Ratcliffe College Headmaster, Jonathan Reddin, highlights the challenges that face Catholic Schools to retain their true identity during lockdown and when schools reopen, and the opportunity the pandemic has provided for School leaders to reflect and re-shape the way Schools help young people encounter God in their lives.
At a time when the role of leading our schools feels consumed by the ever-changing challenges of the pandemic, considering how best to engage students with their Faith on their eventual return to the classroom may not be at the forefront of every Head’s mind right now. Pressures to manage and support the day-to-day needs of students and colleagues, as well as negotiating the trials of remote learning may leave little time and energy left to contemplate and plan too far ahead. With Schools closed to most students, and Churches until recently closed to congregations, where do young people seek and receive spiritual nourishment in these uncertain times? How do we, as Catholic leaders, prevent the physical separation from the daily routines of Catholic life and collective worship in our schools from creating a permanent vacuum for many young people, forever separating them from their spiritual roots? Sadly, for the majority of our children, Catholic or not, school continues to represent their only experience of Church and our Faith. How do we protect that experience in the future?
What will post-pandemic look like?
Remote learning has led to an inevitable increase in on-screen time. External agencies report regular increases in incidents of cyber-bullying, as well as other forms of inappropriate use of technology amongst children and young people. When schools do eventually reopen, what will the legacy of the pandemic be for this generation of young people in terms of their spiritual growth and development, as well as their formal education?
These are the questions that I’m sure many Heads and leaders in Catholic schools have been wrestling with since lockdown was announced last March – I know I have. As disruption to learning has extended into a second academic year, these questions have taken on greater importance for us all. As we await further announcements on the reopening of schools almost a year since lockdown 1.0, our collective ability as leaders to keep Christ at the centre of all we do for, and on behalf of our students, must not be overlooked or buried under the tangle of operational ‘priorities.’ Instead, our Catholic Mission must remain at the focal point of our decision-making; it must be at the very tip of the lance we carry as we forge ahead in the
Encouraging Big Ideas – continuing to deliver our mission
Our Faith and our belief in the Catholic identity of our schools will be tested further in the coming months; I don’t believe that we will simply return and resume our normal routines without consequences to the Faith journey of our children and young people. However, I do believe that the current crisis presents Catholic schools with a unique opportunity to revisit our Mission and to re-shape the way in which we present our Faith to young people in the future. Now is a chance to consider doing things differently. If we have learnt one lesson from the pandemic, it is that we must adapt quickly if we are to succeed. To ensure our Faith is strengthened by our recent experiences rather than being irreparably damaged by it, I urge all Catholic leaders to ask how their Schools are currently making Christ known within their school community? The answer to this question will surely help to inform how their school is delivering its Mission and how their decisions are informed by it. Amidst the business of mass testing, teacher-assessed grades and continuing to operate in bubbles, Christ and his presence in the lives of our children must remain central to our thinking and a priority within our daily routines.
The importance of Prayer
Since January, Ratcliffe has worked very hard to maintain and develop its Catholic identity throughout the College, from our youngest children in our Nursery to our Year 13 students.
We have prioritised the importance of beginning all our online staff briefings with prayer,
led by a member of the common room. We have witnessed so many beautiful prayers each day, many written by staff members themselves. Daily Tutor time and Registration must continue to begin with a prayer, led by a student or their teacher. All our online formal meetings, of which there are dozens each week, including student voice as well as staff-led meetings and Governor meetings, begin with a prayer or reflection. Our commitment to daily prayer, despite the physical separation of lockdown, has enabled colleagues to put Christ at the centre of our daily lives and promote the value of prayer to the students.
Our Chaplaincy Team has been very active throughout lockdown, meeting fortnightly to tackle fundamental questions regarding the way in which our school fulfils its Catholic Mission.
In doing so, the College continues the important work of reshaping the way in which we will help our students encounter God in their lives in the coming weeks, months and years ahead. Weekly whole School assemblies in the Senior School as well as Key Stage assemblies in our Preparatory and Nursery settings, have enabled the whole College community to hear the word of God through scripture and Bible readings appropriate to the liturgical calendar.
The College focuses on a different Gospel value each half-term. From January, we concentrated on the importance of Charity, which dovetailed so well with our whole College fundraising walk to raise money for YoungMinds, a charity dedicated to supporting positive mental health for young people. Our aptly named, ‘Hike to Bethlehem’ where we collectively walked the equivalent distance from our school to the place of Jesus’s birth, was completed on the penultimate day of the Autumn Term and provided our Sixth Form students with an opportunity to live out their Faith, putting the needs of others before themselves by organising a whole College charity event. All students and staff walked in bubbles in fancy dress! It was a huge success, raising £7k for our chosen charity and highlighting just what can be achieved when we put Christ at the centre of our lives.
Our boarding community living in school, although somewhat depleted in number, continues to meet for Night Prayer under the guidance of our Chaplain and Lay-Chaplain. These occasions continue to support their Faith journey through prayer and personal reflection. As we enter the season of Lent, the Gospel value for this coming half-term is Forgiveness. This Gospel value will inform all our prayers and assemblies, as well as our charitable and pastoral work to ensure that we continue to remind students of the importance of having and celebrating our Faith.
These activities are hardly ground-breaking, nor do they represent perhaps anything more than what other schools are doing or have done. The reason is to underline their importance to our Catholic identity to the young people in our care, regardless of whether we are physically in school or not. Prayer signifies Hope, and Hope signifies a desire for something and expectation of receiving it; the virtue is hoping for Divine union and so eternal happiness. While Faith is a function of the intellect, Hope is an act of the will. At a time of such uncertainty and separation from so many of the anchor points that our schools provide young people, Prayer is a powerful act of Hope and one which must be practised daily.
Thinking about the future
In an increasingly secular world, dominated by the constant noise of the internet and social media, Catholic Schools must use the disruption of the pandemic as an opportunity to refresh the way in which they evangelise culture by addressing the deepest questions about what it is to be human and live in society. We must use this opportunity to re-evaluate the ways in which we open young people’s minds to the transcendent dimension of life and the reality of God revealed in Jesus Christ. As Catholic schools, we have the opportunity to begin a fresh page and re-write the way we teach a holistic understanding of the human person and society in which all are included so that humanity can flourish. As Catholic schools, we have the opportunity to re-think the ways in which we help each child to develop their God-given gifts and talents in order to engage in building a better society, post pandemic, which is characterised by justice, truth and love. And so, as we enter the next phase of the pandemic, remember to make time to re-evaluate how your school lives out it’s Mission and how best to keep the Faith.