Prophets of the Future 3: Sectarianism and Catholic Schools

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.

Maria Haggarty, MEduc4

Sectarianism is a contemporary phenomenon with historical roots, often linked to religious antagonism between Catholic and Protestants. However, framing the antagonism purely in terms of Catholic and Protestants narrows ‘sectarianism’ to religious bigotry, whereas contemporary sectarianism is a wider societal issue. Evidence proves sectarian prejudice and activity spills beyond Christian borders; neither one specific group, nor individual solely experience sectarianism (Scottish Government, 2015), rather it embraces a wide range of issues that some pupils may have encountered: immigration, racism, intolerance and/or prejudice (McKinney, 2018).

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The changing definition of sectarianism

The term sectarianism has therefore evolved from beyond the realm of inter-denominational struggles between Catholic and Protestants to a broader definition reflecting Scotland’s more globalised and diverse society. McKinney (2015), when developing his own definition, states sectarianism is a social challenge, one that is associated with religion or ‘quasi’ religion convictions, customs, which create a specific selfhood and exclusivity, which may lead to radical mentalities and conduct. The Morrow Report, (Scottish Government, 2015), reported when attempting to determine what sectarian was in the restricted religious sense from anti-migrant, racist, prejudiced employment, and reduced societal participation was comparable to ‘unscrambling eggs.’
In contrast to this evolving and broadening definition stands the sensationalist nature of the reporting of sectarianism within the Scottish media coupled with prominent societal figures stating Catholic schools are divisive and perpetuate sectarianism, creating a problematic discourse that Catholic schools are no longer relevant within diverse contemporary Scotland (McKinney, 2015). Those voicing such comments have not substantiated their statements with either Government statements or policies regarding sectarianism, nor with academic research. Most media reporting focuses on certain rivalries within football, which is significant in shaping wider public opinion, and/or encounters with sectarianism (Scottish Government, 2015). This has implications for teachers in the classroom: our pupils of today are the technology generation, accessing social media from an early age. Therefore, exposed to widescale rhetoric surrounding sectarianism means they may arrive in class with their own unintended misconceptions, that sectarianism purely exists within Scotland between Catholic and Protestants.

Effective pedagogies and practice

The Irish-descended Catholics and the many others who make up the population of Catholic schools and their families may have encountered hostility and prejudice first-hand, either historical hostility towards their communities, or contemporary direct experience. Thus, the encompassing themes of other world religions, prejudice, racism, and immigration, can be effectively taught through both inductive and deductive pedagogies, both of which are vital to the delivering the ‘divine pedagogy’ promoted in This is Our Faith. An inductive method is based on the personal, relatable experiences of the children in their daily lives, and attempts to identify how God is always present. A deductive method, which seems more conceptual, is found within Scripture, doctrine and liturgy which calls upon children to find applicability to them in their own lives (Coll, 2015).

Inductive approaches to anti-sectarian pedagogy

Peace – one of the seven principles of Catholic Social Teaching – is one of the fundamental teachings of Catholicism, the antithesis of sectarianism. The New Testament advocates for peace ‘How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!’ (Psalm 133:1). However, Catholic teaching does not only focus on the extrinsic concept of peace, but also in the intrinsic formation of peace within each person ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.’ (John 14:27). Evidencing that Catholic education is committed to the intrinsic nurturing of holistic individuality unique to each child and supported through collaborative learning empowers children within their own identity and freedoms (D’Souza, 2012). That reflects the aims of the RERC Principles and Practice document, Education Scotland, stating RERC develops self-reflection, perceptions, criticality, the formation of conscience and morality. McKinney’s (2015), working definition of sectarianism included the words ‘intolerant, attitudes, shared by groups that fosters an identity.’ Catholic teaching challenges these beliefs. Teaching of other faiths within RERC, stated within the Principles and Practice document Education Scotland, creates tolerance and acceptance of other ethnicities within contemporary Scotland. Promoting these beliefs and behaviours of social cohesion, is the principle of Solidarity within Catholic Social Teaching, which appears for example as a theme of the Sense over Sectarianism (SOS) programme. The learning within the programme investigates sectarianism within both historical and contemporary Scotland, allowing teachers to broaden the scope of pupil learning between Christian sectarianism to wider societal concerns of equality and relationships, with a particular focus on the inductive pedagogy principle of personal experience (Education Scotland, 2022). Using the Divided City novel, (Breslin, 2011), within my last P7 placement class, who were diverse in religion, culture, and race, created a learning environment which discussed real-life experiences, through the cross-cutting themes relating to sectarianism of prejudice, hate crime, immigration, community, social class, culture, and friendship.

