As happens every year, the annual ‘readjustment’ from summer holiday randomness to rigid school routine is a wrench for everyone concerned – and it’s not getting any easier. Global warming pushing the seasons hasn’t helped, as it seems increasingly like the best of the annual weather now lands in the very week that we all have to return to the school run, as those of us struggling with this week’s unusual and debilitating heatwave can testify.
Behind the scenes, the covid pandemic has wreaked havoc with timetables, education plans, exams and the hopes and dreams of goodness knows how many years of young people.
To make matters worse, the fiscal disarray in government is not only making it near impossible for our educators to get schooling back on the rails, but the economic downturn has blighted teachers’ salaries, and put unimaginable strain on families of young children.
And as if things couldn’t get any worse, along comes the RAAC scandal and we suddenly hear that some schools may be in imminent danger of collapse – or even worse, have been for a number of years and no-one said.
All in all it’s not the best of circumstances to point out that this weekend marks Education Sunday, and therefore we have a lot to cheer about. Rather it might be more appropriate to heap heroic praise on our Catholic teachers and school workers – for sticking within a national system that could well be irreparably broken, for working in schools that could be about to collapse around them, as well as having to cope with the deteriorating economic conditions that are consuming us all.
Hardest of all, they are trying to inspire hope in a generation of schoolchildren for whom they know opportunities could well become limited to a degree that a decade or so ago would have seemed inconceivable.
It is said that pandemics are a-once-in-a-century event, though curiously regular on that basis. In view of Covid, records relating to the educational fallout after the 1918-20 Spanish Flu global pandemic are being chewed over obsessively by academics and educationalists, to see if the disasters of the past can give us any hope for the future. It’s still early days on all of this research, and there were countless social differences in education between the early 20th century and today that is making conclusions difficult – but some worrying parallels are emerging.
It’s clear from government papers that not all schools closed during the 1918-20 flu pandemic – indeed there were strong, rational medical voices for keeping young people in school. It’s obvious from the records that many knew getting young people to return to school after an extended period of home living wouldn’t just happen. And there was a worry back then that children from less wealthy or stable family circumstances would suffer disproportionately from a lack of enforced education. It’s sadly ironic that more than a century of supposed social progress since then, the same inequalities have been glaringly evident during and after the Covid pandemic.
Some studies are already revealing a devastating 30% reduction in school attendance rates, and the likelihood of a 6% reduction in the probability of sixth form graduation.
As a parent who had one teenage son at university during covid, and another at secondary school, I know only too well how challenging those circumstances were for all concerned. There had been no compelling reason for schools to rehearse remote learning strategies, and in many cases years of funding cuts had meant they simply didn’t have the technical and IT mechanisms in place to make the transition on such a challenging scale. Equally, students had little or no experience of absorbing knowledge digitally and – despite the proliferation of home computers and entertainment gadgets these days – few households were ready to process, or had experience in dealing with, remote learning requirements.
Some of these challenges could have been mitigated if our education system had the flexibility and creativity to deal with such a national emergency but sadly state learning processes have been in steep decline since the 1960s. What once used to be a fluid and highly-adaptable education system able to deliver and teach knowledge to children of a wide range of abilities and aspirations has become a shocking behemoth of inflexibility and systematic scrutiny – most if it far more a governmental preoccupation with obsessively monitoring teachers than in any way enhancing the school experience for pupils.
This is no more obvious evidence than in the dilemma of timetables and relentless topic chasing, which even before Covid was putting extraordinary pressure on teachers to deliver ever-increasing amounts of knowledge within a rigidly limited timetable. For many schools, the year-and-a-half lost to Covid has left a gap in the learning schedule that is proving to be near-impossible to make up, and this hasn’t been helped by the steady haemorrhaging of exhausted teachers to other professions.
If you are fortunate enough to be able to afford premium grade schooling for your children, they’ll almost certainly be attending establishments where funding, resources and staffing numbers will hopefully get your youngsters across the worse of the present economic climate, but the picture for many others isn’t half so bright. Many Catholic state schools in particular are suffering from decades of under-investment and staff are really struggling to manage.
But it’s not all bad news. In my 35 years of Catholic journalism I’ve written extensively and very happily about the value of a Catholic education, and the unique ethos that our schools encourage in their pupils. (Equally, I’ve always tried to avoid the notes of triumphalism and elitism that have often surrounded such events as the positive outcome of Ofsted inspection weeks, or those annual exam results tables and dreadful ‘jumping for joy’ pictures – which somehow I’ve always felt a tad uncomfortable reporting.)
In his letter for this weekend’s Education Sunday the Chair of the Catholic Education Service, Bishop Marcus Stock, does indeed mention that our Catholic schools “outperform national averages” but – as you’ll read throughout his message – this is no consequence of privilege but merely an anecdotal result of the unique love that lies at the heart of any Catholic educational establishment.
As Bishop Marcus points out” When a person knows they are truly loved, a new confidence abounds.’
In essence, the value of a Catholic education is not that it is necessarily better or worse than any other, rather it is different – in that it places the person at the centre of things, which is how all things should be within our Catholic Church.
So, on this coming education Sunday I’m happy to celebrate the success of those Catholic schools fortunate enough to been able to protect their charges from the storm of uncertainty currently blowing across the country, but I’d also like to ask that everyone spare a prayer or two for those Catholic schools and teachers who are finding contemporary life a little less than idyllic.
And if you are one of those educators who is currently wondering where on earth life might be going for you, today is the day when we get the chance to say ‘we are with you’.
As Bishop Marcus says in his letter: “Our Lord Jesus Christ always keeps His promise: you are gathered together in His name and He is with you as you work, learn, pray, grow and live out your mission.”
Please pray this Sunday for all who work in Catholic education, and for all Catholic pupils too.
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian