Catholic Schools – Boards of Management

Address by Maria Spring, Chairperson CPSMA, at the Ossory Adult Faith Development conference “Catholic Schools: Envisioning a Future”


The change in the primary school system in the last ten years has been significant. This change was not only in terms of the New Curriculum (celebrated its 10th birthday on 09.09.09) but at the very core of the system. For the purpose of this presentation I would like to focus on the Board of Management and it role in managing our Catholic schools.

Managing our school in Partnership

Central to the role for Boards of Management is to maintain and support the school as a Catholic school. Patrons appoint new Boards of Management every four years. This is always a very important task for schools and requires a lot of thought. The necessity for the Board of Management to be familiar with every aspect of the running of the school is onerous. The people who sit on our Boards of Management give of their time, skills and energy to help make our Catholic Schools places of which we can all be proud. In recent years a notable feature of the structure of Boards of Management has been the growing number of lay people who are being appointed as Chairpersons. The diversity of the pupil population will be reflected in the make up of the Board of Management. It is important to recognise that not all who are members of the Catholic school (be they parents, teachers, pupils or members of Boards of Management) are Catholic or active members of the Catholic Church. However, if the school is to be an effective Catholic school the Board must articulate the Catholic educational ethos that underlies its identity. Boards must approach the task of managing the school in active partnership with all who have a legitimate interest in the education it provides. This active partnership has changed the way in which partners engage with one another. The members of the Board are a corporate group, forming a community with a particular purpose and commitment. The Board provides an atmosphere of empowerment by letting members make decisions and inspiring people to provide a supportive school environment where each child has the opportunity to reach his/her potential. As such it is important that from the outset, members understand their role within the overall mission of the school. Each member should be respected and talents recognised and affirmed. If this is done from the very beginning, it will be clear what each member needs from the other and what each can give to the board on behalf of the school community. Loyalty to the members of the board and an understanding that the agenda of the board cannot be an individual agenda will be vital for the effective management. The journey towards building a truly cohesive, sustainable Board is undoubtedly a challenge that faces all Boards of Management today, not just Boards of Catholic schools. Promoting cohesion among Board members is an essential requirement in undertaking the work in Catholic schools knowing that in each unique person we see Jesus Christ. This gives those of us on Boards an awesome responsibility to develop everyone’s talents to the full, seeing and responding to Christ in one another.

Functions of the Board

The main function of the Board is to manage the school on behalf of the Patron and for the benefit of the students and their parents, and to provide an appropriate education for each student at the school (Education Act 1998, Section 15(1)

In carrying out its functions, the board must:-

Act in accordance with Ministerial policy

Uphold the ethos of the school and be accountable to the patron for this. The word “ethos” is not used in the Education Act, 1998. It is described in the Act as 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”.

Act in accordance with the law and with any deed, charter or similar instrument relating to the school. This includes the Deed of Variation (Board Handbook p.10 and Schedule for Catholic Schools (Board Handbook p.15)

Consult with and inform the Patron of decisions and proposals.

Publish the school’s policy on admission to and participation in the school, including its policy on expulsion and suspension of students, admission and participation by students with disabilities or with other special educational needs.

Ensure that the school’s admissions policy respects the choices of parents and the principles of equality and that it complies with Ministerial directions, having regard to the school ethos and the constitutional rights of all concerned.

Have regard for the principles and requirements of a democratic society and promote respect for the diversity of values, beliefs, traditions, languages and way of life in our society.

Have regard to the efficient use of resources (particularly grants provided by the state), the public interest in the affairs of the school and accountability to students, parents and the community.

Use the resources provided by the state to make reasonable provision and accommodation for students with disabilities or special needs, including, if necessary, the adaptation of building or provision of special equipment.

Activities of the Board

Essentially, the board manages the school. Among other things:

It must ensure that the school fulfils its functions as set out in the Education Act, 1998.

It has the responsibility for drawing up the school plan and for ensuring that it is implemented.

