Roman Catholic schools

Peter Ward

Religious Education in Roman Catholic schools

Religious Education in Roman Catholic schools

Catholic vision of Education

Catholic vision of Education

Education is central to the mission of the Catholic Church. It recognises the rights of parents as the prime educators of their children and seeks to support them by providing schools and colleges which aim to educate the whole person and help them play a proper part in promoting the common good through the acquisition of values, skills and knowledge appropriate to civic society and the ability and desire to search for truth.

The Catholic vision of education promotes the dignity and freedom of every person as created in the image and likeness of God. This vision inspires and encourages the beliefs and values which are lived out in the daily life of the Catholic school. Within this vision, religious education is very much a journey of formation involving every member of the school community, together with a pupil’s family and parish community.

Catholic Schools in England and Wales

Catholic Schools in England and Wales

school-small.pngFollowing the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829, marking the end of Catholic persecution in this country, increasing numbers of Catholic schools were established. Following the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1851, in the following year the bishops at their first national meeting stated that they favoured the building of schools before churches, recognising that congregations could meet for Mass in the school building. In this way there would be a place in a Catholic school for every Catholic child and thus their school education would be in harmony with that of their parents and of the parish community to which they belonged.

For the next hundred years and more, the Catholic community raised money to build Catholic schools so that there would be a Catholic school place for every Catholic child, much of the finance coming from “the pennies of the poor”. Once established a key feature was the link between home-school-parish so that the three worked collaboratively to support the education of the young.

Today there are over 2200 Catholic schools in England and Wales, including nearly 400 secondary schools (constituting two thirds of secondary schools with a religious character), 12 non-maintained special schools and 17 sixth form colleges situated within 22 dioceses.

The Code of Canon Law, which codifies the activities of the Catholic Church, includes reference to Catholic education (canons 793-795) and schools (canons 796-806). Canon 803(3) states that each diocesan bishop has to recognise that a school is Catholic before it is allowed to use the term, while other Canons require the diocesan bishop to exercise oversight of Catholic schools, their religious education and the teachers who work in them. Specialist staff, increasingly lay but with some clergy and religious, undertake this work on behalf of the bishop of each diocese.

Catholic schools are either independent schools or in the trusteeship of a diocese or Religious Order (such as the Benedictines or the Jesuits). Those in the state sector each have their own Trust Deed which places a legal duty on them to observe the provisions of canon law relating to schools, the norms included in diocesan and/or Religious Order frameworks generally related to religious education and the Catholic life of the school and (documents that will be explained later) the Bishops’ Conference Religious Education Curriculum Directory for Catholic Schools and Statement on Religious Education. (This survey draws heavily from these two documents.)

A typical diocesan trust deed states that Catholic schools are held in trust for “advancing the Roman Catholic religion in the diocese by such means as the bishop may think fit and proper” and provides further that “the religious doctrines and practices to be taught and observed in any such school shall be in all respects according to the principles and subject to the regulation and discipline of the Church”.

Although the principal purpose in establishing each Catholic school was to provide places for Catholic children, where there were places available they have been made available to other children. This is the position currently enshrined in statute law.

Types of schools

Types of schools

Currently there are over 2100 voluntary aided Catholic schools, about 150 independent schools and individual foundation schools and academies.

The principal features of a voluntary aided school are that:

  • the school building and site are owned by the Church
  • a majority of the governors are Foundation Governors appointed by the Church
  • the teachers are appointed and employed by the governing body
  • the cost of repairs and capital projects is raised by the governing body with 90% grant from the Department for Education (DfE)
  • religious education and worship are in accordance with the Trust Deed
  • the governing body is the admissions authority

The majority of Catholic independent schools are run by either a Religious Order or a private trust. In order to be recognised as Catholic, as stated earlier, they must conform to the requirements of canon law.



In line with canon law, the diocesan bishop exercises oversight and provides advice, guidance and support in respect of the religious education and the Catholic life of all Catholic schools and governance matters for all voluntary aided schools within his diocese, principally through the diocesan education and/or schools and/or religious education service. All diocesan advisers are members of the National Board of Religious Inspectors and Advisers which facilitates co-operation between its members across all dioceses.

The Catholic Education Service is charged with ‘promoting and supporting Catholic education in England and Wales’ and negotiates, on behalf of all bishops, with Government, and other national bodies on legal, administrative, and religious education matters in order to:

  • promote Catholic interests in education;
  • safeguard Catholic interests in education;
  • contribute to Christian perspectives within educational debate at national level.

It works closely with the Department for Catholic Education and Formation of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. In addition, it liaises with national Catholic bodies to promote the catechetical policies of the Bishops' Conference. In conjunction with representatives of those working in Catholic education across England and Wales, the CES advises the Bishops on educational matters and promotes the educational policies of the Bishops' Conference.

