Saturday 13 October 2012

Ethos of a Catholic School

On 30 October the Anscombe Centre is organizing an "ETHOS" conference in Oxford on the role of ethics, science, and religion in Catholic schools. The poster is here. I will not be able to attend, but it seems a good opportunity to reflect on the theme that is under debate.

The ethos of a school refers to its moral environment, the sense of belonging to a community of shared values and ideals. The word ethos originally meant “custom”, or “habit”, or “character”; the ethos is determined by the way we treat each other and behave towards each other. It depends on the quality of our attention and respect for one another. It supports and stimulates both imagination and intellectual inquiry but is distinct from both. It may be
expressed in a mission statement, but that can be no more than a point of reference. Ethos requires us actually to behave, not just to speak, in accordance with the faith and intelligence we profess. It is a matter of the “spirit”, rather than the “letter”. 

In an article for the Catholic Herald on 5 October 2012, Tim Gardner OP chooses these words from the Declaration on Christian Education by the Second Vatican Council to express the ethos of a Catholic school:
“a special atmosphere animated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and charity, to help youth grow according to the new creatures they were made through baptism as they develop their own personalities, and finally to order the whole of human culture to the news of salvation so that the knowledge the students gradually acquire of the world, life and man is illumined by faith” (n. 8).
How can we tell if a school has this “Catholic ethos”? It comes from the presence of a certain spirit within the community, which shows itself in different ways, from an almost tangible mood or atmosphere through to various concrete signs, such as the close integration of liturgy, prayer, and religious instruction with the rest of school life, the moral example set by teachers, encouragement given to charitable activity, interest in the life of each pupil, care for those with special needs, and so on.

The Catholic ethos radiates from the liturgy and the sacraments but extends throughout the community and the work of the school. This even affects what is taught and the way it is taught. The Incarnation is not some piece of historical information that, once communicated, can be forgotten while we turn our minds to geography or biology or mathematics. If true, it changes everything, even the way we view the cosmos. It alters the way every subject is taught as well as the relationships between them. It connects them severally and together to our destiny, to the desire of our hearts for union with infinite truth – what used to be called, and perhaps still should be, the saving of our souls. Once that lesson is learned, there are no “boring” subjects. Nothing can be ugly or pointless unless we make it so.  

To some it may sound excessively pious to say so, but a Catholic ethos is essentially Marian, and the “atmosphere” of a Catholic school will tend to be redolent of the Holy Family, since this is the educational environment in which Our Lord himself grew to maturity. It is the work of the Catholic school to help bring Christ to birth and to maturity in each member of the community, and to that extent to help extend the ethos of the Holy Family throughout the world. This is only possible with the grace of the sacraments, making possible the living presence of Christ himself.

Details of the conference follow:

A conference on the role of ethics, science and religion in Catholic schools: The Anscombe Centre is delighted to announce a conference for teachers and school leaders on Tuesday 30th October (10am - 4pm), at St Gregory's Catholic School, Oxford OX4 3DR. This presents an excellent opportunity to encourage an authentic, reasoned, and persuasive account of faith in education, supporting teachers and, ultimately, students.
Three speakers from national centres of excellence in the worlds of education, Catholic bioethics and science and religion will deliver presentations. Fr Tim Gardner OP, Prof David Albert Jones, and Rev Dr Andrew Pinsent will focus on the educational worldview involved in Catholic schools, relating this to practice and the formation of a schoolwide ethos. There will be opportunities for discussion, and for involvement in our follow-on project: consulting with us on a book we are publishing on these themes.

The conference could be used as an INSET day, for those who organise INSET days, or more generally as a day for all who are interested in what it means in practice and theory for an educational institution to have a religious ethos.

Online bookings can be made here: The cost of the event is £80, which includes refreshments and lunch. Places are limited. Free parking is available at St Gregory's. Please book asap. For more information contact the Anscombe Centre at or on 01865 610 212.

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