Deductive approaches to anti-sectarian pedagogy

Despite Divided City fostering a pedagogically inductive approach, there are also opportunities for Catholic teachers to link the novel deductively to Scripture; by teaching and having a classroom environment built upon Scripture. A classroom culture of inclusivity, built on collaboration and acceptance facilitates children learning to ‘have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.’ (Peter 3:8). As Catholic teachers we are bound to teach through and with the Catholic Faith. However, this is not a means of indoctrination: it is a way to show the love of Jesus through our pedagogies and to practice, embrace and appreciate the rich benefits that diversity within the classroom brings (Education Scotland, 2022). Therefore, Catholic teachers through their effective pedagogies and practices shape children in the appreciation of faith, suitable to their stage of development, enables children to understand that while faith is independent of culture, it inspires all cultures (Catholic Education Resource Centre, 2006).
Teaching within Catholic schools is based on love and acceptance of others, standing as a powerful rebuke to all form of sectarianism, and it in turn challenging the sensationalist discourse which would claim that Catholic schools aid sectarianism. In an increasingly diverse and globalised world, and anti-sectarian pedagogy will do no less than prepare pupils within Catholic education for 21st century citizenship.

Prophets of the Future 2: Mental Health and Catholic Schools

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.

Colette Wilson, MEduc4

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One of the challenges we face today in Catholic education is the increasing rate of mental illness in our young people. Figures from Audit Scotland in 2018 showed 1 in 10 children and young people aged 5-16 had been diagnosed with a mental illness (Audit Scotland, online). This figure has risen, and in 2022 reports suggest that 1 in 6 children and young people have now been diagnosed with a mental health condition. That is 5 children out of a class of 30. Over half of mental health conditions are diagnosed before the child has reached the age of 14 (Local Government Association, online). Evidence suggests that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a profoundly negative impact on the health and wellbeing of our young people. There are many experiences and issues that can affect the health and wellbeing of the child and certain groups of young people are more susceptible to negative influences on their health and wellbeing and research suggests that this imbalance has exacerbated since the pandemic (SPICe, 2022).

Mental wellbeing and schools

Feeling good and being able to function efficiently, being able to maintain positive relationships with others and being able to live a life where you believe has a sense of purpose are all positive indicators of mental wellbeing (Scottish Government, 2018).
What can we as a Catholic School and as Catholic educators do to support our young people and in particular those suffering from mental health conditions? Catholic education is viewed as being ‘Christocentric’ where Catholic schools centre their education around the person and the teachings of Jesus Christ. A school community with Jesus Christ at its centre ‘‘must work for the healing and transformation of the whole community including those considered to be peripheral or marginalised’’ (Keiran and Hessian, 2005:124). This is Our Faith (TIOF) highlights Jesus Christ at the centre of the Catholic school and asks for us as Catholic educators to ensure children are provided opportunities to encounter Jesus Christ. Teachers are often the first point of contact when a child is experiencing negative effects on their mental health and teachers can often feel like they are not equipped with the proper tools to deal with certain behaviours or situations nor do they believe they have the experience to deal with such issues (Lowry et al, 2022). However, the objective of the Catholic school which is included in the Charter for Catholic Schools in Scotland is to ensure that the staff are supported with their spiritual and professional development and provided with the tools to ensure that each child who has been made in the image of God feels included within the school community and that their voices are heard.

