Kind friends have often referred to my somewhat idiosyncratic existence as “a portfolio career”. I think it is somehow related to “jack-of-all-trades”, but I’ll take it. After nearly a decade of university-level teaching, and in the midst of a world pandemic, I expanded it further by dusting down my long-forgotten theology degree and enrolling for a formal teaching qualification. Two years later, having cut my teeth in a huge Catholic secondary school in north Oxfordshire, I find myself delivering Key Stage 4 Religious Studies in central London two days a week.
I love it for three reasons: my pupils, my colleagues, and the rigour of the material required to be covered. The syllabus begins with Judaism, which then serves as a firm foundation for an in-depth study of Catholic Christianity broadly rooted in the traditional disciplines of philosophy, theology, and ethics. When I recently gave a revision tutorial on the Council of Nicæa to an undergraduate about to start finals at Oxford, I had covered its main points—in not much less detail—with a class of fifteen-year-olds only a few days earlier.
The course presents the Church’s teaching on sundry topics with clarity and without pulling its punches. At the same time, it provides examples from the deposit of faith—Scripture, Councils, papal teachings—to demonstrate how the Church has arrived at its position, and also teases out the impact of said teaching on the lives of practising Catholics. However—and this is crucial—it also mandates the exposure of pupils to alternative points of view.
Given the present zeitgeist those alternative points of view are legion; evaluation, rather than regurgitation, forms the major part of assessment at examination time. Students are expected to be able to demonstrate that they understand what the Church teaches by referring to relevant documents, to give examples of how some people might agree with it and also how others might dissent, and having done all that then—and only then—to offer their own personal observations of the merits of the matter.
I say all this because the ripples of the recent controversy at John Fisher School in Purley, in south London, continue to spread. The Archdiocese of Southwark’s instruction, through its board of education, that Simon James Green ought not to visit the school to discuss his work with pupils aged 12 and 13 should not seem unreasonable, given that the material in question contained a sexually-explicit parody of the Lord’s Prayer, and the revelation that a student in Year 11 is in a sexual relationship, which is construed as glamorous, with another in Year 13.
Mr Green is free to publish whatever he can get onto the shelves, of course—and he could hardly have bought wider publicity—but it is unclear to me why anyone thinks that a Catholic school is obliged to endorse his work thereafter. Furthermore, if the kind of relationship he presents came to the attention of any school it would immediately become the focus of a safeguarding investigation to ensure that it was neither abusive (given the power imbalance described) nor illegal (not all students will have reached their sixteenth birthdays by the time they enter Year 11).
The fact that the relationship is gay is irrelevant; that did not, inevitably, prevent the loudly-vaunted suggestion circulating in the usual outlets that the case was an example of a Catholic school trying to pretend that homosexuality doesn’t exist. Talking to The Guardian, Mr Green justified his style by emphasising that “young people at secondary school do swear, they do talk about sexual things with their friends.” This is not news; the increasingly precocious and overt sexualisation of children—as opposed to its covert counterpart, which has been around for as long as sin itself—is here to stay, and it is for exactly that reason that all schools (yes, including Catholic ones) are also legally obliged to deliver robust provision to educate their pupils about the realities of life in the fallen, messy, and confusing world in which they find themselves.
John Fisher School is clearly no exception, because—while internal questions presumably remain about why Mr Green was invited in the first place—the snap Ofsted inspection that the press frenzy precipitated found that “relationships and sex education is comprehensive and meets the expectations set out in government guidance”. Pupils were found to be “confident in raising and talking about potentially sensitive topics, for instance those related to pornography, sexting and harmful sexual behaviour”. In this respect, at least, it seems that this is an establishment of which the Archdiocese of Southwark can be proud.
Just because a text has found favour elsewhere doesn’t suddenly make it compulsory reading for teenagers. There are plenty of agents in the world who would gleefully lead children, Pied-Piper-like, towards choices that the Church deplores; it is emphatically not the job of Catholic schools to dance to the tune, or to provide directions for the journey. Rather, it is their vital and distinctive vocation to go on loving indiscriminately, to go on listening generously, and to go on cherishing every single one of their pupils as God himself requires.
“Respect for the God-given dignity of each human life sits at the heart of Catholic education and respect is a two-way street,” the Southwark Board of Education has declared. Teachers in any Catholic school—not just RS teachers, and plenty of whom may well not be practising Catholics themselves—will, hopefully, be able to recognise and identify with that lofty sentiment. Meanwhile, take away “Catholic” and even “God-given” from the sentence and what remains is a statement that all teachers and governors in any school in the United Kingdom should be able endorse wholeheartedly—and without exception.
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