It appoints the principal, the teachers and other staff.

It must promote contact between the school, the parents and the community and must facilitate and give all reasonable help to a parents’ association in its formation and its activities.

It has overall responsibility for the school’s finances. It is obliged to have comprehensive insurance cover for the school. It must keep proper accounts, which may be audited by the DES and/or the C&AG. Its annual accounts must be available to the patron and the school community.

The Patrons expectations of the Board of Management manage the school in accordance with the Education Act 1998

make Catholic ethos a living reality in the school is ultimately responsible to the Patron for the Catholic ethos

put ethos related policies in place.

In this context, accountability for the implementation of the ‘characteristic spirit’ is monitored by the Inspectorate of the Department of Education & Science. As part of a Whole School Evaluation a team of inspectors will meet with the Board of Management in order to discern the involvement of the board in managing its Catholic ethos through the work of the Board and the implementation of ethos related policies, especially those related to admission and provision.

If Catholic Education is to mean anything, it must be different to the education offered by other types of schools. This means having a strong vibrant ethos which is a lived reality for all members of the school community.

It is the Catholic ethos of Catholic schools that differentiates them from other schools. This characteristic spirit (or ethos) of all Catholic Schools is defined in the Schedule attached to the Deed of Variation for Catholic Primary Schools. This includes a statement that “the Catholic school provides Religious education for the pupils in accordance with the doctrines, practices and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church and promotes the formation of the pupils in the Catholic Faith”.

Formal religious education including the preparation for the Sacraments of Penance, Eucharist and Confirmation is delivered by class teachers who are expected to have a Diploma in the teaching of Religious Education. Some of the doctrinal practices that they may be imparting may no longer be a part of their own practice. The work of sacramental preparation is a central part of promoting the characteristic spirit of the Catholic school. The celebration of First Eucharist is a sacred and important moment on a long journey of faith development. Together with Baptism and Confirmation, it opens the door to full membership of the Christian community. Religious instruction for Catholic pupils means leading the children in an understanding of the liturgy, personal prayer, doctrine and moral education of their family faith. To do anything else is to lessen the idea of religious instruction and is not honest. It is therefore the responsibility of the Board of Management to support teachers about the responsibility they have, to pass on the faith.

A Catholic educational ethos is not just something expressed on paper or something to be taken for granted. It is to be expressed in the distinctive quality of the daily life of the school community. The characteristic spirit of a Catholic school flows from the values central to which are the gospel values. The educational vision which flows from these values is one which promotes dignity, self-esteem and full development of each person. Such a Catholic educational vision is inclusive and respectful of all and engages with people of all beliefs.

The challenge for Boards is to ensure that Ethos Statement and ethos related policies are in place and that it can document a multi-year strategic approach to the development of a quality Catholic educational ethos. The important point is that every year the Board, with staff and parents should set an achievable ethos-related goal during each academic year and the reviewing of the achievement of that goal at the end of the year. An internal review of the quality of the school’s Catholic ethos should be carried out each year. This should be documented and the documents carefully filed. The review should be included in the annual report published by the Board of Management in accordance with Section 20 Education Act 1998.

For instance, the first related goal set by the Board may be the drawing up of the school’s Ethos Statement. At the end of year the Board may review the adequacy of the process by which the statement was drawn up. In another year a Board may set an ethos related goal with the families of relevant pupils and the local parish to put in place a partnership approach to sacramental preparation.

The curriculum for primary schools acknowledges the importance of the spiritual dimension of the person and the role of religious education, which ‘enables the child to develop spiritual and moral values and to come to the knowledge of God.’ Our Catholic schools have a unique integrating function which leads to the full and harmonious development of the whole person. Catholic identity is a unique phenomenon. “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher. Good teachers share one trait: a strong sense of personal identity infuses their work” (P.Palmer: The Courage to Teach). Jesus had the ability to convince people of God’s love and lead them to an awareness of their own potential. The reason for this is that Jesus himself was convinced of who he was and the nature of his mission. Therein lies the key for Boards of Management of Catholic Schools today. Carl Jung states that vision becomes clear when one looks into one’s heart. This clarifying process of refection for Boards of Management requires honesty, integrity, and, most important guidance.

