When they’re cheering you, take care to know for what you are being cheered!

Simon Uttley, Headmaster of Blessed Hugh Faringdon School in Reading, asks: Are contemporary Catholic headteachers in English, state-funded Catholic schools caught in or sustained by the web of tradition and practice?

Robert Frost’s well-known, if often misunderstood, poem The Road Not Taken considers choices and what economists call the ‘opportunity cost’, or lost opportunity of choices not taken. But as the second and third stanzas make clear, the poem is concerned with how the varying paths will look in retrospect as, in embarking on one path, the sacrifice is made. It cannot be undone, though it can be regretted at leisure.

Humans are past masters at retrospect: indeed, we have made from it both an academic discipline – history – as well as a source of cultural capital – tradition and narrative. Though some might see tradition as a form of romanticised coercion – the past illegitimately trespassing into the future, perhaps to protect vested interests – nevertheless Catholics, including this Catholic headteacher of an English Catholic secondary school, maintained by the public purse since the inception of the modern state-funded settlement in 1944, are, benignly or otherwise, locked into a complex blend of traditions.

The apostolic tradition charts the truth claims transmitted through an unbroken chain of bishops in whose dioceses, and with canonical approval, we ply our trade as Catholic school leaders, as spiritual leaders, as role models. As such leaders, we have what the later Wittgenstein would have called our own language game privileging love, grace, forgiveness and other ‘thick’ terms. We ‘believe in gospel values’, and hope that means something to people. Our schools are rich in iconography, not least the crucifix, recalling Saussure:
‘Nearly all institutions ... are based on signs.’ 1

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