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At the heart of education: school chaplaincy & pastoral care

30 November, 1999

This series of essays, edited by James Norman, addresses issues relating to pastoral care which affect schools in present-day Ireland.

282 pp Veritas 2004. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie .



Humanistic pastoral care
1. Pastoral care in Irish schools: and international perspective (James Norman)
2. Nurture and the purpose of schools (Kevin Williams)
3. Towards and understanding of the adolescent search for identity (Finola Cunnane)
4. The period of adolescence and school discipline (Maeve Martin)
5. A pastoral response to adolescent your experiencing emotional disturbances (Edward J. Hall)
6. An introduction to counselling in schools (Noreen Sweeney)
7. A critical incident in the school community: how the chaplain can make an effective response (Seán O’Driscoll)
8. Partnership in schooling: the role of the chaplain in promoting community (Marjorie Doyle)
9. Understanding the pastoral needs of asylum-seeking pupils (P.J. Boyle)

Programmatic pastoral care
10. The role of the school and education programmes in nurturing the spirituality of young people (Marian de Souza)
11. Relationships and sexuality education: guidelines for good practice (Edel Greene)
12. Bereavement support in second-level schools: a review of the rainbow programme (Evelyn Breen)
13. Religious education as a state examination: implications for the school chaplain (Paul King)
14. Overcoming barriers to effective learning in second-level schools (Terry O’Brien)

Spiritual Pastoral Care
15. Embracing life at its fullest: the spirituality of religious educators and school chaplains (Gareth Byrne)
16. A study of pupils’ perceptions and experiences of school chaplaincy (Siobhán Murphy)
17. The school chaplain as professional: some theological reflections (John Murray)
18. Collective worship in schools: community building (Jennie Clifford)
19. Finitude: the final frontier? Heidegger and Levinas on death (Ian Leask)
20. Disadvantaged youth and faith: a sign of hope for the future (Eilis Monaghan)
Appendix one
Appendix two
Appendix three


A changing society means changing pastoral needs. At the heart of education: school chaplaincy & pastoral care is a reader for all those who study as well as practice pastoral care in schools.

In recent times the issues of pastoral care has come to the forefront in schools. Teachers today have to deal both with pupils’ personal and academic needs. The role of the school chaplain has been highlighted as a significant resource in addressing these diverse requirements. This comprehensive book brings together recent research into school chaplaincy and pastoral care and will be of great use to those who are engaged in chaplaincy and pastoral studies as well as those who work in schools as chaplains, year heads, class tutors and teachers.

CHAPTER 2: Nurture and the purpose of schools
Over the years it has often struck me that some of the standard criticisms of schools (as being too examination oriented and too competitive, for example) are based on a failure to recognise, firstly, that school has multiple purposes, and secondly, the nature and limits of the notion of nurture in educational institutions. In this chapter I propose to identify the aims of schools and show how nurture has a place in the activity of educating.

Some aims of the school and one consequence of schooling
The first explicit purpose of the school is utilitarian: it is to provide socialisation. This refers to preparation to live in society and to contribute to society. It is both realistic and defensible to expect that the school curriculum should embrace as one of its aims preparation for working life. Even if we lived in a country where no one had to work to earn a living, it would be appropriate to teach young people what it is like for those who have to work in order to survive. This would be a legitimate part of the understanding which school education should be expected to promote. As we do not inhabit this fictional country, the society which supports the institution of formal schooling can reasonably expect that young people should leave school not only with an understanding of the world of work but also with an enhanced capacity to earn a living. This will contribute to the good of society as well as to their own to their personal sense of well-being.

The second purpose of the school is to provide cultural enrichment and this might be called its most conspicuously educational dimension. This refers to the responsibility of schools to introduce young people to cultural activities of a theoretical and practical character capable of yielding satisfaction and fulfilment. The other aims of the school are to provide young people with a nurturing environment, to cultivate moral character and to offer spiritual and religious education. There is little need to labour the fact that these aims overlap considerably and that teachers and chaplains can make an important contribution to realising them.

But organised learning or schooling has another feature, which is an unavoidable consequence of the institution in almost any society. This is its facilitation of positional advantage, i.e. the labour market advantage conferred by the exchange value of education. Many negative manifestations of schooling derive from the consequence of its having an exchange value. These features underlie the ‘hidden curriculum’ of academic competitiveness that is supposed to be a major feature of school life today. The reason why there is such an emphasis on achievement in the academic sphere is due to the esteem attached to academic / professional work in this society. But the narrow focus of some pupils and their parents on academic success is not the direct fault of the school. In any case, I wonder if critics of narrowness of educational focus have different priorities themselves when it comes to the education of their own children. I wonder if those who preach high theories about the ‘whole person’, the ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘social integration’ put these theories into practice when choosing schools for their offspring. I have no evidence on this issue, but I do have some uncomfortable intuitions. If medical faculties decided to accept only those who had done the Leaving Certificate Applied, we would see a transformation in the perception of the less academically oriented curriculum. But unless we have such a dramatic reversal in the requirements for university entrance, the priorities of parents, their children and teachers regarding school are unlikely to change.

