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We need to take back our schools

St Gabriel's Girls' RC, photo courtesy

Q: Archbishop J, how can we help our Catholic schools?

Catholic education is one of the most vexing, troubling and complicated areas of pastoral life in our Archdiocese. We have 118 primary schools and 16 secondary schools. Just for comparison the Government also has 118 primary schools with a budget totally different from ours.

It is vexing because there are no easy solutions and the present state is unacceptable.

It is troubling because we have far too many schools and children who fail to reach minimal standards of academic education. Some schools have failed consistently over years. This for me is robbing the children of their life chances. It is complicated and there are no quick-fix solutions. After eight months of being Archbishop, I have spent more time on Catholic education than on any other area of pastoral life in the Archdiocese.

We need to take back our schools. In many parishes there is a great working relationship between the parish and the school; in some cases it is a fragile relationship. The parish and the parishioners must own the school and work with principals, teachers, students and parents to embed the Catholic identity and offer authentic integral human development. Parishes can assist in the faith and values formation of the children, the support of the staff and the extra-curricular activities of the school.

For Catholic education to be truly Catholic, all our schools must engage in Catholic practices, e.g. Mass, Confession, Benediction, religious education, devotions, prayer and the observation of feast days and holy days.

At the second level, we need consistent values formation, not merely written on a wall, but lived by all members of the faith community. At the third level, we need shared beliefs—our Catholic creed and theology: beliefs about God, about humanity, about the relevance of God for every aspect of human living.

Taking back our schools means developing a vibrant ministry to Catholic schools so they can assist with all these needs. It means forming our teachers with these three levels of Catholic identity—practices, values and beliefs. This means strengthening both CEBM and CREDI. This is a massive task, which will cost a great deal.

A little history

There are several strands to the current state that we have inherited. The denominational boards opened and ran many schools in the pre-Independence era. As we opened parishes throughout the length and breadth of Trinidad and Tobago, we also opened schools. We had a policy of universal education well before the government saw its benefits.

The first school, for the ‘free coloured’ and children of slaves, was opened at the corner of Henry and Park Streets, in the early 1830s through the efforts of Fr Francis de Ridder, a free coloured Roman Catholic priest.

Our priests and religious in every village called forth headmasters, who were respected and ran their schools with discipline and honour.  Most of the children we educated would not have had access to education outside of our schools. In some villages several denominational boards set up schools giving options to parents.

Catholic education is an incredible gift to the development of Trinidad and Tobago. Many who have contributed greatly to our nation received their education through the Catholic Church. In many villages the priest, the headmaster or mistress, and religious if they were present, were amongst the few educated people who served the whole community.

Historically, Catholic education has a clear mission that mandated the Church to get involved and to expand rapidly and offer high quality education. This was not academic performance alone: it was whole person character formation.

We went after the whole child and ensured that a child who attended our school left as a disciple of Christ, a disciplined human being of sound character, and ready to be a leader in our Church and society.

The core business of Catholic education is authentic integral human development. That is the development of the whole person, every person and every dimension of the human person. We run schools to have the privilege of offering development to the children of our nation. We are in the business of human development, not merely the business of academic success. This is a very important distinction.

Diagnosing the problem

In the 1960s, Dr Eric Williams wanted more control over education and wanted to ensure universal access. The denominational boards needed more funding to sustain the schools. These two factors lead to the Concordat—a legal document that sets out the relationship between the state and the denominational boards regarding the governance of the denominational school. This document that emerged reflected the intellect and wit of both Dr Williams and Fr Pedro Valdez.

Because those who managed the arrangement had different outlooks and philosophies of education, it has been a difficult and sometimes contentious arrangement on both sides.

The Catholic position is that the parent has the responsibility to educate their children in a manner consistent to their values, religion and outlook on life. The Church has a responsibility to assist parents by providing a space for their children to be educated in a Catholic environment.

The State has a responsibility to ensure every child receives a high quality level of education. One of the great challenges we have is when the State abrogates to itself the responsibility of the parent and the Church and acts as if it alone has rights and responsibilities.

If the three parties—parents, Church and Government—do their jobs, then the system will work with greater harmony. We are in the authentic integral human development business. The State should see itself in the quality assurance business, and the parents must choose the option that best suits their needs and the needs of their child.

You cannot do authentic integral human development without excellence in the four areas of human development—intellectual formation, emotional formation, spiritual formation and physical formation. When the State does things that inadvertently undermine the religious identity of the school, we have a challenge.

This is the tip of the iceberg, but it is enough to understand why I said Catholic education is one of the most vexing, troubling and complicated areas of pastoral life in our Archdiocese.

Key Message: We need to take back our schools and that requires all of us seeing the Catholic school as integral to parish and diocesan life.

Action Step: Find ways to assist this vital ministry. Ask about the needs of the schools in your parish. How can the parish through your support of this ministry support the ‘Priest Can Cook’ initiative?

Scripture: Proverbs 1:1–9; Deuteronomy 6:1–9.