Sinead Smith, Senior Executive Principal at The Holy Spirit Catholic MAC, writes in the latest edition of ‘Networking – Catholic Education Today’

Social Action & the Power of Collaboration

'Catholic Social Teaching' - three words which have become a hot topic in all Catholic schools in recent years. This growing emphasis on what it means to live the mission of the Church has come directly from the top. 

Since the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has been clear about what is asked and expected of Catholics throughout the world. He calls us to be activists. In the opening chapter of Fratelli Tutti, 'Dark Clouds Over a Closed World', Pope Francis paints a desperate but accurate picture of the state of the world but he does so with the intention of reminding us that when we see a problem we must respond with action. Using the parable of the Good Samaritan, he reinforces the need for solidarity and for a continual focus on the 'common good'. So, if we are called to act, there is obviously no better guide on how, when and where to act than Catholic Social Teaching. The question we must consider, however, is how do we act most effectively to challenge injustice and to work for the common good?

Central to the Church's mission is Catholic education. Schools are packed to the rafters with activists whose enthusiasm knows no bounds and who are fearless in the pursuit of finding new ways to get stuck in and to make a difference on the ground. Many Catholic schools, working hand in hand with parishes, are thriving hotbeds of social action, staffed by leaders who know it is part of their job to live the mission of the Church by leading the communities they serve to respond to the needs and injustices they see on a daily basis. With Mass attendance having reduced significantly since Covid, there could be a tendency to view the future of the Church with some trepidation. Yet, just one look at a Catholic school which has social action at its heart and we are reminded that the Church is alive and kicking and ready to respond to Pope Francis' call to action.

The Covid pandemic undoubtedly changed the world. Arguably the world didn't learn the lessons from the pandemic that might have benefitted society, the planet and humanity most but it has changed us nonetheless. The pandemic shone a light on the great inequality that exists in society and the impact of poverty. From people working on zero hours contracts who suddenly found their income stopped to those living in crowded conditions without the luxury of outside space or the ability to adequately socially distance- the pandemic crystalised our understanding of the potential consequences of poverty. Seeing the need of those around them, many Catholic schools (alongside many non-Catholic schools and various other organisations) responded swiftly. Whilst there were few things to celebrate from the effects of the global pandemic, the extraordinary lengths Catholic schools went to to meet the needs in their community, is one. Ironically, most schools weren't talking about Catholic Social Teaching at this time but many were walking the walk with gusto.

Despite church buildings having to close during Covid, the mission of the Church was therefore very much alive and evident in Catholic schools. Given the enormity of the response needed in local communities, it was necessary for schools to work closely with other agencies and organisations to provide a coordinated response. School based foodbanks quickly became the norm, with staff delivering shopping and other essential supplies to families. School leaders and staff recognised the vital role they played at the heart of the communities they serve and so extended their reach beyond the care for children and young people. In some cases, they saw the growing need for people living alone and isolated, for whom Mass attendance and parish life was a lifeline, to be supported through the loneliness they were experiencing. Some months on from the pandemic we could be tempted to ask what the relevance of reminiscing on these unprecedented experiences is. Perhaps it is because looking back allows us to plan most effectively when we look forward and we should be reminded that we are better and more effective when we work together.

Catholic schools undoubtedly get involved in a great deal of social action. Yet, we tend to miss a trick. Despite so often working in silos, social action in individual schools does of course make a difference. Like dropping a pebble into a pond, we create ripples that positively affect other people. But the question is, could it be better? As Catholic schools, we are in the privileged position of belonging to a large network or family of schools within an Archdiocese, united by the mission of the Church. For many years we have made good use of our family of schools because we recognise the impact of collaboration on improving standards. We recognise that sharing expertise on how to do things well and challenging each other to be better makes things better for the children and young people in our care. Yet, we rarely apply the same principle to the coordination of high quality collaborative social action. In the Archdiocese of Birmingham that is about to change.

The Archdiocese of Birmingham is one of the largest dioceses in the country, with 245 schools serving 83,000 children and young people.
Recognising our collective ability to make great waves rather than small ripples if we work together, the Archdiocese has recently launched a first of a kind social action initiative which brings all schools together to work towards a shared social action project. The basis of the project is simple but it marks the start of a new way of collaboratively responding to Catholic Social Teaching. All schools in the Archdiocese have been asked to do one very straightforward thing - raise just £1 per child over a three-month period. They can choose how and when to raise the money and the fundraising initiative sits alongside any other planned school-based charities and social action programme. The aim of this project is to support one charity – Fr Hudson's Care.

Fr Hudson's Care is the social care agency of the Archdiocese of Birmingham. Archbishop Bernard Longley is the charity's president and many of the services they offer are fundamental to the life of many Catholics who need to avail of them. For instance, Fr Hudson's Care provides one of the few Catholic residential care homes for people suffering from dementia. They also provide an essential lifeline for refugees and asylum seekers arriving in the country, along with providing residential and day care for people living with disabilities. They run a highly effective fostering agency and offer several services which directly support the children and young people in diocesan schools. Each year, schools in the Archdiocese of Birmingham do support Fr Hudson's Care through the Good Shepherd Appeal. However, as many charities find themselves in challenging financial circumstances, it was recognised that schools could play a more significant role in helping the charity further. Put simply, if all schools commit to raising just £1 per child for Fr Hudson's Care, the charity will receive £83,000. This will significantly increase their income from schools and will greatly impact their ability to continue the great work they do.

Whilst the immediate impact on Fr Hudson's Care from the money raised by schools will undoubtedly be beneficial, establishing a culture of collaborative social action across diocesan schools will be of far greater benefit. It will allow us to share best practice and to challenge each other to be better and to do better, just as we do in all other aspects of school life. Pope Francis' call to action is not a gentle suggestion, rather a clear account of what is expected of us as Catholics. If Catholic schools are to remain firmly at the heart of the Church's mission, they must do all they can to unite and work together to challenge injustice and promote the rights of those living in poverty and with vulnerability. Catholic Social Teaching should not be a bolt on that supports improved inspection outcomes. Instead, it should provide a framework and the motivation for school leaders to push the boundaries to achieve great things.

In the Archdiocese of Birmingham, the practical journey of shaping a new future in which we no longer work in silos to drop our pebbles to make small ripples has begun. We have taken the first small step to test the water to see what a difference we can make when we work together but this is just the beginning. We have an army of 83,000 children and roughly 12,000 staff in schools in the Archdiocese of Birmingham who are ready to respond to the call to action and who know the benefits of collaboration on bringing about improvement and making a difference... this combination will allow us to take our response to Catholic Social Teaching to a whole new level. Watch this space!

The Holy Spirit Catholic Multi Academy website

Father Hudson's Care - Social Care Agency website

Networking - Catholic Education Today

The Holy Spirit Catholic Multi Academy consists of:

St Thomas More Catholic Academy and Sixth Form College

St Francis Catholic Academy

St Anne's Catholic Academy

St Benedict's Catholic Academy

Our Lady and St Joseph Catholic Academy.

Photographs show a range of fundraising activities undertaken by pupils across the MAC.