Annual Conference of Headteachers 2018


Given at the Annual Conference of Headteachers at Ashford International Hotel on 21st February 2018

I am glad to have the opportunity of addressing you this evening as above all it gives me an occasion to thank you for your hard work. In our Diocesan Annual Report to the Charities Commission, we were able to state that of the schools in this Diocese (and I mean Westminster, not Southwark, at this last stop before Brexit) 96.9% are rated as good or outstanding by Ofsted, and that the pupil mix contains at least eight different ethnic groupings with the white British group being 33%. These and other figures totally refute those who ignorantly propose that Catholic schools are mono-cultural, elitist or socially divisive. 

But there is a more important point that I wish to explore with you this evening and it centres round a familiar refrain. You are leaders of Catholic communities. You are leaders of communities that take their character and their way of life from the gift of the Catholic faith, whatever the proportion of Catholics who may be present, (which is not at all the same as our insisting, over the 50% cap, that Catholics can never be excluded from Catholic schools simply because they are Catholics). It is for this leadership of a Catholic institution that I wish both to thank you and to explore with you this evening. 

There are three themes on which I want to touch. 

The first is hidden within the word 'Catholic'. It is impossible to be truly Catholic and closed-minded or isolated from the whole body. Being Catholic means being open to the whole and being dedicated to the unity of the whole. Being Catholic means finding ways of expressing and deepening that 'universality', that Catholic character, and being ready always to embrace the other. 

These characteristics of Catholicism are imprinted into the life of the Church. And they should be imprinted into the life of a Catholic school. In the Church we understand and live the dynamics of this unity and diversity. There are in the Church expressions of both: the diversity of liturgies, of national customs, of individual parishes with their inventiveness and sense of mission. And there are clear bonds of unity that make daily demands: the charism of the Papacy as the sign of that unity; the presiding of the bishop and his curia over the particular church that is entrusted to him so that he may be its sign and servant of unity, making demands and providing services to the best of his judgement, fashioned, as far as possible, in a shared discernment. 

When a school is truly Catholic those same dynamics shape its life, and therefore its leadership. 

Negatively, a Catholic leader, be that a bishop, parish priest or headteacher, can never 'go it alone'. Such a stance is much more the fruit of the protest of the Reformation. There are, of course, those who claim that the Reformation gave rise to an important spirit of the individual entrepreneur. But it has also lead to increasing fragmentation which has to be resolved only with great pain and loss. Rather the spirit of the Catholic leader is always to strive to see the whole, to see and serve its strengths and to expand that sense of belonging, of family, as far as possible. This does not mean the suppression of personal strengths or inventiveness. No. But it sees those qualities always to be put to the service of the whole, in a spirit of interdependence. I could include here many quotations from St Paul about the unity of the body and the diversity of its parts. But you know them already. 

Our sense of family, then, is vital, not in some pious, romantic sense, that we are capable of having a good time together, laced with moments of prayer and celebration. Rather it is a hard-headed, realistic commitment which challenges us and asks us always to examine our consciences to ensure that the spirit of individual defensiveness, the spirit of obstinate local autonomy, the spirit of radical rivalry, has no part in our make-up. 

In a world and a society in which we can see increasing fragmentation, this witness to a fundamental unity in God's creation and purpose is a vital witness that we must give, at every level and not least in our schools. As St Paul says, if one is weak then all are weak; if one achieves success, then all rejoice in it. (1 Cor.12: ‘Each part of the body may be equally concerned for all the others. If one part is hurt, all parts are hurt with it. If one part is given special honour, all parts enjoy it.’) This is what is meant when, at the Second Vatican Council, the Church itself was described as a sacrament, a Sacrament of Christ in the world, proclaiming the fundamental unity of God's purpose and striving always to give it practical expression. This applies to your leadership in your school. Each and all of us, together, have a vocation to be expressing that fundamental unity and cohesiveness which is the great summons of faith in Christ. He is the Word through whom all things are held in being and he is the full gift of our shared destiny in eternity. He cannot be fully proclaimed through the clamour of division. 