The Schedule is an important document for those involved in any way in the life of the Catholic school but in particular members of the Board of Management. It is a public document and must be displayed at the entrance to the school. Not only must it be displayed, it must play an active role in the daily life of the school.

Parents applying to enrol their child in the school, all staff seeking employment in the school and all who are nominated to the Patron for appointment to the Board must be made aware of the content of the Schedule, helped to understand it, and indicate (in appropriate way) that they will be respectful of it.

Parents must therefore be made aware of the distinctive ethos of the school so that they can make an informed decision to send their child to that school. In practical terms some parents have limited choice. It is for this reason that parents have a constitutional right to withdraw a child from the Catholic Religious Instruction provided by the school and the school has a responsibility to facilitate the parents who wish to provide for a separate religious instruction for their withdrawn child.

The Schedule should be considered in the formulation of all school policies. It should be circulated, along with the school’s Admission Policy, to all parents applying to enrol their child in the school.

The aim of the Catholic school is to ensure that the message of Christ is not only taught through the religion programme, Alive-O but that it permeates every aspect of school life. The Catholic school does not just teach about religion but teachers for religion by actively promoting development in faith and does so from the experience of being part of a vibrant faith based educating community. Catholic schools seek to create and develop communities of faith and learning inspired by the teaching of Jesus Christ. Schools strive to provide ‘an atmosphere where the gospel message is proclaimed, community in Christ is experienced, service to our brothers and sisters is the norm, and thanksgiving and worshiping God is cultivated’.

What really makes a Catholic school different is that it has a Religious-Christian-Catholic educational vision which flows, from an understanding of what it means, to be human in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who identify with and respect these core values are particularly welcome in a Catholic school. This Catholic ethos is a result of the wisdom gained from the experience of numerous generations of Catholic parents and teachers, parish communities, religious congregations and Church leaders. A Catholic school is a school that provides an education, based on a living faith together tradition. Together, the Board, the Principal, and the staff, working with the Patron, the parents and the local parish, model a living human-religious-Christian-Catholic educational tradition to nurture the faith of Catholic pupils in a manner that is welcoming to and inclusive of the presence in that Catholic school of pupils committed to other religious traditions.

Catholic schools have always welcomed and catered for pupils from other countries (for e.g. November 1956, Hungarian Refugees) and for pupils born in Ireland but whose parents came from different parts of the world and have different ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. These pupils have enriched our schools and in accordance with Rule 69 of the Rules for National Schools provision is made by the Principal, Teachers and Board of Management for the parents of these pupils to arrange for Religious instruction of these pupils within or outside the school day.

The very essence of a Catholic school is to welcome the Catholic children of the parish and at the same time welcome and assist those students who are not of our faith and who have come as strangers to our country, seeking a new life, to settle into school and be included in the school curriculum and environment. This presents its own challenges to Boards but these new students are an asset to our schools.

Building an Educating Community based on Gospel Values

Best practice has shown that it is possible to identify as a glance when there is a good spirit in a school. This manifests itself in the many ways, some of which are:-

Providing a physical environment which is attractive and indicates respect for those who use the premises.

Greeting the school community with respect.

Greeting visitors cordially.

Being helpful and supportive to all members of the school community.

Acknowledging the gifts and skills which are shared.

Added to the above, in a Catholic school, there should be symbols visible which indicate clearly that the school is Catholic.

The Schedule for Catholic Schools should displayed be in a prominent place.

The mission statement should be displayed and should indicate clearly that the school is under the patronage of the Diocese.

Images should be displayed both in classrooms and in open places.

