‘Food for Thought and Wisdom to Challenge’
Radical Catholic School Leadership
Introduction and Context
EducareM is an educational charity that ‘seeks to enable school leaders, teachers and pupils to understand their place in the mission of the Church – the transformation of the person, for the transformation of society’. The vision that inspires EducareM is based on Mark 16:15 “Go out to the whole world and proclaim the Good News to all creation” and John 10:10 “I have come that they may have life, life in all its fullness.”
This vision is, perhaps, most palpably realised in The National School of Formation (NSF). Now in its fifth year, the NSF sees approximately 50 Headteachers and Governors per year from Catholic schools across the state and independent sectors participate in a distinctive programme of formation entitled ‘Christ the Teacher’. Built around three residential experiences, the programme ‘provides for deeper formation, with an emphasis on aspects of theology and experiential opportunities through presentations from prominent inspirational Catholic speakers and authors’(1) and engagement with and participation in two ‘transformational projects’ in the UK and Northern Ireland’(2). This year long process ‘seeks to enable school leaders, teachers and pupils to understand their place in the mission of the Church’ and their role as educators who seek ‘the transformation of the person, for the transformation of society’(3). One would expect that the commitment asked from such a programme would appear to be an inhibitor to participation and engagement demanding as it does, so much time from those who have so little to spare. However, since its inception, the NSF has accompanied over 200 Catholic School leaders on this journey and with an uncompromising focus on headteachers and governors, it has allowed a bespoke, targeted approach to formation in leadership. As EducareM prepares to launch two new, programmes, ‘Peter and Paul’, developed for early career teachers and ‘Barnabas’, for deputy/assistant heads aspiring to leadership’ over the next two academic years, it is timely to consider the impact and early legacy of their flagship programme, ‘Christ the Teacher’.
In order to do so, I have analysed responses from evaluations completed by the most recent group of NSF graduates. There were 35 evaluations in total, inviting qualitative, reflective responses on each aspect of the programme – Presenters, UK Study Visits, Personal and Professional Changes and Future Involvement. There was also an opportunity for additional comments. I shall look at each evaluative section in turn, and draw out key themes which, when viewed in the overall context, exemplify the characteristics of the NSF experience and its impact on professional practice within the lived experience of our Catholic schools.
Respondents were asked to evaluate the speakers in terms of their ability to motivate, theological understanding and impact on their own personal faith development. The most frequent responses – 16 in total – were those that described practical actions that had occurred as a result of the speakers’ input. These include: being ‘inspired to want to go on and do a Masters in Catholic Leadership’; ‘changing systems, assemblies, meetings in my school’; ‘re-planning the Christmas Candlelight Service…as Stations of the Nativity’. Responses emphasised that the speakers gave headteachers confidence and a ‘renewed impetus to take action and support the Catholic mission’ of their schools: 11, specifically, used the words ‘inspired’, ‘inspirational’. This sense of being empowered to effect change is described by one headteacher as becoming a more ‘reflective leader [which] in turn [has] given me the knowledge [and] wisdom to challenge’. What emerges is a sense that the speakers almost give the headteachers permission to go back to their schools, re-consider processes and systems and effect change where they feel it is needed. This re-evaluation of their headship is not superficial and the words ‘thought provoking’ and ‘challenging’ are mentioned 12 and 11 times respectively. One respondent describes the speakers as ‘refreshingly controversial’ – another finding them ‘a little too liberal’ – citing their ‘passion’ and ‘motivation’ as an essential pre-requisite ‘to face and bring forth the courage to drive a challenging community forward’. This statement hints at aspects of the necessary isolation of the leader’s role at times and the imperative for headteachers to allow themselves the space to engage with experiences of other heads through the type of opportunity offered by NSF. Such engagement emboldens them, in their own words, ‘to take that risk and be more brave’.
The UK Study Visits
The study visits would appear to be a unique and unusual feature of a programme designed to support leaders in education as their focus is not on formal education, per se. Yet they are one of the most significant aspects of the programme for participants. What is the philosophical and theological construct supporting this? Brendan Duffy, Director of the National School of Formation, states:
‘The NSF is centrally concerned with formation… The focus is on their understanding of being a Christian, the spiritual dimension of their lives, as well as their personal beliefs and attitudes in life. To me, the sum total of this will then express itself in their relationship within their community, their relationship to the wider world and their commitment and passion for what they see as their mission in life. We hope to have some impact on that’(4).
Therefore, the purpose of the NSF is not, necessarily, about making you a better headteacher or governor, but rather about making you a more ‘Christ-like’ person by virtue of which you will become a better headteacher or governor. The central tenet of formation of the individual embraces that of transformation, which is another core aspect of the programme’s design. Sr Judith Russi, EducareM’s Director, supports this: ‘We don’t need more of the same, we need a formation programme. We need something that enables you to change – a proper encounter, not simply an intellectual one’(5).
What, then, is the impact?
In reviewing the evaluations, respondents said they found the experience of the visits inspiring and humbling to such an extent that 16 respondents cited specific examples of how the visits had led to new initiatives in their school setting. It is interesting to note that responses linking the experience of the NSF to practical actions, whether personally or professionally, are, again, the most frequent. Clearly the programme emphasis on impact would appear to be bearing fruit in a number of ways. Some of these seem quite small but none the less significant. On having visited the Ignite Project (http://www.petercruddasfoundation.org.uk/ignite-trust.htm), one respondent stated: ’We made the decision, as a consequence, to tell our young people we love them when we deal with them, so that they better understand Christ’s message’. Others have been inspired to support the charity they visited either through whole school initiatives – a reverse Advent calendar which receives donations rather than giving presents out – or through personal interventions, for example knitting 55 hats for Cornerstones Charity (http://cornerstonecds.org.uk).
Other evidence of impact is more embedded, involved, as it is, with process or system change. One primary headteacher after visiting the Emmaus Youth Centre (http://www.rcdhn.org.uk/youth/sspvillage/youthvillage.php) set up a deanery wide Y6 transition retreat as well as a Y5, 3 day retreat at the Centre. Another delegate used the experience of a visit to Corrymeela (https://www.corrymeela.org), with its focus on conflict resolution, to address a challenging issue between two parents at school, saying ‘I am more aware of educating those indirectly involved [in school life].’ This sense of supporting families and the broader school community is articulated by another colleague, who after a visit to the Cardinal Hume Centre (https://www.cardinalhumecentre.org.uk), stated: ‘[It] made me appreciate how much welfare is given by the Catholic Church and where other services cannot or are unable to support. [The Cardinal Hume Centre] helped me realise how powerful our job as Head Teacher can be in supporting families dealing with housing, immigration etc. [It] has refocused me in reaching out to families before they come to ask for legal, economic support’. This imperative to ‘reach out’ is embedded in the parable of the Lost Sheep (Matt.18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7), challenging us to go beyond our ‘comfort zone’ and emboldening this headteacher to seek out the anxious, troubled parent who feels unable to approach her. These words elucidate the transformative impact of the NSF experience in which the personal experience informs and infuses the professional one. ‘To support people in their formation they must be exposed to that which they have not experienced before. Experience it don’t talk about it, then consider “what is it saying to you?”’(6) This is further articulated by another delegate who experienced the Corrymeela study visit: ‘I thoroughly enjoyed the 25 minutes silent prayer (though I was unsure I would be able to do it!) and I have continued to do this at home. I’m looking at ways of bringing more reflective, quiet times into schools for both staff and children.’ And the transformations do not stop at the school gate, with 4 delegates specifically mentioning approaching their bishops to instigate and support further youth ministry developments in their dioceses.
As one would expect when working with headteachers, there is realism about the challenges of changing self and changing cultures: ‘I have learnt it’s okay to find transformation difficult’. However the overriding impact of the study visits is one of meaningful, deeply felt renewal which is positively welcomed by headteachers, both personally and professionally: ‘The trip to Corrymeela really had a profound impact on me both spiritually and mentally. It rebooted me and enabled me to see beauty in everything, building my resilience and purpose’. This sense of personal change is explored further in the next section.
Personal and Professional Change
In talking with Sr Judith about the programme, she is unequivocal and unapologetic about its intention to engender change, personally and professionally in the lives of participants. ‘Our purpose was to formulate a programme that exposed them to the most radical thinking to challenge and change them and their leadership’(7). Evaluative responses suggest that this sense of personal and professional change is being initiated in participants. 10 responses explicitly reference alterations to school practice as a direct outcome of the NSF experience. One headteacher has initiated a Laudato Si plan, to accompany her plan for ‘The Year of the Word’, saying: ‘I want to be more explicit about the work we are doing and want to do on Catholic Social Responsibility…and following today we will set out more clearly our response to ‘Big Question’ type work’.
There is a tangible sense of delegates being inspired and enthused by the programme experience – ‘Fired Up and Ready to Go!’ as Brendan Duffy, NSF Director, said in an address(8). In so doing, it might be expected that the programme would leave participants feeling unsure, or lacking in confidence in embracing such radical change. However, the sense of collegiality, community and ‘networking’ that the programme generates means that the opposite is the case. One participant said: ‘It has made me more BRAVE – has made me realise I am good enough and here for more.’ This is further exemplified in another delegate’s feedback which honestly encapsulates the process:
‘Having heard so many inspirational stories, I need to revisit feeling a little inadequate and remember what I do do! To summarise, I want to ensure that my school/pupils/staff are more active in the life of their faith and I think I’ll try and set up a steering group to facilitate this.’
Therefore we begin to see how the experience of the NSF can inform strategic developments in schools: ‘It is the impact of the questions that we’re being asked. This will now inform the formulation of policies in all areas to include changes that will support our Catholic ethos more effectively’. For one delegate, this prompted a re-consideration of the role of the school within the broader structure of the Church: ‘It has opened my eyes to the need of the school as a parish and that level of responsibility and accountability which I had left at the foot of the church door.’
In terms of personal transformation, the words ‘ renewed/reinvigorated’ were used by 8 respondents to describe their experience and it is clear that such responses come from a place of deep reflection, which is what NSF asks of its delegates. Inevitably, such reflections raise profound questions and considerations within individuals but this necessary discernment ultimately reinforces the sense of purpose felt by the headteachers. This is most honestly revealed by one participant who starts by saying:
‘The programme has made me want to continue the work that I do. It has made me realise the importance of the work we do and the role I take. I feel I have been on a real journey and it has pushed me to question if I am the right person for the job’.
When asked to consider how s/he might wish to be involved with and contribute to future NSF events, the person continues:
‘I hope to be involved and will do everything I can to make sure I am there. I aim to keep in touch with other NSF graduates and look at ways in which we can work together.’
Finally, in ‘other comments’, the person writes:
‘Thank you for providing me with this experience. It has made me realise that I must stay in Catholic education’.
This series of comments highlights the challenges of embarking upon such a transformational experience and yet such challenge is necessary if Catholic school leadership is to remain vital, impactful and mission faithful in the 21st century. The design and nature of the programme seeks to expose delegates to radical thinking and move them to reflect upon their educational vocation so that they are better placed to serve the mission of ‘Christ the Teacher’ and more aware of the unique and vital contribution that they are being encouraged to make to this endeavour. ‘I am more confident to not hide my ‘Catholicity’. Be open with my role as a Catholic leader and not to be worried when staff say, ‘Oh, you can tell she’s been on a holy course’. Good, I now say!’
Sr Judith calls the process ‘a marination’(9), and indeed, the design of the programme with its 3 residentials and 2 study visits is clearly intended to allow a formational process to be infused by participants over time so that it is embedded and able to be sustained. The accompaniment of the NSF is an essential aspect of this relationship and will be explored in the next section.
The Accompaniment of the NSF
Reciprocity of spirit is an essential characteristic of the NSF experience and an invitation is extended to all participants to consider not only what would keep them involved but also how they might contribute to the continued success of the NSF moving forwards. 34 respondents out of 35 said that they wish to remain involved with the NSF, with the two most frequent response themes centring upon practical engagements and actions and a desire to maintain the strong sense of community and bonding that the programme has engendered. With reference to the former, 10 respondents specifically mentioned that they would attend the National Retreat or the Accompaniment event whilst 8 others mentioned collaborations or project partnerships with fellow attendees’ schools. One respondent stated: ‘There needs to be a follow-up. The group is strong together, we need a project together that we all implement.’ Therefore there is a clear desire to continue the relationship that the NSF has engendered, both professionally and personally. With reference to the sense of community developed by the programme, it is evident that the networking opportunities the course affords are of great importance to participants: ‘The connections have been fantastic. I now have a coaching group of like-minded heads’. This sense of being with others who share a passion for Catholic education is recurrent in responses and gives confidence and inspiration to participants: ‘I am more reflective as a leader and have become more confident in my ability to ‘just do it’ and bring people with me’.