The CES works closely with the Church of England's Board of Education and with the Free Churches' Council to promote Christian interests in education by making joint representation to Government on educational issues.

The CES maintains links with Catholic education bodies in Scotland, Ireland and mainland Europe and elsewhere in the world to inform and promote Catholic educational policies.

Religious Education

Religious Education

school-small.pngFollowing the publication of the Code of Canon Law in 1983, the Education Reform Act of 1988 and the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1993, the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales published the Religious Education Curriculum Directory for Catholic Schools in 1996 and then in 2000 the Bishops’ Statement on Religious Education following the publication of the General Directory of Catechesis in 1997. These two documents govern religious education in Catholic schools in England and Wales.

Bishop’s Statement on Religious Education (No.4)
"At the heart of Catholic education lies the Christian vision of the human person. This vision is expressed and explored in religious education. Therefore religious education is never simply one subject among many, but the foundation of the entire educational process.

The beliefs and values studied in Catholic religious education inspire and draw together every aspect of the life of a catholic school. We are committed to classroom RE, then, because all pupils have the right to receive an overall education which will enable them, in the light of the faith of the Church, to engage with the deepest questions of life and find reasons for the hope which is within them (1 Peter 3.15). Religious education is, then, the core subject in a Catholic school."

Within the vision of Catholic education stated earlier, “religious education is very much a journey of formation involving every member of the school community, together with a pupil’s family and parish community. It is in this context that the three elements of religious education, catechesis and evangelisation, co-exist, providing mutual support and reinforcement.

For all children religious education is a proper subject in its own right in the school’s curriculum. It is a rigorous academic discipline, and as such it is to be taught, developed and resourced with the same commitment as any other subject. For those already engaged in the journey of faith religious education will be catechesis [deepening and enhancing their personal faith], and for some children and young people religious education will be evangelisation, the first opportunity to hear the good news of the gospel."

Curriculum religious education in Catholic schools aims to promote:

  • knowledge and understanding of Catholic faith and life;
  • knowledge and understanding of the response of faith to the ultimate questions about human life, its origin and purpose;
  • the skills required to engage in examination of and reflection upon religious belief and practice.

The objectives of curriculum religious education in Catholic schools are:

  • to develop knowledge and understanding of the mystery of God and of Jesus Christ, of the Church, and of the central beliefs which Catholics hold;
  • to develop awareness and appreciation of Catholic belief, understanding of its impact on personal and social behaviour and of the vital relationship between faith and life, life and faith;
  • to encourage study, investigation and reflection by the pupils;
  • to develop appropriate skills: for example, ability to listen; to think critically, spiritually, ethically and theologically; to acquire knowledge and organise it effectively; to make informed judgements;
  • to foster appropriate attitudes: for example,
    • respect for truth;
    • respect for the views of others;
    • awareness of the spiritual, of moral responsibility, of the demands of religious commitment in everyday life and especially the challenge of living in a multicultural, multi-faith society.

Guidance on skills and attitudes in religious education is found in Broad Areas of Attainment in Religious Education, National Board of Religious Inspectors and Advisers, 1994.

The outcome of religious education is religiously literate young people who have the knowledge, understanding and skills – appropriate to their age and capacity – to think spiritually, ethically and theologically, and who are aware of the demands of religious commitment in everyday life.” (Religious Education Curriculum Directory for Catholic schools page 10)

“Part Two of this Curriculum Directory is a principled statement of the content of religious education for our Catholic schools..... This Programme of Study will assist in the preparation of classroom resources and the evaluation of existing resources. In the light of this Programme detailed Schemes of Work can be prepared, including adaptation for pupils with special educational needs. Diocesan policy will indicate the manner in which this Directory is to be used and the resources available to schools, and will continue, through support for teachers and in-service provision, to encourage collaboration and development in the work of Catholic Education.” (Religious Education Curriculum Directory for Catholic schools page 12.)

“The specific contribution to the life of the Catholic school of classroom Religious Education is primarily educational for its primary purpose is to draw pupils into a systematic study of the teaching of the Church, the saving mystery of Christ which the Church proclaims. Excellence in religious education, then, will be characterised by a clarity of succinct religious learning objectives and of key content, by appropriate methodologies, rigour, richness of resources, achievement of identified outcomes and accurate methods of assessment. Classroom Religious Education will be a challenging educational engagement between the pupil, the teacher and the authentic subject material."

"Tasks given to pupils need to be clearly focused and sufficiently demanding. The objective of religious education is to include analysis and reflection, critical appreciation of sources and examples, and a real sense of progression through the different stages of education. It requires 10% of the length of the taught week for each Key Stage of education. This is what we reaffirm and expect."

"Religious Education teaching in a Catholic school will be enlightened by the faith of the school community and by the faith of the Religious Education teacher. Its educational focus will be formed and enhanced by the vitality of faith. Nevertheless its primary purpose is the step by step study of the mystery of Christ, the teaching of the Church and its application in daily life. The criteria by which it is to be judged are educational. When classroom RE displays these educational characteristics, then its specific contribution to the life of the Catholic school, which as a whole is a catechetical community, becomes apparent."