Celebrating the Vision

Celebrating is a natural outcome of sharing, and it can take a diversity of forms. It is an individual and community process that celebrates the mystery of life and the journey that each of us takes. The Catholic school community which has its basis in the resurrection of Christ has good reason to celebrate. The community, the Board, pupils, staff and local parish are on a journey which will bring them to share in the life of the ultimate Other whom Jesus has revealed as the Divine Father of all. Whatever else Religious Education aims to achieve, central to religious education in a Catholic school is the invitation to the Catholic pupil to deepen his/her understanding of, appreciation of, and commitment to the Catholic faith and accompanying of the pupil on this journey of faith development. It is this journey together that we celebrate as we seek meaning in our lives.

Some of the things which are celebrated in a catholic School

The school community with all the gifts shared

The gift of faith

The sacraments

The Eucharist

The environment






Admission Policy

The enrolment policy of the school is an important means of implementing Catholic ethos. In the draft template for Admission/Enrolment procedure in Catholic National Schools (Solas April 2008, AGM Special Edition) it is stated at the outset “The school has a commitment to diversity and inclusivity while, at the same time protecting the integrity and Catholic ethos of the school”. It is noteworthy that it is only where the applications for enrolment exceed available spaces that children will be enrolled in accordance with the criteria set out.


Research into the ethos of Irish schools indicates that the ethos of many Catholic schools has been diluted. Many Catholic schools are experiencing a displacement in their mission integrity, resulting in an ethos that is overly academic and gives less time to the pupils’ pastoral development. Catholic schools are staffed by good and committed people. Leaders have been described as the custodians of the school ethos. They have a duty to develop and shape the culture in the direction which supports the ethos of the school. All school staff, particularly teachers, play and important role in development of ethos, however, the principal plays a particular role in terms of influencing the ethos of the school. The role of the principal in integrating the strengths of the school’s historical past with the core values of the present is central. The idea of integrating the past and present seems simple but it is very important; bring what has succeeded into the future and also engaging with the idea of tradition. Effective leadership is vital to Catholic schools; it shapes and influences the entire experience and learning within the school community. Leadership is successful when driven by core values and shared vision and these, in turn should determine the everyday decision making and ethos of the school. Faith and relationship with God are seen as superfluous in an increasingly secularised society. The leadership of a Catholic school is central to ensuring that the beliefs and values are handed on to staff and pupils.


More and more children who are baptised Catholics have no understanding of the basic tenets of their faith. The school is now the probably the first point of contact and evangelisation for children from many Catholic communities. This causes difficulties for teachers who have to undertake the role of the family as well as the role of faith development.

Catholic schools are welcoming and inclusive of pupils of all faiths and none. This provides a richness to the school, teaches the children to be tolerant and understanding towards other faiths and allows pupils to look at diversity. This richness of diversity is to the benefit of the common good. This inclusion also helps pupils to understand and appreciate their own Catholic faith in the context of other faiths. There are, however considerations to be taken into account when children of differing faiths are enrolled. Withdrawing pupils from religious instruction may cause problems for the school and for the parents. To facilitate this, the periods for formal instruction should be fixed.

Post holder for Religious Education

Consideration should also be given to Religious Education as an area of responsibility for a member of the Senior Management/Middle Management Team.

Living the Vision

The quality of Catholic education to be delivered to pupils can be identified in the characteristics of the school. This would include:

The modelling and transmission of a philosophy inspired by the Trinity and inserted in Gospel values

Having prayer as a feature of the school day.

Honouring the liturgical seasons as part of the rhythm of the school year.

Forming a community of pupils, parents and staff which is inserted in the local community of the parish.

A spirit of mutual respect.

Enabling pupils to achieve standards according to their ability in a safe, happy environment.

Basing the school’s Code of Behaviour on Christian values, encompassing forgiveness, reconciliation, new beginnings and hope.