This, then leads me to my second point. 

A Catholic leader is a realist. The Christian faith is not an ideology. An ideology proceeds by destroying what is in its way. This we see in dramatic forms today, as it can be seen in most phases of human history. An ideology seeks to remove all that is opposed to it and to impose its 'ideals', no matter the objective cost. The Christian faith, on the other hand, knows that it is to proceed only by call and conversion. It looks with clear eyes at the reality before it, the reality of which it is a part: a neighbourhood, a culture, an economic system, an ecology. The Christian faith, more than any other, takes the reality of sin seriously, not pretending that we live in a utopia, or on a pathway of endless progress, but rather in a world marked by limitations and distortions. 

Today, in education, we are facing some of those limitations head on. A time of real prosperity, the era of 'you have never had it so good', for those of you old enough to remember that slogan of Harold Macmillan, has gone. Now we are living through times of considerable hardship for many, indeed of extreme poverty for the majority of our brothers and sisters. We have to see, be clear, and readjust. 

This means taking difficult decisions, marked by realism, about resources. In such circumstances it is right to look for economies that can be achieved by structures of cooperation, between schools within the same locality and within the wider family of schools. This is not an enforced 'master-plan', as you well know. It is a measured and appropriate response to the reality we face. The alternative, individual schools in isolation, will lead not only to conflict but also to the decline that eventually accompanies isolationist policies. 

You can see how these two points dovetail. Realism demands our closer cooperation. Our Catholicism inspires us along the same road. Indeed, we should already and always be on that track. And the bishop and his officers, his curia, have a vital part to play, serving that synergy, bringing to it an overview and a direction. This is a difficult challenge and at times problematic. Nevertheless, this service needs your support, not only in practice but also in enabling contributions. Such contributions express both the spirit of realism and the spirit of Catholic unity. 

The third point, and the last, I would like to illustrate with a story. 

Recently I was at one of the regular meetings of religious leaders with the Metropolitan Police. The topic under examination was knife crime in London. You know the levels of knife crime are appalling, with their horrific consequences of death and injury especially among young people. Indeed, it has recently hit our Catholic community, with tragic consequences, in Wood Green and Tottenham. The officer in charge of the Met's operations against knife crime spoke of the important role of schools in education and prevention. Then, without pause, he spoke of one of our Catholic schools as providing outstanding leadership in this campaign. I was quietly very pleased. But then he continued to say that he was not at all surprised that it was a Catholic school showing this leadership. He said he fully understood why the vision of Catholic education would produce such leadership. He added that he hoped to look to Catholic schools all over London to show the way and to cooperate together with their neighbouring schools in this campaign. This is a great realistic witness that one of our schools is giving and it is clearly understood to rise precisely from our faith and vision. 

So, my third point is to reflect, briefly, on how we understand that vision of the education which is to be given within our Catholic institutions, led by you, our Catholic leaders. 

A vision is so important, not least in times of change. A vision should be clear and shared, more than a 'mission statement' which can often be rather self-congratulatory. A vision has to be more comprehensive and it has to run through the school like a strong rhythm running through a melody or song, or like the word 'Blackpool' running through a stick of rock. It is there wherever you break into the stick! 

Here is one summary attempt to identify the key elements of our vision. These are the four things we are striving to achieve in our schools. 

First: education will contribute to the personal development and competence of every pupil. Gifts are from God. Gifts are not to be wasted. Rather they are to be identified and then helped to flourish. While the emerging and developing of these gifts can come at many different stages of life, the aim of every teacher is to know, as precisely as possible, what each pupil's gifts are and to encourage them, using them as a spur, as a motivation for making progress in other areas of challenge, too. Recognised success in art can encourage a better effort in maths, which may otherwise be an absolute blind spot - as well I know! 

The manner and style of such recognition is also important. Our Catholic ethos is not one of super heroes, not one of lauding the few in such a way that everyone else becomes indifferent to their own achievements or even sullenly withdrawn. Again, gifts are for service much more than for hero status. 