I am not persuaded that we can do much about the high valuation placed by many people on the professions and the knowledge that secures access to them. But I do think that schools should not engage in exaggerated fine-tuning of their role in assessing pupil achievement. The impact of the pressure for schools to be ‘effective’ can have this result. Where examination results are the only criterion for judging the quality of schooling, schools may experience pressure to increase the number and degree of passes at all costs. As Geoffrey Walford points out, one outcome of this process is to make of the school ‘an even more effective sorting machine’ in respect of allocating to young people their future occupational destinations. (1) What can happen is that a C rather than ‘a D grade in a particular subject can have a wholly disproportionate influence on a person’s life chances. Society can justifiably expect schools to offer broad indications of achievement of learners but not fine-grained categorisation based on particular grade differences whose validity and reliability may be questionable.

There is a reprehensible view that where the school has fulfilled its function as a social filter, the kind of curriculum offered to those who do not aspire to university education is not of great importance. This cynical attitude is captured in the words of a teacher reported by Gervase Phinn, an English school inspector. ‘They’re not your grammar school highfliers . . . These lads will end up in manual jobs, that’s if they’re lucky, and not become university professors and brain surgeons’. (2) The teacher in this case is relatively indifferent to what young people are taught but often such pupils can be offered what might be called a tabloid curriculum to keep them occupied and entertained. (3) One reason for this dismissive attitude towards the fate of these young people is due to a view of study at second level as an apprenticeship to further study at university. This is an unfortunate conception because it means that aims within school subjects tend to be intra-subject, that is, that study of a subject at junior cycle at second level is conceived as leading to its continued study at senior cycle and then at university. (4) It should be possible, by contrast, for a period of study within a subject to be conceived as self-contained and also as connecting with wider civic and personal aims than acquiring skills and knowledge within that subject. One of the problems with promoting too close a link between school subjects and universities is that many young people can see their future study and career options as related exclusively to the continued study of the subject they were good at in school. Rather than thinking of the whole range of possibilities, some school leavers can think, for example, only of doing more history or science.

Let us turn next to an examination of the notion of nurture in schools.

The school as a nurturing environment
Schools in the English-speaking world are usually conceived as nurturing environments grounded in a broader or thicker conception of children’s welfare than that of mere academic achievement. As has been highlighted in the previous chapter this is not the case elsewhere. Observing the education of his two children, British novelist, Tim Parks, has written with some bewilderment about what he perceives as the very different remit of the Italian school from that of its English counterpart:

For school offers no games, no extracurricular activities. There are no music lessons, no singing lessons, no school choir … no hockey, no cricket, no netball, no basketball, no football, no swimming, no athletics, no sports day, no school teams. (5)

Most of all what strikes him is the absence of any attempt to induce a family atmosphere in the school.

The school doesn’t, as it does in England, pretend to offer a community that might in any way supplant the family, or rival Mamma. That’s important. It doesn’t, and later on the university won’t either, try to create in the child the impression of belonging to a large social unit with its own identity. There is no assembly in the morning, no hymn singing, no prayers, no speech day… (6)

For his two children of six and eight, school is ‘no more and no less than reading and writing and mathematics’ and other school subjects. (7) Somewhat ironically, though, in spite of the attenuated and circumscribed or thin conception of the school’s remit, religion is also part of the curriculum.

The contrast with the spirit of schooling in the English-speaking world could not be greater. Here the school is often perceived as an extension of the home in terms of providing personal support and overall care for young people. This conception of the school is most conspicuous in the case of boarding schools. Here is novelist, Monk Gibbon’s, description of the school in England that features in his novel, The Pupil. The narrator experiences the school as a ‘kind of miniature Plato’s Republic’, a ‘cultured oasis’ animated by the conviction of the principal that a ‘school should be a large family – a small nation’. (8) The school also assumes a responsibility for character education. In the words of the principal, education is animated by the conviction ‘that character is everything, and that everything without character is nothing’. (9) The theme of safety and security surfaces in reminiscence on his schooldays by the English philosopher, Michael Oakeshott. The happiness that Oakeshott experienced at school was ‘a kind of serenity’ as well as a sense that ‘growing up was something to be enjoyed, not merely got through’. (10) What the school provided ‘was a feeling of safety and an immense variety of outlets’. (11) It was’ surrounded by a thick, firm hedge, and inside this hedge was a world of beckoning activities and interests’. (12) These emanated from the principal or ‘were the private enterprise of members of staff, … [or were] made for oneself. There was a great deal of laughter and fun; there was a great deal of seriousness’. (13) Notable also in these reflections is the wide compass of activities included within the school. The positive educational experiences to be found even in traditional schools are often much more embracing than those offered by the formal curriculum.