Living faith by example. This means that every aspect of school life including admissions, staffing, discipline practices, leadership and the importance of social, economic and racial diversity are constantly evaluated in the light of the characteristic vision.

Diocesan Advisors

The role of the Diocesan Advisor is crucial to the ongoing faith development of the teachers. The Board should see its work with the Diocesan Advisors for Religious Education as an opportunity to support the development of a quality Religious Education programme in the school.

School Staff

The Board of Management must also work in an effective partnership with the staff, teachers, Special Needs Assistants, administrative and support staff. One a day to day basis it is the staff, who express to the pupils and the parents a vision of the school as a Catholic school community. When new staff is appointed to the school the Board should provide them with the statements of the characteristic vision and mission of the school in document form. All staff should be engaged in assemblies and liturgies.


Recently, our curriculum has become over-loaded and Religious Education has slipped from being a central part of the day to being slotted in when time allows. Our teachers need support so that they can continue to be living witnesses and so that their identity as Catholic Teachers does not become confused, blurred or even suppressed. Opportunities need to be created so that teachers can participate in prayer and worship so as to better understand their role in the faith formation of the pupils. God is always communicating with us. Therefore it is necessary to find creative ways to enable our teachers to decipher His voice from all the other voices we now have in our lives. In scripture Jesus tells us that “I have come that you may have life and have it to the full” (John10:10). We need to renew our appreciation in our teachers for the potential this fullness offers.

Catholic schools, as faith based schools, will continue to be an important component of the educational provision within an increasingly diverse system. The rights of Catholic parents to choose a school with a Catholic educational ethos for their children are no less important than those of other parents to choose a different schooling sector. Many non-Catholic parents chose a Catholic school because it is a school which values religious faith and religious values.


Through the SPHE programme, the children develop a framework of values, attitudes, understanding and skills that will inform their decisions and actions both now and in the future.  Since SPHE has a moral and spiritual dimension, its development and implementation are influenced by the ethos of the Catholic school. The RSE programme is cross-curricular and rooted firmly within the moral and spiritual framework of the Alive O catechetical programme and the ethos of the school. When teaching sex education, in relation to moral issues teachers must adhere to the Catholic Church teaching and it is therefore the responsibility of Board of Management to ensure that this takes place.

Pastoral Care

Members of the school community play a crucial role in the pastoral care of pupils. All staff should be encouraged to approach the care of pupils in a positive way, reinforcing the ethos of the Catholic school and following the school Code of Behaviour. Staff should respond to children in a sympathetic and concerned way, offering advice, support, guidance and reassurance, in confidence if required. Strong emphasis should be placed on the individuality of every person and the children should be encouraged to be positive and supportive in their approach to people who may seem ‘different’ through a disability or by their physical appearance.  The number of pupils from other faiths in Catholic schools varies greatly. Whatever the circumstances, it is important that their needs are not overlooked. The respectful understanding should be shown to pupils of other faiths and none who are withdrawn from Religious Instruction and/or remain silent during acts of collective worship i.e. morning assembly with prayer as an element. Pastoral Care should ensure that pupils’ health is attended to in times of fasting. The Board should be aware of any dietary requirements associated with faith and make provision for same.


The school uniform is an important sign of belonging, therefore prospective pupils and parents should be made aware of the uniform policy.

Code of Behaviour

In revising, or reviewing the Code of Behaviour, the Board of Management should ensure the imperatives of faith, hope and love should underline all our dealings with others. How does the policy relate to the characteristic spirit of the school? What lessons do pupils learn from the disciplinary procedures? How do the rules and the procedures acknowledge human dignity as well as they might? How are reconciliation, forgiveness compassion, justice, truth, respect and new beginnings dealt with within the policy?

Annual Staff Review

The more the members of the educational community develop a real willingness to collaborate among themselves, the more fruitful their work will be. Channels of communication should be open among staff. Frequent meetings will help make this possible and a willingness to discuss common problems candidly will enrich this communication. An opportunity should be scheduled into the calendar for the Chairperson on behalf of the Board to meet with all staff and review the progress of the past year. Boards will need to reflect upon and review current practices in the school in order to build on what already is being done as they strive for excellence.