The second strand of our vision is that education always helps pupils and students to explore and embrace what it means to be human, what every human being has in common. This is one of the strands by which individualism is overcome and a sense of common humanity enkindled. This is the foundation for much of Catholic moral teaching in areas of friendship, relationship, family life, human sexuality. At a time of great confusion about the rules of sexual behaviour, about exploitation and abuse in every part of society, some firm points of reference, that are already built into our humanity at its best, are of vital importance. In an age of fluidity, even in gender identity, and at a time when the response to 'difference' is to become closed in a self-selecting world of the like-minded and reject that which is different, such foundations are so important. They affirm that there are 'givens' which come with birth and with solid identities and which project across generations. They help up keep hold of the reality that we are not single, self-determining individuals but members of a great family, with all its trials, diversities and struggles, and within that family, not alone, will we find our greatest joy. 

The third strand is a development of the second: that education helps every pupil and student to develop personal commitment to building a better society, to serving a common good, no matter the pathway in life they may choose. For many young people this instinct is strong, often rightly expressed in terms of the demands of justice. It is surely a vital part of our Catholic vision that this instinct is not just respected, but is seen, by them, to fashion the patterns of school life. Sanctions without explanation, sanctions without justice, corrode this natural instinct and demonstrate that in 'real life' justice is a commodity that cannot be afforded. Rather the efforts made by so many of our schools to encourage and support among its pupils service of the community, service of the common good, are there to provide experience and vision that, we hope, will be a continuing part of their future lives. 

The fourth strand is this: that education always seeks to express and explore that openness to the transcendent, the spiritual, which is a constitutive and formative part of every human being. This dimension, which runs through the daily life of our schools, is that which underpins the other three strands and is, of course, centred on the person of Jesus. 'Christ at the centre' is an excellent summary phrase of this endeavour, as long as we do not forget that Christ is the centre of humanity. Christ is the centre and fullest expression of our human nature. He is to be proclaimed not as an imposition from without but as the fulfilment of who we really are and proclaimed as the gift by which alone we are enabled to overcome the fractures and division we experience within ourselves and between us all. The gift of redemption, then, is not a gift brought by a benign uncle on a rare visit, but the healing of the ancient wound of our humanity so that our true self may surge from within, under the power of the Holy Spirit. 

It is our privilege to strive to provide such an education. It is your duty and mission as Catholic headteachers to know what you are about, to constantly remind all of this vision and to keep the effort on track, as best you can. 

Please note, that these strands of which I speak are actually fundamental to a sound and healthy life, for the person and for society. They are the deeper foundations of what is spoken of today as 'British Values’. A formation which strives to enable a person to achieve their best and to use it in the service of society is the heart of citizenship. Awakening an innate understanding of human nature and its dignity moves us to act accordingly towards our neighbour, no matter our differences. This goes beyond the barren expectations of 'tolerance'. To develop a sense of justice and fair play as part of our character and to believe that laws are best fashioned in true and searching dialogue and not by government diktat or favour is to unfold the deepest meaning of democracy and the rule of law. And an education that teaches that the most profound core of the person and the source of their dignity is to be found in the transcendent nature of their being is the best foundation for the recognition of the true equality of every person. It is, ultimately, an equality in the eyes of God for we are beings who live not simply within the contingent horizons of earthly sovereignty, science or space, but within those of eternity. To be passionate about such values is to serve all that will be best for Great Britain and to demonstrate that religious belief, properly understood, is not a problem to be solved but the greatest friend of humanity and a resource to be rediscovered. 

In these ways your task is to give a powerful witness in our society today, through your daily work in schools, through the leadership you give, to the coherence of our Catholic family and its unswerving commitment to work as one, and to the service we constantly bring to our pupils, their families, their parishes for their safety, growth and wellbeing. Of course, there are difficulties, but your calling is a great one and I thank you for the spirit in your hearts that leads you on.