due consideration.

Section A: Towards a guiding vision of the human person

A vision of the person and education

Every project of education has an assumptive understanding of the human person and their relation to society. The anthropology which guides the Foundation’s thinking seeks to develop the intellectual, spiritual, moral, and physical endowments of the human person to their fullest potential. It aims at the integral formation of the human person toward their ultimate end of union with God, love of neighbour and generous service to the common good of society. 

The Catholic vision of education also proposes the existence of objective truth and the human capacity to glimpse this truth through the cultivation of knowledge, understanding, wisdom and virtue.  It seeks the fullest of intellectual excellence and has its roots in antiquity as the classical liberal arts were taken up and elaborated in service of the Catholic intellectual tradition, thus creating the most noble and human foundations of western civilisation and global exchange and communication.

The resulting educational vision is founded on the transcendent dignity of the human person, made in the image and likeness of God. This unique dignity places on society the duty to strive generously to meet the inalienable right of all people to education. Parents are the first educators of their children and bear the primary responsibility for their education. Educators aim to share in this essential and profound task in harmony with parents and the whole community. 

Education, therefore, cannot be merely functional or instrumental towards utilitarian goals of social efficiency. The gift of reason, while limited, allows the human mind to come to know, to approach, truth.  All planned learning experiences should be imbued with this recognition and hence be open to the unity, truth, beauty, and goodness proper to their domains. Our view of education aims to nurture a love for wisdom and a reverence and longing for truth, allowing students to integrate faith, culture, and life. It seeks to form mature responsible individuals who exercise the great gift of freedom guided by the intellectual and moral virtues. 

In turn, teaching is viewed as a noble profession; ‘every person who contributes to integral human formation is an educator; but teachers have made integral human formation their very profession.’ (CCE 1982, 15).  In an age rightly preoccupied with identity, we therefore see in the National Discussion an opportunity to renew our deliberation of teacher identity as this is fashioned and supported at the intersection of professional formation, academic excellence, the agreed national standards and––for us–the living witness to the values and expectations of the Christian Gospel.  We welcome in the Discussion a focus on the person of the teacher and how the teacher is to be nurtured and empowered in the building of new educational possibilities and experiences.

Challenges for the new generation and for education in a technological age

In an economically globalised and technologically shaped world new questions arise on a daily basis as to how future generations are to navigate the social, cultural and moral challenges these forces throw up. Welcoming technological progress, we nevertheless highlight in these major moral challenges for the future of humanity. Technologies such as those already in trial using magnetic fields to deliver drugs to ‘remote’ and difficult-to-reach parts of the body, will soon be capable of delivering less benign material. Facial recognition, which can clearly offer advantages to eg banking security and identity theft, can also be used as an instrument of social control, dataveillance and manipulation. Nudge algorithms deployed to encourage social behaviour to be more ecologically sensitive can also exaggerate and magnify undesirable outcomes. Social media of the last 20 years has seen extraordinary opportunities for people (young and old) to give voice to their opinions, feelings and desires and yet strongly correlates with dramatic rises in reported anxiety (including exam anxiety) and mental health problems (Dobrean & Păsărelu 2016). The evolution of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is likely simultaneously to create improved accuracy and efficiency in our daily living and cause substantial displacement and deshabille.  The fortification and protection of the wellbeing and integrity of the person, which is so central to Catholic Education, urges us to seek diligently for better understanding of, and more effective remedies for, the mental health challenge in our schools.  We recognise this has many causes, but from out of our own wisdom traditions we press for a richer and more holistic appreciation of youthful flourishing, confronting and removing the obstacles to it.

While these, and similar, technologies are already in play we remain at the foothills of technological innovation; innovation that will over the coming decades radically re-shape our psycho-social, political, economic and ethical frames yet which currently receive scant attention in the curriculum. Instead, our default has been to offer an attenuated approach to moral, spiritual and cultural education that by and large trivialises extremely complex issues about what it is to be a human and living in a 21st century Scotland faced with so many unknowns. Moreover, in the face of the global race to capture technological advancement, we may be in danger of losing sight of the importance of the foundation of liberal democracy: the civil, political and spiritual liberties and opportunities that optimise human flourishing. While our common life will be dominated by the digital, the capacities to navigate such a world successfully in ways that vouchsafe our civic and spiritual liberties will depend on much more than our digital competence (important though that may be). Indeed, many of the capacities young people will need will remain decidedly ‘analogue’ – the capacity to care (so that we do not build bias into our ‘algorithmic life’); the capacity to love (both at the individual level and, as Hannah Arendt and St. Augustine would have it, as ‘love of the world’- of this planet, its ecology, its peoples); the capacity for discernment and judgment (so that we have at least some resource to distinguish truth from falsity); the capacity for a spiritual life that valorises the right to individual belief, even where that might entail dissent from majority opinion – indeed, by such dissensus is liberal democracy sustained.

To secure such educational aims we will need a curriculum and assessment system that is intellectually robust, genuinely interdisciplinary and considers the craft, the intellectual, the cultural and the technological as providing the weft and warp of our common life. It should not confuse the conditions of good education (courtesy, graciousness, consideration…) with education per se. It should ensure that the bricklayer as much as the bishop is entitled to access the myriad cultural and intellectual resources that equip human persons to have some control over and navigate their economic, public and private lives. It means that the current default in many schools of reducing the numbers of subjects that students take to satisfy a distorting measurement outcome must be challenged and changed, and that some subject realignment around interdisciplinary themes might be desirable. It surely must be wrong that those already advantaged continue to secure further advantage through differential access to arts, culture, music, and civil life. Equally, the moral and spiritual considerations of living through a ‘new age’ must be seen as intellectually and practically equipping future generations for the exercise of sound judgment.

Catholic Education has throughout the industrial era endeavoured to argue in favour of the support and preservation of a broad humanistic schooling.  This is a schooling in which the young are equipped to the highest standards with the specialist and emergent skills and attributes necessary for the maintenance and growth of shared national and global prosperity.  It is also a schooling that offers to young people confident and critical access to the scientific, artistic, literary and spiritual achievements of human civilization––understood in both their localised and globalised expressions; appreciated in their past inheritance and in their present inventive dynamism.  

Part 2 will explore the spiritual, philosophical and cultural roots of education and their expression in curricular choices

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