Wigan & West Lancashire Catholic School Direct top of class

Successful Catholic partnership for teacher training

A flourishing Catholic School Direct course in Lancashire is making a priority of educating the next generation of teachers in the faith that gives Catholic schools their unique selling point. The Wigan & West Lancashire Catholic School Direct programme aims to ensure there will be the necessary pool of teachers capable of helping to keep the faith alive in what was always a hotbed of English Catholicism.

The Wigan & West Lancashire course is already acquiring a strong reputation within the Archdiocese of Liverpool for producing high-quality teachers, many of whom go on to work in Catholic schools both within the partnership and across the north-west. First conceived by the head teachers of eight Catholic secondary schools and one Catholic sixth-form college, the Wigan & West Lancashire programme will embark upon its fourth academic year in 2017/18 and remains the only exclusively Catholic partnership for initial teacher training in the country.

The cooperative of head teachers continues to oversee the course which runs in partnership with nearby Liverpool Hope University, while it is managed day-to-day by director Sarah Holland and assistant director Sarah Cole, both of whom also teach at one of the constituent schools.

The Hope University connection enables successful candidates to emerge with a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) and Qualified Teacher status, plus two modules of the Catholic Certificate in Religious Studies (CCRS). In addition to these qualifications, however, they also acquire a greater sense of vocation according to Mark Dumican, head teacher at partner school St Edmund Arrowsmith in Ashton-in-Makerfield. "You come because you were called to serve – it is a vocation, an extension of the wider mission of the Church – and that is such a crucial point for them to understand. They gain so much from it and that's because of the holistic education we're trying to instil."

For Deacon Paul Mannings, an adviser to Liverpool Archdiocese's Christian education department, the course does essential work at a time when "the spiritual capital of schools is draining away". With British Mass attendances falling an estimated 30.7% between 1993 and 2010, for example, there is a general religious illiteracy compared with the residual knowledge of previous generations. For this reason, the cohort of 20-plus prospective teachers in each annual intake studies for twin modules of the CCRS, which gives teachers a basic understanding of the Church, its teaching and way of life so that they can contribute to the maintenance of a Catholic school’s ethos.

"The spiritual capital in a school comes from the people the children mix with and learn from, meaning the level of spirituality of the whole staff," said Deacon Mannings. "But some trainees don't have a full grasp of the Ten Commandments, which is due to societal shifts and education today. If the Ten Commandments aren't important to you, then a child will say, 'Why should I know them?'. If you’re going to be a role model in a faith school, these are the sort of things you should know."

Sarah Holland, who combines her directorship with teaching history, picks up on the same theme, emphasising the important function of Catholic schools in imparting the faith and supplying role models. "I think fewer people attend church which means the schools become more important in instilling the understanding of faith in pupils, and obviously then it's important for us to train the trainees to be able to do that," said Holland, whose own school, St Peter's in Orrell, is one of the nine institutions that provide an expressly Catholic setting for this teaching apprenticeship. "I think it is getting more difficult to find people who are practising Catholics, but certainly when you get to high levels of leadership you do need practising Catholics so the more people we can get in to train, the more likely we are to be able to support the Catholic schools going forward into the future," she added.

Ed Wright, a professional tutor in teacher education at Hope, believes this Catholic School Direct programme is thriving thanks to the "trust and respect" between his university and Wigan & West Lancashire. So while the school environment, rather than the university, is at the heart of the process for the trainees, they still have Liverpool Hope tutors to furnish them with subject-specific knowledge and organisational assistance. "Our subject tutors from Hope go and observe them," explained Wright, "so for a Geography trainee they're observed by a Geography tutor to quality-assure the standard but over time we will be confident in saying the standard will already be there. We also do two academic assignments which are 5,000 words each."

David Marsh, from the course's class of 2016/17, stressed the benefits of learning on the job. "You're in the school from day one and you're treated very much like an actual member of staff, which really helps in terms of the pupils. We also get a personal mentor within our schools," he said, adding: "I did grow up in Catholic education and having had a positive experience, I wanted to train somewhere where that's replicated."

It also helps that all the partner schools are graded either good or outstanding in Section 48 inspections: St Edmund Arrowsmith Catholic High, Ashton in Makerfield; St Peter's, Orrell; St Bede's, Ormskirk; St John Fisher, Wigan; Our Lady Queen of Peace, Skelmersdale; St Mary's, Astley; Holy Cross, Chorley; St Gregory's, Warrington; and St John Rigby College, Wigan. Places are still available for the forthcoming year, and the message from Sarah Holland is that "you don't have to be Catholic to train with us, you need to be willing to accept that you're going to be working in a faith environment and we really want people to stay on then and become leaders and managers of the future."

Any possible future teachers still unsure about makes Catholic schools so distinctive would do well to heed the words delivered by Deacon Mannings to Wigan & West Lancashire's newly qualified vintage. "Catholic schools are a place where we have the Sacraments as our currency: the children's Baptism is to be lived every day of their lives, and that's done by having them excel and bringing out the best in all of them. But they have to see the Gospel values in your example, and then witness them to each other. These young people come our way only once and we can't fail them. We need to make sure they are educated – spiritually, morally and socially. I think that's what sets Catholic schools, and this particular course, apart."

For further details, visit www.catholicsd.org.uk.