In this series, MEduc4 students on the ‘Prophets of a Future not our Own: Catholic Schools and Contemporary Issues’ elective course reflect on how a Catholic educational perspective can enhance school’s’ approach to current challenges.
Katie Duffin, MEduc4
The Catholic Social Teaching principle of ‘Preferential Option for the Poor’ reminds us of God’s distinct love for the poorest and most vulnerable people in our world (CAFOD, 2022). However, this concept within Catholic schools has perhaps surprisingly raised concerns and at times been problematic (McKinney, 2018), such as the definitions of ‘a preferential option’ alongside how to define the ‘poor’ (Kirylo, 2006), alongside contentious discourse surrounding how this actually looks in practice in a Catholic School (Connell, 2016). Not only that, but in a world where many Catholic schools charge fees and cater for those children and young people from more affluent backgrounds (Grace, 2002), the question has been raised – are Catholic schools truly a preferential option for the poor? And what might their call to social action through the preferential option for the poor look like?
Current challenges for Catholic Schools
In Scotland, approximately one in four children are living in poverty (Scottish Government, 2021), with this figure estimated to increase to 29 percent in 23/24, making it the highest figure in twenty years (Corlett, 2019).
Families and children living in relative poverty face many disadvantages such as lack of employment opportunities, low income, and barriers to lifelong learning, with a direct impact on their academic achievements and future prospects for life and work. Simply put, if a child or young person is born into a life of poverty, it can be almost impossible to escape the poverty cycle as they progress through life.
The devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic can also not be ignored. The enforced lockdowns only intensified the disadvantages of those children and young people living in poverty (McKinney, 2020). Issues of low income and food insecurity were compounded by a lack of educational resources during the various lockdowns, as children and young people missed out on the much relied-upon and welcomed spiritual and pastoral support that Catholic schools provide (McKinney, 2021).
History has shown that Catholic schools in Scotland – in stark contrast to other countries where Catholic schools are fee-paying private schools – have largely served communities of low socio-economic status, whose roots began primarily from Irish immigrants who moved to Scotland and undertook low-skilled employment in the second half of the nineteenth century (Paterson, 2020). Therefore, practitioners should be particularly sensitive to issues such as the cost of the school day. While schooling in Scotland may be free, the costs associated with the school day can put many children and young people at a disadvantage before the bell has even rung (Robertson & McHardy, 2021). Costs associated with extra-curricular activities puts those learners from low socio-economic backgrounds at a distinct disadvantage, as extra-curricular activities have been shown to provide positive educational outcomes, so by not being able to participate, they are unable to fully access the curriculum, with a potential knock-on to future life and work prospects (White, 2018).
Curriculum for Excellent (CfE) states that each and every learner should ‘have the best start in life’ and be ready to succeed (Scottish Government, 2010). Catholic practitioners must utilise pedagogical approaches in order to provide effective teaching and learning surrounding the complex issue of poverty, while providing pupils with the tools so they may become agents of change in their own circumstances. This is also in line with CfE Building the Curriculum 4: Skills for learning, skills for life and skills for work whereby we must educate learners and enable them to participate in 21st Century society, but we must also endeavour to provide effective support in order to reduce any barriers to learning (Scottish Government, 2009).
Inductive and deductive approaches to embedding the Preferential Option for the Poor
In order to provide effective teaching and learning whilst highlighting ‘the relevance of faith and learning in religious education to the lives of young people in modern society’ (Scottish Government, n.d.), we must as Catholic practitioners consider which pedagogical approaches are most suitable. With Religious Education, there are predominantly two main teaching approaches. The first is an inductive teaching approach which begins with the experiences of the learner and aims to help them discover how God is revealing himself through these experiences (Bishops Conference Scotland (BCS) 2010, This is Our Faith). As such, we must understand that many children and young people in our class will have a real-life experience of living in poverty, such as the challenge of food insecurity. This has led to schools attempting to tackle the issue though the introduction of free breakfast clubs, ensuring that no child is too hungry to learn. These breakfast clubs can go some way in reducing some of the barriers to learning, as by ensuring that all children are fed, we are enabling them to be ready to learn (Graham, 2014).
Another way in which Catholic teachers can empower learners to enact change in their own lives and to break the cycle of poverty is by utilising a ‘deductive’ approach, and teaching them through Scripture (BCS, 2010). The preferential option for the poor is integral to the teaching of Jesus, and is particularly prevalent in the Gospel of Luke, often referred to as the Gospel of the poor (McKinney, 2016). In the Sermon on the Plain Jesus proclaims ‘Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of god. Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied’ (Luke 6:20-21), and so with Jesus as teacher, all in the school community are challenged to create a welcoming, inclusive environment for all, where the needs of the poor must take priority. Through the use of Scripture in this way, the beliefs, practices and values of the Catholic Church will also be exemplified, in line with the values of This is Our Faith (TIOF) (BCS, 2010).
Catholic schools in Scotland must continue to provide support to those most vulnerable, listen to them, and ‘arrange themselves to suit them’ (Congregation for Catholic Education, 2002) so they may truly live and be a preferential option for the poor.