Taken from Statement on Religious Education in Catholic Schools - issued by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales

Collective Worship

Collective Worship

school-small.pngCatholic schools understand Collective Worship in a much broader sense than the legal requirement for a daily act of collective worship. This requirement is observed, either during year or house assemblies or during tutor group registration. Whatever the context, prayer and worship is frequently led, and often devised, by the pupils who see it as a normal part of the life of a Catholic school.

Prayer and worship will also reflect the liturgical cycle of the Church’s year, marking for example the seasons of Advent and Lent and major feasts and holy days of obligation with Mass or other liturgical celebrations. Key elements of the school year will also be marked in this way, sometimes specifically including parents or staff.

In many Catholic schools these activities are planned, facilitated and sometimes led by the school chaplain, who may be a priest or lay chaplain. In other schools these tasks may be undertake by a member of the Religious Education department or senior member of school staff. Irrespective of these arrangements, the local parish priest is normally a regular visitor to the school to celebrate Mass and lead other forms of worship.

The School Standards and Framework Act 1998 Part II, Chapter VI, section 70 and Schedule 20 of the same act explicitly states that in schools with a religious character, the collective worship has to accord with the religious tradition of the school. Where a voluntary school has a religious character as defined by the Designation of Schools having a Religious Character (England) Order 1999, then the programme of worship in that school must reflect the school's religious character. Thus in Catholic schools it is Catholic in accordance with the Trust Deed of the school.

Collective worship is an important feature of Catholic life so all pupils are expected to attend. It is hoped that local arrangements may be made to accommodate the particular religious or philosophical beliefs of pupils who do not wish to participate but are happy to attend, in line with the guidance in the document “Catholic Schools, Children of Other Faiths and Community Cohesion: Loving Tenderly, Acting Justly, Walking Humbly” [CES 2008] but it is recognised that parents of pupils up to and including Year 11, or pupils themselves in Years 12-13, have the legal right to advise the school that they wish to withdraw from all or specific acts of collective worship and this would be respected.



Canon 806(1) gives the diocesan bishop the right to inspect each and every catholic school in his diocese. The governing body of a Catholic voluntary aided school has a legal responsibility to ensure that the school is inspected under Section 48 of the Education Act 2005. Inspections of all Catholic schools - voluntary aided, academy, foundation and independent - are conducted by each diocese in accordance with its published inspection framework. Inspection reports of all Catholic maintained schools are published on the CES website while most if not all diocese publish inspection reports of all Catholic schools in their diocese on their diocesan website, accessible through The Religious Education and catholic life of Catholic sixth form colleges is reported upon as part of the Ofsted report on the college.



A Catholic school is a distinct part of the Catholic Church so it is expected that the headteacher, deputy headteacher, head of religious education/religious education co-ordinator and specialist religious education teachers will be practising Catholics in good standing with the Catholic Church, as generally required by the Trust Deed. In a voluntary aided school the governing body is the employer of the school staff so the teacher's contract is with the governing body. It is their responsibility to implement this policy.

While they have the legal right to give preference to a Catholic for any teaching post, the Governing Body is charged under canon 806(2) to ensure that the formation given in their Catholic school “in its academic standards, [is] at least as outstanding as that in other schools in the area.” Consequently the Governing Body seeks to recruit the most suitable teacher to each post and will appoint teachers of all religious beliefs and none, provided they will support the Catholic ethos of the school, to work in a Catholic school.

The success of classroom Religious Education in Catholic schools depends significantly, as it does in every subject, on the quality and dedication of the teachers. “We are aware of the need to do all we can, as a Church, to recruit, educate and support good teachers of religious education. We believe that the clarity of expectations which can underpin Religious Education will serve to enhance the attractiveness of the subject to potential teachers. We also recognise the need for Religious Education teachers to have particular opportunities to continue their own life-long formation in faith as well as for professional development. We need to make the best possible use of those diocesan resources given to the support of Religious Education teachers.

Teaching is a noble calling and profession. It can be a source of great satisfaction... 'Teaching has an extraordinary moral depth and is one of our most excellent and creative activities. For the teacher does not write on inanimate material, but on the very spirits of human beings." (The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium: 1998: n.19)



Vatican Documents
Vatican Documents on Education
  • The Catholic School 1977
  • Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to Faith 1982
  • Educational Guidance in Human Love. Outlines for Sex Education 1983
  • The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School 1988
  • The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium 1997
  • Consecrated Persons and their Mission in Schools; Reflections and Guidelines 2002
  • Educating Together in Catholic Schools 2007
  • Letter to Presidents of Bishops’ conferences on religious education in schools 2009

All accessible from

English and Welsh Church Documents on Education