Establishing New Boards 2011-2015

In the twelve months leading up to the establishment of new Boards, (from November 2010) suitable persons in a Diocese who could be considered for appointment as Chairpersons and Patrons nominees on Boards should be trained in some aspects of the Constitution and Rules of Procedure of Boards of Management, particularly the section dealing with the Board as a Corporate Body and Catholic ethos. This would create a heightened awareness that the Board of Management is managing a primary school which is a Catholic National School. This training prior to appointment would enhance the working of the boards and enable them to be more proactive in the provision of Catholic education in a changing world. It would provide greater understanding of their role in managing the Catholic school and their responsibilities to the Patron under the Education Act 1998.

In conclusion, Boards should look to the future with confidence, continually advocating that issues must be faced with honesty and clear vision.



‘Characteristic Spirit’

‘……The board is very supportive of the work of the school and attends to its current priorities in a careful and considerate manner. The chairperson provides commendable leadership, support and guidance to the board and school staff.’……

…… ‘The school’s mission statement asserts that the school strives to provide a well ordered, caring, happy and secure atmosphere. It is evident that the staff members are caring towards each child and are genuinely interested in his/her individual well-being.  A strong sense of purpose is shared among the pupils, the staff, the management and the parents. Mutual respect is fostered between pupils and teachers and the school operates in an orderly and structured manner.’

……….‘The school, under the patronage of the Bishop of Elphin, has a Roman Catholic ethos. It provides a well-ordered, caring and happy atmosphere for its pupils and focuses on their holistic development. The board of management, principal and teachers place significant emphasis on the pupils’ spiritual development. Regular opportunities are provided for the pupils’ involvement in a variety of co-curricular and extracurricular activities which include swimming, inter-school sports, computer classes, environmental awareness and science programmes, and involvement in liturgical celebrations.’

…………‘The school’s ethos aims to entwine the traditions of Irish primary education and of Brigidine primary schools internationally. In co-operation with pupils, parents, staff and management, the school commendably strives to develop each pupil spiritually, aesthetically, physically, academically, emotionally and socially through diverse forms of learning thereby enabling each pupil to achieve fulfilment in life. The courteous and affirmative relations which are clearly evident in all interactions in the school are testament to its commitment to this ethos.’

………‘Its mission statement is well expressed and it clearly articulates the aims of the school. The school provides a well-ordered, caring and happy atmosphere for its pupils and focuses on their holistic development. Pupils with special educational needs are carefully nurtured and effectively integrated with their mainstream peers….

……….‘The involvement of parents in the work of the school, the professional development of teachers, the fostering of self-esteem and respect for all, and the promotion of gender equity and the Irish language are also stated aims of the school. Commitment to realising the school’s mission and aims is clearly apparent in the leadership and management of the school, the work in classrooms and support settings, the work of the non-teaching staff, and the contributions of teachers and management to extra-curricular activities. The Catholic ethos of the school is actively fostered through the school’s enabling of pupils to attend liturgical events on a regular basis and by the visible presence of the chaplain in the school. Respect for all religions is cultivated. A climate of inclusiveness is clearly evident …..

……… ‘The school is under the patronage of the Bishop of Galway and the schedule for a Catholic school is displayed in the entrance porch. The principal, teachers and board of management have a shared vision of the school’s role in community development and intercultural education. The school is located in a breac-Ghaeltacht and was formerly a recognised Gaeltacht school. The Irish language and Irish culture are important elements of local heritage. It is recommended that the school revise its mission statement with a view to ensuring that this statement reflects the importance of intercultural education and the Irish language and culture in the life of the school community.’……………..

Ossory Diocesan Office James’s Street, Kilkenny Tel: 056-7762448 Fax: 056-7763753 E-mail: