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.

Emergence

Tom Shields (Vicar Episcopal Education, Dunkeld Diocese)

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“All these things entered you

As if they were both the door and what came

through it.” 

‘Markings’, Seamus Heaney

As younger pupils return to school, and the process of resuming face to face learning begins, we may experience that dazzled feeling of stepping into the light from a period of darkness. No doubt, there will be a mixture of babbling and strained silences as friends and colleagues meet face to face and try to articulate both what they have experienced and how to move forward. Many will ask if this is really happening and could we all once again be herded into our homes and tethered to our computer screens. There is precedent.

Many, of course, will be desperate to get back to traditional routine, seeing it as a sign that all is well again, and declare (with a little of that sensation of ‘hope triumphing over experience’), ‘never again’; some will not. There is genuine fear that we will lose some of the insights that we have gained over this last year, and that a combination of economic necessity and fear of failing a generation will propel us into hectic activity for which we have neither the energy nor the insight. In recent days, several writers and journalists have drawn attention to feelings and thoughts familiar perhaps to retreatants as they end a period of prayer and reflection, hoping that what they have learned about God, themselves, and others, will not be lost in the hubbub of daily life. 

Emerging from another ‘lockdown’, the first disciples were indeed driven out with enthusiasm at Pentecost, but they neither forgot their own experiences and failures nor the beliefs and aspirations of their people. They borrowed from both as they preached and lived the gospel. Growth in Church membership, as it were, mirrored the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Conversion, rejoicing, persecution, and internal wrangling, were all there in almost equal measure, as they prayed, reflected, and stumbled their way to a conclusion about what it all meant and where they were to go.

Christ, his power, presence, and person, came more and more into focus. As each new stage of their journey brought a needfor realignment, Christians realised that the name they bore was for a reason: it was Christ who had to be front and centre of their lives. Incarnate of the Virgin Mary, the challenge has always been to incarnate him spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, and physically into our lives. 

This is the paradigm, I would suggest, for Catholic education. Catholic academic and spiritual traditions provide us with indispensable tools to assist our young people and ourselves in our desire not to waste time either in the ‘paralysis of analysis’ or a headlong rush to get things done in a ‘can-do’ attitude. The Spirit inspires us to examine our lives in such a way as to glimpse how God brings resurrection out of death – not simply a matter of taking the ‘rough with the smooth’. 

It is fortuitous perhaps that the process of emergence will start during Lent, a period of journeying with Christ in the desert in order to be reminded of what is essential. Perhaps the fasting and abstinence has already been imposed by the lockdowns and restrictions. These have brought into sharp relief in our lives the simple but important things we may have taken for granted. It is our prayerful reflection on events, and the buffeting open of our hearts to others that might take a more central role this Lent.

Throughout our discussion, study, prayer, art, poetry and music, while letting our young people run in the open air, babble, and fall silent, we gently invite them to regard Christ, the Lord and Master, Son and Servant. We invite them to ‘incarnate’ Christ in their own lives using the tried and tested methods that have brought the Church through more crises than we have had TV box sets. 

It has often been said that a crisis makes us forget who we are. Remembering who we are, enables us to resolve it. Who are we? People who mirror the pattern of the death and resurrection of Christ, that we might focus on him and become him to the world. This ‘comes to be’ in conversation, prayer, and charity, with a special emphasis this time around on charity towards each other (as Pope Francis has reminded us). 

Christ is the door through which we enter and exit, and he is also what we bring through that door.

Pedagogies of the Pandemic Blog 4: “Mass Appeal”

James McDevitt (Head Teacher, Holy Cross Primary School, Edinburgh)

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The damaging effects of school closures from March to June 2020 have been well documented. Chief among these have been concerns about the disruption to children’s education, the impact on general attainment levels and especially on those of the most disadvantaged, and the damage to overall health and wellbeing. For Catholic schools, there is an added negative impact: the devastating effect on the spiritual life of our learners.

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Pedagogies of the Pandemic Blog 2: Still Together: Finding Hidden Blessings in Distance Learning

Marie McCoy (Religious Education teacher at St Ninian’s High in Giffnock)

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Here we go again. Not so long ago my classroom was a hive of Advent activity as my pupils listened to ‘O’ antiphons and designed Jesse tree decorations. Now, like classrooms up and down the country, it lies empty and deserted and we must return instead to the soulless world of online learning.

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Pedagogies of the Pandemic Blog 1: “Light Shines in the Darkness”

Teaching online last term was something that I was absolutely dreading, a feeling that I know many of my colleagues shared. A common concern was the sense of personal connection, the building of a community within the classroom, that allows for the venture of dialogue, conversation, and learning. When it comes to Catholic education, which always has a pastoral dimension, incorporating this element in a virtual environment poses serious challenges. To me this seemed impossible to carry out online. What, in fact, I was actually confronted with was a completely different reality, one in which a ‘light shines in the darkness’.

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Closure of Churches: Safety or Scandal?

Roisín Coll, Fr Stephen Reilly and Anna Blackman

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The announcement on Sunday that we were to enter another severe lockdown left many of us scrambling to get organised for what lies ahead in these next four weeks. Indeed, closure of schools means that teachers and parents alike are having to prepare for another period of challenges where we try to do our best to get things right for our children. Schools across the country are working relentlessly to support the learning of our young people and the established key partnerships with parents, the local communities, local authorities and so on are critical at this time to ensure there is minimum disruption to children’s learning and their health and wellbeing. For Catholic schools in Scotland, one of most significant partnerships in terms of the education of children is the relationship with the Church. Much has been written about the ‘three-legged stool’ or ‘catechetical triangle’ in terms of the religious education of Catholic children and the particular roles of home, parish and school in developing and nurturing children’s faith. Indeed, it is recognised that even with the knowledge that many children in Catholic schools do not attend church with their families, the strong relationship that many priests have with their local Catholic school ensures that the responsibility of the parish to impact on children’s faith is realised. The complete closure of Catholic churches in Scotland once more means that this ‘leg’ of the stool is not able to function as normal and, therefore, may have a negative impact on the faith development and religious education of pupils. We need only remind ourselves of the hundreds of children across the country that have not yet made their First Holy Communion or received the Sacrament of Confirmation, nearly a year on from when they should.  

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