I recently attended celebrations for two teachers retiring after many decades of loyal and dedicated service in our Catholic schools. Between them they had clocked up more than 80 years of commitment to nurturing our children. During the latter part of their careers they had even taught the grandchildren of some of those they encountered when newly qualified. They had clearly touched the lives of many through their outstanding service.
During the speeches it was heartening to hear that both were extremely grateful for their Catholic teacher training and thought this gave them their strong sense of vocation and longevity. Since being involved in Catholic schools, I have met many fantastic people who trained as Catholic teachers with the intention of being in it for the long haul. I now recognise the presence of such devoted individuals as one of the hallmarks of a healthy Catholic school.
As well as giving thanks for their personal dedication, I reflected privately that I was also witnessing the passing of something. These were committed Catholics who had given their entire working lives to a vision of Catholic education. Sadly, this seems to be a form of commitment that is ebbing away. As I looked around the church and the function afterwards, I began to wonder where the next generation of this type of person was. Yes, there were fine and outstanding teachers who were committed to their work, but the pressures of modern education, and all the expectations and demands placed upon staff, mean it is unusual to remain in teaching for a whole career. I meet many teachers who are considering longer-term options outside the profession.
A future challenge will be ensuring that younger staff members continue to develop that purposeful understanding of what it means to be a Catholic teacher in a Catholic school. This sense of vocation will only emerge when future teachers are animated by their own living faith. Catholic education will not thrive if those involved in it have a vague understanding of the Catholic faith and hold views at odds with the moral teachings of the Church. A renewed culture rooted in faith and underpinned by first-class catechesis should be our aim.
In English Catholic schools in 2013, 69 per cent of primary teachers and 44 per cent of secondary school teachers were Catholic. But this number is thought to be reducing year on year as long-serving staff retire and others leave the profession.
I believe we have a crisis of vocation in our schools far larger than the crisis of vocation to the priesthood. The situation is not without hope, but I am convinced that something of the pioneering spirit which founded our schools is required in order to find a solution. Complacency is an option, but it will ultimately lead to the loss of a system of schools that was hard-won.
After the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850, the bishops saw the great need for education of the poor. They thought that providing schools and training teachers was so important that it often came before the construction of church buildings. The Church had the vision and commitment to ensure that teachers were formed both in the faith and educational practice.
While there are still centres of excellence in Catholic teacher training today, there are not enough to ensure that our schools have the quantity and calibre of teachers we need. How can we recapture the missionary charism of teaching that seems to have been lost over the last few decades?
Our Catholic schools present us with a great opportunity and give an amazing platform for engagement with the world, which prevents the Church from existing in a vacuum. Catholic schools were founded through great personal commitment and sacrificial giving at parish level, as well as among the bishops. The whole Catholic community has a responsibility to support our schools. When was the last time you prayed for vocations to our schools or encouraged someone you know to think about the possibility of teaching as a life choice? Every faithful Catholic needs to become part of the solution.