The Oxford Belfry, 19-20 January 2017
Delegates arrived at The Oxford Belfry Hotel from all over the United Kingdom, and beyond, for the 27th annual conference of the Catholic Independent Schools’ Conference on the morning of Thursday 19 January. Our conference chaplain, Fr. Kenneth Macnab from the Oratory Schools Association, opened our conference with prayer. After a warm welcome from Antonia Beary, the Chair of CISC and Headmistress of Mayfield School for Girls, the first keynote address was delivered by Fr. Adrian Porter SJ, the Delegate for Education for the British Province of the Society of Jesus.
Fr. Adrian’s theme was the ministry of teaching in Catholic schools. He started by reminding us of some of the challenges we face in a society where almost half of the population answer ‘none’ to the question of religious affiliation. For those who declare themselves to be Catholics, the percentages for Mass attendance are very low, especially among the young. There are powerful lobby groups, such as the British Humanist Association, which are committed to an end to all faith-based education. How can we develop a mission for Catholic education with any confidence against such a backdrop? Can we speak to our staff about teaching as a ministry of the Church when the majority of them are not Catholic? We are not asking our teachers, or our students for that matter, to become Catholics. Our purpose is not to educate Catholics, as it may have been a generation ago, but to provide a Catholic education, a Catholic vison of the world and the human person, for the young people in our schools.
The anthropology which underpins our educational mission is radically different to that of the secular educational establishment. We do not regard our young people simply as learners who need educational advantage in order to succeed in society, nor do we see our teachers as simply cogs in the educational machine. When we ask the question, what does it mean to be a human being, we talk about a divine origin and an eternal destiny, we talk about human beings made in the image and likeness of God with a commitment to the common good of society. This sense of shared vision is central to our identity and purpose as Catholic schools. Another way in to this vision is to ask about the ‘product’ we want to see at the end of the process. What does a young person look like who has been formed in an educational setting like this? The Jesuits have developed their own ‘pupil profile’ which describes the pairs of virtues which are developed in their schools. For more information, see www.jesuitinstitute.org.
After lunch, the Annual General Meeting received and approved the Trustees Annual Report, which included the annual accounts. Raymond Friel, the General Secretary since last September, presented a new strategic plan with five priorities: support for current and aspiring leaders, the development of communication and resources, the development of the training and day conference programme, more opportunities for students in CISC schools and the development of partnerships with the Catholic maintained and academy sector as well as key partners such as the CES, EducareM, Networking, CATSC and Ten Ten Theatre Company. The plan was unanimously approved by the members.
The AGM was followed by four workshops for delegates to choose from, including two presented by CISC headeachers: Dr. Richard Robson, the Headmaster of St. Bede’s College in Manchester, presented his doctoral work on marketing a school and Dr. John Patterson, Headteacher of St. Vincent’s School for visually impaired young people in Liverpool, presented his school’s innovative technology projects to improve the prospects for visually impaired young people across the world. Throughout the afternoon there was Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and an opportunity for Confession. After a break for networking and visiting the twenty-five exhibitors at the event, it was time for the conference dinner. After grace led by our conference chaplain, over 160 delegates and exhibitors sat down to dinner and lively conversations on the day’s rich inputs.
Our second keynote address on the Friday morning was delivered by Fr. Richard Ounsworth OP, based at Blackfriars in Oxford. Fr. Richard’s theme was Christian leadership as seen through a stimulating and inspiring reading of the Letter to the Hebrews. According to the author of that text, we go to find Jesus “outside the camp” which is where the animals for sacrifice were burned in Jerusalem. Jesus, our Teacher, our leader, defies the conventional expectations of leadership based on power, prestige and possessions. In a strikingly countercultural message, God is revealed in Jesus as self-sacrificing, self-emptying. This is the image of the unseen God, glimpsed at different times throughout history and seen in all its fullness in Jesus. For Catholic headteachers, this kenosis should be the model of our leadership. This does not mean that we run ourselves into the ground with 16-hour days. In the end that would not serve the community well. It does mean that we set our ego and ambition aside and act in leadership out of love. Jesus removed the barriers between us and God the Father. He revealed God as caring and deeply compassionate. As Catholic leaders, do we remove the obstacles between our community and God, do the members of our community know they are loved by God?
The conference ended with the Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit, led by Fr. Kenneth. Pupils from the host schools, the Oratory Prep and The Oratory School, served and read at the Mass. The Schola Cantorum led the singing beautifully. The Mass setting saw the debut of a new composition by Matthew Martin, Director of Music at Keble College, Oxford, specially commissioned by The Oratory. Delegates made their way home reinvigorated not only by the powerful reminders of what our mission as Catholic schools is all about, but by the nourishment received at the altar of the Lord. There are many challenges ahead for Catholic schools which is why it is more important than ever that we are clear about our mission and we are committed to supporting and developing the leaders who will articulate and live out that mission in our schools.
I would like to extend a special word of thanks to our sponsors and exhibitors. Our headline sponsors for the conference were the solicitors Stone King and chartered accountants Kingston Smith. Please encourage your senior colleagues to have a look at their websites to see the full range of support and services available to schools. Our Supporting sponsors at this year’s conference were Blue Max Banner, Gillman & Soame, Llewellyn Education and Chartwells Independent. The full list of our exhibitors is available in the conference brochure which can be found on the CISC website at Members>General Information. The generous support of our headline and supporting sponsors and exhibitors enabled the conference to be the success it was and provide our delegates with many opportunities to avail themselves of excellent resources and services. Our sincere thanks also go to Gillman and Soame for the conference photos.
All the materials from the conference, including Powerpoint presentations, the minutes of the 2016 AGM, the Trustees Annual Report and accounts, and the Powerpoint presentation summarising the CISC strategic aims, can be found on the website under Members and then General Information.
SAVE THE DATE! Please note that next year’s annual conference will take place at the Liverpool Hilton on 18 and 19 Jan 2018. Given the greater travel distances involved for most members, we anticipate more arrivals on Wednesday 17 Jan. We will be looking to arrange a selection of cultural activities for those who do arrive on the Wednesday. In the meantime, please save the date.