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 Enhancing Catholic School Identity Project Report

 

In 2012 St Francis Xavier School was one of eight trial schools part of a pilot program called the Enhancing Catholic Schools Identity Project (ECSIP).

 What is the research about?

The Catholic Education Commission of Victoria (CECV) has been working with the University of Leuven for the past nine years.  They have developed an impressive suite of instruments to support Catholic schools wishing to strengthen their Catholic identity. In the light of both the qualitative and quantitative data collected, schools are able to more clearly articulate the shape of their Catholic identity, identify areas to be strengthened and be supported in strategies to do so. Catholic identity is understood to be how the underlying ethos of the school is reflected in all facets of its life. The catalyst for this research has been the challenge of how to develop Catholic identity meaningfully and authentically in our contemporary post-modern culture. The framework developed allows for a new and different conversation around these issues than has been engaged in before.        

 As a participant in the project we invited parents, staff and students to complete survey questions on-line. The link below provides access to the results from Leuven and below are the summary and recommendations. From the recommendations we have developed a school action plan, which is also located on our website.

Brisbane Catholic Education sought feedback from pilot schools and, as a result, a decision has been made to invite more schools to engage with the ECSIP. As the project is ongoing, we have access to support from Brisbane Catholic Education to continue to implement our school action plan.

 Enhancing Catholic School Identity Project Report:   ECSIP Report.pdfECSIP Report.pdf

Summary, conclusion and recommendations:

The identity profile of St Francis Xavier Primary School, Goodna (Brisbane)

 The results from the 94 respondents from St Francis Xavier Primary School on the Catholic identity 2011 survey generally indicate that the building blocks for its recognition, preservation and nourishment are well in place. Below we present the summary and conclusion of the results in the form of strengths and challenges according to the data gathered. Lastly, we offer our recommendations from the perspective of the Catholic University of Leuven Enhancing Catholic School Identity Project.

1. Strengths

Research results show that St Francis Xavier Primary School’s Catholic identity can count on a strong and broad foundation of faith among both students and adults in the community:

1. The vast majority of respondents (adults: 97,2%; students: 84,5%) say they have faith in Christ (see Figure B.3). Almost half of adults (44,4%) even consider themselves strong believers.

2. Most of the respondents (students: 67,2%; adults: 80,6%) express support for the Catholic faith (see Figure B.4). Half of the students even give their full support.

 3. The vast majority of respondents have at least some connection to personal prayer (adults: 91,7%; students: 82,8% - see Figure B.5). Although most of the students have irregular prayer lives, almost a third (32,8%) even have active prayer lives. The adults have an even stronger prayer profile, with the majority (55,6%) praying regularly.

4. As one might expect given the above findings, there is strong support for the Catholic identity of St Francis Xavier Primary School. Almost all of the adults (97,2%) support Catholic identity with the majority (61,1%) even considering themselves strong supporters (see Figure C.1). Student support is also strong, with over three quarters (77,6%) lending their support.

5. The overwhelming majority of respondents (73,4%) say they either ‘always’ or ‘regularly’ see their peers as believers in God, and no respondents say they ‘never’ see their peers as believers, indicating the strong visibility of faith among the members of the school community (see Figure C.2). In addition, the majority of respondents (58,2%) even indicate wanting to see more belief among their peers.

6. Almost all of the respondents (93,1%) say that St Francis Xavier Primary School is a very good place to grow closer to God (see Figure C.3). In addition, when asked about their ideal school, 82,8% of respondents answer that they would like their ideal school to be a very good place to grow closer to God. These figures indicate that the respondents overall consider faith formation to be an important part of education.

7. There is widespread support among both adults and students for increasing all typical features of Catholic schools (see Figure C.5). Especially striking is the strong support displayed by students.

 The PCB, Melbourne, and Victoria scales also give us insight into what sort of strengths make up the building blocks of the school’s Catholic identity.