Purpose and happiness

Evidence suggests that there is a positive relationship between religion and individual happiness and that young people who celebrate and participate in their religion are happier (Francis et al, 2020). One of the aims in the Charter for Catholic Schools in Scotland is the responsibility that the school community will share in the experience of prayer. Evidence suggests that people who pray were less likely to display signs of mental illness and that they were able to relate to a greatness beyond their own existence. They were able to understand life as having a purpose and meaning and how they as an individual are part of this life and all its greatness (Francis et al, 2008). Mountain (2005) suggested that prayer was a positive part of a child’s daily life, and that prayer could be used as a way to get through difficult periods in a child’s life. Prayer allows the child to connect with God individually or as part of a religious community.

Petitionary prayer

A potential whole-school approach to deal with the challenges of mental health is petitionary prayer, which can help the whole child to feel nurtured, developed and supported. Petitionary prayer is considered as a request to God for something using prayer (Stump, 1979). We can allow the young people to pray for what they feel is important to them whether this be something they are struggling with or something that is happening in their family or the world around them. Through communal prayer and religious activity children can feel part of a community and share a sense of belonging. Evidence suggests that teaching the technique of prayer to children should allow for them to make personal significance. Prayer is an important part of the child’s spirituality where they can explore their relationship with God, their relationships with friends and family, their relationship with the environment around them and allows them to be more aware of their own needs and emotions (Mountain, 2005). We can also prioritise making petitionary prayer more visible in the school: examples of this are the children working collaboratively to create prayer trees where they can add their own prayer intentions. Praying for others allows children to understand that prayer is obtainable for them also. Prayer trees can be construed in several ways but can be seen as a communal space where children can pray together and where they can feel like they belong. People who pray as part of a community feel a sense of belonging and experience a shared acceptance (Mountain, 2005). Petitionary prayer therefore has great potential as one creative technique that can help tackle the challenges arising from mental health issues faced within our schools.

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.


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.

The National Discussion (Part 2)

Section B: The spiritual, philosophical and cultural roots of education and their expression in curricular choices


A growing number of thinkers now argue that since the advent of the “postmodern condition”, there are no more ‘strong’ philosophical reasons to refuse religion or to refuse science. Both, it seems, can co-exist, especially if religious traditions become available in the marketplace of ideas, one among many, to pick from to enhance one’s moral and spiritual life. Such epistemological shifts in perspective tend to ignore the ongoing commitment of religious bodies to offer educational opportunities to explore ideas that might conflict with some modern views. Catholic education remains one of the principal actors on the stage of world education.

What are the roots of the Catholic Church’s desire to educate? The study of Catholic theology is a serious attempt to use human faculties to understand ‘what is believed to be revealed truth’ (Franchi and McKinney, 2011, p. xii), as well as to draw from the tradition of natural theology and contemporary philosophy, including moral philosophy. At least since the Second Vatican Council and the publication of Nostra Aetate, the Catholic Church has recognised the richness and insights offered by other faith traditions and has insisted that they be treated seriously and graciously (Conroy and Davis, 2010, pp. 455-456). The concept of God itself is now regarded as a ‘cluster concept’, made up of a cluster of other concepts (Harrison, 2011, p. 5). There is a requirement to ensure that educational and pedagogical practices receive continuous renewal and reflection and are in dialogue with ongoing movements in society.

The future of Catholic education must come to terms with these new conditions of thought and practice, conditions brought about by modernity itself. It is clear that the universal Church’s thinking on education has undergone a significant shift in recent decades. The focus now is very much on education as a means of integral human development and the promotion of a culture of dialogue. 

It would be unreasonable (although perhaps desirable) to expect all schools in contemporary Scotland to have the same commitment to the study of religion and religious ways of thinking which should be present in the Catholic school. Nonetheless, implicit in the Catholic educational tradition is the imperative to develop a broad and deep understanding of the aims and purposes of education.  In this vision, schools are much more than sites of training for employment, but rather essential gathering-points where each generation draws from the store of human knowledge and using the power of reason and accompanied by wise teachers, discerns what it means to live a good life.

For this educational mission to be effective, schools must recapture the importance of knowledge. They must ensure that the curriculum has the potential to widen the horizons of pupils by introducing them gradually and appropriately to the story of humanity in its many narratives. The liberal arts and sciences are ideal conduits for this mission. While there is no set template for such a pedagogical approach, it does require a commitment to a critical exploration of key thinkers and key ideas from both history and the present age. For example, the study of Scotland’s contribution to literature, engineering, science and economics, to identify just four domains of knowledge, should be central to any future reform.

This suggestion challenges the current trends in Scottish education as found in Curriculum for Excellence. It requires a desire to rethink aspects of the Curriculum for Excellence and reclaim the cherished and well-documented traditions of Scottish education. The vision of Catholic education implicit in this section invites all with an interest in contemporary Scottish education to join the conversation.

An example of curriculum enrichment: expressive arts in the primary school curriculum

Our call for equal access to arts, culture, and music frames the place of the expressive arts in the curriculum. Listening to the widespread experience of our students on school experience placement over many years, we have become concerned about the narrowing of the curriculum to literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing (plus RERC in the Catholic sector). Whilst this might have represented an emergency response to the pandemic, the National Discussion provides an opportunity to widen the curriculum once again in order to provide proper balance. We illustrate the current situation and provide some suggestions via the case study of music education.

Music and culture

Music is integral to culture. We sing to welcome a new life, in some cultures at the actual point of birth in others at the child’s Baptism.  We sing to celebrate birthdays, graduations, engagements, weddings and during many other notable milestones in life. Collectively we support our team or country in song, and we send off our loved ones with music and song, be that at church or a chapel of rest, or indeed at the wake or around the grave depending on the culture.  Music allows us to express emotion, both individually and collectively, in a way that words fail to do. It unites, supports, calms and encourages us on life’s journey. 

Yet today all is not well for the place of music in our schools. Although we find music in the expressive art section of our CfE documentation and can read through the experiences and outcomes as with any other subject, it has become a marginalised area very dependent on the particular school or class teacher to determine the attention it receives in the curriculum.

A recent study, Music Education in the Primary Classroom in Scotland (Moscardini et al, 2021), shone a light on the state of music in our schools. Although the majority of primary teacher respondents considered that music was fundamental, just under three quarters of those felt unprepared to teach music effectively. 

Even more worrying would be the place of music when we add social deprivation to the mix. The report suggested that in the areas of most disadvantage teachers were three times more likely to suggest music was non-existent, with few or no resources and little in the way of CLPL available for staff.

Today when we see the rise in poor mental health in our young people would we not see music (and the other expressive arts) as fundamental once again to all our schools in Scotland?

Among the aforementioned study’s recommendations, we would highlight the following: a coordinator for music in every primary school – a class teacher not a specialist, cultural co-ordinators to be reinstated by Creative Scotland to link the school co-ordinators with Third Sector organisations for support, an audit of CLPL provision in each local authority and the need for inclusivity of music provision for every child.

Finally, for our ITE sector we need to consider the amount of time given over to the teaching of music and the other expressive arts in our UG and PDGE(P) courses. We commend a fuller reading of the report and its recommendation.

Part 3 will address subsidiarity and preferential options for the poor.

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

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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.

Prophets of the Future: Catholic schools and Sectarianism

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.

Aimee McCallum, MEduc4 student

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‘All Catholic education is Christocentric’ according to Keiran and Hession (2005: 123), thus the common aim within Catholic education is for all members of the community to demonstrate a likeness to Christ.

The ‘Charter for Catholic Schools in Scotland commits all Catholic schools to honour Jesus Christ through ‘a commitment to communicate Catholic social teaching and thereby to promote social justice and opportunity for all’, and to live guided by Gospel values. Despite the centenary year of Catholic education in Scotland, 2018, focusing on the positive contribution Catholic education has had on Scotland, critics such as Tom Woods, Professor Grayling and Sheriff Richard Davidson have claimed that Catholic schools are responsible for sectarianism in Scotland. However, what evidence do critics have? Headlines such as ‘if we want to end sectarianism, we must abolish Catholic schools’ (Goring, 2019), make bold claims, but where is the evidence of Catholic schools are promoting sectarianism? If Catholic schools are to promote and live by Gospel values, there is no place for the promotion of sectarianism despite critics such as the former Deputy Chief Constable of Police Scotland, Tom Wood (2019), claiming Catholic schools foster and promote sectarianism.