Moreover, commitment to the quality of the experience of school is not confined to teachers in upper middle-class schools. Christopher Winch refers to the ‘heroic efforts made by many secondary modern teachers to give their children a worthwhile experience at school’. (14) Here is an account again by Gervase Phinn of the role of the school that would be shared by committed teachers in many schools in the English-speaking world. He arrives in a boys’ school in an area of disadvantage catering for children who have failed to get places in the traditional, academic secondary school. By virtue of attending this school the boys are already ‘deemed to be failures’ and arrive ‘under-confident, with low self-esteem’. (15) The task of the school, explains the principal, is:

first and foremost … to build up their confidence and self-esteem, continue to have high expectations for them and be sure they know, give them maximum support and encouragement, develop their social skills and qualities of character to enable them to enter the world feeling good about themselves … so they develop into well-rounded young people with courage, tolerance, strong convictions, lively enquiring minds and a sense of humour … I do really believe … that those of us in education can really make a difference, particularly in the lives of less fortunate children, those who are labelled failures. (16)

He tries, he says, to make the school ‘like the good home that I was brought up in, a place where there is work and laughter, honesty and fairness’. (17) Here we find the metaphor of the school as being like a ‘good home’, reflecting the metaphor of the family in the quotation from Monk Gibbon.

Most schools which I have the privilege of visiting are nurturing and protective environments. Especially, but not only, in areas of social disadvantage, schools can allow young people to be children, secure for a while from the cramped toughness of their world outside the classroom where the demands of a precocious adulthood urge themselves so insistently upon them. This is captured succinctly in the description of the primary school in Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry where the brother of the eponymous hero cries on being withdrawn from school, missing ‘the warmth, the singing, making words, the chalk working across his slate, the woman who’d made him feel wanted’. (18) A positive experience of schooling is not the sole prerogative of the middle class and those bound for university.

Teaching and Nurture
Here I wish to draw attention to the teacher’s principal task in nurturing pupils. Fundamentally it is to ensure that the pupils learn. Nurturing is a part of educating; it is not an activity in itself. The defining character of a teacher’s job specification is to promote learning. A comparison can be made with the world of medicine. Holistic concern for the patient should be part of any regime of treatment but this concern should not at the expense of competent administration of medical care. Indeed, if I had to choose, I would prefer to be treated by someone who was competent, although curt and brusque, rather than by a person who was ‘nice’ but unskilled in the practice of medicine. Likewise in education ‘niceness’ is no substitute for competence. Indeed, ‘niceness’ on its own can frustrate efforts to reach pupils. In his autobiography, Another Country: Growing up in 1950s Ireland, Gene Kerrigan writes of the torment that befell a young ‘nice priest’ chaplain-teacher. (I9) Kerrigan describes him as having a ‘fresh, open mind, a soul yearning to enhance our spirituality within a changing, questioning society’. (20) His aim was to get the boys ‘talking in the vernacular of the day about eternal truths’. (21) Willing to mingle with the pupils, he sat on an empty desk in the middle of the classroom rather than behind the teacher’s desk.

Smiling, open to dialogue. He wanted to be our friend.
We ate him alive…
He wanted nothing but good for us, he wanted to approach us on our terms, he respected us. And we laughed in his face…
He offered friendship, we smelled weakness…
We mistook love for vulnerability and we seized him by the throat. (22)

What this young priest did not appreciate was that schools operate within a particular framework and in order to function successfully, teachers must take account of this framework. An essential feature of the framework is an awareness of the adult-child and individual-group character of the teacher-pupil relationship. This requires the exercise of an institutionally appropriate form of authority and the imposition of a certain control. Within this framework, it is possible to provide the nurture that characterises good teaching.

