Lux Edmundi – Catholic Education


The statutory functions of a board of management of a recognised school in the Republic of Ireland are listed in section 15 of the Education Act, 1998. They include the obligation to “uphold, and be accountable to the patron for so upholding, the characteristic spirit of the school as determined by the cultural, educational, moral, religious, social, linguistic and spiritual values and traditions which inform and are characteristic of the objectives and conduct of the school and at all times to act in accordance with any Act of the Oireachtas or instrument made thereunder, deed, charter, articles of management or other such instrument relating to the establishment or operation  of the school (15(2)(b))”.  The phrase “characteristic spirit” is one of the senses given for the word “ethos” in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. We may, therefore, take it that this particular section of the Act indicates the how the Irish courts would be likely to approach any explication of the word “ethos”.

In our statements about our respective schools, we tend to use the word “ethos” is used rather than the phrase “characteristic spirit”. We sometimes use it as if it were a synonym for “ideals”. There is, of course, as the Act indicates, a symbiotic relationship between “ethos”, and “ideals” but they differ in so far as “ideals” are aspirational (how things ought to be) , “ethos”, actual (how things are).

It is, perhaps, in the nature of things, that, even if unwittingly, we tend, first to assume, then to assert, that, with us, every “ought” is an “is”. Though, perhaps, not always justified by their respective originals, the English versions of some of the Roman documents on the Catholic School appear at times to suggest that every Catholic school is, ipso facto, perfect in every respect. Even if we never had the likes of the Ryan Report, we would still realise that, given Original Sin – which, remember, “darkens the understanding, weakens the will, and leaves in us a strong inclination to evil” – there is, at the very least, the possibility of a worm in every one of our roses.

Reflection – and, more importantly, prayer – on the implications of the word “conduct” in section 15(2(b) of the Education Act of 1998 may help us here.  Though, to date, the courts have not given us the legal meaning of its use in this context, the fact that the word occurs at all clearly indicates that the “conduct” of a school and “the characteristic spirit”, the “ethos”, of that school have each to do with the other. In this particular context, “conduct” is most likely to mean: “Manage, carry on a business, transaction, process, etc. (SOED)”. It would follow, therefore, that how the Board, the Principal, the Staff, discharge their respective functions under the Act, how they adhere to the “values” set out in any Deed of Trust, articles of management, Charter, Missions Statement or iteration of the founding charism of the school,  will be influenced by the “characteristic spirit”, the “ethos”, of the school. Equally, though, how they “conduct” the school influences its “characteristic spirit”, its “ethos”. The “conduct” of the school is, in fact, a necessary constituent of its “characteristic spirit”, its “ethos”. Thus, in the absence of objective, empirical investigation into its “conduct”, no school can rightly know, or claim to know, its own “characteristic spirit”, its “ethos”.

Self-evaluation is strongly urged on all schools in the Republic today. It is the process which commences and drives all others designed to ensure that a school is fit for purpose. Self-evaluation must embrace the “conduct” of the school. Lent is the time par excellence for self-evaluation; the time to analyse the “conduct” of the school so as to learn what its  “ethos”, its “characteristic spirit”, really is; to establish, indeed, whether it is, both as school and as Catholic, truly fit for purpose.

Provided to CEIST by Dr. Frank Steele