8. Both adults and students exhibit strong scores in Post-critical Belief (adults: 5,53/7; students: 5,52/7), a key component in building up the school’s Catholic identity (see Figures D.1-D.4). In addition, it is encouraging that External Critique is firmly rejected by both respondent groups (adults: 2,65/7; students: 2,45/7).

9. With regard to the Melbourne Scale, adults prioritise Recontextualisation (5,70/7 on the ideal level) over all other models and clearly reject Secularisation (2,00/7 on the ideal level – see Figures E.1-E.2). This is encouraging because NECSIP maintains that Recontextualisation is the approach that works best to strengthen Catholic identity within today’s context.

 10. Turning to the Victoria Scale, we see that adults prefer the Dialogue School far beyond any other school model (5,60/7 on the ideal level – see Figures F.1-F.2). Students also give their highest support to the Dialogue School (5,14/7 on the ideal level – see Figures F.3-F.4). On the level of current practice, we see that both students and adults see significant evidence of the Dialogue School (with scores of 5,80/7 for students and 5,26/7 for adults). Adults’ efforts to prioritise dialogue are clearly significant, and this is not lost on the students.

These encouraging results indicate that many of the building blocks necessary to carry St Francis Xavier Primary School’s Catholic identity into the future are in place. We can see that the majority of respondents recognise the school’s Catholic identity in the present. Furthermore, with their strong support for both Recontextualisation and the Dialogue School, we can see that the adults in the community are making significant efforts to recontextualise the Catholic faith and encourage dialogue, thereby strengthening the school’s Catholic identity. This is especially significant because adults hold the keys to the long-term developments of their school. While student populations turn over every few years, adults usually remain, providing stability and continuity.

2. Potential challenges and critical questions

The outcome of the surveys in St Francis Xavier Primary School shows that the people involved generally support their school’s Catholic identity. However, a more detailed look at the results points out some important challenges.

1. Catholic School Identity:

In response to the statement, ‘My school is a very good place to grow closer to God,’ the students give an impressively high mean score of 5,79/7, indicating their strong agreement with this description of St Francis Xavier’s. When asked about their ideal school, however, their mean score drops slightly to 5,49/7. This decline could indicate that some students are beginning to question the role that the development of faith should play in one’s education. It will be important to engage students in a discussion on the role religion has in a specifically Catholic school. 

2. PCB Scale: 

While the students show strong levels of Post-critical Belief, they also show high levels of Literal Belief (4,68/7 – see Figures D.3-D4). Successful efforts at Recontextualisation will require that students be equipped with strong symbolic-hermeneutical thinking skills. If the school’s Catholic identity is to be strengthened, it will be important for adults to help the students transition from a literal, rigid way of relating to the faith to a more mature, symbolic and hermeneutical way of relating to the faith. In other words, they must move from ‘first naiveté’ (Literal Belief) to ‘second naiveté’ (Post-critical Belief) rather than External Critique or Relativism. This is especially critical as NECSIP research has found that once students enter secondary school, their Literal Belief scores tend to drop significantly, and they are much more likely to move towards External Critique and Relativism than Post-critical Belief. It is imperative to build up their Post-critical Belief early – before they encounter significant challenges to their faith – so that they are better able to meet critique in a constructive way.

The students also show quite a high level of Relativism (5,04/7). While it is good to have positive levels of Relativism – as it can indicate that students have the ability to think symbolically and are gaining an awareness of contingency – having too high levels of Relativism carries the risk of relativising even the Catholic faith, reducing it to just one among many possible life options, none more preferable than any other. It would therefore be important to keep an eye on the development of Relativism to ensure that it does not overtake Post-critical Belief. 

