Opinion & Features

Education feature: An anchor in a changing world

‘Heart speaking to heart’: Newman’s writing desk, with his glasses and a prayer card (Getty)

Faith and reason, student welfare and a role for parents: Cardinal Newman’s vision of education was way ahead of its time

Aristotle praised the value of the golden mean: the perfect balance to be found between two competing extremes. At The Oratory School near Reading, where I work, we believe that our founder Blessed John Henry Newman’s ideal of a Catholic education represents just such a balance.

In a world in which the very concept of truth has been made increasingly subjective, a Catholic school, with its ethos firmly rooted in the Gospel message, provides an anchor – a secure base from which our students are able to grapple with and understand the world. For Newman, however, this should not be a blind faith that relies on doctrine by rote. Rather, he argues for a community that uses reason to inform its conscience (“The aboriginal vicar of Christ”, as he put it in a letter to the Duke of Norfolk).

Thus students are helped critically to evaluate the arguments that they are presented with. Crucially there is a freedom implicit here. Newman was adamant that the young “for the most part cannot be driven” and respond far better to an open atmosphere of discussion and debate.

Catholic education should not be regarded purely in pragmatic terms. In Newman’s The Idea of a University he recognises the way in which all subjects should be seen as inculcating virtues together. That includes geography and chemistry, which provide key parts of a student’s human development. The alternative is to leave all pastoral development to RE departments or simply to view academic subjects in brutal isolation from each other. In a Catholic school, academic endeavours develop these virtues in parallel with the sporting, co-curricular and, above all, spiritual aspects of a student’s life. Newman was promoting the value of educating the whole person long before it became fashionable.

A vital aspect of Newman’s view of education is this remarkably modern balance between “vigorous intellectual training” and a “thoroughly Catholic atmosphere” that his friend and fellow convert Edward Bellasis and other supporters were looking for in the new school. In the past critics have noted that, unlike so many English public schools, Catholic schools have not become academic hothouses.

But this is to forget that the majority of Catholic schools have preserved their broad academic intake and yet are frequently to be found at the very pinnacle of the “value added” tables. Newman would no doubt be delighted to note that his school was this year placed in the top three per cent of all schools nationally in terms of what we are able to add to a student’s academic performance at A-level.

Again, Newman comes across as surprisingly prescient in his focus, back in 1849, on prioritising student welfare and the importance of working together with parents to share in the upbringing of their children. He deplored standard 19th-century school practices such as attempts to spy on the boys by opening their mail. Rather, he argued for a school environment based on excellent relationships between students and teachers. No doubt he would be pleased to see the warm interactions and secure relationships at the school he founded. These are a wonderful living example of his own motto, Cor ad cor loquitur (“Heart speaking to heart”).

Finally, Newman recognised that the full flourishing of the Catholic faith in Britain would require the emergence of a well-informed laity as well as the restoration of the Church hierarchy. To this end he consciously separated his new school from the seminaries of the day. In a significant and controversial break with the colleges already established by the Benedictines and Jesuits, he founded a school which, rather than focusing on developing future priests, was aimed at producing lawyers, doctors, politicians, scientists and other professionals who would be able to take their Catholic ethos out into the world and fully engage with it.

Matthew Fogg is deputy head – pastoral at The Oratory School