This is a picture of our parish primary school in Westgate Road, like all schools coming to the end of another academic year. Those of you who are parents or governors will know that recently the school had an OFSTED inspection, often a source of stress for staff. The inspection report is available from the school website (St Mary’s Catholic Primary School); here are some extracts: ‘St Mary’s continues to be a good school. There is enough evidence to suggest that the school could be judged outstanding if we were to carry out a graded inspection…Pupils at St Mary’s are proud to be part of this nurturing environment. Pupils feel safe and are kept safe here. They are kind and polite towards their peers, meeting leaders’ high expectations of their behaviour…All areas of the curriculum meet or exceed what is expected nationally…Pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) are well supported to achieve the same ambitious curriculum goals as their peers. Staff are well trained to meet a range of different needs. Pupils with SEND receive appropriately personalised help…pupils with SEND learn and remember more in different subjects and are well prepared for the next stage in their learning…’ Mrs Vassallo, her dedicated staff, the governors and pupils deserve our congratulations for a tremendous outcome.

This year has been important for all Catholic schools for another reason. In the spring, published under the authority of the bishops, was a new Religious Education Directory – To know You more clearly. This latest directory is the fruit of many years’ work by teachers and other academics, drawing extensively on Scripture, the Catechism (including the versions of it aimed at young people and children, YOUCAT, DOCAT and Youcat for Kids) and the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and recent popes. I am not an education professional, but it seems to me that To know You more clearly is a very impressive and comprehensive resource for schools and parishes, and will serve us well for many years. Most of the book is actually a model curriculum, set out very clearly with detailed outcomes for each age group in primary and secondary schools relating to each subject area. RE and worship are the main things which are distinctive about Catholic schools; much of what you find here you won’t find in other schools, however good they may be in other respects.

An example from the section on ‘outcomes’ describing some of what pupils aged 11-14 should be able to do: ‘Explain why the Church teaches that Jesus is the model of perfect human living, making links with the Catholic Social Teaching principle of the dignity of the human person….Describe how and explain why Christians should practice the disciplines of fasting, almsgiving and prayer, particularly during the season of Lent.’ With the best will in the world, you could not find this aspiration in a non-Catholic school’ (p.57) This is demanding, even for the best Catholic schools (and many children and young people here go to some of the best Catholic schools in the country); the new directory is intended to be an improvement, to make demands. Earlier on the directory says this: ‘At the heart of every school is the person of Jesus Christ. This presence of Christ is in the present tense: it is a real presence, in the here and now. Recognition of it impacts on everything a Catholic school is and does, not least in religious education. And Jesus Christ, the person whose presence the school proclaims, is the Word made flesh, the God who emptied himself and made himself small for our sake, “small enough to fit into a manger” ’ (p. 9)

I have mentioned this new directory because it is one of the few good things happening in education at the moment: it will mean a lot of preparation for staff in the next eighteen months or so, but for the Catholic sector this is an important statement of what we are for. There are many other serious issues facing our schools and others – demoralization among staff, serious financial challenges (schools at the moment can’t set a budget because the government hasn’t decided how the teachers’ pay settlement is to be financed), falling rolls (this is a London wide problem as children progress through primary school as families are moving out of Greater and Inner London), teacher shortages, the continuing after-effects of COVID and so on. All Catholic parents should take seriously the place of RE in any school, and the new directory reiterates that Catholic schools remain the best option for us. The importance of RE is the reason why we should normally send our children to Catholic schools; they are a key part of the history and ethos of the Catholic Church in this country, a narrative of clear self-sacrifice and commitment in so many places. We are very fortunate to have Catholic schools in the State system in this country, and we should show our commitment to what they try to do.

At the end of this academic year please pray for all our local schools – especially the staff and pupils going to new schools, jobs or universities.

Fr Ashley