The sign of the cross: What is distinctive about the curriculum of a Catholic school?

David Fincham

What is it that marks the distinctiveness of the curriculum of a Catholic school? David Fincham is director of the MA in Catholic School Leadership at St Mary?s University College, Twickenham.


Catholic schools have a distinctive religious character and offer a philosophy of education that is based on faith.

?Curriculum? derives from a Latin word for course: currere ?to run?. Historically, much has been written about the nature and purpose of the curriculum in schools. It is a complex concept and has, consequently, been open to a wide range of interpretations. To some people, it represents a selection of subjects from knowledge that contributes to a course of study. In this sense, it is connected with questions related to epistemology ? the study of knowledge.

Charles Dickens? depiction of Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times epitomises a utilitMyISAMn approach to education, based on the inculcation of knowledge:

Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else.

(Dickens; 1854)

This is a narrow definition of education, however. The curriculum is not only to do with what is learnt and what is taught but is also about how students learn and how they are taught.

In this context, it is interesting to note that the Education Reform Act (1988: clause 1.2) stipulates that the National Curriculum should promote:

?a balanced and broadly based curriculum which promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society....

Similarly, a curriculum that is Catholic (whether with an upper-case ?C? or a lower-case ?c?) is comprehensive and open to diverse possibilities. It is not, by definition, restricted by a narrow, materialistic and utilitMyISAMn notion of acquiring knowledge.

Therefore, rather than discussing the question of a Catholic curriculum in terms of a set of subjects such as a Catholic history, and a Catholic mathematics, and a Catholic science, it would seem to be of greater relevance to consider each subject as being integrated together within a unified whole. Consequently,...The various school subjects do not present only knowledge to be attained, but also values to be acquired and truths to be discerned.

(The Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education; 1997:14)


So what are the values and truths that define the purpose of Catholic education? The question begs a variety of answers. It seems to me, though, that a good starting point would be to consider the words of Pope Benedict XVI in his address to the ?Big Assembly? at St Mary?s University College, Twickenham, during his State visit to Britain in 2010:

A good school provides a rounded education for the whole person. And a good Catholic school, over and above this, should help all its students to become saints....

(Pope Benedict XVI; 2010)

In the context of the curriculum of a Catholic school, I believe that the notion that teachers should be helping their students to become saints provides a fundamental inspiration. Significantly, the emphasis is, in the first place, on the students rather than on curriculum subjects. Second, whilst academic achievement is important, we must move beyond a narrow conception of the curriculum if we are to prepare children for their future in society. This principle is highlighted by the Catholic Bishops? Conference of England and Wales (1996: 3) when it talks of The Education of the Whole Person.

It should be stated at the outset, then, that, whatever one?s view is of what should constitute the curriculum of any school, it is more to do with the transmission of values than with subjects on a timetable. G.K.Chesterton (quoted by Pring in McLaughlin et al., eds.; 1996: 57), for example, expressed this well when he maintained that:

Every education teaches a philosophy; if not by dogma then by suggestion, by implication, by atmosphere.

It is self-evident, therefore, that no education can be value-free or ?neutral?. All teaching and learning involves the transmission of values, whether it is secular, Marxist, Islamic or Christian. Therefore, to argue ? as some protagonists do1 ? that community schools offer an education that is ?neutral? is misconceived. As Grace (2002: 14) points out:

Secular schools?are not ideologically free zones. Secularism has its own ideological assumptions about the human person, the ideal society, the ideal system of schooling and the meaning of human existence. While these assumptions may not be formally codified into a curriculum subject designated ?secular education? as an alternative to ?religious education?, they characteristically permeate the ethos and culture of state-provided secular schools and form a crucial part of the ?hidden curriculum?.

Kerr (1968: 160) defines the curriculum as:

All the learning which is planned and guided by the school, whether it is carried on in groups or individually, inside or outside the school.

(Quoted in Kelly 1999: 6)

If we accept this definition, the curriculum embraces everything that takes place, whether formally or informally, inside or outside of a school. But in what way does the curriculum in Catholic schools offer an all-round experience that has its own character? Is it informed by distinctive educational values? And, if so, what is significant about those values?

Essentially, the distinctive nature of a Catholic school or college will be informed by Gospel values, which will be articulated through the school?s mission statement. Thus, the mission of a Catholic school should be:

?to provide for her children an education by virtue of which their whole lives may be inspired by the spirit of Christ.

(Pope Paul VI; 1965: n.3)

Mission integrity

Professor Gerald Grace (2010: 8) defines mission integrity as ... fidelity in practice and not just in public rhetoric to the distinctive and authentic principles of a Catholic education.

Elsewhere, Grace (2008: 11) maintains:

Mission integrity means that an organisation and the people within it can be seen to be living and practising the principles of the mission statement and not simply publishing them in a prospectus or in other publicity statements, as an exercise in marketing. The chief guardian of mission integrity is the school headteacher, which is why headteachers are leaders first and managers second.

The aims and values of a Catholic school curriculum should therefore be expressed through its mission statement. According to Preedy (2003: 97):

A frequent comment in Ofsted inspection reports is that school aims are not reflected in what happens in the classroom.

The corollary is to ask to what extent the school mission statement really does provide a guide for the direction of the curriculum of the school. Are the gospel values that are expressed in the mission statement characterised by the actions and behaviours that are expressed across the curriculum? Does the rhetoric match the practice?

Significantly, if mission integrity is to be achieved, it is important that all staff are engaged in the formulation and implementation of the mission statement and that they all ensure that every policy in the school is informed by it.

Thus, by starting with the mission statement of the school, it would be possible to evaluate how far its curriculum provides a Catholic perspective and to examine carefully to what extent its aims are evident in its day-to-day experiences.