3. Melbourne Scale:

Of the four school identity options described in the Melbourne Scale, the students express a clear preference for Christian Values Education (5,35/7 on the ideal level with support from 18 of 25 respondents – see Figures E.3-E.4). Recontextualisation receives a much lower score on the ideal level (4,08/7) and seems to be met with a great degree of scepticism (12 of 25 neither agree nor disagree). It is also interesting to note that while many of the adults are unsure on whether or not their school is practicing Reconfessionalisation (15 out of 28 are unsure), the students are quite certain it is (17 out of 25 agree). It appears that even as adults attempt to implement a strategy of Recontextualisation, in practice, students often experience these efforts as Reconfessionalisation. Could the students’ ambivalence towards Recontextualisation on the ideal level be due in part to them not being able to clearly distinguish between adults’ efforts at Recontextualisation and Reconfessionalisation?

 

The students' preference for Christian Values Education could also require some attention, as NECSIP research has found that, in focussing more on the universal, ethical elements of Christianity, Christian Values Education has the tendency of glossing over the more particular elements that make Christianity unique. Students appreciate the values they learn, but fail to see how they are necessarily connected to Christian faith. Eventually, they hold onto the values and simply leave the Christian ‘packaging’ behind. Christian Values Education can thus have a secularising effect. It is of course important to discuss Christian morals and ethics with students, and Christian Values Education is therefore valuable, but it works best in a supporting role as part of an overall project focussed on Recontextualisation.

4. Victoria Scale:

The results of the Victoria Scale show us that on the level of current practice, both students and adults agree that St Francis Xavier Primary School is primarily a Dialogue School (see Figures F.1-F.4). Students, however, also see significant evidence of the Monologue School (4,50/7; 14 out of 25 agree), and we even find that many of the adult respondents (11 out of 28) are unsure on whether or not their school is a Monologue School and a small contingent (4 out of 28) say it is a Monologue School. Could these figures provide evidence of monological tendencies within the school? Is there a real dialogue in the school among people of different convictions?

 On the ideal level we see that although students give strong support to the Dialogue School, they are quite conflicted regarding the other three school models, with many in favour, opposed and unsure. It will be important for adults to clarify the distinctions between the four models to the students, explaining the strengths and weaknesses of each one. Furthermore, students must learn that of these four models, the Dialogue School is the only one that adequately respects diversity by celebrating both similarity and difference. 

3. Recommendations from the KU Leuven NECSIP
The Catholic identity of St Francis Xavier Primary School is widely supported by the large number of Christian believers present in the school community. These believers and the tradition they inherit will be the building blocks of any attempts to strengthen the school’s Catholic identity in the future. But there is still work to be done. If the school is to continue promoting a vital and growing interaction between students, their faith lives, and the world in which they find themselves, adults and school leaders must reclaim and recontextualise the particularity of the Christian tradition. To this end, we offer the following recommendations. 

1. Cognitive Belief (PCB Scale)

 1.1 The present challenge will be to find a way to convert younger students' Literal Belief into a stronger and more robust Post-critical Belief rather than into External Critique or Relativism. NECSIP research on secondary schools has found that it is quite common for students to move from believing to nonbelieving choices as they go through secondary school. We suggest addressing this potential problem by nurturing Post-critical Belief already from the beginning of primary school. This will help the students to better handle the more complex issues from a faith perspective as they grow older.

1.2 Post-critical Belief can be nurtured by reframing and Recontextualising the Christian narratives, and especially by encouraging students to explore the connections between these narratives and their own contexts. Students should be encouraged to explore how the Christian narratives, though composed millennia ago, can still be meaningful and relevant to them today.

 1.3 Literal Belief tends to be vulnerable to External Critique, especially as students get older and find it increasingly implausible to hold to a literal believing style. We therefore recommend that adults do not encourage Literal Belief in their students. A helpful rule of thumb is: do not tell the children religious things you do not believe yourself.

1.4 It will be important to help students develop their symbolic and hermeneutical reasoning skills. This can be done from early on in the children’s primary school education. Even from a young age, children have a remarkably strong ability to think in symbolic ways. These abilities should continually be fostered and nurtured.

