Right tools for the job published in The Tablet 15th February 2014
Even though Catholic school governors are crucial in promoting the Church's mission, they are often ill-prepared for the task, argues educationalist Judith Russi.
The Second Vatican Council presented a radical challenge to pastors and laity alike to "spare no sacrifice in helping Catholic schools to become increasingly effective". The Council Fathers realised that it had never been more urgent for the Church to educate and form young people to be able to make a preferential option, "in caring for the needs of those who are poor in the goods of this world or who are deprived of the assistance and affection of a family or who are strangers to the gift of faith" (Gravissimum Educationis "Declaration on Christian Education", 1965, section 9).
Care for the poor has always been at the heart of the Gospel and the Church, but Vatican II recognised that a new challenge had presented itself. Family as we had known it was unravelling and Catholics' sense of identity was fading fast. The Church was well used to respond to anti-Catholic voices. However, there was now something far more difficult to deal with - polite indifference.
The challenge for the bishops today must seem at times like a mountain too high to climb. Alone it is, but it is time to recognise the potential for change and transformation that lies with Catholic schools' governing bodies.
I find it worrying that while governor training in how to manage that which belongs to Caesar is plentiful, even to the point of being able to access excellent courses online, the same cannot be said with regard to implementing the Church's mission in Catholic education. Dioceses are providing training for governors, but too often it is limited by lack of resources, with an over-reliance on what the local authority provides.
Before any governor takes up his mandate on behalf of the bishop, a serious formation for their leadership role in the evangelising, mission of the Church is essential. The importance of knowing what the challenge is and where the Church stands makes all the different to decision-making and to guiding the school community.
However, the whole governing body has the same mission regardless of each individual's route into governorship. I find governors really energised and excited when they hear, often for the first time, statements such as that issued by the Congregation for Catholic Education: "The absence of the Catholic school would be a great loss for civilisation and for the natural and supernatural destiny of man" ("The Catholic School", 1977, paragraph 15). We agree, they say, but how does that help us when faced with the many challenges from government to the very existence of our school? These include the marginalization of religious education from the core curriculum and the debates surrounding academies and faith schools.
Regularly, I hand out Vatican II documents and take governors through each one, highlighting the call to be a people on mission. Sadly, this is met with, "I never knew this!" One could argue that it is all in the public domain but this is not enough.
The mission in education for Catholic schools is to educate and form young people to be builders of a society fit for its children - the Kingdom of God. This is a far cry from the present government agenda, which appears to be totally driven by the need to produce ever more economically productive little cogs for the global economic wheel. Ofsted has become so narrow in its assessment of a school that much of what actually inspires excellence is reduced to data that focuses on limited outcomes.
The very mention of Ofsted often engenders a certain fear in governors because some are not confident as to who really calls the shots about the future of their school. Ofsted is one of many state requirements that must be met. But governors have responsibilities that are far more important than those of any Secretary of State for Education.
So the Church should invest in the critical role of governors and recall the most frequently used phrases in the New Testament: "Do not be afraid." Our mission is that of Almighty God not almighty Gove.
Sr Judith Russi SSMN has worked as a teacher, inspector and education adviser. She is the author of many books including co-author of How to Survive Working in a Catholic School (Redemptorist Publications 2013