The Catholic curriculum in practice

It is clear that Catholic schools have a philosophy of education which is distinctive but how far does it impact on the school curriculum in a practical way? ?Ethos? is important. Professor James Arthur (2007: 9), for example, quoting Wake (1986), cites an HMI?s observation on visiting a Catholic school:

?Apart from the crucifix on the wall, in what way does the place differ from a maintained school??

An implication of this observation is that, whilst statues, icons and crucifixes are important indicators, in themselves they are not sufficient. The Catholic school?s distinctive ethos, though it is difficult to quantify, must extend beyond physical objects. Thus, according to words attributed to St Francis of Assisi, Catholic schools must: ?Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.? With regard to the curriculum of a Catholic school, the question that must also be asked is whether positive personal relationships based on Christian values are evident in the school.

This may be illustrated by a practical example from my experience:

I recall an assembly given by a colleague, many years ago, when I was in my first teaching post at a Catholic secondary school. By convention, every Monday morning, the headteacher of the school presided over the weekly whole-school assembly at which all the students and teachers were expected to attend. Sometimes, in his absence, another member of staff would lead the assembly. Thus, on this particular Monday morning, as the headteacher was otherwise engaged, a colleague, an RE teacher, was invited to lead the assembly in his place.

She began, as was the custom, by making the sign of the cross. This is a traditional way of starting prayers in a Catholic school so it gave no intimation of what was to follow. Indeed, she proceeded to explain and articulate ways in which the cross was a significant symbol and was relevant to our lives.

She pointed out that we all, for example, have a ?cross to bear.? She also said that the crucifix reminds us to reach up to heaven, to God, and to reach across to our neighbour, reminding us that the most important commandment is, in Jesus? words, to:

...?Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with your entire mind and with all your strength.? The second is this: ?Love your neighbour as yourself.? There is no commandment greater than these.

(Mark 12.28-31)

In the Greek alphabet, she added, the cross is formed by the letter chi (X), which is the first letter in the Greek work for ?Christ?. Moreover, Jesus died on the cross to redeem our sins. She expanded on this theme for some minutes. In former times, too, she pointed out, those who were illiterate would sign documents with a cross.

Eventually, she invited us to say the Lord?s Prayer together.

She then reminded us that, usually at this point of the assembly, we would conclude by making the sign of the cross again to signify the end of the assembly.

Today, though, she said, we would not make the sign of the cross again. Instead, we would offer the rest of the day to God. Whether in the classroom, on the playing field, in the science laboratory or in the playground, throughout the day, in our studies and in our relationships with others, in the whole curriculum, we would remember the sign of the cross and offer everything ? our hearts and our minds ? to God.

In the context of understanding the meaning of the curriculum of the Catholic school, the message of this assembly resonated strongly.

It is significant that in Jesuit schools, even to this day, students are requested to write the letters AMDG (ad majorem Dei gloriam) at the top of their papers to remind them that all their schoolwork is offered ?For the Greater Glory of God?. Moreover, the curriculum is centered on the person rather than on the subjects to be covered.


There is a responsibility for all those working in Catholic schools to appreciate the values and traditions of the culture of the Catholic community. Problems are likely to be mitigated if all teachers working in Catholic schools are aware of the culture in which they work.

This is not to assert that Catholic schools have a monopoly over the key qualities of a good school. Indeed, it is evident that schools outside the Catholic sector also offer a ?balanced and broadly-based curriculum?.

What makes Catholic schools distinctive, however, is that the values that underpin the curriculum explicitly arise from the teachings of Jesus, because Christ is the foundation of the whole educational enterprise. (The Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education; 1977: n.34)

It is this pervasive quality that makes Catholic schools different and distinctive from others.


l Congregation for Catholic Education (1997) The Catholic School on the Eve of the Third Millennium, Rome: Vatican

l Catholic Bishops? Conference of England and Wales (1996) Principles, Practices and Concerns, London: Catholic Education Service

l Education Reform Act (1988) London: HMSO

l Grace, G. (2002) ?Mission Integrity: Contemporary Challenges for Catholic School Leaders? in K. Leithwood and P. Hallinger (eds.) Second International Handbook of Educational Leadership and Administration, Kluwer Academic Publishers Dordrecht / Boston

l Grace, G. (2008) ?Catholic schools are now facing their greatest ever challenges? in Networking, Volume 9, Issue 4, April 2008, pp. 10-11

l Grace, G. (2010) Mission Integrity: Contemporary Challenges for Catholic School Leadership: Presentation to: ACU: 5th International Conference on Catholic Educational

l Leadership: Sydney: 2-4 August 2010

file/0019/262261/Grace,_Professor_Gerald_-_Mission_Integrity_-_Keyote.pdf (accessed 19th December 2012)

l Kerr, J. (1968) quoted in Kelly, A.V. (1999) The Curriculum: Theory and Practice, London: Sage Publications

l Pope Benedict XVI (2010) Address to Pupils at the ?Big Assembly? (accessed 19th December 2012)

l Pope Paul VI (1965) Declaration on Catholic Education (Gravissium Educationis),Rome: Vatican Publications

l Preedy, M. (2003) ?Curriculum evaluation: measuring what we value? in Middlewood, D. and Burton, N. (2003) Managing the Curriculum, London: Sage Publications

l Pring, R. (1996) ?Markets, Education and Catholic Schools? in McLaughlin, T.H., O?Keefe, J. and O?Keefe B. (eds.) (1996) The Contemporary Catholic School, London: Falmer

l The Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education (1977) The Catholic School, Rome: Vatican Publications

1 ATL (2007), for example, states that it ?believes that the fragmentation of education opportunities for pupils is not a good starting point for a society which is beginning to acknowledge the dangers of segregation, the importance of community cohesion and of shared understandings and values.?