10 respondents said they would be encouraging other colleagues to attend, although time away from school and finances were caveats to this cited by 2 respondents. Other delegates stated their intention to develop a more long-term, strategic approach to NSF engagement. One headteacher said s/he would be ‘setting aside budget for professional development and formation for assistants and deputies and other leaders’, whilst a Trust leader outlined a similar commitment: ‘Regarding funding, the Trust needs to invest in a Trust-wide programme for all – NSF, Peter & Paul, Barnabas’. 2 other respondents specifically mentioned that their ‘next step’ would be implementing the ‘Building the Kingdom’ programme which perhaps, again, highlights the dual approach that is such a feature of the NSF experience – a formation programme which challenges school leaders to action change within themselves and their schools. ‘Revolutionaries through grace’ as Pope Francis has put it(10).
Comments and Conclusions
The summative comments of respondents are, in many ways, the most revealing with regards to the impact that the NSF journey has on participants. One respondent said that ‘we have blossomed as well as laughed’ and many used the words ‘privileged’ and ‘opportunity’ when describing their experience. One delegate stated: ‘The NSF has been a safe place to explore identity and reflect with others who face similar challenges and joys’. I think at times we underestimate the loneliness of leadership. NSF provides an opportunity for participants to meet with those working at the same level, who are dealing with the same challenges and allows them to explore shared concerns in a supportive, confidential, professional, personable and spiritual environment. In so doing, what is created is ‘a safe place for heads and a gift for us all’ as one respondent put it.
Amidst some of the comments there is also an understanding that this type of experience needs to be understood and shared by governors, directors of trusts and CEOs if it is to have the strongest impact. ‘Raising the profile of NSF among Chairs of Governors [would] enable support for other headteachers’ and ‘allowing more governors to experience the programme would put it at the heart of formation for all’. Sharing the story of the journey of the NSF is an important one for participants and several call for the development of social media groups and local clusters or hubs in order to pool ideas and resources and sustain the momentum that the programme engenders.
In considering the impact and early legacy of the ‘Christ the Teacher’ programme it is evident that a longitudinal study, focusing on this and earlier cohorts and tracking them forwards, would allow for a more robust evaluation of sustained impact. However, in the absence of such it is clear that responses in programme evaluations indicate that it is indeed, a transformative experience that satisfies a longing in the hearts of school leaders for personal, professional, and spiritual nurture and nourishment.
Pope Francis talks about education as having an holistic approach:
‘…the language of the mind, the language of the heart, and the language of the hands.
All in harmony. In other words, think of what you feel and do; listen to what you think and do; and do well what you think and do.
The three languages, in harmony and together’(11).
It is clear that in its design and implementation, the NSF ‘Christ the Teacher’ programme successfully integrates these three languages as part of a formational learning experience for delegates with speakers, study visits and spiritual reflection speaking to the head, hands and heart in synergy. In so doing, what is experienced is both ‘prophetic’ and ‘challenging’ but absolutely ‘essential in trying to shape a Catholic education system that really works and empowers [us all] to make a difference in the world’.
Dr Maureen Glackin
General Secretary CISC
Any unreferenced citations are responses to evaluations from programme participants
4. Conversation with Brendan Duffy, 1/7/20
5. Conversation with Sr Judith Russi, 2/7/20
6. Conversation with Sr Judith Russi, 2/7/20
7. Conversation with Sr Judith Russi, 2/7/20
8. Brendan Duffy, Immersion Event, 10/10/19
9. Conversation with Sr Judith Russi, 2/7/20
10. Address of Pope Francis to Participants in the Ecclesial Convention, Rome, 17th June 2013
11. Address of Pope Francis to Participants at the International Conference for Leaders of Catholic Universities, Rome, 4th November 2019