I am not suggesting that all teaching conducted in this context will result in successful learning. Failure to ensure learning may be due to factors beyond the control of the teacher – for example, domestic disharmony or illness. Yet teachers’ primary responsibility is to teach their subjects. In some cases, where the resistance of the pupils to school and to learning seems insurmountable, this may prove impossible. But it is simply not good enough to forgo the attempt to teach on the grounds that all efforts are doomed to failure unless we change the whole educational system or indeed the whole socio-economic system. Fashionable theories about re-defining what counts as intelligence may well be sustainable but they are not an excuse for giving up on trying to teach that constituency of the young population described as low achievers. The principal referred to previously invokes no high-faluting slogans about the ‘failure of the system’, ‘narrow conception of intelligence’ or the need for ‘critical theory’.

In some research I have conducted into the conceptions of good teachers held by student teachers, admiration for structured, orderly and efficient teaching is striking. (23) Young people who experience imaginative, structured and committed teaching are in the process experiencing nurture. Moreover, those who do not aspire to attend university need not be precluded from engagement with the traditional areas of the school curriculum (literature, language, history and science). Here is an account by Gervase Phinn of a teacher giving a lesson based on a novel set during the Second World War to a group of non-academically inclined learners.

She used well chosen illustrations and probing questions to develop understanding of ideas and motives … She encouraged the boys to explore character in greater depth, whilst sensitively supporting the less able, helping them to stay interested and involved by the use of questions matched to their abilities and interests. She required them to justify a point of view; refer to the text, relate to their own experiences and examine the use of language.

The atmosphere in the classroom was warm and supportive, and the boys responded well to the teacher, clearly enjoying her touches of humour… [She] had a real empathy with, and respect for, the pupils and … had high expectations of their success. She encouraged, directed, suggested, questioned, challenged and developed the pupils’ understanding in an atmosphere of good humour and enjoyment. (24)

The positive attitudes of the teacher are also reflected in the actual classroom environment. This ‘was wonderfully bright and attractive with appropriate displays of posters, photographs and artefacts which gave the pupils a feel for the period in which the novel was set’. (25) Striking in Phinn’s characterisation of the classroom is the reference to warmth and good-humour – the former also occurring in the extract from Roddy Doyle and the latter in the comments of the principal and in the reference to laughter and fun in the reminiscence from Oakeshott. Regrettably these concepts are not sufficiently foregrounded in educational discourse.

On leaving this class, however, Phinn heads for the final lesson of the day through the school hall. There he finds two aggressive groups of boys shaping up to one another for a fight. So intense does their aggression become that Phinn intervenes, much to the surprise of the boys, and indeed of their teacher, who stands up to inform him that he has been watching a rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet. He spends the next half an hour watching ‘the most gripping opening’ of the play he had ever seen. (26)

The teachers in the two examples provided by Gervase Phinn nurtured their pupils precisely by teaching with energy, commitment and imagination. Teaching of such a character is more important than add-on programmes of pastoral care. I have always been more impressed by careful, consistent and constructive correction of pupils’ assignments than by facility at producing theories – about holistic education. To be sure, there is scope for nurturing activities of an explicit character within schools. For educators, it is a humbling privilege to be able to offer support and sympathy to young people in times of loss and grief due to bereavement or marriage breakdown. But providing such support is part of what is involved in being an educator: it is not a substitute for good teaching.

1. Walford, G., ‘Redefining school effectiveness’, Westminister Studies in Education, 25 (2002), pp 47-58, p. 53.
2. Phinn, G., Over Hill and Dale (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 159.
3. See some of the contributions to A. Hargreaves, and P. Woods (eds), Classrooms and Staffrooms: The Sociology of Teachers and Teaching (Milton Keynes: Open University; 1984).
4. See White, J., Rethinking the School Curriculum: Values Aims and Purposes (London: Routledge Falmer, 2004).
5. Parks, T., An Italian Education (London: Vintage, 2000), p. 287.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Gibbon, M., The Pupil (Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1981). The quotations are taken from pp. 21, 75, 14 respectively.
9. Ibid., p. 76.
10. I am quoting from a text entitled ‘Oakeshott on his Schooldays’ published as an Appendix in R. Grant, Oakeshott (London: The Claridge Press, 1990), p. 120
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. Winch, C., ‘The Economic Ends of Education’, The Journal of Philosophy of Education, 36 (2002), pp. 101-118, p. 115, note 20.
15. Phinn, G., Over Hill and Dale, p. 152.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid., p. 171.
18. Doyle, R., A Star Called Henry (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999), p. 79.
19. Kerrigan, G., Another Country: Growing Up in 1950s Ireland (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1998), p. 55.
20. Ibid., p. 56.
21. Ibid.
22. Ibid.
23. Williams, K., ‘Student Teachers Remember Good Teaching in Their Schooldays’, Prospero, 4 (1998), pp. 31-34.
24. Phinn, G., Over Hill and Dale, p. 164.
25. Ibid.
26. Ibid., p. 167.


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