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Former Schools standards minister Jacqui Smith once told Catholic educationalists: “When I think of a Catholic school, I think of a strong ethos.” Her boss David Blunkett is famously on record as saying that if he could, he’d like to bottle whatever it is that makes church schools so successful (Source).

But what exactly is Catholic ethos?

Ethos comes from the Greek word for ‘character’, however it was originally used more as a word for custom or habit. I think it is best explained as “how things are here” or “this is how we do things here”.

Aristotle used the idea of ethos in his rhetoric, his model of persuasion. The speaker (of the rhetoric) achieves persuasion from their personal character; their speech is so well spoken as to make them credible. This is then followed by pathos, the ability to stir emotion, and finally logos, the words used prove the truth. He further explains that the ethos comes from having notable reputation, mastering the vocabulary of the field, and coming from the bona fides (good faith or reputation) from others.

To understand this, helps to understand why Catholic ethos is important. It’s not just a crucifix on the wall, a mission statement, or even an established history – although all those things may contribute. It’s hard to build quickly, but can be lost in a short space of time. It’s how staff treat one another, and treat the students – and whether the values of the Gospel and the example of Christ play a part in those relationships.

 “A Catholic school’s ‘ethos’ may be understood to be the outward signs and experiences of the teachings of Christ and the Catholic Church in the totality of daily life in a Catholic school” [Christ at the Centre]

The Catholic ethos has to be a lived and daily experience and permeate every aspect of school life. It is also “what you teach while you are teaching” [Prof. Eamonn Conway], sometimes refereed to the as the “informal curriculum”.

“The most effective Catholic schools are distinguished, not by their physical resources, elaborate buildings or level of government financial assistance, but by their outstanding social climates which give them a special ethos or spirit … The distinctive nature or ethos of such schools is an important element of their informal curriculum – that implicit, unofficial or unstudied learning which takes place through interactions, relationships and life of students, parents and staff.”
[Br Marcellin Flynn: The Effectiveness of Catholic Schools]

It is worth remembering that question(s) on Catholic ethos are often answered weakly in interviews. They are hard to ‘blag’ and need careful preparation. Working in a Catholic schools is not for everyone, middle and senior leadership in a Catholic school is not for everyone – and it is in this area applicants may get the most interrogation. It is simply not enough to answer a question on ethos by saying, “We say prayers.” or “We live by Gospel values.” – Do you really know what means, and is it really important to you?

  • What is Catholic ethos? – A brief guide to interview questions and tasks in Catholic schools
  • Building the Ethos – Former Catholic headteacher John Cosgrove outlines his most important interview question!