The National Discussion (Part 3)

Section C: Subsidiarity and the preferential option for the poor

Scotland’s schools – historic and contemporary mission to the poor

There is a rich history of Catholic schools in Scotland’s mission to the poor which can shed light on issues of poverty for all of Scotland’s schools today.  The historical mission to the poor is sometimes referred to as the ‘preferential option for the poor’, or option for the poor, in contemporary terms. While this terminology can be traced to the rise of Liberation Theology in the 20th century, it is ultimately rooted in the mandate in Christian scripture to care for the poor–this can be discerned as a key theme in eg the Gospel of Luke. This mandate from scripture is concrete, non-negotiable (not metaphorical) and always inclusive. The experience of Catholic schools leads us to recommend that all of Scotland’s schools continue to prioritise the education for the children of impoverished households, including children from migrant backgrounds. The mission to educate the poor without discrimination, is an important part of the mission of the contemporary schools in Scotland.

Poverty, subsidiarity and decision-making in Scotland’s schools

The dignity of the human person

The preferential option for the poor noted above is rooted in an anthropology of radical equality known through Catholic Social Teaching (CST), and which has given birth to an ethics of social relations which places the poor at the centre of policy. This anthropology sees the person as a) having inherent dignity and b) being inherently social. Born in response to the Industrial Revolution, it critiqued contemporary philosophies which prioritised only one of these aspects, for example, liberal capitalism only focused on the individual, neglecting the role of the society in protecting the dignity of the person, and communism and socialism focused only on the social level, neglecting the autonomy and freedoms of the individual. CST has been built on preserving this delicate balance between the need to promote the common good of all and protect the inherent dignity of the person; within CST, owing to the social nature of the person—central to the Catholic vision of humanity—these two aims can only be achieved in union. Core to the achievement of both is once more the preferential option for the poor. This emphasises that the poor are a) not responsible for their poverty and b) should be considered as the priority when it comes to the formation of public policy. How the poor are treated, therefore, acts as a criterion of judgement for how well-functioning a society is, rather than economic wealth or GDP etc. 

Dignity, poverty and policy

When it comes to any policy which aims to promote equity (e.g. the Scottish Attainment Challenge, Pupil Equity Funding), we argue from conviction and empirical evidence that schools should be given agency to prioritise remaining faithful to their values and vision (such as their commitment to the poorest) over monetary incentives which may tempt or coerce schools away from their longer-term strategy and values. D’Agostino calls the carrot and stick of funding and accountability ‘a form of coercive isomorphism’ (D’Agostino, 2017). By contrast, Abbott, Middlewood and Robinson (2015), in their study of the Pupil Premium budgeting choices of outstanding schools in England, strongly recommend a values-led implementation of policy. For such schools, the ‘meta-values of the profession’ and the underlying core values of the school guide decision-making, whereas new funding streams and policy can throw a school off course and lead to loss of focus, or decisions that can lack a rationale and link to overall strategy.   We therefore argue for values-led agency for schools, and government restraint which will avoid a plethora of policy interventions in the name of ‘doing something’.

Subsidiarity and participation in decision-making 

The question of who should be involved in decision-making in Scotland’s schools is also crucial. CST’s principle of subsidiarity can be used to bring clarity here when it comes to guiding decision-making. The principle states that it is ‘a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do’ (Pius XI, 1931, 79).  It is, therefore, not merely about devolution, but rather acts to ensure that responsibility is disseminated at the most appropriate levels, protecting both the dignity of the individual by ensuring they have agency in decisions that impact them, and ensuring that the community provides for the individual when they cannot do so for themselves. Drawing on the idea of the person as inherently social, the principle emphasises the importance of participation and agency in encouraging individuals to form communities based on common interests and derive power to make decisions over matters that directly affect them. We can see that the principle of subsidiarity provides a clear encouragement to ensure that decision-making takes place at the appropriate level, and that people have a say over what affects their lives as responsible agents. 

In the first instance, subsidiarity can be used to advocate for collective decision making, encouraging HTs to adopt a holistic educational strategy involving key stakeholders.  In the second instance, subsidiarity would advocate for power to be diffused downwards; those best placed to speak to the experience of poverty are those who are directly affected. Currently, those directly involved in policy decisions such as budgeting, such as headteachers and teachers, may not live within the local area. It would be profitable, therefore, to include the insights of those placed in the local community. The role of parent councils is crucial here, though a truly representative demographic on the council would be essential. The inclusion of parents, classroom assistants, parish workers and pupils themselves can enrich the decision-making process and provide more enduring solutions as well as a sense of ownership and agency. Subsidiarity is in essence an inflection of community; of human beings fashioned intersubjectively into flourishing persons through their embeddedness in resilient networks and places.  Hence, we strongly encourage Scottish education to restore to their fullest potential the relationships between schools and their local communities; to renew the institutional and moral bonds that link schools and their members to families and neighbourhoods, to voluntary, third sector and religious organisations, to social enterprises, business and commerce––to everything that weaves schools into the living fabric of civil society, shared common life and its patterns of daily activity.  

Subsidiarity and Scotland’s teachers

Subsidiarity also requires that meaningful agency be afforded to teachers in the development of curriculum and its implementation. Prof. Mark Priestley argued this very point at the recent Robert Owen Lecture, (Priestley, 2022) claiming that the principle of subsidiarity demands scope for agency at the macro, meso, micro and nano levels, from government strategy all the way to the classroom, and the facilitation of co-operation for joint working between teachers. CST calls such groupings ‘intermediary bodies’ which act to diffuse power within society between the state and individuals. Héideáin defines such bodies as ‘the union of several people for a common good not within reach of the members as individuals in isolation’ that ‘cooperate in providing a common good to benefit all, especially the weaker members’ (1994, p. 897). We recommend that SG and LAs prioritise the establishment and strengthening of such intermediary bodies so that every practitioner is not reinventing the wheel of pedagogical innovation.

Conclusion

Above all else, the philosophy of Catholic Education prompts us to remain affirmative and positive in the pursuit of the flourishing of all of Scotland’s children and young people in the country’s schools. By the light of the Christian Scriptures and the ongoing mission of the Church, we reject fatalism and paralysis in witnessing to the work that can be done with and for the young in building in our schools active, critically engaged communities of belonging and care, trust, respect, rights, dignity, protection, inclusion, ambition, collaboration, reconciliation and hospitality.  We welcome in the National Discussion the opportunity to restate all of those imperatives which seek to empower our young people for meaningful lives of shared, sustainable prosperity, individual responsibility, informed thinking, rewarding relationships, service to society and positive outcomes.  From the same motivations, we hence also reject all diminished or reductionist accounts of the human person and of human fulfilment––whether these derive from the disproportionate claims of materialism, collectivism, individualism, competition or false technological promise. The invitation to faith extended by our schools to its members is, therefore, also fundamentally an invitation to learn; to learn together in order to be generative in the fashioning of a common life and a common good of lasting and transformative benefit to all citizens.  

In the expression of these values and these hopes for the future, Catholic educators look forward enthusiastically to an ongoing partnership with all who discern in the National Discussion the prospect of renewing Scottish education, from its ethical roots, for the tasks of the decades to come.

This submission has sought to articulate some of the philosophical roots of education, especially as it emerges from the Catholic educational tradition, in such a way that it might aid reflection on Scottish education today and contribute to the National Discussion. We hope that it will be received in the spirit of co-operation and dialogue with which it has been shared.

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