This summer is a unique one for teachers: they are preparing their classrooms for the first full intake of pupils since schools were emptied following the lockdown in March.
Among them is Michael Merrick, the executive head teacher of two Catholic primary schools in Cumbria. “We want to get the kids back into school,” he says. “We want to get them back in with their mates, we want them to have a sense of normality, to start teaching them and carry on developing the Catholic vision of a good life that we want them to have.”
Merrick is clear in his own mind what such a vision entails. Although he was baptised a Catholic, he says his instruction in the faith was largely “just what I got through school”. His experience of primary education could have been, as it is for many cradle Catholics, the only time in his life that he felt part of a living Christian community.
But he was drawn deeply into his faith as an adult and became head of Religious Education in a secondary school soon after he took up his first post in 2010.
It is easy to recognise the qualities that commended him to such rapid promotion, not least the analytical mind of a contemplative and serious thinker. He is conversant with educational theory both from Catholic and secular perspectives, able to articulate with ease what Catholic education ought to be and what might be required of a Catholic teacher.
He explains that teachers have a duty to respond to the universal call to holiness and to show leadership in the Faith as part of their vocation. Many teachers in Catholic schools are, however, not Catholic and the schools, he suggests, have a role to play in “inviting them into a relationship with Christ” through their explicit recognition of the “absolute dignity” of every child and the “ethic of service” to each other and to wider society.
It is within Catholic schools that children grow to understand their relationship with God, says Merrick: “That He loves us and through Christ’s sacrifice we are redeemed.” Such schools also have a “big responsibility” to induct children to the liturgical rhythms of the Church beyond the school gates, but perhaps without relying on novelty. “I don’t think we older ones can ever quite do anything that’s cool enough for children,” he observes.
Three years ago Merrick made an influential presentation on social mobility for BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought in which he noted that today “to be educated too often means not being like your mum or dad”. He was concerned about the values being pressed on students of all backgrounds, particularly as they pass through the universities, the “gatekeepers of the job market”.
These trends can also be an obstacle to the handing-on of the faith.
But Merrick advises against shying away from the challenges. “My view would tend to be that we should not step back from this world that disagrees with us and calls us names and laughs at us and mocks and scorns,” he says. “Our Lord did tell us that would happen, and so as far as I can see we should stand there and with love, but stubbornly, say there is another way of thinking.
“I would be cautious about saying we should retreat from this world and designate it as unreformable … we should go out there and tell the Good News and accept that we will get slings and arrows. That’s the price of being a Catholic.”
Such hope may be a supernatural virtue, but in Merrick’s case it is also informed by seeing in secondary school pupils of all age groups the “absolute thirst for something bigger than what the world is offering them”.
Certainly, people have always strayed from the faith and the Church in every age exists to welcome them back. “What we do is keep making the offer,” Merrick notes. “We can be a city on a hill even if not everybody comes and joins us immediately. We have a presence that offers salvation in wider society even if they don’t always come and sit on the benches with us.”