1.5 Based on the fact that students express openness towards increasing the Catholic identity features of the school (see Figure C.5), we propose continuing the promotion of prayer at school, communal faith celebration, enhancing religious formation and education as well as Bible-reading in ways that promote critical, symbolic and believing hermeneutical processes.

1.6 There’s hardly a more fitting way to communicate the Christian faith to a new generation and to foster a true and living religious school community, than to teach them how to pray. Although most of the students have at least some prayer life, it is likely that their concept of what constitutes ‘prayer’ may not be particularly well developed yet. The adults, who have a stronger prayer profile than the students, can introduce students to new forms of prayer. NECSIP especially encourages teaching students to pray in ways that encourage symbolic and hermeneutical processes.

2. Catholic School Identity Options and Plurality (Melbourne Scale)

 2.1 Though adults tend to give high support to Recontextualisation, it appears that students have difficulty recognising it, perhaps mistaking it as Reconfessionalisation instead. For this reason we suggest that adults make their efforts at Recontextualisation much more explicitly about Recontextualisation, teaching students that, unlike Reconfessionalisation, Recontextualisation does not simply reintroduce traditional, confessional elements in order to reinstate a rigid, old-line confessionality, but rather brings the tradition into a dynamic, creative dialogue with the current context.

2.2 Furthermore, given the secularising effect that Christian Values Education tends to have (especially in secondary school), care should be taken when talking about Christian values to reinforce the belief that Christianity cannot be reduced to a set of morals or rules. We suggest shifting the emphasis from what is held in common towards what makes a person specifically Christian, from the universal to the particular, or from what is shared by all human beings to what makes us unique as Christians.

2.3 We particularly recommend that the school look for ways to demonstrate that a Catholic school is not just about doing good things, but also concerned with why it does good things (Christian motivation, inspiration, sources, etc.) and how it does these in a specifically Christian way.

3. Catholic School Identity Options and Solidarity (Victoria Scale)

3.1 It will be important for adults to clarify the differences between the differences between the Dialogue and Monologue School models, informing students that speaking out of a position of maximal Christian identity does not necessarily mean one must speak monologically. One can hold onto one’s own identity as a Christian while still exhibiting maximal openness and solidarity with others. In addition, it will be important for adults to ensure that when they do speak from a position of maximal Catholic identity, they do not do so in a monological way. Adults will have to demonstrate an openness to diversity in a way that students can clearly recognise, for example by creating more space for the presence of other religions and worldviews, thereby creating opportunities for encounter and dialogue. Doing so will invite the children and the adults to become more conscious Catholic.

3.2 Given the students’ weak resistance towards the Colourful and Colourless School models, we suggest that students be taught that glossing over difference and particularity is no way to truly respect ‘the other.’ To truly respect ‘the other,’ one must acknowledge and respect difference as well as similarity. One way to help students understand this will be to encourage students to explain their own positions to people of other backgrounds or life philosophies and try to understand the standpoints of the others without watering down any elements of either tradition.

3.3 Throughout processes of dialogue, school leaders should invite students to share their own opinions on the importance of diversity; this will show students that their views and voices are important to figures of authority. This may also help students to reassess their vision of Catholic identity and how Catholics interact in diverse settings. By providing a model of ‘Catholics as listeners’ as well as speakers, leaders can help lend legitimacy to the process of dialogue.

In summary, we suggest that adults foster a strong Post-critical Belief among their students and promote a multi-correlational dynamic between faith and culture at St Francis Xavier Primary School. NECSIP maintains that this recontextualising approach does most justice to the dynamics of revelation and the Christian faith tradition itself, so that it enables the school to continue to uphold a cultural and religious plausibility in an ever-changing context. Furthermore, we offer these suggestions because the religious education the children receive and participate in during their time in primary school has a tremendous impact on their life-long processes of cognitive belief formation.