What is the social concept of ‘sectarianism’, and do Catholic schools create division along sectarian lines?


Stephen McKinney (2015) has highlighted there are multiple understandings of ‘sectarian’ and ‘sectarianism’, however both refer to a distinction between sects, whereby each sect is exclusive and holds a distinctive ideology shared amongst its members. Although a sect can exist within art, politics, or science, in Scotland sectarianism refers to hostility between Roman Catholics and Protestants. In attempts to tackle sectarianism in Scotland, the Scottish Government commissioned an Advisory Group to move forward from sectarianism as a society, defining sectarianism in Scotland as:

‘a mixture of perceptions, attitudes, actions and structures that involved overlooking, excluding, discriminating against or being abusive or violent towards others on the basis of their perceived Christian denominational background. This perception is always mixed with other factors such as, but not confined to, politics, football allegiance and national identity’ (Morrow et al, 2015: 5).

This working definition highlights that prejudices and stereotypes have allowed sectarianism to manifest across generations, creating a persisting issue which cannot be solved in isolation as intolerances are translated into actions at micro, meso and macro level.

Therefore, it can be argued a sect involves an exclusive understanding of religious beliefs to cultivate a shared identity, however, the connection to religion is often questionable despite claims that sects are founded in historical religious roots. McKinney argues against the validity of these claims labelling them as ‘selective, self-serving or semi-mythical’, thus highlighting sectarianism is often a front for the justification of the marginalisation, alienation and demonisation of groups stigmatised as the ‘other’.  This ultimately highlights that sectarianism, although closely connected to religion and football, is a social problem resulting in extremist behaviours that unfortunately permeates Scottish society.

To address this social problem, Fuller and Myers (2003) advocate increased awareness, policy determination and reform. As social problems are complex, there may be various causes and effects which require a multitude of solutions, therefore, by increasing public awareness, engaging in discussions to find a means to an end and reform by creating legalisation to combat the issue, in theory, attitudinal changes can occur.

Catholic Schools: Good for Scotland?

Reports by the Scottish Government (2005 and 2015) have clearly indicated that Catholic schools should not be held accountable for causing sectarianism, and there is no evidence to support claims of Catholic schools being a contributor. Similarly, Catholic schools are situated globally and educate without accusations of cultivating sectarian beliefs and attitudes, instead reflecting their specific social, cultural, local and national contexts (Flint, 2012). Thus, highlighting sectarianism as a social problem caused by Catholic schools can be a reminder of a lost Protestant culture in Scotland (Flint, 2012).

Charting a way forward

Nevertheless, as sectarianism is a social problem there will undoubtedly be individuals (including those associated with Catholic schools) who demonstrate sectarian beliefs and actions (McKinney and Conroy, 2014). If the person is an educator, the General Teaching Council for Scotland and SCES would investigate as this publicly contradicts the Charter for Catholic Schools in Scotland. Similarly, if this was a pupil, individual schools would handle the situation appropriately. However, various measures can be taken to raise awareness of sectarianism to avoid reaching this stage, and there are various projects which aim to tackle sectarianism in Scotland through government funding. Using resources devised by these projects, including a programme with focus on educational, sporting and cultural activities, can raise awareness and ultimately allow learners to question social problems, thus enabling them to be ‘effective contributors’ as they are equipped with the knowledge and understanding to question social injustice in society.

Education is the most important tool in raising awareness of sectarianism, therefore, all schools in Scotland, denominational or non-denominational, have a responsibility to educate young people on the injustice of sectarianism, by providing a curriculum where the topic of sectarianism is integrated, to create a more harmonious future where the dignity of each person is respected.

Short Courses in Religious and Moral Education: 30 Years On

William Liston (Former R.E. Adviser, Diocese of Motherwell)

Photo by George Milton on

It is thirty years since the Scottish Catholic Education Commission published Short Courses in Religious and Moral Education. The document introduced four possible new courses: Christianity Today; A World of ValuesLiving in a Plural Society and Issues of Belief – all designed for pupils in S3 and S4.

The publication was significant for several reasons, not least because it was the first Catholic religious education document to make it possible for pupils – during the time allocated for so-called ‘core’ religious education – to gain a Religious Education qualification from the Scottish Exam Board.

This development came about as a result of a series of discussions between representatives of the Catholic Education Commission and the Scottish Exam Board. Aims of short courses developed for use in non-denominational schools, e.g. “to promote an enquiring, critical and sympathetic approach to the study of religion”, were adapted for use in Catholic schools by the addition of two other aims relating to catechesis, namely: “to assist pupils to consider the implications of Christian belief in their lives” and “to assist pupils in preparing to make an adult commitment to God in faith” (p.6). Significantly, it was agreed that choice of course content would remain entirely in the hands of the Catholic Education Commission.

For the writers of the Catholic Short Courses, religious education sought to accomplish two tasks: 1. to develop pupils’ knowledge and understanding of the areas of man’s religious search for meaning, value and purpose – what they described as ‘education in religion’ (p.3) – and 2. to be a form of catechesis by promoting the development and maturing of faith – what they described as ‘education in faith’ (ibid.p.3).

In choosing the term ‘education in faith’ instead of the more commonly applied ‘catechesis’, the writers underlined their emphasis on the educational value of the Short Courses. This focus on educational value can be seen in the significant changes the courses made to hitherto standard aspects of both learning and teaching – in particular, to the balance between skills and content, and to methods of assessment.

The writers had noted that “many well-intentioned R.E. teachers have found to their cost that merely telling teenagers what the Church’s teaching on a particular topic is fails to motivate or interest” (ibid. p.7). Instead, they advised that skills such as “Active Learning, Resource-based Learning, Investigation and Discussion be part of normal classwork in the Short Courses” (p.7) and suggested that a balance of whole-class teaching, group activities and individual work should be the norm at the S3/4 stage.

In relation to assessment, the writers again suggested significant changes to standard practice. Specifically, they made a distinction between the traditional kind of assessment which takes the form of an end-of-term test, and what they termed ‘assessment in learning and teaching’whereby pupils address a number of learning outcomes throughout the course, with each outcome being assessed individually, thereby making assessment “an ongoing and integral part of the learning and teaching process” (p.9).

This latter form of assessment was a new initiative – one which challenged the view of many Catholic teachers of the time that “assessment has no place in the R.E. classroom” (p.9). Teachers were no doubt concerned that if less gifted pupils received a lower mark in the end-of-term test, they might develop negative feelings towards religious education. (I myself remember similar feelings when scoring only 35% in my third-year religious education test! – at that time referred to as ‘C.D.’ – Christian Doctrine).

To allay such concerns, the writers offered a series of mitigating proposals, specifically that:

– assessment will “be ungraded. There will be no order of merit”;

– “in the attainment of each learning outcome pupils must be informed of tasks which contribute to summative assessment”;

– “normal classroom activities will provide the evidence for the greater part of assessment”;

– “pupils who have not been successful must have the opportunity to be re-assessed after appropriate consolidation” (p.10).  

It is interesting to note, however, that the writers acknowledged “that there may be some well-motivated and diligent pupils who still fail to achieve all the learning outcomes” (ibid.p.10). In this circumstance, the writers suggested that schools or dioceses “consider the possibility of awarding such pupils some form of Certificate of Course Completed” (ibid.p.10).

In summary, the writers of the Short Courses made substantial efforts to ensure that religious education engaged pupils in a range of educational activities more specifically tailored and appropriate to the teenage stage of development. Furthermore, in proposing a vision of religious education as both ‘education in religion’ and ‘education in faith’ the writers made a significant contribution to the development of R.E. in Catholic secondary schools in Scotland. They would no doubt be in wholehearted agreement with Fr. Stephen Reilly, who in a recent Cloisters blog asserted that “the key is for R.E. to be truly educational”.

Thirty years on, the principles of the Short Courses retain their relevance in the ongoing debates over such issues as assessment in RE, certification of core RE, and the balance of education and catechesis in the current This is Our Faith era.